Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts

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Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts
A New Vision of Printmaking
Taking a Print for a Walk

Taking a Print for a Walk

Chris Wainwright

Identifying and re-positioning contemporary printmaking practice naturally embraces the engagement with a set of discourses around developments in technology and various means and methods/modes of production. In particular the process inevitably includes a re visiting of the highly influential essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin (Germany, 1892-1940) in 1936. It makes particular reference to the invention and deployment of film as an artistic medium, but also traces the history of printing in its association with traditional art methods whilst also existing as a multiple. He goes on to say printmaking exists in a dynamic relationship to the concept of ‘the aura’. He used the term aura to refer to the sense of reverence that the viewer experiences in the presence of unique works of art. Benjamin believed that the experience of art could be freed through reproduction and instead brought under the gaze and control of a mass audience leading to the shattering of the aura.

We can carry this reference forward now and amplify its relevance to modern processes of production and the rapid developments in digital media in particular. Firstly, there is an increasing creation and convergence of new formats, materials and production processes that expand the field beyond traditional forms of printmaking in terms of technique, materials, scale, dissemination, reproduction and context. Secondly, along with developments in production, the intersecting of print forms with other types of art making including drawing, photography, sculptural and laser forms, installation, collaborative practice, performance and time based media for instance, also contribute to an expanded and revised contemporary definition of printmaking. Then there is a third area, the marketplace for art, museums, collections, publications and other related factors that determine its cultural and economic value.

Some key questions that therefore arise from the current condition, and to a large extent are prompted by the changing characteristics of production, are around the practice of creating a ‘limited edition’ and at the opposite end of the scale - mass reproducibility. This leads us to the rethinking of the definition and purpose of print itself and should we continue to use the generic terms ‘print’ or ‘printmaker’? How should we position artists that often move seamlessly between different artforms and employ different ideological and cultural strategies? The creation of an edition of prints suggests a level of quality and control linked to the proximity of the skilled hand of the artist to the means of production, yet has a built in restriction on how many people can engage with or acquire the image and is often a market required feature. The mass produced print on the other hand can often lack the craft quality but talks potentially to a wider audience and is often linked to social issues where the message in the work becomes more of a priority and focus than the materiality of the work.

These questions however are not new as developments and limitations in technology have played a part in how artists, collectors and the commercial markets have approached print as a medium and have stretched its boundaries and challenged its craft based origin. If we go back to look at The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai (Japan, b. circa 1795-1849) and published somewhere between 1829 and 1833, we see one of the most memorable and famous prints of all time. It’s a woodblock print and part of a greater body of work called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. At the time it was made printmaking was not widely recognised as a high art form in Japan as the woodblock was seen as a popular form of expression and commercial printing. Once Japan opened up its trading routes to a wider world stage the popularity of Japanese prints grew in the West, multiple copies were and continue to be made. These are made today from new replica woodblocks which are skilfully produced. The older prints from the original blocks and located in some of the world’s most prestigious museums have a high value. It is estimated that around ten thousand versions of The Great Wave off Kanagawa have been made. In addition the image has been reproduced as posters, tea towels, table mats, t shirts, calendars and a multitude of other popular forms. In other words, the work has broken out of its medium to become one of the most reproduced and ‘printed’ images in the world.

Regarding technology and the shifting of imagery through various forms and transitions I want to refer to a more contemporary print work by the artist Richard Hamilton (Great Britain, 1922-2011) called Kent State a photo-screenprint made in 1970. In 1969 the art dealer, Dorothea Leonhart asked Hamilton if he would be interested in producing a print for her in a large edition. He agreed, on the condition that it would be the same high quality as a small edition yet be sold cheaply. He set up a camera and watched television every evening for a week in May 1970. In the middle of the week, there was broadcast on the BBC footage taken by an amateur bystander of bloodshed at Kent State University in the State of Ohio when National Guardsmen opened fire on students demonstrating against the Vietnam War.

Though troubled by these images, Hamilton was reluctant at first to use Kent State. It seemed to him too tragic an event in American history to be 'used' in a work of art. However, eventually he decided to work with this highly charged subject because he felt that art could keep the memory of this mindless horror alive. The large edition and the likely wide distribution of the image would perhaps become his contribution to our collective conscience.

One of several transparencies Hamilton made from the television screen showed a student, caught in the gunfire, lying on a road with his head inclined towards the viewer. The authenticity of the image is preserved because Hamilton continued to use only photographic means to change it. If we look at the journey of the final print, it went through a series of media based transformations. First of all, the original film footage shot by an amateur bystander in Ohio, USA. This was then taken and transferred to a broadcast format and put out on American TV. The images were then beamed by satellite across the world and re broadcast by the BBC in the UK. Hamilton then photographed the moving image from his television screen to make still images which he then processed to turn into a photo-screenprint. The final image which showed considerable degradation was produced as ink on paper. Hamilton described Kent State as the most 'onerous' print project he had ever undertaken.

There are clear parallels here with the opportunities, or some may say dangers, we currently face with the endless reproducibility through conventional and social media and the speed of dissemination, coupled with the ability to create seamlessly manipulated imagery through widely available packages such as Photoshop and sophisticated digital print processes that can produce high quality images. Equally high definition screens can replace the physical print itself and we can store images on our personal devices, or access or as downloads on line to print for ourselves. The relationship between traditional and contemporary forms and approaches is not always antagonistic as many artists play with the potentiality for combining approaches to find innovative ways to create work. Many also believe that so called ‘out of date’ processes can provide an alternative to the fast paced present and are a legitimate approach to the future of artistic production.

“I’m inclined to welcome any approach that destabilises, sometimes dismantles, and looks to the reconstruction or invention of an identity that is both new and ancient, that elbows its way into the future while remaining conscious and caring of its past.” Lucy Lippard, 1990.

Continuing the discussion about the print as a popular form the work Félix González-Torres (Cuban American, 1957–1996) questioned the notion of the unique art object, making series of works of endless reproducibility including stacks of sheets of newsprint type paper as give-aways for visitors. His work formed an important contribution to the “Print/Out” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2012. He wanted his work to be disseminated, to exist in multiple places at the same time, and to be realised completely only through the participation of the viewer, which he described as ‘one enormous collaboration with the public’ in which the pieces just disperse themselves like a virus that goes to many different places such as homes, studios, shops, bathrooms, whatever. For Gonzalez-Torres art was an effective means of addressing social concerns, even more so when it could be multiplied. Inhabiting the familiar forms of Minimalism and post-Minimalism with his stacks of printed paper that the public could take away with them, he embedded subtle but insistent references to current issues, from political violence to gay rights. In projects like Untitled he played with the powerful juxtapositions that could be generated between private and public spaces. 

Given the centuries of image manipulation and reproduction, of the debate between exclusivity and popular dissemination are we currently witnessing a paradigm shift in what printmaking is now, or are we just seeing a rapid development in technology that simply speeds things up, reaches wider audiences and as Benjamin asserted in 1936, has shattered the aura. A continuing question is whether or not there are aesthetic criteria specific to print media and if these are best understood through consideration of the catagories of function, process and materials.