The Curator’s Eye

Paper Anniversary

To celebrate its tenth birthday, Seattle Print Arts invited Seattle Art Museum curator Michael Darling to mount a  show for Kirkland Arts Center’s big biennial and to compose a lecture, “Pulp Friction: Expanding the Definition of ‘Works on Paper.’” The gist of his talk is that works on paper don’t have to stick with tradition. “Does it always have to be flat?” asks Darling. “We crave seeing something we’ve never seen before. Printmaking people can get so precious about it, so wrapped up in the craft.”

Barbara Noah, Apogee III(m), archival pigment print, 16 x 16 5/8 inches

It’s a fact: printmakers are so defensive about the status of their art, they often engage in artier-than-thou behavior. So here is Darling’s better idea: “Think of them more as these aesthetic researchers pushing out into new areas that haven’t been explored yet, like nuclear physicists or biologists. I like to see somebody willing to understand the tradition, and then kind of degrade it, somehow rough it up or do the wrong thing with that technique – that’s what leads to interesting discoveries.” Darling likes artists who “allow themselves to be taken into these unfamiliar areas and justify weirdness and even silliness, kookiness.”

So Darling chose Barbara Noah’s print of a child’s balloon in orbit. “I just love the obvious ridiculousness of this image. Everybody knows this is an impossibility, but it’s done so believably, and we give so much credence to hyper-real photographic imagery, that it opens up a crack of doubt and wonder in one’s consciousness. What if?”

He thinks Judy Talley’s Literary Nest could be “one of those fortuitous mistakes, where the artist is salvaging old or less-than-perfect prints, cutting them up, and then coming up with a new use for them. The contrasting patterns and textures are just complex enough to keep you looking, and the egg-like shapes push it even further. It is on the edge of pure abstraction and soft sentimentality – might it just be a happy Easter basket?”

Nicholas Brown’s piece “is following the rules of pictorial decorum, but he finds a loophole where he can push his viewers in an aggressive way.”

Darling concludes, “I try not to pick things that are nice enough your grandmother would want to hang them on the wall, but things that can make you uncomfortable – that can push the conversation forward.” •

Nicholas Brown, Junglebrush 2, 2008, linocut, 24 x 36 inches (image), 26 x 40 inches (paper), edition of 15


Official title: Jon and Mary Shirley Curator
of Modern & Contemporary Art
First job out of art school:
Art critic for LA Reader
Greatest Seattle hit show:
Target Practice: Painting under Attack, 1949–1978
Greatest Los Angeles hit show:
Superflat, at Museum of Contemporary Art
Number of curators in SAM’s seventy-seven-year history:
Site of his Print Arts exhibition lecture:
Henry Gallery, UW, May 20 at 7pm