Photograph courtesy of Sage Dawson
In January, we got a taste of Sage Dawson’s curatorial powers with “Under Pressure: Contemporary Printmaking and Changing Landscapes” at Meramec Contemporary Art Gallery. The show pushed the concept of printmaking to its extreme: Katie Ford’s The Story Must Be True, I Dreamed It was a giant, bat-shaped fabric piece that emitted white noise via transistor radios. New York artist Nathan Meltz used printmaking to create the landscapes and characters for his animated short, Quit Job. Press Play. And there were a number of local artists in the group, among them Gina Alvarez, Tate Foley, Angela Malchionno, Amy Thompson, Ken Wood, and Lauren Cardenas, founder of PIECRUST magazine, who constructed a cascade of black Xeroxed pages that seemed to gush straight out of the gallery wall.
Meramec is hosting another serious printmaking show this month, an exhibit of 47 works by members of the Southern Graphics Council International, the largest printmaking organization in North America. This time, Dawson will be one of the exhibiting artists. The show has been circulating around the U.S. for the past two years and will travel internationally in 2015. Though it tilts more toward more traditional printmaking, there are some experimental pieces in the show—installations and sculptural prints—and it is no surprise that Dawson’s is one of them.
On a shockingly mild summer day in her studio on the fourth floor of City Museum (she’s turned on the window unit, but just barely), Dawson pulls out a similar art object from her archives to explain Missouri Flora, her contribution to the SGCI exhibit. She lays an object on the table that looks almost like a pop-up book, but it goes out, not up, the accordion pleats harboring dozens of small, printed leaves of paper, cut into abstract starburst shapes with red borders.
“It’s a flag book,” she explains. The “flags” are the individual paper objects, many of which have pressed flowers and leaves fastened to them, preserved under a layer of sealant. “The flags come out,” she says, lifting one to demonstrate. “I thought about the book as a place to put a collection of objects. So I collected plants from Springfield, Mo., and each flag has a different plant on it. Some of these are lithographs of the actual plants, but the book in the Meramec show contains all actual plants.”
Right now, she’s working on a body of work about Summerville, a neighborhood just outside Augusta, Ga., where Dawson lived for a year. Founded in the late 18th century as a resort area for wealthy families who wanted to escape the heat of the city (not to mention the cholera epidemics), it’s built atop a hill, with large, antebellum mansions at the peak, increasingly more modest quarters as one descends, and government housing projects at the base. Dawson, whose work has always been intensely cartographical, was fascinated by the area’s layout as well as the social extremes it created in a relatively small area. The Summerville work, including several large-scale mixed-media pieces, will compose a solo show at the Springfield Art Museum, opening November 22.
“I was struck by the subtropical environment,” Dawson says. “Everything just seemed to be decaying. There were also several homes that burned down in the year that I was there.” She says that part of her task in making work about Summerville was finding ways to reimagine it.
On one wall of her studio, she is working on a large pyramid-shaped piece—evoking the hill—covered in geometric patterns, printed in black ink as soft and sooty as creosote. On another, she’s attached row after row of octagon-shaped pages decorated with the same jaggedy pattern, printed in varying shades of green and blue. She is never a literalist, so it references maps, plants, and wallpaper; it’s also a nod toward her fascination with Islamic and Byzantine art, as well as a Catholic childhood staring up at hyperdecorated cathedral ceilings. On another wall, she’s tacked a photograph of a volcano erupting, a study for “Natural Disasters,” a smaller framed series that combines printmaking with painting, a very Dawson-esque approach. The first layer of each image is an aerial map of the neighborhood, which is then overprinted with grayscale lithographs of plants picked up on her walks; they are encircled by borders meant to evoke Victorian hair wreaths. Then, she painted in brightly striped cones, which violently respirate red splatters over the landscape.
“My hope is that when you are looking at these pieces, you are enticed by the beauty and color palette,” she says, “but then as you start to look more closely, you notice that the plants are drained of any kind of life, and there is a volcanic eruption happening all over the neighborhood. It sort of looks lighthearted, but as an idea, it’s pretty terrible. The plants are meant to feel like a swirling cloud, something hovering over, evoking that bittersweetness you really feel in the neighborhood.”
A place, she observes, is never wholly great or wholly terrible, though Summerville distills all those qualities of place within tight borders, which is what makes it so compelling to her. The narratives of the landscape in New Mexico, where she did her MFA, were more spread out—a phenomenon she described in a series of four “hair maps,” for which she meticulously glued down strands of her own hair to create aerial grids of certain areas of Albuquerque, N.M. As for St. Louis? She is still exploring the terrain, but she’ll inevitably translate this city’s own peculiarities into its own colors, patterns, and metaphorical maps.
The Southern Graphics Council Traveling Exhibition is viewable through September at Meramec Contemporary Art Gallery (11333 Big Bend, 314-984-7632, stlcc.edu) on the campus of St. Louis Community College–Meramec. For more information, to sgcinternational.org/exhibition/schedule.