The Lure of Diversity: New Prints 2002/Autumn
Essay by Marilyn Kushner
 
 

The opportunity to jury an exhibition of contemporary artwork is normally welcomed as a chance to see the latest work being done - both by well-known artists and also those who are not necessarily represented at galleries or major printshops. It is an occasion that enables one to get a "democratic" sense for what is being done in the field because anyone can submit slides to juried exhibitions. And so, when the jury for this IPCNY exhibition convened on a hot July day in New York, we were shown some four hundred slides and photographs of work by well over one hundred artists.1 A number of these artists were familiar faces, but many were not. Our goal was to select the best art being shown to us, regardless of topic or medium. We considered choosing a thematic exhibition but ultimately decided that would force the elimination of some works which we felt deserved to be included in the final group. After a process of viewing, culling out some work, and viewing again, all with lively discussion, a decision was made; one that we hope will present examples of some (but certainly not all) of the more provocative printmaking done in 2002.

Due to its relatively less costly mode of production, its reproducibility, and the ability for broad dissemination, printmaking has been a medium used for transmission of ideas. As such, it has been considered one of the more "political" media. In other instances, the intimacy of some printmaking has lent itself to more private moments intended for personal contemplation, both by the creator and the viewer. And, both abstract and representational images have been used to advance the public and private spheres of the medium. Indeed, the broad variety of work seen in this exhibition is a testament to vast possibilities of image, message and technique prevalent in the print field.

A good example of a more intimate image, one that may prompt subconscious discovery, is Michael Barnes' The Inflation. In this representational image, Barnes has set his surreal figure within an isolated space that is meant to push the viewer towards an interpretation of self-reflection. The "figure" stands alone, set apart from any trappings of society, left with merely the contemplative trappings of seclusion. Similarly, but without figures, Donald Furst's Chamber VII presents an uninhabited interior that is not subtle, about an emptiness that may not only be physical but emotional as well. The diminutive image need not be any bigger to effectively address the very large issues of isolation in a world that is packed with people who are alone in their own chambers. Poignantly, Pelagia Kryiazi, in her moving depiction of tombstones, communicates that isolation produced by the death of a preceding generation as well as the transience of life and of material things in this world. No one, and few things, survive forever. And, while Phyllis Trout's monotypes may be about public transitional places where, in the words of the artist, people "gather and separate," the image leaves one, again, with a feeling of being alone with one's own imagination, in a space that is very personal and separate.


These very private prints find their counterparts in printmaking as social commentary. Miguel Aragon's Untitled, which is a small monoprint woodcut, depicts figures set within an abstract grid. While the image can speak to a compartmentalization of humanity, it is meant to address issues of power, those without power, and violence that can ensue from these relationships. John Wilson chose the text of Down by the Riverside, a story from Richard Wright's first book Uncle Tom's Children, as the basis for his suite of etchings. The emotionally charged images, with figures that loom as powerful presences in the compact picture spaces, set the stage for the story of slavery in the Deep South. As a contemporary extension, one cannot help but think about the condition of the African-American child today. Kojo Griffin barely disguises the fact that his cartoon-like figures, which are humans with animal heads, play out a drama that is all too familiar to those whose world is the urban inner city. The executioner in Untitled recalls murderous incidents that occur far too often in today's society. While Griffin's figures have been compared with Disney characters, they participate in situations that are far from the fantasy cartoons associated with the Hollywood genre. Some may argue that Disney images are far from gentle, but Griffin imparts on his scenes a raw jarring truth that makes no allusions to hidden realities.

Certainly in light of September 11th, one need not look far for meaning in Francis Crisafio's series on Flag Waving. All that is left of flag waving nationalism that seems to have overtaken the emotions of many is a desolate landscape that is the same everywhere. There are no people. Humanity has been buried and the flags are merely remnants of their originals. Could this be a warning, or, a fear for the future of civilization?

Rather than politics and social circumstances, other visual statements comment upon a more universal human condition. Most of Tom Huck's images are taken from real-life events in his small hometown of Potosi, Missouri. His large woodcut Dollar Dance depicts the pregnant bride who, at her wedding reception, danced on a table for change. Huck is, unbelievably, able to show that there are absurdities of mundane existence, even in this very small midwestern town - no place is exempt from marginal behavior. But, how marginal is it? Are Huck's characters so different from those that populate Sean Star Wars' Hot Dog Party? Do these commentaries force us to "redefine" what is "normal?"

