"Just Do It" is as much a lifestyle as a marketing slogan, a cocky can-do attitude that anything goes, everything works, don't sweat the details. Just do it. Oddly, something of that attitude inflects the Sixth Minnesota National Print Biennial at the University of Minnesota's Katherine Nash Gallery through Thursday. The results are not good. Rather than bursting with fresh ideas, cheeky concepts and the kind of new insights a "just do it" aesthetic seems to promise, the show is clotted with sturdy, well-made, beautifully executed prints that are tiptop exemplars of myriad techniques -- etching, intaglio, aquatint, screen print, chine collé and more. But with modest exceptions, they're really not of much interest outside academe or the rarefied and increasingly hermetic world of fine-art prints.
It's as if the artists are so busy just doing their often arcane and always challenging techniques that they forget they also need to have something to say with their images. Rather than choosing the medium best suited to convey their content, as Goya did in his famous etchings about "The Disasters of War" and Hokusai did with his subtly colored woodblock impressions of 18th-century Japan, too many of these artists seem to have entirely slipped their moorings in content. So what we get are meticulously printed images that too often seem to be printing-for-printing's sake.
Take, for example, Tom Baker's "Kingpin," a relief/silkscreen image of an unidentifiable device of some sort -- toaster? radio? -- under an arch emitting lightning bolts. Done up in attractive shades of rust, gold, peach and so on, the print has nice background patterns, sharp organization and who knows what point? Or the two intaglio and mixed-media images that Todd Anderson did of what appear to be piles of lint or dirty snow heaped around broken columns. Or Ericka Walker's "Armored Division," which is a very dramatic black-and-white relief-print of screws, wheels, coils, pistons and other mechanical parts. Next to it hangs Walker's "This'll Work," a beautifully shaded and detailed lithograph of some type of engine. Phillip Chen also demonstrates an exquisite sense of line and design in two relief etchings of lumber, engineering tools, an ethnic mask and assorted other stuff he titles "Bruce Creation" and "Fiji Mermaid." And what of David Donovan's "Dig Through," a ceiling-high labyrinth of cardboard boxes bearing little labels for various dates? The labels are, evidently, the printmaking part of his deal.
As conceptual exercises in printmaking, these may be fine things, but even a fan of the genre is hard-pressed to summon sustained enthusiasm for this show. Organized by the Nash Gallery, the exhibit was chosen by three outside jurors who sifted through more than 1,000 entries to pick 90 works by 56 artists.
They did find some substantial material. At the modest end of the scale, Paul Coenen's little "Strip Mall I and II" etchings are sensitive studies of architectural geometry. Bruce McCombs' "Gulliver's Lincoln" is an amusing, elaborately detailed Pop-style intaglio of a swarm of service vehicles and people caring for an antique car. In a surrealist vein, Crystal Wagner produced an extravagant, multilayered image of a gnarled, rooty-looking growth that's pure abstract play but somehow suggests a creature escaped from Middle Earth. Employing intaglio and etching festooned with grommets, paint and Mylar, Wagner managed to be suggestive and nonliteral while still pushing technique to the max. Wilfred Loring's aquatint "Hung Out to Dry" is a tour de force of texture and shading that depicts laundry billowing in a shady yard. Likewise, Michelle Martin's "Evening at Claudio's" is an astonishing reduction linocut, a difficult and impressive depiction of masked card-players in a B-movie setting.
Few of the political potshots hit their targets, although Brett Colley, who grafted President Bush's head to a dinosaur amid Axis of Evil leaders, and Ruthann Godollei, whose screenprint calls for an end to war, deserve credit for trying. Feminist themes fared well in the hands of Tonja Torgerson, who created a poignant screen print of a sullen girl denying her drugged desperation; Kristen Martincic, who made novel clothing patterns, and Melissa Harshman, who found cultural gold in a 1950s cookbook.
Nicholas Naughton is a talent to watch for, however. He produced two remarkable life-size woodcuts that exemplify the medium's potential grace, economy and effectiveness. One depicts a day laborer in straw hat hoeing a field, the other a man in baseball cap bending apparently to plant something. Naughton made brilliant use of his plywood background by carving the figures rudely but powerfully into the panel, then inking and printing the slab. White outlines on black ground, the figures are dignified yet possessed of an earthy honesty that is a perfect union of their identity and Naughton's printmaking medium. Bravo.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431