Stories From The Press

Asking Questions

By Renee Bott
John Cage 1987 surrounded by charts of random numbers

When Tauba Auerbach came to work with us at the end of 2012, I found myself thinking often about the composer and artist John Cage. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Cage in the late 1980s at Crown Point Press. Cage used a method of composing using the I Ching to facilitate “chance operations” to make his art. He believed that his responsibility was to ask questions rather than make choices.

Marsha Bartholomy works with John Cage at Crown Point Press 1987

Cage would sit down at one of the large artist tables in the studio to compose­­­, pencil in hand, predetermined materials selected, questions queried. During this process, he would consult one of the numerous charts of random numbers that he travelled with. Silence would descend on the studio while he worked, and graceful handwritten lists of lilted numbers written in graphite resulted. His number compositions functioned as a list of instructions. The directives were performed, resulting in a John Cage print. As with Cage, Auerbach’s process poses questions, but in her case, it is her intuition that informs her decisions, not the I Ching.

Tauba Auerbach prints in the Paulson Bott Press studio: Mesh/Morie 1-VI, 2013. Printer Maggie McManus curates prints.

Kenneth Caldwell aptly describes her relationship to chance and her creative process: “Nothing seems placed by accident, and yet chance continues to play a significant role in the artist’s work. A lot of Auerbach’s art is about the tension between an almost total control over what goes into a process and an absence of control about the result that emerges from that process. She explores her system and process thoroughly, with thought and experimentation, and then when she’s ready, she lets go.”


While making the Mesh/Moire series, Auerbach created seven subtly different softground plates. A visual difference between any of these plates is imperceptible to the eye, and it wasn’t until two of these plates were printed together that a moiré pattern emerged.

Tauba Auerbach, Mesh/Moire IV, 2013

Printing combinations of two of the seven plates together yielded 42 possible permutations. Of those, she found six moirés pleasing. Auerbach’s meticulous adherence to her idea and the chance involved in the making of these plates is what reminded me so much of Cage. Both artists were charming and lovely to work with, and it has been a privilege to have been involved with their process. The strength of these two artists lies in their ability to turn inquiries into stunning visual results.


On the Road to Thornton Dial

By Pam Paulson
Thornton Dial: Lost Cows, 2001

Earlier this spring I took a trip with my daughter Isabelle and our friend Matt Arnett to visit Thornton Dial’s exhibition at the High Museum in Atlanta and see his studio in Alabama. Dial’s incredible works were showcased in the exhibition Hard Truths/ The Art of Thornton Dial.The exhibition, which originated at the Indianapolis Museum of Art surveys twenty years of Dial’s paintings, sculptures, and drawings.  The work emphasizes the strength and compassion that Dial brings to each idea.  The survey brings up the difficult question of why Dial’s work has not been given the respect and notoriety it is due until now.  Race, education, and class have all played a factor in the denial of Dial’s admission into the contemporary art canon. The exhibition is a resplendent manifestation of a powerful discourse on the human condition from a vantage point rarely celebrated.

Thornton Dial: Ladies Will Stand by Their Tiger, 1991 and Isabelle at the High Museum with Dial drawing.

 A few miles beyond Birmingham in Bessemer, not far from the highway, a row of warehouses line a sleepy street.  Deep within the sprawling space of one of these warehouses, a corner has been turned into a large windowless room where Thornton Dial creates his work.

Looking into Dial’s studio, 2013.

The warehouse, built by Dial’s sons, is the home of their steel patio furniture business, Dial Metal  Patterns.  What was once a thriving industry has now slowed, devastated by the steep and prolonged rise of steel prices.  Dial and his sons have worked in the metal industry most of their lives.  Machines for bending, cutting, and painting , once used in the production of patio furniture now slumber.  Dial’s sons Richard and Donnie explained to me during my visit that not only had they built one of the metal bending machines after seeing one in another metal shop, but they had also constructed the entire warehouse itself, having had noexperience with constructing large buildings.  Creativity and ingenuity run in the Dial family.

Thornton Dial: Construction of the Victory, 1997 (Detail)

Thornton Dial was born in 1923 in Emelle, Alabama, a tiny town that has all but disappeared. As a very young child he had many responsibilities caring for farm animals and working the fields.  He watched as his uncle built sheds, barns, and small buildings. These structures, many built nearby by relatives and neighbors were designed carefully, composed from a wide range of materials colors, textures, and architectural styles intended to increase their visibility and to stylistically distinguish their makers.  Assemblages made from recycled materials and found objects dotted the landscape.  Communities created dialogues with yard art now recognized as part of the southern African American vernacular artistic tradition.  Dial absorbed this complex vocabulary and incorporated it into his own work.

Through making things Dial expresses his understanding of the world around him.  Dial’s painting and sculptures are narratives that discuss the complexities of his own life, nature,politics, race and history, constructed of found materials both natural and handmade.  Many of his assemblages have included bones, wire, dirt, flowers, clothing, utilizing reused and recycled materials, wood, wire, plastic, and metal scraps.  Surviving struggle and hardship Dial remains optimistic and the beauty of the natural world winds its way through his compositions.

Joe Minter’s yard, 2013.

