Crossing Boundaries and Making Connections
by Erin Keever
Printmakers are a notoriously collaborative bunch, but when they live thousands of miles away from one another, their interactions lie less in the studio or printshops, and more in a collective mindset. That’s not to say their relationships are strictly virtual, rather these artists, their works, and their ideas cross actual paths at professional conferences, workshop demonstrations, academic programs, and in this case International Printmakers / An Invitational Exhibition in Austin, Texas. This exhibition is part of PrintAustin 2014 (January 15-February 15, 2014) and is on view at Gallery Shoal Creek (at Flatbed Headquarters). It features the work of seven contemporary artists working in a variety of printmaking media. The selection of artists includes Brian Curling, Ina Kaur, Karen Kunc (also the exhibition’s curator), Monika Meler, Michael Schneider, Annu Vertanen and Koichi Yamamoto. Now based in the United States and Europe, these artists have lived and worked in countries such as Austria, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan and Poland. Some of these places are traditional centers for printmaking. Others, while once considered outside the art world, are now home to exciting art communities within today’s global environment. Whether through passport or internet; artistic communities are crossing boundaries and connecting like never before, making the international aspect of this show not only apparent, but as Curator, Karen Kunc says, “paramount.”
Selecting the works in this show, Kunc says she “thought geographically” as she “mentally roamed around the world, wanting to represent global diversity.” The product of her search is work that addresses diverse issues using a range of strategies, yet with distinct intersections between experience (geographical, professional, academic, technical), approach (including an unwillingness to be con ned to preconceptions about printmaking) and aesthetic decisions (choice of visual elements such as composition, color, line and scale). Kunc says, “All the works of these artists have a strong graphic nature, but with elegance of forms, shapes, colors, line. There is so much work in contemporary printmaking that can have a bombastic, crude aspect, or that is simply narrative, illustrative or representational. So I feel it is important to feature other quality printmakers’ works, who have a more distilled way of seeing important things in the world, and to say it with beauty, quality, and intelligence in unusual ways.”
Connections between visual aspects of this show can be made. One common characteristic is an interest in exploiting empty space. Often marks are given plenty of room to breathe, lending forms elegance not always associated with the graphic arts. Such is the case with Annu Vertanen’s abstract images, which contain wandering black lines, circling in and around one another. These lyrical lines vary in width and appear almost freehand. Enclosures are often punctuated with random and at the same time deliberate dots of bright color. Vertanen’s abstraction actually derives from human movement she observes. The artist says she pictures “mental or emotional movements as well as physical” and makes “routes or tracks.”
While many of the printmaking procedures in this exhibition overlap, several participants caution not to limit the discussion to that of technical concerns. Certainly this desire for work not to be reduced to technique is another strong connection. Historically prints were second-rung and painting was privileged. Today many college printing programs are emphasizing digital processes so much that, some wonder if the print, as we (used to) know it, is obsolete. And while some of this exhibition’s artists use traditional methods and some of the works are still signed and numbered collectibles, the exhibition artists are keen to point out an increasing uidity between media. Prints are crossing boundaries: becoming installation, performance-related, small handouts, published book art, and all sorts of other print-based media. Images and text can be printed on any imaginable surface including three-dimensional objects, taking prints sometimes off the wall and rendering them sculptural or installation-like. Artists might use drawing or photography or they might combine printing and painting, making original monotypes, instead of multiples. Maybe they make use of sequencing, commenting on printmaking’s “copied” character or “printed” quality.
Ina Kaur’s work shows recent trends in so-called printmaking and its creative potential. Born in New Dehli, India, Kaur uses repetition in an installation called Constant Shift. Here there is no printing. Here there is no printmaking used. Rather handmade cup-shaped paper forms, inlaid with colored thread, are arranged and a xed to the wall in various dimensions. Playing with the print condition of multiplicity, there is no need for matrix or a press. This approach suits Kaur’s exploration of complex systems of communication and points of convergence between dichotomies of “East and West, local and global, and ancient and modern.”
A native of Japan, Koichi Yamamoto teaches in The School of Art at the University of Tennessee’s prestigious printmaking program. With a strong background in ceramics, many of his works are quite sculptural. In this show he o ers ve origami folded prints in deep shadow box frames. The folded prints’ smallish size (10” x 12”) belies their strong impact (He admits to recently studying facial expressions and some gures seem reminiscent of William Blake’s visionary work.) Dramatically different in scale are two towering (96” x 39”) monotypes (2013). Painterly and luxurious with nuanced application of viscose pigment, their broad swaths of black remind me of a Franz Kline painting, but more graceful.
Having studied semiotics, Michael Schneider is interested in communicative strategies and his prints are meant to be read (even installed in a horizontal order that encourages this). By juxtaposing fragmentary photographic images of Viennese buildings and structures, he constructs theoretical implications. References are made between Vienna’s Jewish sites such as the cemetery in Währing, and the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial designed by British artist Rachel Whiteread. His next print shows part of the Museum Quarter, a reference to artwork (much of it once owned by Jewish collectors) that ended up in Austrian museums during the Nazi period. On top of all of that, he combines images of petroglyphs that he says, “are open for interpretation and in some cases are a play with maps to locate a certain place.”
Monika Meler examines memory in her abstract work. Born in Poland and having moved to Chicago at the age of ten, she revisits her roots by investigating Polish folklore. Her works are intended to be hung in space (instead of against a wall) so that light emanating through them literally illuminates honeycombed and web-like structures amidst rich elds of color. Her hybrid print/installations reflect upon and reawaken forgotten or re-imagined landscapes drawn from personal recollection and visualization. Viewing a work from two perspectives by an artist who has experienced both Eastern and Western European culture is also provocative.
Though many of this exhibition’s artists know each other, of course the most obvious link between them is Karen Kunc, the show’s curator and participating artist who knows all of them. In addition to making remarkably complex and colorful woodcuts herself, Kunc has taught a few of these artists and learned alongside a few more. For example, she mentored Brian Curling, also in this show. Curling uses woodcuts depicting elements from nature and also creates large-scale public installations and collaborative letterpress books. Kunc stands apart as someone with a broad reach, not just socially but intellectually, as a student of the world. Together the selections show her understanding of what she has seen both in the United States and her numerous travels abroad. Unpacking a few of the issues in this group of work reveals a common desire to examine personal histories and express universal ideas.
Even with its constellation of connections and similarities, this group invitational is varied enough to create fruitful conversation. As Meler puts it, “Exhibiting in groups creates a multi-lingual dialogue in one space, which is much like being in a foreign airport, where you hear many different sounds. As a traveler, I know these sounds mean something, but it takes time to decipher exactly what. And in that mystery I find myself being excited and aware of every moment.” Ultimately, printmaking, whether technique or strategy, and in whatever shape it takes, is a way of communicating as well as manifesting one’s thoughts or feelings. As Kaur says, “Printmaking continues to be an inclusive medium of expression, rather than exclusive.”