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Posted on Sat, Dec 29, 2012 : 8:42 a.m.

Ann Arbor Art Center showcasing fine art prints of 'Stewart & Stewart'

By John Carlos Cantu


"A.M." by Janet Fish

“Impressions: Selections from Stewart & Stewart” at the Ann Arbor Art Center is a welcome rarity among art exhibits. In a field dominated by talent, schools, and specific mediums, “Impressions” goes one step further than average in its example of this regional printmaker’s House style.

“Since 1980,” as the fine-arts printing firm’s gallery statement says, “Norman Stewart, artist/master printer, and his partner, Susan Stewart, a graphic designer, have invited artists to create fine print editions in their studio in Bloomfield Hills.

“Stewart & Stewart prints are noted for a painterly approach to screenprinting,” continues the statement, through their “skillful use of vibrant, transparent inks; and comprehensive print documentation. Stewart & Stewart involve the artist in every creative step of the printing process, transforming the image as it develops. Resulting original editions retain each artist's unique style and painterly ‘hand.’”

The proof is certainly on vibrant display at the A2AC. “Impressions” keenly shows us a unified artful strategy that fuses the notions of school and talent through a technical expertise. These unique works of art still share a signature appearance—and hence, a House style—translating each artwork’s initial impulse through a meticulous interpretation.

Artists in “Impressions” with ties to Ann Arbor are mixed-media Washtenaw Community College Professor Emeritus C. Dennis Guastella; University of Michigan Professor Emeritus Paul Stewart; and the late Ann Mikolowski. Other artists on display are Jack Beal, Richard Bosman, Nancy Campbell, Susan Crile, Martha Diamond, Connor Everts, Janet Fish, Sondra Freckelton, John Glick, Jane E. Goldman, Keiko Hara, John Himmelfarb, Sue Hirtzel, Sidney Hurwitz, Yvonne Jacquette, Hugh Kepets, Catherine Kernan, Clinton Kuopus, Daniel Lang, Jim Nawara, Lucille Procter Nawara, Don Nice, Mel Rosas, Jonathan Santlofer, Phyllis Seltzer, Hunt Slonem, Steven Sorman, Richard Treaster, and print master, Norm Stewart himself.

Even the most cursory perusal of the list above gives us—well, a distinct “impression” of the creative talent working with and through Stewart & Stewart. These are artists of the first rank working in an array of media—enough to challenge a museum, much less a single fine arts printing firm. Stewart & Stewart handles the challenge with aplomb.

A large part of the secret derives from the House’s focus on screenprinting while also mastering other forms of printmaking. Intaglio, hand-painted pigment print, mixed-media on paper, hand-colored monoprint, collage monotype, and Ukiyo-E woodblock are among the other print techniques employed by Stewart & Stewart, but screenprint is what they produce most often.

The choice is telling, because screenprint is among the most contemporary and challenging of print mediums. A stencil printing technique that uses a woven mesh to support an ink-blocking stencil, screenprinting transfers ink and/or other printable materials through a mesh onto a working surface.

Running work through no fewer than 20 steps (there’s a detailed map in the exhibit that walks us through the laborious process), Stewart & Stewart uses a sequence that must be repeated for every color used in the composition.

And, this, too, is one of the elements of Stewart & Stewart’s success. For working with talent of this stature means the printmakers (primarily Norm Stewart) must work at an equally elevated standard.

Take, for example, C. Dennis Guastella’s superlative “Patching” at the Art Center.

Guastella’s signature art is an elevated abstract relief whose craggy working surfaces are effectively mixed-media collage with a range running from thickened acrylic to polystyrene on board. Remarkably, “Patching,” a 1982 screenprint, mirrors this artist’s interest in crafting such intersecting compositions. Tactility derives from his inspired geometry through the printmaker’s screenprint interpretation.

Yet “Patching” is just what its title says it is: a series of geometric patterns crisscrossing in intersecting diagonals across the print’s working surface. Using scale to grade his artwork’s relief, Guastella’s Stewart & Stewart screenprint is a precisely rendered masterwork whose colorful foreground palette stands sharply against a more intricate cross-hatching background.

By contrast, Janet Fish’s 1994 “A.M.” reflects this famed New York City realist painter’s interest in the translucence of light in still life. In this instance, “A.M.” features both Fish’s fascination with diaphanous shadow in the context of a breakfast set, as well as the tactile dimensionality of solid objects.

Such an artwork would also press a printmaker to the limit because of the artist’s subtle gradations of transparency. Transferring line is one task; transferring refracted line through the subtle diffusion of glass only increases the difficulty. And from the looks of it, it seems Norm Stewart and his printmaking team relished the technical issues involved until it spectacularly reproduces light itself.

So it goes in this remarkably nuanced technical marvel of a print exhibit. For appreciating this work is one thing, but appreciating the technical proficiency of the printmakers is another. Stewart & Stewart’s handicraft is a striking proficiency to behold. And that makes their “Impressions” an exploration of House style at its finest.

“Impressions: Selections from Stewart & Stewart” will continue through Jan. 6 at the Ann Arbor Art Center, 117 W. Liberty St. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday; and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. For information, call (734) 994-8004.