Hyun-Jin Kim, Debbie Lee, Meng-ling Liao and Yu-fang Liu’s art prints

Hyun-Jin Kim, Debbie Lee, Meng-ling Liao and Yu-fang Liu’s art prints hang in “Avenue of the Friends” at the library.

Existing somewhere between the bespoke, one-of-a-kind objects of painting and other traditional artforms and the disembodied nowhere lands of contemporary mass media, printmaking as a fine art offers an affordable, unpretentious — and yet distinctly tactile and present — form of artmaking. Local gallery and museum-goers have limited opportunities to see the work of today’s national and international creators first hand. And yet the artisanal print, often crafted using techniques hundreds of years old, offers a distinctive and valuable form of access.

The main local venue for the art print has long been the Ink Shop Printmaking Center downtown. But the local scene also has a way of throwing up interesting and far-ranging work, seemingly out of nowhere and often in informal or lesser-regarded venues.

Currently (March through June), the Tompkins County Public Library is offering “Encounters 2023,” an exhibition of four female Taiwanese printmakers working in abstraction and mixed technique. The quartet was originally brought together in 2020 by participating artist Debbie Lee, then living in Ridgewood, New Jersey, for the nearby Montclair Public Library. Since then, Lee has relocated to Ithaca, where her sister Katherine — who helped curate the current iteration — also lives. “Encounters” comes to the library after having been on view locally at various Collegetown Bagels and Ithaca Bakery locations.

The work here, all of it framed behind glass, is hung — visibly suspended — in two small groupings. “Encounters” is modest in scale and ambition and yet it offers a welcome opportunity to see the work of four unfamiliar artists creating diverse but complementary work.

Debbie Lee’s work is deep in detail, though it struggles to overcome its fragmentary aesthetic. Combining intaglio, richly-textured artisanal papermaking and collage-like scraps of color and found imagery in chine-colle, the work exemplifies the ability of abstraction to richly evoke — and provoke — our sensory experience. Against predominantly white backgrounds of densely fibrous texture lie rough drypoint scrawls and evocations of ink painting, as well as flashes of unexpected, often vivid color. Bits of maps, showing streets and topography, make explicit these pieces’ rootedness in landscape art.

Though her smaller pieces tend to find greater focus, “Efflorescence” is particularly ambitious and complex. The print is more geometric than obviously floral. Against a mottled white-and-gray background, flashes of lucent blue and rust orange flicker while bent and broken grids suggest a world shaken up.

The other three women here are based in Taiwan.

Yu-fang Liu creates her work using the somewhat unusual technique of wood lithography — also known as mokulito in acknowledgement of its Japanese origins. The method, as used here, blends the black-chalk feel of lithographic drawing with the rich woodgrain texture and weathered color associated with the Asian woodblock print. Two larger, upright “Landscapes” and two small square “Cloud trips” all evoke a world where sky, sea  and land merge and submerge. In the work of the other three artists here, recognizable forms (including words) often seem forcibly tethered to abstract space. Liu’s flowers, leaves and clouds fill their spaces more organically. Likewise, her black lines and fields partner with the areas of oceanic color in a way that feels balanced and whole.

“Landscape #5” is particularly striking in its raw beauty, recalling the feel of an antique textile. Spouting flowers emerge from a field densely scribbled in black. Solid black shadow and filtered, hazy blue and green create a world-in-miniature evocative of nature without being at all literal.

Hyun-Jin Kim, who was born in Korea, uses Korean Hangul type — as well as occasional bits of English — as a key element in her mixed-media “Meditation” prints. Reflecting the artist’s daily Bible study and printing from the tea bags she uses up during her readings, Kim’s work revels in its subtle variations, with rough, tea-brown silhouettes floating in the white space of the paper. Rough red marks inevitably suggest violent interruption, but the overall mood is indeed meditative.

I had the greatest reservations here about the work of Meng-ling Liao, who combines woodblock with intaglio and letterpress printing. She scatters black, block-printed cartoon figures amidst stone-like forms in free-floating abstract space. The work reflects her interaction with her young daughter as well as walks around her neighborhood. Pieces such as “Hide and seek” and “Singing with the moon” incorporate whimsically expressionist human and animal figures; silhouetted trees and houses; and surprising abstract textures and forms. The color — each piece has a different scheme — seems more functional or decorative than expressive. Still, a longer look reveals more than their goofy first impressions.

Hung in the library’s expansive, corridor-like “Avenue of the Friends,” small and intimate art of this work tends to get rather lost. (One imagines that the typical library patron, encountering this work, would be more apt, even than usual, to move on to the next thing. That’s their loss.) I recommend staying with the work for some time — allowing details of material facture and imaginative depth that characterize this work their fullest emergence.


“Encounters 2023”

On display through through June

Tompkins County Public Library

101 East Green Street

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