Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pushing the Boundaries of Printmaking at MoMA

I found a printmaking wonderland on the top floor of MoMA. Print/Out is a showcase the new direction that printmaking has taken in the past two decade, bringing together artists of all skill levels in printmaking. Many of the artists featured in Print/Out are not formally trained printmakers; their work is highly experimental, which sheds a new light on the medium. Print/Out challenges the preconceived notions of printmaking as a medium and acts as a challenge to the traditional fine art print.

Print/Out is a highly designed exhibition; several galleries are plastered in black and white dotted wallpaper, creating conflict between art and design. These galleries were rough for me; I found it hard to focus on the prints with the super busy wallpaper screaming at my eyes form the background. Much of the exhibition was hung salon style with some works hung so close to the floor that they might as well have been resting on it, while others so high out of view they appeared to nearly be touching the ceiling.

Installation view of Print/Out

Print/Out features a variety of printmaking media, such as etchings, screenprints, and even, seemingly, found ephemera. The work in the exhibition emphasizes the central qualities of printmaking, the ease of reproducibility and distribution. Museum in Progress, a Vienna-based organization, commissions artists’ interventions in newspapers and magazines, a wall of which appears in Print/Out. Museum in Progress seeks to push beyond the walls of institutions by placing work in newspapers, magazines, websites, and billboards. Featured in the exhibition are some of the works found in newspapers and magazines, but what happens when ephemera becomes artwork or artwork becomes ephemera? Magazines and newspapers are printed with the general knowledge that they will become throwaways. But what happens when the artists intervenes? What does it mean when a page from a newspaper is placed on a museum wall as an artwork? Through their artists’ interventions, Museum in Progress is questioning the use and value of ephemera.

By utilizing printmaking’s innate function of reproducibility, artist group SUPERFLEX created the participatory-based project Copy Light/Factory. This project invites visitors (at designated times) to enter the “workshop” and participate in the construction of iconic lighting fixtures assembled from wooden frames and digitally printed images of lamps. Challenging the copyright and trademark systems, SUPERFLUX creates what they call, “copies of copies that become new originals.” By utilizing existing print practices, SUPERFLUX pushes the boundaries of the medium.

My most favorite part of Print/Out though, without a doubt, was the Thomas Schütte gallery. Schütte’s contribution to the show was a portfolio entitled Low Tide Wandering, which acts as his diary from 2001. The portfolio is made up of 139 small etchings printed in a variety of colors and hung (with bullfrog clips, I might add) just above eye level from a crisscrossing wire system. I remember walking though the gallery and commenting on the naïve, almost student-like technique of the etchings, only to find out afterward that Schütte had no prior experience with etching until he began Low Tide Wandering. As a diary of 2001, many of Schütte’s etchings are in response to September 11 and the attacks on the World Trade Center. Schütte says that he chose the medium of etching in an effort to “switch to the opposite direction” in a time dominated by digital technology.

I feel that Schütte’s work challenges the notion of the fine art print in two ways. First, in the way that the work is hung, with the way that the work is presented, it no longer exudes the sense of “precious object.” As the prints are hung just above eye level they present the risk of being knocked into by passing heads. I even felt that I had to duck on several occasions and I’m relatively short. Secondly, there is the nature of the prints, themselves. For so long printmakers have taken pride in the mastery of the fine art print, however, with Low Tide Wandering, Schütte was a novice, which is evident in the etchings. I am in no way suggesting that this is a bad thing, in fact, it is because of the quality that this creates in the etchings that I enjoy them so much. Furthermore, given that this portfolio acts as a kind of response to 9/11, I feel that the naïveté works well; 9/11 brought with it a childlike air of fear and confusion.

Images via MoMA: Thomas Schütte. Low Tide Wandering (Wattwanderung). 2001

On a final note, I must mention the exhibition catalogue. I’m a sucker for exhibition catalogues, in general, but I was super impressed with that of Print/Out. Not only does the catalogue represent the work in the show well, it represents the entire design of the show perfectly. Right down to the dot pattern of the wallpaper that I mentioned earlier that carries over into the catalogue, appearing and disappearing throughout the pages just as it did throughout the galleries. The Print/Out catalogue is an excellent representation of the exhibition and definitely worthy of a browse.

Suzanne Minatra

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