Benjamin Edwards, Ramble, 2003, Lithography, ed. 30, 26 1/4 by 35 1/4 inches, Printed at Tandem Press

In the spring of 2003, my printmaking class at the University of Wisconsin took a field trip to Tandem Press, on the Madison’ east side. At the behest of our instructor, John Hitchcock, we jumped on our bicycles, mopeds and the occasional still-running import coupe to make the trek. In hindsight, we might have just walked – but this was pre Google Maps (which would have told us the journey was but a 1.5 mile jaunt). Also, this was March in Wisconsin and walking was to be avoided at all costs. 

Once we arrived, we were led into the inner sanctum of Tandem by a graduate student printer that I am reasonably certain was Justin Strom – now an assistant professor at the University of Maryland. It very well could have been someone else entirely; you see, my twenty-one-year-old sculptor self, in a simmering state of inadequacy, often reduced the printmaking graduate students (number one program in the country) into an undifferentiated mass of those aloof, idiosyncratically-tattooed and self-assured standard bearers for the democratic potential of the printmaking medium.

To be clear, entering the studio with “Justin” was an unforgettable kind of magic, like passing through a Super Nintendo game portal where the colors and the physics forever change. I think there was even a noteworthy door! As a native of Madison, I felt a special kind of guilt for having never stumbled upon this enclave of serious art making, tucked behind a house paint factory.

I probably had no business being there, anyhow.  Needing a medium specific printmaking course to satisfy the tour-de-art studio aspect of my K-12 art education program, I only signed up for Relief Printing because the sections of Screenprinting were full. Not to mention, class started at 820 am. Subconsciously plotting my revenge, I spent a number of weeks hacking 60s board game inspired superflat forms into the surface of eighteen-inch squares of MDF.  

Cut back to Tandem. While Professor Hitchcock navigated the facility’s staff and infrastructure, we Relief Printmaking 1 students were led on an obligatory tour of the Press’ numerous technique specific stations. If memory serves, we began at a ten-foot tall hand cranked torture device-cum-paper press that hometown hero David Lynch (yes that one) had recently used to crush rat carcasses into melodramatic monotypes. Myself, I mostly marveled at the spectacular worktables.

Then, as we marched along the perimeter of the space, I caught a glimpse of a kaleidoscopic bacchanalia –a composition unlike anything I’d ever seen. Masterfully mixing the referential and the abstract, the real and the fictional, the earnest and the artificial into a cocktail of web 1.0, commuter culture and pre-recession hysterics, the work in question was RAMBLE by Benjamin Edwards.

In his 48-plate (!!) lithograph, ricocheting rainbow shrapnel and assorted bits of quasi-recognizable flotsam envelope a low opacity map of AnyNoPlace, USA. Time and space feel paused, as if the composition might burst, barely held together by a simmering magnetic field. Harnessing this energy, one’s eyes dart in and around his version of a town. Hints of one-point perspective here; side scrolling map logic there; isometric elements leashed in place by an emphatic horizon line.

Plus there was flocking! Adding insult to my injury, Edwards had sprinkled his epic edition with this grassy fairy dust, conjuring the Platonic form of a freshly mowed yard.

In an instant, I felt put in my place as an artist. I wished I’d made it. You see, at that point in time, I was minding my own suburban sensibility through a set of absurdist sculptures: an 8 foot-tall, vinyl sided catch-playing apparatus, a full-sized replica of a drive-thru menu board that intermittently lit up and spewed static, a lawn mower shrine.

But, whereas I clumsily fought to tease aesthetic potential from the material reality of suburban life, Edwards had coolly crafted an ode to the emerging digital flattening of material space into façade.  

And yet, I felt affirmed! Here was a real artist engaged with the same core content that I had stumbled into. I would need to step up my game, sure, but there are worse realizations to have.  

In the sixteen years since, RAMBLE has become a kind of bracket for my arts life. Over a decade ago I moved to DC –where Edwards has long been based – working for a short time as an assistant in his studio even. More recently, some collaborators and I included an artist proof of RAMBLE in our Beltway Public Works Lending Library, a fitting coda to this work’s braiding together of my past and present. 

Patrick McDonough, Open Space-Awning Studies: SOCRATES, Socrates Sculpture Park, New York, 2012, Custom Awning Frames, Outdoor Furniture Fabric, Steel, Hardware

Hailing from the idiosyncratic landscape of Wisconsin, Patrick McDonough is best known for his populist, vernacularly-styled interventions into a variety of municipal, cultural and public contexts. Having taught at institutions such as the Corcoran College of Art & Design and American University, McDonough is currently a public high school teacher near Washington DC.