You are a visual arts connoisseur but a print specialist, how did you start to concentrate on printmaking?
I have been involved with the visual arts since my art college days in the mid-1960s, producing work in a range of mediums as well as working in galleries and arts centres, and curating exhibitions. By a series of chances I started writing about the visual arts around 1986, following my first visit to Poland the previous year. One thing led to another as I wrote reviews and features on exhibitions for magazines in Britain until in 1993 I was commissioned to write my first book ‘Contemporary Painting in Poland’, which necessitated a number of research journeys to Poland, especially to the cities. In Warsaw and Łódź, and particularly in Kraków, for many years considered to be the cultural capital of the country, I encountered a large number of artists and their work in their studios and galleries. Among the paintings in which I was at that time most interested I saw a large number of prints and drawings, and it became apparent by the time I wrote the book that I had more than enough material for a second book on graphic art. The book came out in 1995, and I then persuaded the publisher to commission a companion book, ‘Contemporary Graphic Art in Poland’, to explore the drawings, prints and posters of Poland. This second book was published in 1997.
The period of my early journeys to Poland, 1985-1996, was a crucial time as it emerged from the yoke of Communism and changed with astonishing rapidity into a modern European country. The energy and creativity of the period was expressed in an extremely varied and creative arts scene, made all the more exciting as Polish artists were once again free to travel, and to engage with the international arts scenes, and not just those in other former Communist countries, to which all but the most elite of Polish artists had been restricted. During my research for the Polish books I was introduced to the late Professor Witold Skulicz, the President of the International Print Triennale Society in Kraków, who had long championed the graphic arts in Poland and had been the main motive force in the Triennale. With his mercurial energy and openness he gave me much encouragement in my writing, and his generous gift of the catalogues of previous Triennale exhibitions introduced me to the wide diversity and interest in international printmaking. At that time only a few dedicated specialists in the UK knew the Kraków Triennale, and printmaking still had a peripheral status. The contrast offered by Kraków was extreme: I was introduced to what was for me an entirely new world of exciting printmaking and creativity. This was enhanced by the invitation to participate in the jury of the 2003 Triennale, for which I was elected President, a role I also played for the 2006 and 2009 editions. This intimate involvement in one of the world’s largest and most highly regarded printmaking competitions gave me unparalleled access to prints from a large number of international artists. It was also a major influence on my decision to research and write ‘Printmaking at the Edge’ (2006), and subsequently ‘Critical Mass – Printmaking Beyond the Edge’ (2010).
After many articles, conferences, lectures and books how has your work changed and evolved since you started?
It has certainly broadened and become more inclusive. This is the natural result of having been given the opportunities to travel far more widely than I ever expected, and to encounter contemporary printmaking in all its forms at conferences and exhibitions in many parts of the world. What has impressed me over the past 25 years of travel is that visual artists have gained a greater energy and assurance in their potential to explore a widening range of mediums and forms of exhibition, and also to exert a positive effect on social and educational developments. My work, whether writing for books or articles, or for lectures or conference papers, has widened to reflect these changes. At the same time I have been aware that my position as something of an outsider, who has no affiliation to a particular academic or artistic organisation (and I have been described as an independent scholar), has given me a greater freedom to express my personal views and opinions than would have been possible had I been tied into an organisation. At the same time the constant evolution of digital technology has given me increasing possibilities for research and expression. I welcome the coming of the iPad and its implications for information presentation, in the form of interactive e-Books on the visual arts for example – a fascinating and challenging possibility.
Your new book was published in August 2010 with the title Critical Mass: Printmaking Beyond the Edge. Beyond the edge is beyond the matrix, beyond the paper, beyond all the “prints-rules-conventions”?
‘Prints-rules-conventions’ says it all really! The traditional structure of printmaking was a very tight one, in which processes were guarded jealously and in which the definitions of print and printmaking were very restricted. This traditional world produced, without question, some magnificent works of art that have stood the test of time – Goya’s, ‘Disasters of War’, or Hogarth’s, ‘The Rake’s Progress’, or the riches of the Ukiyo-e tradition for example. But those works were very much a result of the social, political and technological situations in which they were made, and of the determination of such artists to make their voices heard through their art. In effect, these artists challenged the conventions of their time. The problem is that some printmakers continue to attempt to use the techniques that such artists used, but who fail to notice that over 200 years has passed and that the world has changed.
Since the end of the Second World War the international world has changed beyond all expectation, technology continues to advance at an astonishing rate and, to put it bluntly, those who don’t go with the flow will get left far behind. The visual arts have always responded to changes in social and political conditions, and have had a far closer relationship with technological change than some people (still) would like to admit. Artists tend towards revolution rather than reaction, preferring to break rules rather than to abide by them. This has become particularly apparent in the evolution of printmaking in the past 25 years. True, there are still those who adhere closely to the craft traditions of the past and refuse new-fangled things like non-toxic printmaking, silkscreen printing or – heaven forbid – digital technologies. That’s fine; there is nothing inherently wrong with sticking to the past, if that is where some printmakers feel more secure. But, at the same time, they should not try to hold back the inevitable process of moving forwards and embracing the new; nor should they insist as some still do that the only way forward is to cling to the past.
