Saturday, August 12, 2000

Printmaking Issues

Penny Siopis
I'm Sorry, 2004. Etching, aquatint. Edition of 20. 17 3/5 x 14 4/5"
Printed by Randy Hemminghaus. Published by David Krut Fine Art

A Twenty-first Century Etching Revival
By Alexandra Anderson-Spivy
Summer 2005

What could be more old-fashioned, more traditional, or more uncool in our mad-for-digital, video-besotted early twenty-first century than etching? Today's salacious collector seems more likely to invite someone up to see his shark preserved in formaldehyde than to issue an invitation to "come up and see my etchings." Nevertheless, artists have enthusiastically embraced this process for some 500 years ever since German artist Urs Graf produced the earliest dated etching in 1513. As subsequent artists from Rembrandt and Piranesi to Whistler and Picasso have demonstrated, etching has long offered a remarkable emotional and tonal range of expression and innovation.

This versatile printmaking technique promotes, in fact requires, an intense connection between the hands-on proficiency of the artist and the delicate surfaces upon which he or she has chosen to work. It calls for painstaking plate preparation and adaptation, agility and patience. (1) It also demands fine-tuned, skilled collaborative efforts between artist and printer. (Contemporary artists often may print their own work.) In the modern world, etching has been adapted to the most arcane engineering processes; industry can routinely etch various metals, infinitely tiny computer chips, and other substances with lasers, or with chemicals or gases.

The current summer exhibition organized by International Print Center New York confirms the idea that right now there is a notable revival of interest in etching occurring among artists across the world. It's actually hardly the first time this has happened. During the latter half of the 19th century, the artists of the Barbizon School were the instigators of an earlier etching revival. Allied with the rise of interest in the sketch and in working from nature, this passionate interest in etching rapidly spread from France to England and the United States,(2) as the informality and spontaneity provided by the etching needle gained critical acceptance.

Another such revival is surely overdue. Perhaps today's artists have tired of the weightlessness of computer software, the seductions of Photoshop, the slick uniformity of the surfaces of digitally printed images. The physicality and subtleties of traditional etching processes continue to exert a powerful attraction on a surprising number of them-draftsmen and painters alike-as this exhibition demonstrates.

Diversity and experimentation are characteristics that define IPCNY's summer show. The fifty-eight works included in New Prints 2005/Summer represent work by forty-four artists and various presses across the country and from abroad. (International sources include Brazil, France, Germany, Italy and South Africa). Their work offers viewers a dazzling menu of techniques, expressive styles, and content that once again proves the relevance of etching's seductive powers.

The jury for the show examined a fascinating array of submissions. Some of the only consistent elements these works shared were a highly ambitious technical range plus an inclination to push the boundaries of the medium and a general inclination to experiment very freely with color, and scale and idiosyncratic content. It's interesting that no style or subject prevailed.

The sheer range represented by the geographical and stylistic diversity, celebrity and age of the artists who were finally selected is impressive and makes for juxtapositions on the wall that are stimulating and fresh. Veteran artists such as Polly Apfelbaum, Kiki Smith, Robert Kushner and John Walker appear here along with a panoply of artists who may be new to viewers. Apfelbaum's Love Flowers presents a cheerfully faux-naïve, intimate image of starry flowers tossed off in what could be a pattern sketched for a quilt. Kiki Smith contributes a delicate and entirely sinister rendering (Jewel) of the front feet and claws of a wolf or a very big dog against a stark white ground. Kushner in Cup of Gold prints his vibrant line drawing of a lily as direct gravure in white ink on black silk and embellishes the image with his signature squares of gold leaf. In Box Canyon, John Walker has translated the verve and scale of his abstract paintings into a waterfall of etched color and form that boils across and down across some 21 square feet (81 x 38 inches), making it the largest work in the show and one of the most powerful.

