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Whatever you do, dont go calling them posters

Printmakers show their craft and their Northwest roots in 3 shows
by: L.E. BASKOW, Jack McLarty (left) and George Johanson, two of the founding members of Print Arts Northwest, prepare to show their stuff as part of the group’s 25-year anniversary.

The most common question they get at Print Arts Northwest, a Pearl District gallery that sells only prints, is 'Is this a poster?'

That's according to Jill McElroy, the executive director of the gallery, which celebrates its 25th year in business this November.

'People often want to know where the original painting is,' says McElroy with a sigh. 'We're trying to educate the public that prints are fine art objects in their own right.'

Fine art prints exist in a kind of shadow world where the public suspects their authenticity, and where artists often make them as a second-string activity, or as a change of pace from creating their usual art.

A large painting has a once-only feel to it, and knowing it was created freehand by the artist helps give it value. Prints, on the other hand, can be anything from a monoprint - in which the artist paints on Plexiglas, for example, then presses it (once) to paper - to an etching on a metal plate that produces hundreds of similar prints.

Printmaking also has a special place in the history of modern art in the Northwest. Print Arts Northwest was formed as the Northwest Print Council in 1981 by five printmakers.

It now has 140 artists as members. New members are juried in twice a year, and the jury changes frequently.

The nonprofit has a budget of $162,000 per year, most of which comes from gallery sales, where prints cost anything from $20 to $1,000.

'We want to continue the tradition, and promote printmaking,' McElroy says. 'If you don't have a knowledgeable audience you don't do well.' With three exhibitions taking place across the city this month, the public will get a chance to learn the difference between a poster and piece of art.

Founding members Jack McLarty and George Johanson met recently in the Starbucks next door to the gallery to reminisce.

McLarty is a fine printmaker who worked in many different media, as seen in his book 'A Printmaker's World' (1997). Now in his 80s and growing frail, he talks eloquently about America during the Great Depression.

'All the artists thought like Hemingway: You went to Paris, or if you couldn't get there you went to New York,' he says. 'They almost all had international experience and a sophisticated background.'

McLarty points out that artists would drag around their portfolio of prints and scrape a living selling them to galleries.

'When I was doing lithographs and etchings I got tired of doing editions of 20 awful fast (because most would remain unsold). I found myself getting down to four or five,' he says. This was to save on materials, although he still would consider it an edition of 20 in his numbering.

A George Johanson painting - 'Durer's Rabbit' (1978) - hangs in the Hoffman Gallery at the Portland Art Museum. It is large and messy and depicts several people, including the painter himself, twice. For Johanson, printing from woodcuts feeds back into his better known work.

'For me it's the simplicity and graphic nature,' he says. 'Whenever I come to the print I have to think in a simpler way.'

Cutting into an eighth of an inch of plywood veneer focuses his mind. 'It's black and white, it's there or not there. It has a directness to it,' he says.

He has used woodcut sketches as the basis of a painting, instead of a pencil drawing, pointing out, 'Painting helps me make choices in printmaking that are more nuanced.'

Shout outs go to the masters

Johanson and McLarty admire the prints of Jim Dine (1935-), the fauvist Georges Rouault (1871-1958), and also Edvard Munch ('The Scream' guy, 1863-1944).

'Munch was very innovative - he'd cut a woodcut apart and reassemble it,' Johanson says. 'People are still working off his inventions.'

McClarty adds David Hockney and Picasso to the list. 'Picasso did fantastic printmaking in all mediums,' he says.

Right now the Portland Art Museum has an excellent print show called '14 Artists/14 Years' (through Jan. 14), which highlights the work of master printmakers Mark and Rae Mahaffey in the 14 years since they relocated here from Los Angeles. This follows recent shows of German expressionist and Japanese prints.

Even the installation-centric Portland Institute for Contemporary Art gets a good crowd for its annual fundraiser Prints for PICA, for which local artists undertake a printmaking marathon.

Much of this is due to Portland's two Johnny Appleseeds of printmaking, Gordon Gilkey and Bill Givler.

Two teachers paved the way

Gilkey was a founder of the Northwest Print Council, and came to the Portland Art Museum in 1978. He taught printmaking at the Museum School, became the curator of printing and donated 8,000 works of his personal collection to the museum.

By the time he died in 2000, he and his wife had given the museum a total of 14,000 prints.

The Museum School was the predecessor of the Pacific Northwest College of Art, where printmaking is still an important part of the curriculum.

Givler was connected with the school from the 1930s until his death. He taught art, including printmaking, and rose to dean of the school.

The legacy of Givler (1908-2000) is a network of artists who can teach printing, such as Tom Prochaska, Christy Wyckoff, Mike Southern at Portland State University, Dennis Cunningham at Marylhurst University and Morgan Walker.

Johanson also praises the Davidson Galleries in Seattle, another pillar of the Northwest print community whose annual catalogs are eagerly awaited. He actually has seen Goya prints for $20.

'It was a restrike, printed by a master printmaker after Goya's time,' he says. 'The Spanish government owns the plates.'

Four things make Portland an extraordinary center of printmaking, according to Annette Dixon, the Portland Art Museum's curator of prints and drawings.

'Gordon Gilkey's collection; the formation of Print Arts Northwest; the Mahaffeys moving to Portland in 1992; and the explosion of commercial galleries beginning with the Fountain and Laura Russo,' she says.

She says prints are far more than just cheap art.

'Prints sell because they tend to be less expensive, but people in Portland have a lot of money for art,' Dixon says. 'Prints are a good way to start collecting, but on the other hand, Warhol and Rembrandt prints can cost in the millions.'

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George Johanson and Jack McLarty

What: New monotypes (Johanson), new color relief prints (McLarty)

When: 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 1-Dec. 3

Where: Print Arts Northwest Gallery, 416 N.W. 12th Ave., 503-525-9259

Cost: Free

More: First Thursday preview with the artists 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2

Printmaking Currents 2006

What: Juried competition of 60 works featuring two-dimensional experimental and classical techniques from U.S. artists

When: 9 a.m to 9 p.m. Monday-Sunday, Nov. 1-Nov. 28

Where: Pacific Northwest College of Art, Swigert Commons, 1241 N.W. Johnson St., 503-226-4391

Cost: Free

Then and Now: Past and Present Prints

When: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday, Nov. 6-Dec. 8

Where: Portland Community College Sylvania, Northview Gallery, Communications Technology Building, 12000 S.W. 49th Ave., 503-977-4279

Cost: Free