The discipline of yard art is evident as you travel throughout Alabama.  Like Dial, Birmingham resident and Dial’s friend Joe Minter grew into the practice of making things to express his ideas.  Isabelle, Matt, and I paid an impromptu visit to Minter’s yard to view the extensive environment he has created over the years.  Minter’s house sits atop a hill abutting the local black cemetery, which serves as a thought-provoking backdrop to his visual, highly political commentary.  The enormous yard is home to a maze of interconnecting installations that touch on topics such as slavery, voter’s rights, the Gees Bend Ferry, the World Trade Center bombing, and religion.  The dullness of the rainy spring day was diminished by our eagerness to see what was around the next corner as we walked through the yard over wooden pathways and bridges surrounded by a forest of rusting metal decorated with thousands of words and bright plastic ephemera. Minter is constantly amending the ever-changing environment.  He recently added a piece in response to the Sandy Hook shooting.

Joe Minter’s Sandy Hook tribute, 2013


Dial’s early studio.

As we made our way to Dial’s studio we drove by his former home, a neat brick one-storybuilding that he built. The sidewalk to the house is lined with cement filled soda cans, actingas bricks, attesting to the fact that Dial’s innovative use of recycled materials is not only a trait of his artwork, but also a characteristic of his everyday life.  Behind the house is a small garage where Dial created his work for many years, unbeknownst to anyone but his family. Dial has always made things, but didn’t think of himself as an artist. Until a few years ago, Dial worked alone creating and moving large paintings and sculptures in the garage behind his house.  After he had a stroke in 2009, his sons created the new studio for him within the warehouse, and they began helping him move the heavy assemblages.  Inside Dial’s new studio, piles of scrap metal, wood, plastic flowers, paint cans, and old clothes populate almost every conceivable space.  Paintings in progress either hang neatly on the walls, or sit atop sawhorses, so he can attach materials such as charred wooden boards and cloth. From the surrounding sea of materials, glorious works of art arise.

Homemade soda can bricks line the driveway at Dial’s former home.

Hung Liu

By Paulson Fontaine Press

Last September Hung Liu returned to Paulson Bott Press for her fifth project. All of us at the press look forward to her enthusiasm and her wide-ranging humor. The first time I worked with Hung Liu in 2008, I expected her to be stoic and severe, given the heavy content of her work. However, I was surprised and pleased to discover that despite her seriousness, she carries herself with an almost child-like cheerfulness and curiosity. There is a good deal of laughter when Hung is in the studio. She also brings a considerable amount of technical knowledge and confidence to the production of her prints. Intaglio can be a daunting and opaque medium for many artists, but she never seems intimidated by its esoteric challenges and unpredictability. For this project we focused on two large portraits and three small cartoon images based on her Happy & Gay series of paintings.

Hung Liu: Happy and Gay (Thanks Mom, Kite, Flag), 2012

The Happy & Gay images are based around a series of Chinese Dick and Jane-like cartoons for children. The title comes from a song/school exercise for learning English: “Come boys and girls—let’s sing let’s dance. We are happy and gay. It’s our National Day.” The seemingly benign and bucolic images are both familiar and strange. Like their American counterparts, they’re intended to teach a set of wholesome, normative values such as hard work and pragmatism, with a heavy emphasis on the nuclear family and nationalism. Consequently, the fact that these doppelgangers are in the service of the Maoist Cultural Revolution, the loyal opposition of American exceptionalism, makes them feel, dare I say, queer. Such a contrast brings into focus the puritanical undercurrent in both.  Hung goes on to further push these tensions with soft subversions such as the pink clothing, which also evokes the double entendre of the title. Such flamboyance would be contextually deviant even in their American equivalents. The images and phrases of her youth are resurrected, with an irony and an acknowledgement that they no longer embody the meaning they once did. 

Printer Sam Carr-Prindle and Hung Liu in the studio

A former painting teacher of mine once shared a story about a classmate who got in trouble and was ultimately expelled from their academy in the Soviet Union for making an impressionist painting. There was no dissident political content, or satire, just a few fauvist trees, which in an American school would have been at worst derided as quaint or anachronistic. Yet the implied individuality and emphasis on interpretation of feeling were perceived as threatening and subversive to the rigid social order. So in recreating these images in her own hand, and with small expressionistic flares, Hung is slyly breaking the rules that fettered the illustrators and artists forced to work in a state-approved style. In her version, the subjects seem to be tripping the Great Leap Forward.

Hung Liu, Shui-Water and Shan-Mountain, 2012

The two portraits are part of an ongoing series of works that are based on early 20th-century photographs of prostitutes. Many of the photographs are small and lack clarity and contrast, yet she is able to enhance the amount of information while imbuing them with a greater sense of life and naturalism. In addition to bringing her large collection of portraits, Hung also brought in an enviable collection of books filled with small reproductions of Chinese woodcuts, which she used to create the backgrounds of Shan-Mountain and Shui-Water. Both prints started with a softground drawing of the figure that was then built up with many layers of aquatint, drypoint, reductive plate work, and, most notably, spitbite, in which nitric acid is painted onto the plate and allowed to drip and run, echoing the turpentine streaks of her paintings. Similar to the way Hung mixes humor and seriousness, these images balance crude or visceral elements with elegance. The softground has a rough, heavy and weathered quality in the way the lines and shapes are broken up by optical chatter, yet the draftsmanship is masterful and sensitive. The spitbite drips can feel both chaotic and ominous, as if the women were melting wax figures yet the drips in and of themselves are lyrical and painted with an unfussy playfulness. These contrasting elements lend a fitting uneasiness to their beauty. While the women are poised and graceful, the images belie the grim and misogynistic reality of their original purpose.

Hung Liu’s work is never what you think it might be at first glance.