Space restrictions mean I can't discuss every artist included in the exhibition, but I will mention a few characteristic highlights. Sandow Birk's mordantly funny and cautionary image, Accidents, is from his series, Leading Causes of Death in America. Using a slyly social realist-film noir style, this artist depicts a modern woman courting danger, as she talks on her mobile while driving her car. Another sprightly image of disaster-a little cottage swept over a waterfall in black and white, appears in Dan Steeves' a hint of awe and reverence and wonder. Fernando Martí has made one of the relatively few political images in the show-his Amapolis/Poppies pairs kneeling prisoners with scarlet poppy fields. Yuji Hiratsuka's etching and aquatint images of fabulously accessorized modern Japanese women (Autumn Tints and Crops) not only update the traditions of the Japanese print with impressive skill but also combine deft social satire with ambitious technique, since Hiratsuka is both artist and printer of these works.

Several artists have used etching to create artists' books. Leslie Eliet's self-printed Sea of Dreams is a strikingly dramatic abstract narrative in accordion form. Nancy Powhida's black and white book, Cabin in the Woods has a sinister Henry Darger-like charm. Sarah Plimpton's pages for her book Doubling Back quietly harmonize poem and aquatint image.

The rising young South African artist, Penny Siopis, is represented by four searing images of a child's shame and pain from her striking suite of ten etchings. Annie Heckman's She Falls in the Tank series is memorable for its beautiful draftsmanship and unusually dynamic imagery of a cat falling into water.

Several more abstract etchings are also visually compelling, technically proficient, and often clever. Justin Quinn contributes a gloss on Moby Dick that represents a "transcription" of a chapter of the book into the letter "E" in his drypoint, Moby Dick Chapter 44 or 4,349 times E. Theresa Chong's Mapping Notations and Gestures based on Bach Suite Prelude Series poetically translates sound into a mysterious black and white galaxy of points of light. Jill Parisi has contributed what may be the most unusual work in the exhibition. Her piece Stellae transforms nature into wonderful hand-colored, hand-cut etchings-evanescent paper sculptures that float in space. In short, this show offers a look at a great variety of works as contemporary artists continue their exploration of the still seductive marvels of etching.

Alexandra Anderson-Spivy is an art critic and writer who lives in New York.

New Prints 2005/Summer-Etchings Selection Committee: Desirée Alvarez, artist; Alexandra Anderson-Spivy, writer; Judy Hecker, Assistant Curator, Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, the Museum of Modern Art; Jennifer Melby, Master Printer; Harris Schrank, print collector and IPCNY Trustee; and Michael Steinberg, Director, Michael Steinberg Fine Art.

