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An Exhibition Evolves

'Picturing Animals' marries animal imagery and the process of printmaking in an exciting new exhibition. Rand Huebsch guides us through the show

An Exhibition Evolves In the spring of 2001, the New York Hall of Science presented "Picturing Animals: Contemporary Printmakers Create Natural History Images." In creating that show, I was to discover that curating, with its revisions and its manipulation of material, has parallels with printmaking, my primary creative activity. While faithful to the initial concept, the finished show would represent a months-long process of evolution.

Laying the Groundwork

For many years, two strong interests of mine have been animal imagery and the process of printmaking. "Picturing Animals" was conceived as an exploration of the centuries-old tradition that links them. An additional aim was to present the work of contemporary printmakers working within that tradition, some using established techniques, others experimenting with recently invented materials. In considering these aims and writing a proposal, I realised that this educational show would require two sections: historical and contemporary. Each would comment on the other; together, they would cohere into a larger, meaningful whole.

Because the New York Hall of Science has an educational mission, it seemed an ideal venue for the show. The Hall is a science and technology centre, featuring more than 225 permanent interactive exhibits. It was my good fortune, when first presenting the proposal in the summer of 2000, to speak with Dr. Marcia Rudy, Director of Public Programs/Special Events. Her enthusiasm for the project was crucial, as were her equanimity and attention to detail during its evolution. With the Hall's entry, there was a shift in the project's focus.

In the initial proposal, all of the images for the show's historical section had been European. Now, that section had to represent a broader range of cultures, as the Hall is located in Queens, the most ethnically diverse community in the United States. Expanding the show's scope allowed for a larger listing of processes, including the elaborate Japanese stencils called katagami, rubbings from Han Dynasty stamped bricks, and adinkra, African fabric-stamp blocks carved from the rinds of calabashes.

That revision was among the first of many editorial choices. For example, the wonderful Durer rhinoceros, which I had considered for the relief-printing description, seemed an overly familiar image. Instead, I used Hans Grien Baldung's dynamic woodcut of seven horses fighting. A unit called "The Evolution of a Print" was to include dramatically different states of Picasso's bull lithograph. It did not appear, partly due to space limitation, but also because it would have skewed the show's balance. Sometimes the relationship of images was the key: for their similarity of pose and contrast in style, I chose two polar bears - a 19th-century French etching and a 20th-century Inuit stone cut. In order to study image possibilities together, I taped them to an expanse of wall in my apartment.

The Exhibition

1. The Historical Section
To accompany the text of this section's five units, there were thirty animal prints in reproduction, from scientific illustration to images of personal mythology. "What is a Print," the first unit, discussed basic concepts, citing the rubber stamp as a familiar example of a printing matrix. A photo of an Ice Age cave painting showed not only man's early depiction of animals, but also hand stencils - possibly the first kind of printmaking. Next, "Processes" gave concise definitions of four printing techniques: relief (woodcut), intaglio (including etching), lithography, and stencil (screenprinting). In keeping with the Hall's focus on science, the text alluded to technologies; it mentioned, for example, that intaglio printing may have derived from the decorative incising used in metal working.

An Exhibition Evolves"Man and Animal" owed its genesis to Choensai Eishin's woodcut of a falconer, which I came across while doing research at the New York Public Library. This image gave rise to the idea for a unit of eleven prints that depicted man/animal interactions. They ranged from John Muafangejo's lion hunters and Toulouse-Lautrec's jockey, to Goya's satirical human-riding donkeys and William Blake's human-headed quadrupeds pulling a chariot.

The last two units served to emphasise printmaking's availability and to act as a bridge to the contemporary work. One segment had captioned photos of high school students as they made etchings for a collaborative book, a copy of which was on display. The other segment had text that instructed viewers in designing, carving, and printing their own rubber stamps; some of the modern printmakers provided rubber-stamp images for that text.

2. The Contemporary Section
This section displayed thirty-five prints on a 65-foot wall that stood at a right angle to the historical section's 14-foot one. In addition to me, the contemporary artists were Susanna Bergtold, Donna Evans, John LoCicero, and Deborah Tint. Twelve different processes were represented. The traditional ones were aquatint, etching, linocut, lithography, mezzotint, wood engraving, woodcut, and Ukiyo-e. The new techniques, which used recently invented materials, were alumigraph, carborundum aquatint, gessoprint, and silicone intaglio. A series of text panels explained many of the processes.

The development of this section had been largely concurrent with the historical one. It was here, in particular, that the project's collaborative aspect came into play. I had worked with these artists before. I respected their art work and also knew that they would contribute in the necessary planning meetings. Their input would prove helpful when I wrote the text of the exhibition proposal and, later, that of the show itself.

For the exhibition, each artist made a number of decisions, such as selecting his or her images and whether to mat or to float the work under the plexiglas sheets. Each artist chose several printmaking tools for inclusion in the nearby display case. Artist statements served to reveal the thinking behind the work. They ranged in tone from the lyrical - "Animal familiars (squirrels, pigeons, sparrows, crows, dogs, and cats) resonate within me as recallable rhythms of touch and sight", to the humorous - "The woodcuts of reptiles are my tribute to the delightful scientific illustrations of the Age of Exploration (well, invasion)".

Several of the artists made new work specifically for the show. One made drawing visits to the Queens Wildlife Center, then used those sketches as the basis for his prints. While intending to create new images, ultimately I used pre-existing work. This was not due to lack of time. My creative focus had been the shaping of the exhibition. The research, writing, and collaborative process were the elements with which I worked, and I hope that the resulting show will have a life beyond its first venue.

Rand Huebsch
February 2005 2005