What Is Printmaking Today? Philadelphia Dares to Ask
by Ken Johnson, for The New York Times
PHILADELPHIA — The fine art of printmaking is not what it used to be. To produce printed images using tools more sophisticated than potatoes and rubber stamps once required the esoteric knowledge of an alchemist and the manual skills of a surgeon. Today anyone with the right software and a good color printer can make infinitely reproducible images that are hard to distinguish from professionally made drawings, paintings, montages, commercial illustrations and other sorts of pictures. Which raises the question: What should a major, international exhibition devoted to contemporary printmaking entail?
Going by “Philagrafika 2010,” the first in what its organizers hope will become a triennial citywide festival here devoted to the print in contemporary art, the technical possibilities are unbounded. “Philagrafika” includes etchings and woodcuts, vinyl graphics, comic books, videos and complicated, conceptually driven projects intended to raise social consciousness.
Philosophical questions remain. As new mediums proliferate and lines between genres dissolve, you may wonder if there is any value in maintaining printmaking as a separate artistic category. The festival’s chief overseer, José Roca, an independent curator from Colombia, does not equivocate about what he sees as the demise of the traditional print. In his introductory essay in the festival guidebook he asserts, “Fixated on defining the realm of printmaking based on technique, some printmakers have printed themselves into a corner, away from the center of contemporary artistic trends.”
Mr. Roca’s mission is to expand — indeed to explode — received definitions: “Exposing the print component in sculptural, environmental, performance, pictorial and video works and highlighting their relevance to contemporary art” is his goal.
With exhibitions taking place in almost 90 galleries and other sites around the city and works by more than 300 artists on view, “Philagrafika 2010” presents viewers with a daunting challenge. But the core of the event, titled “The Graphic Unconscious,” is doable for day trippers. It consists of five exhibitions at five different institutions and collectively includes 35 artists.
Those most connected to traditional craftsmanship are at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Here, in a handsome show organized by Julien Robson, curator of contemporary art at the academy, Kiki Smith’s sensitive, etched portraits of young men in big hats would be no surprise to Rembrandt. But he might be confounded by her large, sloppy collages incorporating passages of etching, glued-on paper scraps and glitter depicting, for example, a woman fighting big snakes.
A huge woodcut by the German artist Christiane Baumgartner presents an image of bombers from a World War II propaganda film. Its fine, horizontal lines indicate that the image was copied from a television screen. If Gerhard Richter made prints, they might look similarly moody and ominous.
An enormous composition of carved-wood panels and large prints by Orit Hofshi, an Israeli, pictures a shadowy figure walking into a desolate, rocky landscape punctuated by architectural fragments, while the Philadelphia artist Pepón Osorio offers a celebration of life and death in the form of an image of his mother’s X-rayed head ink-jet printed onto a thick bed of glued-together confetti.
Two artists, one American and one Chinese, riff on different kinds of verbal signage. Mark Bradford’s thickly layered works reproduce signs advertising help for people with Alzheimer’s disease; faded and disappearing letters visually pun on memory loss. And Qiu Zhijie’s rubbings of Chinese characters quote sayings of rulers like Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek to politically subversive ends.
Here the most technically tricky and entertaining work is by an Indonesian group called Tromarama. Using its own finely etched copies of Indonesian currency, Tromarama created a short stop-action music video in which the leaders portrayed on various bills lip-sync to a bouncy tune called “Happy Hour.”
Works in an exhibition organized by Lorie Mertes, chief curator at Moore College of Art and Design, stray further from fine-art traditions. Made by a stenciling technique, a 40-foot-wide, black-and-white outdoor mural on a wall of the Moore’s main building by the British artist Paul Morrison pictures a fantastic, montaged landscape of trees and flowers lifted from a variety of fine-art and popular sources. Gunilla Klingberg, of Stockholm, has created a vast, Neo-Pop mandala in orange vinyl whose pattern consists of familiar commercial logos — Target, Kmart and others. It has been applied to the front windows of the college’s facade to form a radiating, see-through screen.
In an indoor gallery, Virgil Marti, a Philadelphia artist, has covered the walls with silver paper bearing an ornate, floral pattern that turns out, on closer scrutiny, to be made up of skulls and bones, to create a gleaming, environmental memento mori.
In another gallery the Brazilian artist Regina Silveira has flooded the walls and floors with gigantically enlarged, black vinyl images of insects. It is an eye-boggling, walk-in nightmare. And in a connecting corridor Betsabeé Romero who works in Mexico City, presents prints made by rolling inked old tires that she retreaded with images of birds onto yardslong lengths of paper.
Projects at the Tyler School of Art’s Temple Gallery in a show organized by Sheryl Conkelton, an independent curator, do more still to stretch the definition of printmaking. A Danish team called Superflex has set up a workstation where students are assembling cube-shaped hanging lamps whose paper sides, spit out by an online printer, bear photographic images of copyrighted lights by famous designers. It is a provocative comment on theft and intellectual property rights.
Making points about information overload, Francesc Ruiz, of Barcelona, Spain, has recreated an outdoor newsstand and stocked its shelves with satiric fake magazines, while Barthélémy Toguo, of Cameroon, has covered the walls of a separate space with newspaper pages that have all their words blacked out. In a dark room a hypnotic video by the South Korean Web-art group Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries uses big, block letters appearing in infectiously punchy rhythms to tell a violent story of three young misfits visiting the border between North and South Korea.
At the Philadelphia Museum of Art politics meets surrealistic fantasy in a two-artist show organized by Shelley R. Langdale, an associate curator of prints and drawings at the museum. In one gallery Óscar Muñoz, of Colombia, shows a quartet of floor-projected videos in which photo-silk-screened pictures of people from newspaper obituaries float on the surface of water in a white sink. As the water runs out, the images become distorted and go down the drain; then the process reverses and the anonymous faces recohere. The videos poignantly symbolize the tragically ephemeral quality of life in some parts of the world.
In a gallery next door a short animated film by the Japanese artist Tabaimo explores psychoanalytic territory. Called “dolefulhouse,” it shows giant hands installing miniature pieces of antique furniture in a dollhouse. Then octopuses start coming in through the windows, tentacles proliferate like vines, and the house fills with water. Normal consciousness is swamped by previously repressed psychic energies.
The longstanding tradition of populist printmaking is updated at the Print Center in a show of 14 artists and collectives organized by the center’s curator of prints and photographs, John Caperton. Eric Avery, a Texas psychiatrist as well as an artist, has wallpapered the lavatory with small, cartoonish prints illustrating how to use male and female condoms. Woodcuts by Sue Coe illustrate and protest against cruelty to animals. A Chicago collective called Temporary Services presents cheaply produced booklets containing miscellaneous information, including one about illegal devices concocted by prison inmates using legal materials. Upstairs, the Philadelphia collective Space 1026 has constructed a yurt using its own printed fabrics within which people may read, converse and lounge.
The upshot of all this is intellectually stimulating but inconclusive. Is printmaking dead, or is it reborn? Is it a meaningful category at all anymore for contemporary artists who revel in mechanically produced imagery of all kinds and fearlessly use and misuse whatever tools are at hand? If you think these questions matter — and there are good reasons to think they do — you need to plan a trip to Philadelphia.