Flashback Friday: Curating Prints – A Field of Expanding Interpretation

Imprint Volume 26 Number 2, 1991 (cover).

‘Now the question of what constitutes an ‘original print’ is rarely ever raised as it is generally accepted that printmaking need not be limited by narrow guild-based premises.’

This essay was written by Anne Kirker and published in the winter issue of Imprint, Volume 26 No 2, 1991.

In recent years, changes in the methodology of art history, the vagaries of the marketplace and advanced technological development have disrupted the often still waters of print scholarship. Exhibitions and collection policies of public institutions have shifted emphasis accordingly. We had in our complacency begun to type-cast print shows, with their attendant publications being monographic in nature, their contents being confined to traditional media, and their focus too narrowly engaging with issues of connoisseurship and technique. Now, there are just as likely to be thematic exhibitions which throw the field wide open or hone in on specific concerns. One such example is the unofficial Bicentenary project Right Here Right Now – Australia 1988. Comprising screenprints developed from within this country’s strong poster tradition, this exhibition raised critical questions regarding national identity. In addition, there are exhibitions which concentrate on particular collection strengths. For example, Looking Eastwards, held at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1989, attempted to make readily accessible, its comparatively large ukiyo-e print holdings, and was not reliant upon extensive loan material. Certainly this was in part a contingency measure. Through necessity the Gallery was obliged to fall back on its own resources. In part, what the exhibition could have been was tempered by the phenomenal insurance valuations currently placed on many international prints, and the costs involved in processing such loans.

There is also a tendency among art museums to place works on paper in a larger context as part of permanent collection rotations, allowing prints to have equal visibility to paintings, aspects of sculpture and the so-called decorative arts. This situation has assisted in breaking down traditional hierarchies within the visual arts and has decreased the chance of marginalising prints to a separate, easily overlooked exhibition space. Importantly, the integration of images from different media categories within a general display encourages audiences to make connections with respect to the content of these images, and to realise the interdependency which has occurred for centuries between the multiple and the ‘unique’ art object. In this area of expanding interpretation, the average viewer is more likely to respond to the subject and iconography of prints, to question why they were made in a certain way and for whom, and to feel less obliged to evaluate the intricacies of production through various states and proofs. While not wishing to dismiss this aspect of print appreciation as irrelevant; it is a matter of trying to temper an overt emphasis on the peculiarities of media and technique, and those elements which engender rarity status, that has mesmerised this field for so long. Aspects of connoisseurship obviously remain important for the professional development of a curator; one can make expensive blunders through ignorance by acquiring restrikes instead of impressions from original editions, prints from reworked plates, forgeries, and so forth.

For this reason, a scholarship such as that provided by the late Harold Wright, to spend an extended period in the British Museums’s print room, remains an invaluable opportunity for Australians and New Zealanders, to ‘train the eye’, so to speak. We can, however, no longer afford to linger – pleasurable though this may be – in that rarefied environment. In today’s world other curatorial imperatives loom large: revealing the mysteries of the solander box to broader public scrutiny, encouraging interpretation of an artist’s work with that of others; and being conscious of the ideological issues at play. Imaginative leaps need to be constantly made and re-made­ through exhibitions, publications and associated media – to connect and empower the imagery of successive generations. In hindsight, for instance, Looking Eastwards could well have coupled volume ten of Hokusai’s Manga (a book of random sketches reproduced as woodblock prints from 1819) with one of the comic books currently popular in Japan. The tenor of this post-modern age, with marriages of unlikely partners, the blurring of boundaries and alertness to the content and context of art, was heralded some twenty years ago by Arthur Hyatt Mayor. In his book Prints & People, A Social History of Printed Pictures (N.Y., Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971), he writes: ‘… familiar facts regroup into unexpected patterns, like the tiles on the bathroom floor, especially when you try to see recent prints as the outcome of old traditions, and old prints as though their ink still smelled’.

Ironically even with this change in curatorial thinking, the old debate polarising prints by non-printmakers and those by artist printmakers is still very much alive. Recall, for instance, the observations of Charles Green under the heading of ‘The State of Things – The Problem with Printmaking’, in the journal Tension (no.17, August 1989), where he states: ‘There’s a truism that the best prints are made by painters’. How can one go along with this simplistic value judgement? We do know that artists who normally specialise in other areas are often perceived as participating in a type of entrepreneurial activity when they produce multiple imagery. In contrast, are those trained printmakers who by and large are less visible in the art world of institutions, high profile dealers and glossy magazines. But with the plurality of endeavour we profess to endorse at the close of the 20th century, with our scepticism of originality, does this dichotomous situation really matter?

