Dragonflies Take Over the Museum of Printing History

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When you think of the word "dragonfly," what comes to mind? Does it evoke the feeling of exploration? The dragonfly buzzes to and fro, wherever it wants to go; it is free. The dragonfly is an odd insect as it falls into that limited category of insects that humans enjoy, but unlike the butterfly or the ladybug, dragonflies are rare. There is a strange, almost mythical allure to them; their appeal is whimsical, magical even. They seem to come from a world of dragons, fairies and elves. It helps that they are very striking.

When you think of the dragonfly, however, do you think of exploration? I'm not sure that I do, but these two concepts make up the theme for the new exhibit at the Museum of Printing History. "Where the Border of Water Meets the Air, Dragonflies Gather" is the title of this collection, which was organized by Danish artist Susanne Thea and American artist Diana Eicher. The two artists put together this show under the theme of the "artist as an explorer," and it includes selected works by 15 contemporary printmakers from across the globe. Each artist put their own spin on the theme.

One would assume that the idea of "dragonflies" was offered when presenting the artists with this theme as the insect makes its appearance in several works, if not the majority of them. The description of the show states that: "Much like the dragonfly that must negotiate a delicate balance at lake's edge between water and air, the artist must pursue a path of inspiration that balances creative impulse and artistic promotion to achieve an overall victory." Again, I am not so sure I agree, but let's put that aside for a moment.

The 15 artists, while all printmakers, work in a variety methods within the umbrella of traditional printmaking techniques, such as screen-printing, relief, intaglio, and lithography.

Ithaca, NY's Sylvia Taylor's piece, entitled "Crossing Over," makes use of multiple plate linocut. The bottom portion of the work is a strong etched image of a wolf or dog of some, type fighting it's way through hard waters. It is somber and dark. Above the waves, in what almost looks like a hidden layer, a flight of insects, dragonflies, moths and butterflies emerge from the water. The juxtaposition, dark and chilling with light and encouraging, is a nice mix.

A piece called "Dragonflies" by a Japanese artist Satoshi Takahira takes the dragonfly concept and shoves it in your face, literally. The artist has created a tri-color woodcut of a boy's face. In the center, replacing any of his facial features is a deep red dragonfly. Its wings replace the boy's eyes. It is a simple piece but very affective.

The artist explains that he had created this same work many years ago as a young child but his teacher told him he had done it incorrectly. Given the theme of this exhibition, he decided to recreate his mistake as an artist who can explore the errors of his career and embrace them with affection rather than disdain and embarrassment. It is a lovely concept.

In "The Return," Nigerian artist Etiido Effiong Inyang has created a counter-screen serigraph and has taken the concept of explorer/dragonfly in a very different direction. Of all the pieces in this collection, this one is the angriest, most vibrant and harsh. The image depicts five women with buckets on their heads to collect water. Behind them a shadowy world of bright blues and black hues jut out of the ground. They appear to be buildings; a car drives through the street, and in the distance a dark red sun glows. The difference between modernity and rustic tradition is apparent.

Of all the pieces in this exhibition, I found many of them to be forgettable. Perhaps there is a lack of talent or perhaps it is something else. The dragonfly, to me, does not call to mind exploration but rather whimsy. In many of the pieces where the dragonfly was central, it was hard not to cast them as twee, which lends itself towards immaturity. I found that the level of skill was obscured by the unsophisticated nature of the theme. It has been said that in many cultures the dragonfly symbolizes a depth of character, however the connotation of the creature doesn't match the symbolism, for me. And again, I had a difficult time connecting the two ideas together. It is also said that dragonflies symbolize the opening of one's eyes; opening of the eyes and exploration don't specifically go hand-in-hand. What makes a dragonfly any more of a traveler than its cousin the moth? It's just much prettier.

"Where the Border of Water Meets the Air, Dragonflies Gather" is on display at the Museum of Printing History now through May 25. For more information visit printingmuseum.org

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