An exhibition that originated in Edinburgh, and can be seen at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn., is not a display of prints by printmakers. It is a display of prints by artists.
Probably there could not be a statement more calculated to infuriate printmakers. But there is a difference.
The world of prints and printmaking is fraught with subtle distinctions: What precisely constitutes "a print" for a start. At base, a print is simply an image, generally in ink, transferred from one surface (wood, metal, plastic, stone) onto another (usually paper).
Artists tend to remember such a primitive fact more clearly than skillful professional printmakers often do. They frequently approach the process in stimulatingly basic ways, or in ways that challenge (in blissful or deliberate ignorance) the rules and practices printmakers foster and cherish. Certainly, sophisticated technical prowess is not, for the most part, the main aim of the British artists in this show, "Contemporary Britist Art in Print." That side of the equation is left to the technicians.
For artists who make prints, the print is more a vehicle than a destination. Most in this show are painters (though the sculptor Anish Kapoor and the landscape walker Hamish Fulton, who documents his walks in photographs and texts, are among several exceptions). They see prints as a stimulating, but not qualitatively different, way of extending their work.
Nevertheless, the opportunity to make a series of prints does cause artists to think in ways they otherwise might not. An artist like Peter Howson, for example, who generally makes large paintings, made linocut images in his "A Hero of the People" sequence of story illustrations that are small enough to be bound in book form. Ken Currie seized on the narrative potential of a print series by making 97 linocuts to tell his wordless "Story From Glasgow" in strong black-and-white images like raw film frames. Other artists included are less interested in storytelling, but relish the chance to produce a thematically or visually related group of images.
The unfamiliarity of the printmaking process proved useful or stimulating to some of the artists.
Christopher Le Brun discovered that making lithographs and etchings gave him a fresh angle on his paintings.
Lisa Milroy's 18 color etchings, "Rocks, Butterflies and Coins" (presented like specimens in a display), were made after a period of living and working in Japan. She found that the slowness involved allowed her to "concentrate in a lingering kind of way on what was familiar" to "reaffirm connections" with her sense of home. She made print images that have an immediacy not unlike her quick paintings, but which she actually made slowly.
The opportunity for a surprisingly wide range of artists to make prints was provided by the publisher Charles Booth-Clibborn, under the auspices of his Paragon Press.
This man's energy as an "enabler," and his obviously sympathetic appreciation for the artist-print, has instilled a fresh vigor in recent years into his chosen field. The print portfolios he has encouraged are printed at a variety of different studios (the choice is left to the artist).
In at least one instance - that of the linocuts of "Suns" by the veteran artist Terry Frost - the printmaker (the technical expert) came to Frost's Cornish studio where he had cut them, to proof them by hand. One noticeable feature of these artist-prints is a kind of mini-revival of the linocut; though etching, lithography, and silkscreen printing are also favored.
One might assume that prints are repeatable images. But prints are not reproductions, mechanically mass-produced. They are in strictly limited editions, and thought of as rare art objects to be collected. Artists' (and printmakers') prints are to reproductions what specialist cuisine is to the TV dinner.
But because contraints are by no means always appreciated by artists who venture and push and rebel, some of them like to show a certain disrespect for definitions of what a print is.
In Terry Frost's four-color linocut (shown here) from his "Trewellard Suns" series, he surrounds his orange sun with different circular swirls of color in each (different) version of the print. In this version, he paints this surround in vibrant blue-green watercolor.
A printmaker would surely never do such an irregular thing. But then Terry Frost thinks like an artist - even when he makes a print.
*"Contemporary British Art in Print" continues in New Haven, Conn., through Feb. 4. A smaller version of the show will be shown at the McNay Museum in San Antonio, Texas, April 9 to May 26.