The Readymade Boomerang Print Portfolio serves to illustrate one strand of the debate. This collection of prints was in effect a satellite project to the Eighth Biennale of Sydney, and was published by its director, Rene Block. It followed similar initiatives by him which have realised the production of multiples by well-known artists associated with, for want of a better term, ‘vanguard movements’. In collaboration with master printers, most of the twenty-one artists connected with this portfolio extended their creative concerns, and at the same time provided a permanent visual document on the Biennale which could potentially be widely dispersed. For this 1990 event the likes of Richard Hamilton, John Cage, Julian Schnabel and Rosemary Trockel shared the same platform as Australian artists Rosalie Gascoigne and Janet Burchill.

Conceived in the spirit of the readymade, the portfolio illustrated the concept of bricolage, a method based on the deliberate collision of artists, imagery and materials. Exponents of pop art, experimental music, shameless appropriators of styles and images from the past, and collectors of humble detritus, were presented cheek by jowl. Block’s concept for the venture was recognised by Bernice Murphy in her essay published in the Biennale catalogue, where she stated: ‘In recent art the wider implications of the Duchampian discourse of the Readymade (serialisation and reproduction) have authorised a great deal of work revolving around the idea of the copy, duplicate of multiple replica’.

On the other hand, artists such as Graeme Peebles, Barbara Hanrahan and Milan Milojevic have consistently developed their art production through print media alone. They toe an individualistic line rather than tailoring their imagery to an internationalist discourse. None would profess to be at the centre of Australia’s artistic mainstream and yet their printmaking is hardly a backwater activity. Emphasising autobiographical, social and political concerns of relevance to their immediate contexts, these printmakers provide a necessary antidote to the more immediately seductive international viewpoint, drawing attention instead to the value of art from a regional perspective. Their concerns are local and specific, not responsive or answerable to the latest theoretical treatises or perceived art movements. We would do well to point out their idiosyncrasies, rather than attempt to conflate work by such figures into the mainstream.

Nevertheless, the boundaries of one reality as opposed to another are blurring all the time. Take for instance the duality between printmaking and photography. Throughout this century we have seen the gradual admission of photographically mediated images into traditional modes of printmaking. Initially this gave rise to questions regarding originality and the relationship between art and the mechanical reproduction of visual imagery. During the mind 1960s the Print Council of America and, in turn, the Print Council of Australia agonised over the definition of what constitutes an ‘original print’. Now the question is rarely ever raised as it is generally accepted that printmaking need not be limited by narrow guild-based premises. Not only was William Ivin’s expansive definition of original prints as ‘exactly repeatable pictorial statements’, proclaimed in Prints and Visual Communication (1953), an audacious challenge to conservative thinking, but even earlier Walter Benjamin had prophetically described a major shift in perception. With his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), Benjamin claimed: ‘That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’. Artists who employed photography and photomechanical means in their prints acknowledged an all-embracing commitment to, and potent demonstration of, contemporary society.

When Eduardo Paolozzi produced his 1971 screenprint Bash in three thousand identical impressions he attempted to free the print medium from the elitism of the limited edition. Bash is an acronym of Baroque All Style High, a reference to a bygone style of art, validated in the context of 20th century life. Some of the ‘wonderful and extraordinary’ (to use the artist’s own words) references to our immediate past in Paolozzi’s print include Marilyn Monroe featured next to a World War II rocket; a TV with blue fluorescent screen from the 1950s; a John Kennedy poster; an ‘Action Buddy’ toy; a model plastic heart from a ‘Visible Man’ or ‘Visible Woman’ kit; Frank Stella’s Protractor Series (1967–70); and Apollo space photos.

