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Out of the Darkness: Contemporary Mezzotints


This exhibition explores the revival of the mezzotint technique in late 20th century and the diverse expressive potential of this medium by contemporary artists. In this challenging and labor-intensive printmaking technique, the artist works from dark to light. Mezzotint allows the artist to develop a tonal design without employing lines in the creation of forms, edges, highlights, and shadows.

Through the use of a rocker, an arched blade resembling a woodworking chisel containing 35-120 "teeth," the artist covers the entire copper plate with myriad pits and their associated burrs, called a ground. If the artist were to ink the plate and pull a print at this stage, the resulting print would produce a solid, velvety surface of ink. In the next stage, the artist scrapes and burnishes down the ground to create the lighter tones of the design. After applying the ground, scraping, and burnishing the design out of the roughened plate, the artist inks the plate, and pulls a completed print.

Mezzotint was first developed in the mid-17th century by the German engraver Ludwig von Siegen. Shortly after its invention, Prince Rupert of the Rhine refined the technique and is credited with the development of the rocker. By the early 1660's, the Amsterdam based engraver Wallerant Vaillant popularized the technique through his creation of over 200 original mezzotint plates.

Germany and France had well-established schools of etching and engraving, and were thus less amenable to the fledgling technique. However, mezzotint found fertile ground in the receptive print scene of England. Soon after its introduction there in the early 18th century, the mezzotint technique fell prey to the publishing industry, which employed mezzotint artists to reproduce European paintings for mass-market sales. Over the course of this reproductive phase, many artists abandoned mezzotint for easier forms of printmaking. It was not until the late 19th century that the occasional artist began to return to medium as a way to produce original designs.

Credited as the fathers of the modern mezzotint, French printmaker Mario Avati, and the Japanese expatriate Yazo Hamaguchi, relocated to Paris, where they began experimenting with this uncommon process. By the late 1950's, both artists enjoyed international acclaim for their creative and technically astute mezzotints and were exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Tokyo. Through these exhibitions and associated publications, a new wave of internationally based artists began to familiarize themselves with the mezzotints of these "masters," and started experimenting with the method themselves. By the 1970s, a modern revival of the technique was in full swing. Today we see a rich and thriving production of mezzotints from artists in Eastern and Western Europe, America, and Japan.

Viewers to the exhibition will be entranced by the variety of color, technique, and subject matter in the work of contemporary mezzotint artists from around the globe. In addition to the above-mentioned Avati and Hamaguchi, artists represented in the exhibition include Katsunori Hamanishi, Seung Yeon Kim, Wlodziemierz Kotkowski, Frederick Mershimer, Maurice Pasternak, Atsuo Sakazumi, and Carol Wax. While the exhibition will be drawn predominantly from the holdings of the Portland Art Museum, the inclusion of select works from private collections in Portland will enhance this survey of late 20th century mezzotints. Most of the prints have never been on display in the Museum, while others will be on display for the first time since their debut in the acclaimed International Print Exhibition organized at the Museum by the late Gordon Gilkey in 1997.

Curated by JC Schlechter

Exhibition Title

Out of the Darkness: Contemporary Mezzotints



Curated by

JC Schlechter

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