High times at Bleu Acier

Gregg Perkins revisits historic alpine images in First There is a Mountain.

click to enlarge TWIN PEAKS: The photogravure “Double Mountain” is the highlight of Gregg Perkins’ show. - GREGG PERKINS
TWIN PEAKS: The photogravure “Double Mountain” is the highlight of Gregg Perkins’ show.

Gregg Perkins, an artist and University of Tampa communication professor, was just looking to make a painting of a mountain when he stumbled upon an aerial photograph of Mont Blanc, shot by Swiss aviation pioneer Walter Mittelholzer in 1935. Mittelholzer, who made the first north-to-south flight across Africa and co-founded the commercial airline that would become Swissair, captured Perkins's imagination.

In turn, that fascination led to a collaboration with Erika Greenberg-Schneider, owner and master printer at Bleu Acier in Tampa Heights, where Perkins worked for a few months earlier this year to create a series of prints inspired by Mittelholzer’s adventures.

These new prints — one photogravure, a suite of two aquatints and one of three woodcuts, each in small editions — together with a pair of paintings, a small bronze sculpture and a 3D animation of Mont Blanc based on NASA data, make up the exhibition Gregg Perkins: First There is a Mountain, which fills the gallery space adjacent to the printmaking studio at Bleu Acier. The show is unusual, as much a work of art itself as some of the featured artworks (in fact, stronger as a whole than some of the individual pieces). And, though I operate under an extremely liberal definition of art, I’m tempted to say the exhibition extends beyond art to constitute something else. It’s as if Perkins has written a short story about Mittelholzer, a cerebral tale fusing past with present that is also a partial history of image-making, hidden it, and made a series of visual artworks about the story. The result feels like a win for everyone involved: a smart reemergence for Perkins, whose last solo show was in 2006; an opportunity for Greenberg-Schneider to display her impeccable printmaking skills; and an intellectual and visual treat for their audience, which ought to include anyone interested in art in Tampa Bay.

Greenberg-Schneider says the exhibition marks a new direction for Bleu Acier, which has struggled since 2004 to find a balance between producing and marketing print editions and exhibiting contemporary art, sometimes as entirely separate efforts. Now she intends to develop exhibitions primarily to give context to the prints she makes collaboratively with artists by placing them within a larger body of work. It’s a strategy that may help her cultivate, at last, a deeper appreciation among local collectors of Bleu Acier’s output. First There is a Mountain is an exciting start.

The core of the exhibition is her collaboration with Perkins and, specifically, the photogravure “Double Mountain.” To create it, Perkins melded Mittelholzer’s black-and-white photograph with its own reflection in Photoshop, generating along the image’s vertical axis a provocative Rorschach blot in which snow-capped mountain meets snow-capped mountain. Through the process of photogravure, Greenberg-Schneider translates the virtual double mountain into a velvety print with a virtuosic tonal range of grays.

Instead of Mittelholzer’s photograph, Perkins reaches for a more contemporary data set for other works. Both the suite of woodcuts and a video animation take as their basis a 3D topographical map of Mont Blanc generated by NASA through the measurement of thermal emissions. To create the animation, Perkins made a wireframe (a complex 3D outline akin to a contour drawing) based on the NASA information, which is in the public domain, using Maya software. The finished video shows a rough-edged, ghostly three-dimensional mountain rotating in space. The woodcuts bear only a slight resemblance to the digital wireframe, though Perkins used it as the jumping off point to carve a simple, linear mountain into three woodblocks. With the basic shape of the wireframe in mind, he pored over the works of 19th-century Japanese painter and printer Hiroshige at Greenberg-Schneider’s advice, to glean how Hiroshige had conjured Mount Fuji with line. The resulting abstracted mountain, filtered from the analog world into the digital and back again, printed in three versions with white ink on fibrous black rice paper, is a fine thing.

A pair of aquatints offers something different — a perspective of falling snow that suggests Mittelholzer’s view just before beholding Mont Blanc and snapping the fated photograph. And a handful of what I would call supporting works (they don’t stand well on their own, but they’re brilliant as part of the collective exhibition) flesh out the tantalizing narrative: a photograph of a noble-looking Haile Selassie, who was Ethiopia’s emperor when Mittelholzer met him while producing a documentary about the country in the 1930s; a digital print of a map charting Mittelholzer’s pioneering journey by airplane over Africa; a duplicate of his original Mont Blanc photograph; two paintings by Perkins, based on his own woodcuts based on the NASA data-derived wireframe of Mont Blanc; and a seven-inch-tall bronze sculpture of a mountain.

My jury is still out on the paintings and the bronze, neither of which seem particularly skilled. But I read Perkins’s style of conceptualism as entailing a certain amount of self-deprecation about his own adventurous border-crossing. In particular with the bronze sculpture — an absurdly primitive cone set atop a small copper plate, the kind used to hold images in printmaking, which reflects its mirror image — Perkins plays with the limit of how little visual stimulus will provoke a viewer to imagine something as vast and majestic as a mountain. If, by the time you arrive at considering his bronze mountain, the answer is very little, it’s because he’s done so well in summoning the mountain so many times.

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