New Prints 2010/Winter
Essayist: Michele Oka Doner, Artist, New York City, January 2010
Jurying New Prints 2010/Winter raised questions and provoked strong reactions that intensified throughout the judging period. After viewing
over 1,200 labor-intensive, ambitious entries, I began to wonder why, in an age permeated with easy access to any image imaginable (and with digital technology’s ability to alter and personalize an image), are artists still creating traditional prints?
Prints are decidedly medieval - they literally come out of the Dark Ages. They often require heavy equipment and toxic acid baths. The printing inks are petroleum based, expensive, and difficult to remove from the press bed, our clothes, and fingernails. The process requires foul smelling solvents whose fumes linger in the studio and one’s nostrils. Printmaking also demands concentrated physicality and intensely repetitive movement. The old photographic darkroom, much less demanding, has already been abandoned and replaced by the new, digital paradigm. It is rare to see a trace of film or to find a photograph
that was birthed in a vat of chemical soup.
As if this isn’t enough evidence to question the allotment of time and resources to the traditional art of printmaking in the 21st Century, the issue of paper itself rears up. Daily we receive requests in our emails to “consider the environment” and to “go green.” Paper, an art form independent of the print for thousands of years, is way beyond medieval. It is positively ancient, a part of human heritage that evolved from the cradles of civilization: papyrus from the swamps of ancient Egypt and mulberry masterpieces of Japanese Washi parchment, to name just two. Our intellectual connectedness and evolution was based on the ability to pass on thoughts, share ideas. Symbols carved in stone meant you had to be there. Paper could be passed around. The invention of paper and subsequently, printmaking, gave us the opportunity to multiply the access of images to the masses. Actually, here we are touching the very root of democracy.
This brings us to the present. Why should we continue to print images on paper? Are artists evoking spirits from a material culture that will elude us in an imprint on the flat screen? Current exhibitions include images on the flat screen. A recent visit to a major museum director’s home revealed no paper or canvas art at all, only art on screens. Do we even need more visual noise? (Remember: prints burst forth in a moment bereft of images. Only the church, only the rich possessed them.) Should studio printmaking go the way of the photographer’s darkroom?
I don’t have answers yet. I have pondered these questions since the jury met last November. We selected fifty-four works of art by thirty-eight artists. Several themes emerged. Mapping was most dominant, perhaps evoking globalization, or a sense of place. The notion of pathways also appeared and reappeared as the images were reviewed. The human figure, political commentary and magical realism also claimed the artist’s voice. Astoundingly, the techniques of rendering these points of view, and the compositions, evoked the entire scope of printmaking’s 600 year history. On this brink of drastic shifts, openended digital and technical possibilities, the works selected for New Prints 2010/Winter would be immediately recognizable and comfortably familiar to Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer, Francisco Goya and Eugène Delacroix. Videos, films, digitally manipulated images on the screen, mash-ups of music, image, sound, light and noise…none of these would have been easily recognizable to the master printers, painters and sculptors of the Renaissance.
In the end my questions must continue: Does this exhibition speak affirmatively for the future of this medium? Does it mean the lifeline/lifeblood is still vital? Or are we at a dusk, witnessing the arc of half a millennium of art history affixed to a metaphoric stone, like barnacles waiting for high tide to rescue and resuscitate them?
© 2010 International Print Center New York.
Michele Oka Doner, Artist, New York City, Winter 2010