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Art: Philagrafika: Varied impressions

A sampling of the giant print festival reveals innovation, tradition, and way out there.

Philagrafika 2010 is too big, too diverse, and too dispersed around the city and environs to be readily absorbed by even the most committed enthusiast. The guidebook and map can direct you to the various attractions, but they can't effectively suggest priorities.

The most practical way to approach the festival is to start at the top of its layer-cake structure, where one expects to find the most novel and stimulating extrapolations on the festival's theme - the impact of printmaking concepts and methods on contemporary art.

Distributed among five museums and galleries, "The Graphic Unconscious" is the most international of the festival's three sections; 60 percent of its artists come from outside the United States.

Yet contemporary art around the world has become so homogenized that "international" no longer connotes special character. So where does that leave the aesthetic pilgrim wandering among the various Philagrafika venues?

My limited sampling - two parts of "The Graphic Unconscious," one of the five-part historical section called "Out of Print," and one from the largest section, "Independent Projects" (i.e. The Outer Planets) - produced a mix of (A) traditional printmaking; (B) true innovation; (C) works in other media that borrow superficially from graphics; and, not surprisingly, (D) works that seem completely outside the perimeter.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art offers one exhibit from Column B and one from Column C. Two multipart works by Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz achieve the festival ideal, an extension of graphic art beyond paper.

His basic idea is to silk-screen photographs onto water in shallow trays using powdered charcoal. As time passes, the images dissipate, creating a commentary on the impermanence of memory.

One work, Narcissus, consists of self-portraits, both in water and on the wall as the dried residue of evaporation. In the other work, Biographies, he videotaped photos that accompanied newspaper obituaries as the screened images slowly coalesced into blobs and ran down a drain. The projections play forward and backward, so that the deceased vanish and magically come back to life.

Next door, the Japanese artist who calls herself Tabaimo offers a projected video called dolefullhouse - a color animation made from drawings that depicts a pair of giant hands placing furniture into a dollhouse. The dollhouse and furniture are Western, but as the action proceeds, Japanese elements, particularly an octopus, creep into the narrative. Eventually a torrent of water flushes the rooms clean.

In their flat coloring and the mechanical drawing style, the individual frames resemble ukiyo-e woodblock prints drawn by a comic-book artist. Thus the animation can be read as an allegory about the tension in Japanese society between Westernizing influences and traditional culture.

Suggestively surreal, dolefullhouse might be the most compelling work I saw during my brief excursion, but it still belongs in Column C - in technique it looks graphic, but it's a type of animation common for decades.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' portion of "The Graphic Unconscious" includes seven artists and collectives (four of them foreign), an "outer planets" show of work by 25 artists who have collaborated with local master etcher Cindi Ettinger, and a gallery full of prints made since 1960 from the permanent collection.

There are two animations by the Indonesian collective Tromarama. The more ambitious of the two, installed in the Morris gallery, was made from 402 woodcuts, which are displayed outside the video chamber.

This black-and-white animation is a rock-music video - and it's VERY LOUD, which limits one's exposure. But it's at least imaginative and intensely graphic (even though it's a video). Solid Column B.

In the Hamilton building, one finds some monumental prints by Orit Hofshi, several large, extremely detailed woodcuts by Christiane Baumgartner that are derived from video images, and two examples of prints as sculpture - or sculpture as prints.

One of these is a floor piece by Philadelphian Pepón Osorio, an enlarged X-ray of the artist's mother's head printed on confetti. Don't sneeze.

Qui Zhijie's variation on the print-sculpture idea consists of big relief prints pulled from Chinese characters carved into concrete blocks. The calligraphic styles vary considerably, but the content of these Monuments, intended as a commentary on China's political history, probably will elude most viewers.

Probably the most traditional pieces in this gallery are Kiki Smith's collaged lithographs, also oversize, and Mark Bradford's layered posters sanded into palimpsests.

For pure Column A tradition at PAFA, one goes upstairs in the Hamilton building to see the Ettinger studio show and contemporary prints from the collection.

Many of the Ettinger artists are local, which helps to anchor Philagrafika firmly in the city. If the experimental work puts you off, then this show will restore your faith in technical mastery. Highlights include a half-dozen lyrical abstractions by Bill Scott and prints by Don Colley, Celia Reisman, Emily Brown, Bruce Pollock, and Neil Welliver, among others.

The collection show is built around two strengths: 10 impressions by Robert Motherwell along one wall and a complete 1971 portfolio of Andy Warhol's colorfully mordant Electric Chairs on another.

As for the "Out of Print" section of Philagrafika, I wanted to see the installation by the Cannonball Press collective at the Independence Seaport Museum. It involves a letterpress newspaper published aboard the 1892 warship Olympia, which is berthed next to the museum.

The project couldn't be seen because the ship was closed to accommodate work being done on the submarine Becuna berthed alongside. The Olympia is open only on weekends now, but it should be fully reopened shortly after you read this.

Thwarted in my effort to reconnect with letterpress, I settled for early television at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

This project by Mexican American artist Pablo Helguera reinterprets a museum-sponsored TV show from the 1950s called What in the World. Using objects from the collection, as the program did, Helguera has evoked its tone, but with emphasis shifted from objects to personalities.

It's an enchanting bit of museum theater, and educational, too. But its connection to graphics, if one exists, escaped me. Column D for sure. Don't let that put you off, though. If you visit the museum for any other reason, be sure to take a peek.

What in the World certainly isn't the only Philagrafika project that wanders into no-man's-land. This is bound to happen with the inaugural edition of a broad-based festival trying to make its mark amid a surfeit of similar events. I wouldn't consider it a failing so much as overreaching with the best of intentions.

Art: Graphic Delights

"The Graphic Unconscious" portion of Philagrafika 2010 continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Broad and Cherry Streets, through April 11. "C.R. Ettinger Studio" continues to April 18.

Art Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, to 8:45 Fridays. Admission is $16 general, $14 for visitors 65 and older, and $12 for students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish first Sunday of the month. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or

The Academy museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission to special exhibitions is $15 general, $12 for seniors and students with ID, and $10 for visitors 5 to 18. Information: 215-972-7600 or