What has become increasingly apparent to me is that those who have the highest profile in the present international printmaking community are those who have been unafraid to embrace new methods and technologies, to push out beyond the boundaries, to go beyond the edges set up by the conventional printmaking world, while still respecting the achievements of the past. Set at the other extreme there are still (unbelievably) some who are unhappy about the continuing popularity and evolution of lithography because it doesn’t require an engraved or relief matrix; there are some who still view silkscreen printmaking as being the unnecessary use of a technique that belongs in the commercial world of poster making and tee-shirts; and there are some who continue to view digital techniques as being the spawn of Satan. I guess we all know people with such views – and they are entitled to hold them if they so wish.
The history of art is full of examples of those artists who transgressed, who refused to follow the rules and who chose to align themselves with revolution rather than convention, to place their art in the service of social and political change. It is through such artists as these, and not those who stick to old conventions that are no longer relevant, that the contemporary international printmaking community has emerged and has gained an unstoppable momentum. And, beyond question, the edge is always a more exciting place to be!
The “critical” number of printmakers, better visual artists, who use freely and without prejudice print’s methods, has risen so significantly that the techniques have, finally, a new consideration, a new life not strictly tied to craftsmanship and artisan allure. What are in your opinion the main reasons?
Part of the answer lies in what could be called ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome’. This happens when people with even a modicum of intelligence have come to realise that much of the promise offered by other forms of visual art, for example Brit Art, is founded on thin air and self-promotion, and that the paintings, sculpture and installation (not to mention much video art) produced by such artists as are turned into ‘stars’ by broadcast media is pointless, meaningless, over-priced, badly-made and, frankly, boring. By contrast much of the work produced by artists through, or with the assistance of, printmaking techniques can entertain, inform and have a real impact on their thinking and their lives, and remains relevant even after the initial experience. Not only that but it is often very well made and, in many cases affordable to a wide range of people.
The mediums of printmaking are also, by their very nature, attractive to students. The mediums rely on processes that require the artist to interact with the materials and machines, and also to work in collaboration with others. This is equally true for traditional mediums and digital mediums. There is the need for a close engagement with papers, inks and other mediums, and a need to work with an understanding of what the machines can achieve. If a student becomes involved in all of this it will show in their work, presenting a greater degree of possibility for the work to be seen as having integrity. As Charles Rennie Macintosh said, ‘There is hope in honest error, none in the icy perfections of the mere stylist.’
Another factor is the potential offered the electronic community for sharing and showing prints across social networks and through group or personal websites. Immediate communication is possible, a very different process to that offered by the traditional gallery. Rebecca Beardmore, an artist and professor in Australia, said at the SGC conference in Kansas City in 2007 that her students were not interested in showing work in galleries, preferring to use Facebook and YouTube. The digital world certainly offers great possibilities for sharing and collaboration.
Beyond all of these there is the global community of print makers and lovers and the conferences and symposiums that are arranged for them to meet, listen to artists and others, to exchange ideas and prints and to learn new ways of working and sharing. I can think of no other arts medium, whether visual or performing, that offers such a variety of national and international events and exhibitions. To participate in such events is to find one’s own work validated within a broader context, and to come away with renewed confidence and imaginative ideas. Once again, the energy that such events release is likely to be evident in the works produced, and this too adds to the attraction of printmaking to collectors and enthusiastic amateurs – using amateur in the sense of being one who loves the medium.
With factors such as these in mind it is not surprising that there has been such a large increase in the numbers of artists using printmaking, and I see no sign of this increase diminishing.
Maybe a digital file could be considered a matrix as Peter Halley proposed in 1997 for New Concepts in Printmaking 1?
Certainly, and I have no problem with considering a digital file as a matrix. To do otherwise is to hold back the future and to deny the accessibility of art making that the digital world offers to many more people than was ever offered by traditional techniques. It is possible to set up a digital studio with a modest digital camera, a laptop computer and a domestic inkjet printer – at a cost of less than €1000. In this case the digital file is the only matrix, and to deny that the process can enable anyone to become a digital artist, or that the work they produce isn’t art because it lacks a traditional matrix, is profoundly undemocratic.
Of course, it can and often is argued that merely having access to this equipment does not make a person into an artist, and this is absolutely true. But, does the acquisition of a box of watercolours, a few brushes and some paper turn a person into an artist? Those who criticise the growth of digital printmaking for lowering the standards of the traditional printmaking world might, from their own perspective, have a point. But on the other hand the sheer amount of mediocre paintings produced by Sunday painters or hobby painters, and their exhibition in church halls and small galleries in countless towns and cities, cannot truly be said to have done much to advance the cause of great art. In either instance very few people will succeed in producing art that will stand the test of time, but that isn’t the point of making art.
Do you think that printmaking is at the core of contemporary art making?
Not yet: but it seems to me that printmaking is rapidly moving in that direction for all the reasons I have given in my answers to the previous questions. However it may be that, as the evolution of all forms of visual art continues, definitions between the various mediums cease to be as relevant or even to become meaningless. If this is the case, and I think it will be, then what will remain is ‘art’ done by ‘artists’, regardless of the medium or technique used, and regardless also of how the artist defines herself or himself. Human ingenuity will continue to find new means for self-expression, and I am also sure that new forms will emerge that we cannot even imagine. Who, ten or even five years ago, would have predicted with any confidence the emergence of interactive digital technology such as is found in the Apple iPad or the new Microsoft ‘Kinect’ games console controlling system, or that commercially available 3D and high definition video cameras would now be available? Technology will certainly continue to advance, producing new and challenging opportunities for producing art in editioned form, and offering all those who wish the chance to have art in their homes or workplaces. But I do not think that this will happen at the expense of traditional forms disappearing altogether, and there will always be those in the future who pursue the ancient non-digital means of creating art.
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