In 1991, Malcolm Enright continues the process of ‘cultural recycling’ and the ‘aesthetic of simulation’ (to draw on Jean Baudrillard’s terms) with his installation of prints for Queensland Art Gallery’s exhibition Instant Imaging. With Another Inseparable: Person/Characteristics, a four-colour chromlin proof from photocopies, he collages such disparate images as an Indian Mohawk with hand painted on his face; a statue of Kali; the Hungarian filmstar Peter Lorre; the Ayatollah Khomeini; a 19th century pornographic postcard; and a palmist’s chart. Instant Imaging was initiated two years ago by the Print Council of Australia, as part of a series reflecting different State perspectives in current printmaking. The curatorial rationale behind the event was an aim to demonstrate those links which bind electronic media and the printed image. Seven artists residing in Brisbane – Mark Davies, Malcolm Enright, Pat Hoffie, Hiram To, Edite Vidins, John Waller and Adam Wolter – were chosen to participate. They are among those Australians who currently demonstrate a strong commitment to exploring the interface between aspects of the visual arts and advanced technology. Outside Queensland, Diane Mantzaris, with her lithographs based on computer-generated imagery, springs readily to mind, as does Bashir Baraki with his work derived from the Canon colour laser copier (CLC). Collectively, these artists acknowledge that our post-modern environment is subjected to a network of electronic devices, each of which as irreversibly changed the way people think, learn and communicate.

Although copiers appeared some forty years ago, it was not until the mid sixties (coinciding ironically with the heated debates among print associations on ‘originality’) that artists gravitated towards the ‘quick copy’ centre for economical print runs. No special training was required for replicating an image, and instantaneous results allowed for rapid development and realisation of their concepts. Although the practice of copy art has now been accepted in many art schools it is still not generally embraced by departments of printmaking! For the traditionalists, the process probably seems far too easy. When the CLC was introduced in 1987, colour was not only able to be recreated with astonishing verisimilitude, but this electronic system also offered the artist a means by which to dismantle and ‘recreate’ an image, so that it bore little relation to the original. Pat Hoffie has drawn attention to the fact that the more an image (often in the form of collage material) is manipulated in the machine, the more it appears ‘handcrafted’.

Some practitioners prefer to remain with a monochromatic effect and promote elusiveness and the principle of uncertainty. Hiram To developed his Printing Room Series in 1998, blurring the initial image through the photocopying process by sweeping it across the platen and printing it out on ringbinder paper with text. He has recently investigated private and public realms by incarcerating photocopiers in lead frames. Several of these are displayed as a unit in Instant Imaging. It is the precise relationship between interval and object, and the multiple cross references set up, which characterise the artist’s installation work. The print is but one component of his multi-media statements.

With major technological advancements occurring regularly it is now possible, using the Canon bubble jet colour copier, to produce large-scale single images. John Waller now employs it for his ongoing project focussing on the Australian landscape, its histories and its mythologies. His images are first produced on a Commodore Amiga computer, using a variety of software (such as Deluxe Paint III), and are then printed out. Adam Wolter has been involved with computer-generated imagery for close to a decade. His output has kept pace with available hardware for domestic use. From a very elementary computer he acquired an Amiga 1000 in 1986 when it first came on to the market. The ramifications this had for Wolter’s imagery were extraordinary. With public domain software Wolter’s imagery were extraordinary. With public domain software Wolter no longer needed to write his own programs in order to produce an artwork; even Benoît Mandelbrot’s mathematical theories were made user-friendly!

A relative newcomer to computer-generated imager, Edite Vidins alludes to her Latvian roots in the digitised format. Although she produces ‘static’ printouts, the artist prefers to present her work directly on the computer screen. For this reason, Instant Imaging incorporates a number of monitors in the display space. It is in acknowledgement that those involved principally with manipulating computer software on the screen often regard this to be the final product, as the luminosity of the screen tends to be lost in the printed form. In curating this exhibition, the catalogue served an integral role in extending the artists’ concepts through individual statements and allied visual material. At many stages of its production, the seven participants were consulted. We decided to depart from a conventional publication format, adopting a computerised typeface and chose as illustrations, details of works in Instant Imaging which were distorted and re-interpreted especially for the catalogue.

What of the future of this area of art practice within the terrain of printmaking? Only time will tell. Public collections must weigh up the issue of acquiring works with a limited life (through decomposition of the printed image) while demonstrating an undiminished commitment to representing contemporary art practice. Many shy away from collecting, preferring to facilitate exhibitions and installations of electronic media. Personally, I believe our collections should judiciously acquire instances of photocopy work and computer printouts as a reflection of the vital activity in this area. They will broaden our perception of art practice generally and force it into direct relationship with culture at large.