Serious child’s play

The folks at The Print Center are hell-bent on making the rest of us understand that screen-printing is a serious art form — but with a playful edge.

“Screen-printing,” by the way, does not here refer to the kind of mass-produced poster- and T-shirt art often associated with the term (which originated in the early days of silk-screen printing, when multiple copies of images were the norm). The Print Center, housed in a small north Asheville art space, affords artists the tools to create silk-screen mono-prints — original, one-of-a-kind works of art.

And like the art of screen-printing itself, the options the facility gives its core group of artists are multilayered.

An amalgamation of the Semi-Public gallery and Sotto Editions Print Shop, The Print Center is an artists’ cooperative of sorts — part working studio, part exhibition space, part marketing tool, part social club. Painter Gary Byrd, who co-owns the center with printmaker Tony Bradley, calls the setup “a cool and interesting new model” for what an art space can be.

Byrd and Bradley originally met at Asheville Working Press, which was housed in the old Chesterfield Mill in Asheville’s River District. After the mill burned down in 1995, Bradley started up Sotto Editions in the basement of his home, and Byrd opened Semi-Public, a contemporary art gallery, on the first floor of what was then his living space — a Hillside Street apartment above a converted storefront once home to a neighborhood grocery.

Last year, Sotto Editions and Semi-Public merged to form The Print Center in Semi-Public’s gallery space.

“It got to be too much of a grind doing it the other way,” Byrd says of the metamorphosis. “Semi-Public would have a great opening, we’d sell some work, and then we’d just have a few scatterings of people here and there throughout the course of any given show. Sometimes, Tony and I would end up sitting here on Saturday and Sunday and not a soul would come by. It just got to be old.”

Meanwhile, Bradley was anxious to move Sotto Editions out of his basement.

Today, as Byrd describes it: “We’re not doing month-to-month exhibitions anymore. We’ve become more of a print shop with an exhibition space, rather than a gallery with a print shop.”

Instant art

A current Print Center exhibit traces seven years of screen-printing at Sotto Editions, featuring works from the center’s core artists, along with prints created by others there over the years.

Watching Byrd create his own screen-printings, the addictive allure of the process becomes obvious: Unlike many other visual-art forms, screen-printing offers immediate gratification even as it affords the opportunity to build — and build on — a specific work until perfection is reached (in the artist’s eyes, anyway).

“Many of my pieces have six or seven or more layers,” Byrd explains, placing a piece of thick paper (which already contains vibrant acid greens and organic patterns) beneath the mesh screen. He will then use a squeegee for the “pull” — placing and manipulating the paintlike ink to determine what image appears on the underlying paper.

The mono-printing process enables artists not only to pull solid blocks of ink through the screen but to draw or paint directly onto it — or else use stencils or block-outs to manipulate the images created — as the ink is pulled onto the print surface.

“Really, it’s basically a system of registration,” Byrd explains as he removes a print that, with an added layer of vibrant red, has suddenly assumed a whole new look and life — remarkably evoking certain of the artist’s large oil paintings.

“If you keep the paper [in place], it’s really easy to add layer after layer after layer exactly on top of each other,” he continues. “It’s a simple process, but it’s overwhelming, too, in that there are so many things you can do with it. Artists who are just introduced to the process look at it and go, ‘God, what do I do next?’ You could keep adding layers forever.

“Artists have to simply find their own niche and go with that.”

For some screen-printers, that means ranging far beyond mere paper.

“We’ve printed on metal, glass, wood, rubber,” Byrd explains. “There’s no limit.”

Advanced chemistry

Screen-printing has come a long way since its early days.

Former Asheville resident Ed Gunn, now a New York City multimedia artist and a member of The Print Center’s core group of artists, wrote in a recent arts catalog: “My familiarity with silkscreen printing came through long nights working in an art-school print studio in the 1970s, where oil-based inks were used, where multiple prints [of the same image] were de rigueur, and where cleaning up involved the aroma and danger of acetone solvents.

“When I began printing at the Semi-Public studio in 2001, memories of those harder times quickly fell away. … I stayed up all night in Asheville, too, but to discover that one could print as if painting. Images in this direct medium of silkscreen mono-print are not even reversed, as they are in virtually all other printmaking formats. … The cleanup of the water-based inks is as quick as the printing process itself. And I could almost immediately print a second image on top of what had just been done.

“This,” he concluded, “was serious child’s play.”

That notion is taken a step further when Byrd, pointing to a series of prints from photographs he took of the Chesterfield Mill’s charred remains, explains the photographic process in relation to screen-printings:

“I took black-and-white photographs of the aftermath of the fire, took them to [a local copy center] and copied them onto clear film,” he explains. “I produced an editioned series of prints [i.e., multiple copies of the same basic image] from that.”

The photographic process involves a descent into the bowels of The Print Center — a subterranean, David Cronenberg-like world where an oversized vacuum cleaner, a slippery rubber blanket, a series of huge and oddly shaped light bulbs, a monstrous suction device, an ominous curtain made of black garbage bags, and a combination shower/bathtublike apparatus conspire to turn the film into works of art.

As a layperson, I won’t attempt to further describe that process. Suffice it to say, the results can be spellbinding.

Conception and execution

As originally conceived, The Print Center was to be housed in the Semi-Public gallery space’s upstairs apartment; it was to serve as a kind of bed-and-breakfast for out-of-town artists, who would pay a small fee to stay in the space and work on screen-printings. Unfortunately, that setup didn’t elicit quite the response Byrd and Bradley had hoped for.

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