In a town that’s become an unexpected magnet for artists of all stripes over the past five years, printmaking appears to be on a roll. The latest evidence is “The Printer’s Devil,” an entertaining, 34-artist show curated by Stephen Schudlich at Detroit’s Scarab Club up through Aug. 27.
Lynne Avadenka, a printmaker and bookmaker who runs Signal-Return in Eastern Market — and has two pieces in “The Printer’s Devil” — says she’s seen a distinct flowering of print activity in Detroit over the past few years.
“There’s some great energy in town now,” says the 2009 Kresge Artist Fellow.
Megan O'Connell, whose Salt & Cedar letterpress studio is on the other side of Eastern Market from Signal-Return, agrees. She points to a proliferation of new Detroit print studios, including the amusingly named Talking Dolls, and Ocelot Print Shop, which specializes in silkscreens.
There’s a dizzying array of print methods, some of which reach far back in human history, whether linotype, woodcut, silk screen or the letterpress technique invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-1400s. But they all rely in one form or another on the contrast between incised or raised surfaces that, when inked, transfer an image onto paper.
But there’s often a lot of up-front investment that can make entry difficult.
“Printmaking as an art form requires equipment,” Avadenka notes. “It’s hard for most solo artists to put together a studio with all the necessary tools to print on their own.”
So the collaborative or membership-based organizations above, all relatively recent, have created new opportunities for print-inclined Detroiters.
“I wouldn’t say we have a specific culture of printmaking in Detroit yet,” says O’Connell, who has a piece in the Scarab show. “But there is most definitely an uptick to various kinds of presses and printmaking technologies,” all of which has attracted new practitioners.
Of the various techniques, “Letterpress is the sexy printing process of the moment,” says curator Schudlich, who headed the University of Michigan’s Work:Detroit gallery before it was shut down a couple years ago.
“Letterpress has that visible physical component and that sweat equity,” he adds. “It’s like the old movie ‘Metropolis,’ with men in sleeveless t-shirts pulling huge levers.”
Printmakers, to hear some tell it, are a society unto themselves.
“Printers are a little different” from other artists, Schudlich says, who suggests they don’t generally take themselves quite as seriously as some in the “fine” arts.
“Printmakers walk that line with graphic designers,” he says. “It’s an applied art. We’re not painters. We’re not sculptors. We don’t use terms like ‘contrapposto.’ ”
Enlivening “The Printer’s Devil” (a term that referred to the youngest boy in a printer’s office) is a distinct playfulness, or subversiveness, to much of what’s on display.
Take Joel Grothaus’ poster for Supino Pizzeria in Eastern Market, a grimly amusing take on Goya’s classic horror show, “Saturn Devouring His Son,” here repurposed as “Saturn Devouring His Slice” (of pizza, that is).
Equally powerful for completely different reasons is Chloe Songalewski’s “Iggy Pop,” a black-and-white, up-close silk screen of the haggard-looking rocker.
Another striking feature of “The Printer’s Devil” is how vivid some of the colors are, which seem to virtually fling themselves off the paper.
“There’s a different opacity to printmaking,” says Schudlich, when compared to paint and other media. “It’s just different. I can’t say whether it’s richer, but it’s got a different feel to it.”
A good example is Melissa Detloff’s “Pom Pom #1,” a screen print featuring a happy skeleton, a candy cane, an outstretched woman’s hand and lots of neon-colored dots. Bear in mind that each of the five or six colors Detloff employed has to be applied separately, which can be a time investment.
For his part, Schudlich — an artist who does a great deal of printing and graphic work — says when it comes to multicolored prints, he’s happy to call himself lazy.
“I print monochromatically,” he says. “I don’t do five or six colors — I’m good with two. Then let’s clean up and go to dinner.”
‘The Printer’s Devil’
Through Aug. 27
Scarab Club, 217 Farnsworth, Detroit
Noon-5 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday