On Random Houses

by Susan Tallman

March 2015

Among the objects on display in Lucy Skaer’s recent exhibition “Random House” were limestone slabs quarried in the short-lived town of Lithograph City, Iowa, during the few years between the town’s hopeful founding and the death of industrial stone lithography. The origins of the other Random House—today the world’s largest trade book publisher—lay in the youthful desire of Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer to, in Cerf’s word’s, “publish a few books on the side at random." Neither the desertion of Lithograph City nor the hegemony of Cerf’s book business were obvious at the start, and their divergent trajectories are a reminder that, no matter how clever we are or how much data we amass, it is not always possible to separate the signal from the noise.

This issue of Art in Print does not attempt to impose or identify any particular signal. It does not articulate a theme, nor are its contents tied together by time, place or method of manufacture. Instead the contents offer a kind of scattergram, an array of points between which readers may draw any number of geographical, historical or conceptual lines.

In her review of “Random House,” Elleree Erdos identifies several strategies used by Skaer to explores art’s function as a kind of traveling signpost, always pointing both to itself and somewhere else at the same time. This issue’s Prix de Print, selected by Andrew Mockler of Jungle Press, is Mario Laplante’s Dennison, an enigmatic wheel of tightly folded and collaged printed matter in which the viewer may see the composition as be moving inward, or outward, or resolved in perfect orbit.

Simon Turner’s essay examines Wenceslaus Hollar’s equestrian prints—far less celebrated than his natural history and topographical etchings—and illuminates the pragmatism and ingenuity with which Hollar adapted continental models to the pictorial needs of 17th century England. The contemporary American artist Michael Miller, interviewed by Lenore Metrick-Chen’s shortly before in death last year, is separated from Hollar by three centuries, an ocean and countless technological and cultural developments. And yet the cycle of discovery, response and invention that Miller describes in his own career might have felt in some ways familiar to Hollar.

The cosmopolitan nature of the print—its ability to bring news of one place to another, to insinuate an import-export trade of forms and thoughts—is one of the medium’s most touted virtues. At the same time, however, prints (like all cultural products) are inevitably the product of local situations and local character. The works discussed in by Charles M. Schultz in his review of the “In print / Imprint” exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts are not necessarily about the borough and yet can nonetheless be seen as reflective of its socio-political complexity. The book works of Scottish artist Jane Hyslop are rife with historical, botanical and geological detail connected to specific locations in and around Edinburgh but, as Ruth Pelzer-Montada argues in her article, the function of such exalted specificity is to sensitize the viewer to the complexity of any given site.

In his close analysis of the densely allusive etchings of Marcus Rees Roberts, Ben Thomas points to the artist’s citation of Berthold Brecht, Francisco Goya, Honoré de Balzac and Jacques Lacan; the prints are paragons of cosmopolitan erudition and yet to American eyes their sombre, satiric tone may seem identifiably British. Meanwhile, the sweep of landscape in Allan D’Arcangelo’s highly distilled highway images is stripped of all identifying detail but, as Linda Konheim Kramer observes in the first comprehensive evaluation of D’Arcangelo’s prints, they emblematize a particular 20th century moment in America—bright, bold and prophetically elegiac.  

This heterogenous issue marks the start of our fifth volume and it reflects, in its variety of subjects and approaches, Art in Print’s core mission: to provide a venue for conversations across the global and historical range of the printed image. Over the past four years we have published some 350 articles and reviews by 125 authors, discussing the work of nearly 900 artists. Our writers have considered prints as agents of politics and of poetry, as products of logistics and materials, and as instruments of individual expression as well as historical context.

We honor the energizing whiff of chaos that prints have always carried. In the 15th century, the printed image initiated a radical new structure of art production and consumption—a many-to-many array in place of the one-to-one link between painter and patron. Paintings were meant for palaces. Prints went out to random houses.