Roland Fischer's Facades on Paper are portraits of corporate skyscrapers that invite us to look at architecture from a fresh perspective. Upon first glance, they are abstract geometric designs, and it is only a second, closer examination that reveals the hyper-real truth that these are identifiable buildings. Has Fischer made these corporate symbols two-dimensional icons of modern design? He has certainly forced us to reconsider these buildings as more than three-dimensional sculptural structures. Reality and abstraction have merged in his images.

The abstract works in the exhibition are as arresting as the representational images. Aesthetic beauty is the raison d'être for many of these, the objects speak for themselves. Andra Samelson's Bix, a pigment print that is created from a reversal of her ballpoint pen drawings, is meant to resemble a blueprint. Delicate arabesque lines define the form and the space it occupies, making it a sculpturesque shape that is in constant flux. The viewer is constantly challenged to define its shifting nature. While Samelson's image is only meant to be suggestive of mass and volume, Entertaining..., a multiple by Richard Tuttle, is a handsome study of texture and depth in three dimensions. Here, Tuttle's actual manipulation of space defines not only the mass and volume of the object, but the color as well. As in most of Tuttle's work, we are meant to extract any further meaning from our personal experience with the piece. Tuttle merely wishes to suggest the beginning of our relationship with the object; we are left to complete the significance. Entertaining... thus becomes an intensely personal object. Each multiple in the edition assumes its personality based upon the viewer.

Similarly, other artists are stretching past the traditional two dimensions of the printmaking medium. Gunter Förg combined screenprinting with plaster to build up his surface in Bauhaus or To the Builders. The word Bauhaus is suggestive of an architectonic construction based on the components of design, functionality, and modernity as expressed in the use of industrial materials. By building upon an initial screenprint and giving it depth using a material most commonly associated with architecture, Forg has actually created an object that, like Tuttle's, greatly blurs the once very distanct boundary between printmaking and sculpture.

Both Susan Wanklyn and A.J. Bocchino created their abstract images digitally. Bocchino's Contour Excess is a digital image derived from photographs of glass objects that were scanned and manipulated to produce a composition based in reality but one that also represents the possibilities of virtual depiction. The surfaces have a tactile quality that remains faithful to the properties of glass and even accentuates the once fluid property of the substance. Wanklyn's Untitled, while produced digitally, retains the texture of a traditionally produced print. As such, the difference between these two prints attests to the fact that "digital" prints do not have uniform surfaces but rather manifest the myriad possibilities of what is attainable in this new medium. In the final analysis, their importance lies not in the mastery of the technical aspects of the image, but in the fact that the beauty of these abstractions stands alone as evidence that it is enough for a print to exist solely for the sense of aesthetic enjoyment.

It is difficult to extract a collective thread of significance in the prints chosen for the exhibition. The very nature of the decision process chosen by the jury militated against discovering a "message" that was universally present in each object chosen. But, there is a significant lesson to be learned by analyzing the techniques used to produce the prints in the exhibition. Twenty-nine of them were created using traditional printmaking processes. These include screenprinting, lithography, intaglio, woodcuts, and monoprints. There are nine works that were created using digital technology. One work is photographically based and one work is a three-dimensional multiple. While digital technology is certainly here to stay, it has not, it did not in this exhibition, nor will it ever, supplant the traditional media in the production of prints. The invention of lithography at the end of the eighteenth century did not spell the end of relief printing and intaglio; in the nineteenth century, photography, with all of its attendant power to represent the "truth", did not overwhelm the production processes of the previous printmaking media; certainly when artists began making screenprints in the twentieth century we did not see the traditional methods loose influence; and now the development of digital art in the late-twentieth century will not "force out" the previous printmaking techniques. Rather, in addition to relief printing, intaglio, lithography, and screenprinting, we have a fifth medium to consider in the field of printmaking: the digital print.

This exhibition of contemporary printmaking is testimony to the vitality of printmaking today. Superb prints continue to be produced using conventional methods. But innovative technology is also being applied, often in combination with traditional processes, to push boundaries towards new frontiers. This type of change is good; indeed it is essential in the creative arts. Jazz musician Charlie Parker once said, "They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art."2 The zeal we have seen to reach and stretch convention, coupled with other instances of protecting that old order, and the freedom to do either and find excellence in both, is the attraction that printmaking holds today as an exciting and constantly challenging medium in the visual arts.

Marilyn Kushner, Member, Selections Committee


(c) IPCNY, 2002
1 In addition to the author, the jurors for this exhibition were Leslie J. Garfield, Larissa Goldston, Carin Kuoni, Andrew Mockler, and Wendy Weitman.
2 Charlie Parker quoted in Michael Horovitz, Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain, "Afterwords," (Harmondsworth, Middlesex : Penguin, 1969) section 3.
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© 2002 International Print Center New York