The Printmaking Process

On display through April 26

Gibbes Museum of Art

135 Meeting St.

(843) 722-2706

The Gibbes Museum of Art, that 150-year-old bastion of Charleston art, has recently pimped up its website. More than a year in the making, the site is more than a catalog for the thousands of artworks in the museum’s vaults. It also has an interactive component, showing how some of its key pieces were made.

One of the “Interactions” is a woodblock print activity that allows you to digitally create a print and find out about Alice Ravenel Huger Smith’s Orient-inspired art. This is a fitting, if coincidental, accompaniment to The Printmaking Process, a stimulating new show in the entrance gallery.

The show focuses on process, and there’s a strong Japanese influence in several of the prints, whether it’s through style (Smith’s delicate “Celestial Figs”), compositional balance (James A.M. Whistler’s “Billingsgate”), or imagery (Joseph Raffael’s fish-themed “Exchange”).

Visitors are able to access the revamped website on the museum’s MacBooks; there’s one on a table in the entrance gallery. By placing a centuries-old wood engraving near a plug-and-play laptop, the Gibbes raises fascinating questions.

Will the old ways of printing be lost as digital technology provides “instant art”? And did artists use their chosen printmaking methods because they had to, because they were in vogue, or because they wanted to?

Five hundred years ago, wood engraving on paper was the printmaker’s tactile medium, and Albrecht Dürer was the chief messenger. Printmaking includes an example of his work called “Rhinoceros.” With little more than a description and a rough sketch to go on, Dürer created an image so detailed you can see the pimples on the rhino’s rump. Such a creature had not been seen in Europe for hundreds of years, so it’s easy to imagine the demand for images of the beast. That makes this print the 1500s’ equivalent of Britney Spears photos after her month in rehab.

“The Holy Family” is another early print from the Gibbes collection. It’s a famous work by Gerard Edelinck, an excellent 17th century Flemish copperplate engraver. Like Dürer, Edelinck lived when engraving had a strict career path; the medium chose him, rather than the other way round.

The same can’t be said of the show’s more recent artists. The industrial age led to a mass production of art tools, inks, cheaper printing presses, and eventually machines to make potential artists of us all. Plus the definitions of “art” changed — these days, one man’s soup can label can be another man’s masterpiece. With so much choice as to what and how to print, the artists who stick to old-fashioned methods seem like masochists.

Fortunately, the pieces chosen for this show highlight the distinct qualities of different printing methods. Louis Lozowick’s “Roof and Street” is a monochromatic, Escher-like lithograph in which geometry is as important as human life, with men dwarfed by the buildings above and around them. Lozowick’s 1930s print effectively shows the encroaching trappings of industry in a way that a colorful painting never could.

There’s plenty of color in the show, though: Roy Lichtenstein’s “Bicentennial” print made a striking emblem for the Gibbes’ Beyond Representation show back in 2005, and makes a welcome return here with its bold palette and elemental shapes.

There are other blasts from the past, such as a Whistler etching and Japanese woodblocks. But this exhibition isn’t just a review of the Gibbes print collection. It’s a preview too, a teaser for next month’s main attraction, The American Scene on Paper. That show will include prints from the Schoen Collection.

For now, the museum proves it has similar work in its trove that might even inspire the most jaded artist. Raffael’s shimmering “Exchange,” William Dunlap’s wonderfully composed “Landscape and Variable,” and Ichiryusai Hiroshige’s intricate “Sudden Rain over Nihon Bridge” all made me want to rush home and experiment with form and color.

The show’s inclusion of tools and woodblocks are the icing on the cake, successfully increasing the viewer’s appreciation for the hours, sweat, and ink that went into making this art.