State of the Arts: Women in process

NATURAL WOMAN: Works in photographer Bonnie Cooper’s Interbeing Project juxtapose the nude forms of models with nature imagery. Pictured, "Fearless" by Cooper

Two local art exhibitions, though very different, both present women in dialogue with the artistic process. The Ladies of Letterpress is on view at Asheville Bookworks until Monday, Feb. 29; The Interbeing Project: The Interface of Woman and Nature, featuring photographs by Bonnie Cooper, will be showing at aSHEville Museum until April.

The Ladies of Letterpress

The Ladies of Letterpress invites viewers into a conversation between artists and their craft. Jessica C. White and Kseniya Thomas formed The Ladies of Letterpress in 2007 as an online community dedicated to maintaining and enhancing the traditions of letterpress printing in a modern world. Thomas runs Thomas-Printers in Carlisle, Pa., and White maintains Heroes and Criminals Press in Asheville.

The show at Asheville Bookworks takes its name — and a selection of prints — from the pair’s new book, which functions both as an industry guide and a celebration of the craft’s inner workings. The prints on display allude to the diversity of artists and approaches encompassed by the term letterpress. That word was once associated exclusively with wood or metal type. It now includes a host of techniques — from carved linoleum blocks to photopolymer plates — that bridge the gap between the first mass-produced books and the digital era.

The 2,100 members of The Ladies of Letterpress collective span five continents and include men as well as women, forming an educational and social network. The group is designed to provide the kind of support and collaborative spirit that was once available through apprenticeships. Thomas and White’s book curates over 300 individual works produced by this community of modern printers.

“Don’t want it. Make it!” reads one large-format poster, with blockprint letters overlaying a bold geometric red field. A series of greeting cards juxtaposes intaglio prints of 19th-century ladies and gentlemen with raunchy anachronisms like, “I’m a biter” and “Does your anaconda want some?” Ghostly abstract prints blur the boundaries between color psychology and stationery design. As Ladies of Letterpress makes clear in this dynamic show, traditional printing methods are alive and well in the care of these reverent, irreverent artists.

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Interbeing Project

Bonnie Cooper’s Interbeing Project features 11 different models in 21 different pieces. “I really wanted a way to express photographically the feeling-state we experience when we’re in nature, when we’re really one with something,” Cooper says. Each image is composed of a nude figure, photographed in studio, overlaid with vivid natural scenes. The images subvert the perception of photography as a documentary pursuit. The treatment of visual elements reads as both intensely crafted and nonliteral.

Cooper’s works attempt to re-create a psychological state, rather than depict a physical one. The artist’s background in psychotherapy helps to focus the images around emotional revelation. The human figure becomes a means of highlighting expression through physicality, and the aesthetic shape or shapeliness of the nude melts into a colorful haze of texture. This subsuming of identity into nature and nature into identity takes place within the image, but every stage of Cooper’s process worked toward that effect.

None of the models involved in the project were professionals. Most had never posed nude before. It was that leap of faith, that vulnerability, which Cooper sought to capture. The natural images used in the final compositions were inspired by the models themselves, as are the texts that accompany the photos. “It’s about [the models], their experience of nature, their bodies,” Cooper says, explaining that her subjects’ initial reluctance to pose was finally dispelled when they realized that she was working to present an inner gaze, not an external form. “They said, ‘My body’s going to be there, but I’m going to be more than my body,’” she says. “And then I had a waiting list.”

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About Elliot Smith
A Southern Gothic in the body of a Northern Romantic. A recent expatriate. Pretty, but not too pretty.

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