Printmaking as a Craft

SOURCE: Artichoke 17 no1 38-40 Spr 2005

Misa Nikolic
"The creation of a work requires craftsmanship. Great artists prize craftsmanship most highly. They are the first to call for its painstaking cultivation, based on complete mastery. They above all others constantly strive to educate themselves anew in thorough craftsmanship. It has often enough been pointed out that the Greeks, who knew quite a bit about works of art, use the same word techne for craft and art and call the craftsman and the artist by the same name: technites."(FN1) One wonders what sort of work Martin Heidegger was thinking of when he wrote these lines in the 1960s, a time when the mainstream art world appeared to have abandoned craftsmanship altogether, first in favour of abstraction, and later in favour of appropriation, industrial production, and mass reproduction. However, one need only question the definition of craft -- that is, what sort of things craftsmanship may be applied to -- to see his true meaning, which is that techne denotes "a mode of knowing" and not art or craft per se. Put another way, techne is neither the work of art itself nor the process of its creation; it is, he explains, the bringing forth of truth from its concealedness, or what the Greeks called aletheia.
Today we understand craft differently, by opposing it to mass production on one hand, and to fine art on the other. The German critic Walter Benjamin tells us that "the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition,"(FN2) thereby diminishing its "aura;" a term he uses to encompass the work of art's authenticity and autonomy. Benjamin seems at first to be arguing that art loses its uniqueness when it is thus separated from the "fabric of tradition," but instead he claims that "mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual,"(FN3) thus freeing it to become politically engaged.
What this means for the artist today is not simply that all technologies and media are now available for art-making, but that a balance must be found between traditional methods and materials (which can still carry the aura of art) and political currency (socially relevant meaning). This is where we may find techne today, and it is especially manifest in printmaking, the field which first felt the impact of technical reproducibility.
In the past, printmakers were in the enviable position of having their work available in more than one place. They could now reach the masses; however, their practice was still undeniably a craft requiring technical skill. Even the typesetters of the nineteenth century were craftsmen. Contemporary printmakers find themselves walking a fine line between this fabric of tradition and the political realm. Printmaking encompasses centuries-old media, such as woodcut and stone lithography, as well as newer technologies like etching, silkscreen, and photolithography. But does it also include digital art? Does experimenting with new forms of reproduction mean abandoning the umbrella of traditional printmaking? And how does the size of the edition affect our determination of what is a print? An offset press may produce two thousand copies per hour, but would we consider them to be as valuable as a dozen hand-pulled prints? Would we still consider them to be art? Clearly, printmaking as an art form relies on some notion of the indexical trace, the touch of the artist's hand, despite the intervention of reproductive technology. Printmaking as a craft, meanwhile, is still hindered by notions of mechanization and the removal of the artist's hand. This paradox has resulted in the virtual exclusion of printmaking from both academic discourse, which is greatly concerned with politics, as well as from other craft practices, which traditionally focus on the unique handmade object.
Nevertheless, a new term -- fine craft -- has evolved in recent years to encompass craft-based media with political content. Fine craft endeavours to account for the gray area between fine art and decorative or functional craft. This definition has been incorporated in the Canada Council's granting categories and is slowly being adopted by other agencies as well. The Saskatchewan Craft Council recently adopted a new definition of fine craft as "an artistic endeavour characterized by the creation, with skill and by hand, of three dimensional work that is rooted in, but may transform, transcend or maintain the traditions, techniques, and materials of the utilitarian object."(FN4) Only painting and drawing are excluded due to their adequate representation elsewhere.
Leslie Potter, one of the scc's exhibitions and education co-ordinators, suggests that defining craft is no longer necessary. "Fine art and fine craft have been crossing boundaries and converging for so long now, it only places limitations where we don't need them."(FN5) While there is still a latent theme of craft as specific handmade object-based media without overt political content, there is also a growing recognition of craft as an evolutionary field, one which encompasses techne.
In 1996, Lee McKay was one of the first print-makers to be included in the scc's annual Dimensions exhibition. McKay is known for his refined woodcut reduction technique, as well as collographs and etchings; however, his real interest lies in colour. His woodcuts commonly use eight to twelve colours, and are often printed on delicate rice paper -- an especially difficult ground due to the paper stretching during impressions, making registration difficult. Lately he has begun to experiment with transparent inks and varnishes, an approach that developed from his experience in graphic design and offset printing. A visit to McKay's studio reveals a continuous flow of ideas from the sketchbook to the computer to the woodblock. Mckay's own take on craft, on techne, seems to lie in the very practice of art, where ideas grow from hard work and discipline; a far cry from contemporary conceptual art and its approach of "applied philosophy."
If we return to Heidegger and accept techne as neither the product nor the process but rather as a mode of knowing, of uncovering truth, we may conclude that art is intended for reflection rather than consumption; that it is a process of thinking that extends from intention to interpretation. Hegel, who foreshadowed both Benjamin and Heidegger, saw this clearly: "The work of art has not such a naive self-centered being, but is essentially a question, an address to the responsive heart, an appeal to affections and to minds."(FN6) What better definition can there be of political currency, of meaning in art?
Misa Nikolic is a Vancouver artist.
Lee McKay's prints will be Featured at the Saskatchewan Craft Council Gallery in Saskatoon, June 24 - August 14, 2005.
Luminate - 1, reduction woodcut, 29×40 cm, Lee McKay, 2004 photo courtesy of the artist

1. Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art" in Poetry, Language, Thought, New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1971, p. 59.
2. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in Illuminations, New York: Shocken, 1968, p. 221.
3. Ibid., p. 224.
4. Interview with Leslie Potter, September 2004.
5. Ibid.
6. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, New York: Penguin, 1993, p. 78.

No comments: