Since its formation in 1978, Island Press has evolved from a traditional contract print shop — producing high quality editions in standard media and formats —into a uniquely collaborative and educational enterprise known for complex, large-scale works by a range of nationally and internationally renowned artists. In January, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum will explore that evolution with Island Press: Three Decades of Printmaking. Curated by Karen K. Butler, assistant curator of the Kemper Art Museum, the exhibition will survey more than two-dozen works highlighting the press’s history of technical innovation, artistic experimentation and student participation.
Housed within Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, Island Press was established by Peter Marcus, now professor emeritus of printmaking. Originally called the Washington University Collaborative Printmaking Workshop, the press takes its name from a massively oversized etching press — 60" wide by 120" long — that Marcus built in the early 1990s with St. Louis machinist Warren Sauer, a design they dubbed “The Island Press.”
Though university-affiliated presses typically exist as independent entities separate from the academic structure, Marcus sought to integrate press operations with the school’s teaching mission, allowing students to assist visiting artists and the master printer at all stages of creation and production. Joan Hall, currently the Kenneth E. Hudson Professor of Art, who became director of the Press in 1999, would expand Marcus’s original aims by involving students in new areas of production, such as fabricating handmade paper and assembling three-dimensional collage elements.
During the press’s first decade, artists such as Peter Dean, Rafael Ferrer, Joyce Kozloff, Roy Lichtenstein and David Nash largely engaged traditional printmaking techniques, such as lithography, etching and occasionally monotype, in ways that reflected the period’s dominant trends, such as expressionist painting and identity politics. Notably, Lichtenstein’s Study of Hands (1981) combined two techniques, lithography and silkscreen, that were not usually joined together — an innovative practice that in many ways prefigured the experimental and multidisciplinary approach that would become increasingly characteristic of the press.
In the 1990s, artists including Michael Berkhemer and Joyce Scott created works of dramatic size and scale while exploring the use of nontraditional methods and materials, such as mixed media, handmade paper and appropriated imagery. At the same time, prints by Sue Coe, Annette Lemieux, Juan Sanchez and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith investigated questions of race, identity and political engagement. In her provocative Trademark (1992), Hung Liu highlighted the historical repression of women as well as the complex legacy of economic and cultural exchange between East and West by juxtaposing an historical photo of six Chinese prostitutes with a Western-style painting of a woman from the Chinese Imperial Court.
Over the last ten years, Island Press has continued to produce large-scale, mixed-media works of striking technical and conceptual complexity. Chris Duncan’s vivid Everything All at Once (2009) employed 339 separate printing plates in 25 different colors — a labor-intensive assembly accomplished only with the help of student printmakers. Works by Chakaia Booker, Squeak Carnwath and T. L. Solein combine a range of techniques — from etching, collagraph and monotype to chine collé and digital photography — to create dense, atmospheric surfaces. Meanwhile, Tom Friedman’s Vanishing Point (2006), though titled for a traditional pictorial device used to create the impression of depth, offers a somewhat ambiguous meditation on the history of artistic practice. Does this image of Friedman’s scattered, receding possessions, mourn, reclaim or mock Renaissance conventions?
Most recently, Ann Hamilton, the inaugural Arthur L. and Sheila Prensky Visiting Artist at Island Press, has worked with students and master printer Tom Reed to create a site-specific installation. The ongoing, as-yet-untitled work encompasses experiments with cast paper, newsprint, carbon paper, letterpress, laser cut printing, digital printing and photolithography, as well as more traditional forms such as etching and engraving. Like many of Hamilton’s installations, the piece is both collaborative and interactive, exploring the intersection of language, visual image and physical gesture.
Support for Island Press: Three Decades of Printmaking is provided by Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and by members of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.
Image credit: Chris Duncan, Everything All at Once, 2009. Relief print and intaglio from 339 plates in 25 colors with collage on Somerset satin paper, BAT (ed. 12), 60 x 60". Master Printer: Tom Reed. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Gift of Island Press, 2010. Hi-res version available upon request.