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Exhibition at Chazen Museum of Art presents sets of prints from the permanent collection
Willie Cole’s more personal triptych Man Spirit Mask.

by Andrew Stevens

MADISON, WI.- Sets: Printed Variations presents sets of prints from the Chazen’s permanent collection. Although these sets of artworks are made up of individual works that can stand independently, this exhibition shows them as groups of works, as they were originally created.

Series of prints have long been used to tell stories. For example, artists have recreated religious stories like the prodigal son, scene-by-scene, for hundreds of years. Sometimes artists created sets of prints to convey a group of parallel ideas without a narrative, like the seven virtues, the four seasons, or the seven wonders of the world. However, in the twentieth century, the print set becomes more open-ended. Artists often create print series to explore variations on a theme, as in Josef Albers’ series of 10 prints Grey Instrumentation. All the prints have the same composition—four superimposed squares all printed in shades of grey. The exact shades of grey vary from print to print. The set as a whole is a meditation on color and its interaction. Although each of the prints is a work of art in its own right, when seen together they create an experience of the color grey that makes us aware of how these subtle tones affect each other.

On the other hand, Mother’s Kisses, the print set by Dottie Attie acts to humorously deconstruct a portion of Bronzino’s famous Allegory of Venus and Cupid. Attie extracted and recreated the sensual figures of Venus and Cupid from the painting and then divided them up into small squares; she interspersed these with platitudes that are slyly undermined by Bronzino’s image.

Willie Cole’s more personal triptych Man Spirit Mask presents evocative images that probe our perceptions of self and race. The set of three prints is part of a body of Cole’s work that derives imagery from household clothes irons to create to evoke domestic work as well as ritual scarification, the prints also incorporate self-portraits of the artist. That combination of the mundane, the ritual and the personal creates layers of cultural connotations on top of the graphic images.

The exhibition presents these and other sets in their entirety, as their artists originally intended, as a way of letting visitors have the full effect of these multi-part works of art. They do not re-tell familiar stories, but invite the viewer to explore the underlying unity of the set.

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