Sheridan Prize for Art

 

 

In the pantheon of the greatest inventions in human history, the printing press (along with the wheel and light-bulb) ranks near the top.  Moveable type made it possible to disseminate knowledge to the masses that hitherto had largely been cloistered in the hands of a small elite (especially the Church).  While those with deep pockets could afford to commission a hand-copied Bible or other treasured text, most of humanity remained in an illiterate dark night.  Mark Twain even wrote that “What the world is to-day, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg…”. Yes and no.  Even though Johannes Gutenberg is generally credited with creating the printing press in Germany around 1440 (The Gutenberg Bible dates from 1455), its origins can actually be traced back to China and Korea centuries earlier. Fast forward five hundred years, Twain could be talking about the Internet and its tsunami of information and misinformation


As the printing press swept through Europe like wildfire, it helped spark the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther mused that “Printing is the ultimate gift of God…” as he tacked his 96 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Across the Atlantic, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, another revolutionary text, spelled out in plain language why the 13 colonies should break free from England and establish a democratic government, was sold and distributed in taverns and other public meeting places.  Paine’s 46-page pamphlet, in fact, remains one of the best-selling ‘books’ in American history right down to this day. Knowledge is power. So it comes as no surprise that the first thing totalitarian regimes do is shut down, seize control of, or censor the press (These days, powerful Silicon Valley technocrats squelch free speech on social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook).


 Mechanical reproduction made it possible not only to feed the mind, but to nourish the soul (and lower-brow pleasures as well.  If not for the printing press, we wouldn’t have that famous pick-up line “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?”).  While the printing press is responsible for everything from The Bible to The National Enquirer finding their way into people’s homes, reproductions of well-known paintings via limited print editions and book illustrations made art accessible and (semi-) affordable for the first time.  Today, if you’re a connoisseur who can’t afford a Picasso painting (Who can?), well perhaps you can pony up for a Picasso print (although The Frugal Repast, the Spaniard’s first and arguably still most celebrated etching, or a sheet from the fabled Vollard Suite would surely fetch a king’s ransom)


San Francisco artist Susan Tibbon’s Chameleon, the winning entry in the Printmaking category, and her life-long fascination with the natural world mirrors that of a pioneer in printmaking, Guttenberg’s fellow German Albrecht Dürer.  The Northern Renaissance master’s remarkable ink drawing and more widely circulated woodcut print of the first rhinoceros seen in Europe since the Roman Empire is almost Leonardo-esque in its meticulous attention to detail (however wildly abstract and anatomically inaccurate it may be.  The creature’s shell-like spotted hide resembles decorative medieval body armor more than it does living flesh. Dürer didn’t actually see the rhinoceros.  His conceptual rendering is based on a description in a letter),


 Tibbon’s art is similarly devoted to documenting all manner of flora and fauna in almost microscopic detail across multi-media. She says she wants to touch people’s hearts but is quick to point out that the planet and its myriad life forms are all part of an interrelated and increasingly fragile ecosystem.  We’re all in this together. It comes as no surprise then that everything she immortalizes, be it a stalk of corn or a giant zebra lizard, possesses a palpable dignity.  One marvels whether scrutinizing an individual kernel of corn or the intricate network of lines making up the scales on a lizard


Born in New York but raised in San Francisco on Russian Hill by an actor/painter father who encouraged art, Tibbon and her sister Posey, a jewelry maker, began as street artists themselves in the 1960s and still run Atelier Posey et Susan, a small, unassuming studio and shop in the Mission District (where both sisters seem to have discovered a fountain of youth).  Susan’s colorful zoological and botanical gardens flourish seamlessly at the interface of art and scientific illustration.  Everything from corn, mushrooms, and eggplants to frogs, octopuses (octopi?) and beetles have received the Tibbon treatment.  While both her garden and not so garden variety subjects often take on a decidedly surreal quality ,she occasionally ventures further afield into even more fantastical realms (e.g bringing highly stylized dragons to life). In addition to her hand-crafted intaglio prints (built-up through many layers of watercolor), Tibbon paints eggs—be they real eggs or wooden ones sanded down to a silky smooth surface—, bedazzling jewel-like objects ranging in size from hummingbird to ostrich eggs (It takes real skill to paint a squirming octopus atop a curved surface)


Tibbon cites Dürer’s rhinoceros as a major influence for Chameleon (She came across Dürer’s print at the British Museum).  Yet what’s particularly striking is that her chameleon retains its teeth like Picasso’s ferocious felines of the 1930s.  This reptile hasn’t been domesticated, dumbed-down or Disneyfied. Indeed, it’s the very antithesis of some cutesy bipedal cartoony computer generated chameleon with a British accent hawking insurance on TV (or Captain Kirk battling a lumbering humanoid lizard with golf-ball eyes on Star Trek).  This is a living, breathing organism that breathes the same air we do. Its partially open pink mouth contrasts with a dark green bulbous eye (chameleons eyes operate independently of one another) and the complex latticework forming a thick green/yellow hide.  While it\\\'s difficult to tell if this creature is large or small (chameleons range in length from a few centimeters to a few feet), its tiny clawed feet cling to a branch that looks too weak to bear a substantial mass.  A long, thick prehensile tail mirrors the slightly curving branch while spiky scales running across of the top of its sloping body—natural body armor— conjure a strange lizard-dinosaur hybrid


These surreal shifts is size and scale are trippy enough on their own.  The way this organism’s green-yellow skin is shot through with a crazy-quilt of thin black lines takes on the quality of a psychedelic mosaic.  And as much as Tibbon’s images are  rooted in naturalism, they also inhabit the realm of art.  The large spherical paunch bordering Chameleon’s right foreleg and hind leg evokes a Victor Vasarley Op art orb of the 1960s.  If one wants to go day-tripping down the rabbit hole, the sheer variety of micro abstractions making up Chameleon’s thick hide will do the trick (recalling Georgia O’Keefe rhapsodizing about the abstract nature of a flower).


Chameleons are famous for adapting to their environment by changing color.  To this end, Tibbon says she’s open to working with clients who desire to realize the old cliché of having their art match the wallpaper or drapes.  A pink chameleon isn’t out of the question.  It should be clear that Tibbon’s hand-crafted prints are the furthest thing from dry, monotonous mechanical reproduction.  Her nuanced, labor-intensive intaglio prints (again, each is hand-painted with multiple layers of watercolor) retain the human touch and assure that each print from the same edition is a unique and individual work of art in its own right.  No two ‘prints’ are the same.  And while Tibbon’s art has found its way into some pretty tony collections (including the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco as well as that of Bill and Hillary Clinton), ultimately she carries on the spirit of the original printing press by striving to keep her work affordable and create an art accessible to everyone.


~Harry Roche