An exhibit of prints from a select local workshop amazes the eye with the many ways paper can be cut, sewed, glazed, folded, pleated and manipulated into expression.
By LENNIE BENNETT
Published July 13, 2003
[Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art]
George Sugarman, Storm over Tampa-State 2, 1992, screenprint of five images on rag papers.
[Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art]
Miriam Schapiro, In the Heat of Winter, 1994, screenprint on Lenox rag paper.
TARPON SPRINGS - Sometimes really good things happen for the wrong reasons. Such was the case with Berghoff-Cowden Editions. Founded in Tampa in 1988 by Lois Berghoff and Dorothy Cowden, it was to be a collaborative print shop that used models such as the famed Tamarind Workshop in California and Graphicstudio in Tampa.
But presses and other equipment necessary to produce lithographs and intaglio prints such as etchings are expensive. So the women settled for less expensive screenprints, which some workshops such as Vinalhaven in Maine eschewed altogether as too boring.
"It was a financial decision," said Berghoff. "But it turned out for the best."
So it did.
The studio, which operated for almost 15 years, produced an impressive body of work, with examples now on view at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, in "Expanding Expressions: Contemporary Prints from the Dorothy Mitchell Collection."
Even though Berghoff and Cowden were the guiding lights, the Mitchell family played a significant role in the studio's success. The Mitchells became major supporters, even offering a building in Pasco County when the lease on one near the University of Tampa expired. Dorothy Mitchell purchased the choicest work from the studio, and it is her collection from which this show, which was organized by the Polk Museum and has traveled around the country for several years, was drawn.
Good intentions are one thing, results another; the proof of the studio's collaborative creativity and invention is on the museum walls. Workshops such as Berghoff-Cowden, like Graphicstudio, often seek out artists who do not work much with printing as a medium. (Photographers are the big exception.) They combine their painterly or sculptural sensibilities with the technical expertise of master printers to produce works that have elevated the reputation of "prints" during the past half century.
The larger studios may offer more kinds of printing methods and in many cases even go beyond the print medium to produce "multiples" in other forms, such as Robert Rauschenberg's Made in Tampa clay pieces for Graphicstudio. But the seven artists in this show seem not the least constrained by having only screenprinting at hand.
The late George Sugarman, best known locally for his downtown Tampa sculpture sometimes called "the exploding chicken," created prints that took their abstraction both from the forms he screened and the folds he warped into the paper. Storm over Tampa-State 2, five identical swirling, monochromatic slashes printed on an ever-darkening background, distills the power of an impending storm and the dread it invokes in those watching it. Vanishing Landscape, a diptych, is pleated like a fan on Japanese paper so that the images fold into each other in one panel, then fan out in the other.
Other artists also took their cue from their surroundings. Miriam Schapiro's In the Heat of Winter has nothing to do with heat or winter but was so named because she worked during one of the hottest winters in memory, said Berghoff. It's a large, fan-shaped working of screened papers bearing motifs with Southwestern, Greek and Egyptian references overlaid with flowers and fabric. It was so intricate and required so much hand-cutting, said Leepa-Rattner director Lynn Whitelaw, who at that time worked at the Tampa Museum of Art, that he sent museum docents to help. In all, it has 40 layers and took six months to complete.
Roberto Suarez found inspiration in the alley behind the studio, plucking weeds that he transformed into incandescent botanical prints. He began with sturdy Lenox paper, flocking it with peat moss and color that bled through onto layers of delicate Japanese paper imprinted with more images. The work was then washed with urethane to give it more shimmer and texture.
Suarez's results are ephemeral, but Sam Gilliam's are visceral and laden. He stacks color-drenched papers into assemblages so dense they threaten to collapse into themselves. Some are stitched together, and Berghoff said the staff was flummoxed when Gilliam requested that detail.
"We finally found a company that made body bags and they did it on their industrial sewing machines," she said.
Imbued with the spirituality and severity of Asian drawings, Brad Davis' landscapes sometimes look more like lithographs than screen prints. He, too, used materials at hand - paper towels for the stippled background and crushed wax paper for the pale swabs on Rock and Bamboo Diptych.
For his Sportsman Series, Robert Rahway Zakanitch printed and painted fishing lures onto decorative objects such as platters and vases, a spritely, witty juxtaposition in slightly "off" colors that look like faded wallpaper, appropriate since he was part of the pattern and decoration movement in the 1970s that repudiated the more famous abstract and pop art of that time.
Of the seven artists in the show, Frank Faulkner is probably the least celebrated. His work at the studio is also the most "decorative," and certainly among the most worked-over examples, using lots of sanding, rubbing, painting and collaging for landscapes that look like dream images remembered through filmy layers.
The point of all these prints is process; they're not "about" anything but the creative manipulation of materials. Viewers will not have to plumb their depths to appreciate their beauty and finesse. As for Berghoff-Cowden, it's now history. Cowden went on to become director of Scarfone/Hartley Gallery at the University of Tampa and Berghoff, who still sells limited-edition fine prints, probably will get involved with the printmaking program at St. Petersburg College.
The demise of Berghoff-Cowden Editions, which simply couldn't sell enough subscriptions to make the business financially viable, has left a small but deep hole in the cultural world here. That it carried on for as long and as well as it did is a testament not so much to our community's support of the arts as to the vision and grit of its owners.