Thursday, February 20, 2014

Printmakers carve out new territory

Printmaking has a long history of ingenuity: the seemingly endless variety of methods, from choice of printing surface to varieties of ink and paper, have provided sufficient fuel. Technicians are constantly rethinking ways to print images.

New territory has surfaced thanks to digital technology, and along with it a fair share of opportunities and challenges. This is exactly what LACMA’s Prints and Drawings Council chose to address at its fourth annual panel discussion, LA PRINT: 4.0. The five printmakers invited to speak offered varying perspectives, some more friendly to digital technology than others but all of them receptive to its contributions.

Jean Milant of Cirrus Editions has seized on new advances in technology like inkjet printing, an affordable and reliable producer of clear, crisp images. Even if inkjet is a cheaper form of printing, Milant doesn’t use it indiscriminately; he considers what effect the method will have on his final product. In the case of John Baldessari’s The First $100,000 I Ever Made, an image in the form of U.S. currency, Milant determined that inkjet would impart the likeness of a dollar bill most effectively. Another form of digital technology Milant has adopted is the scanner, which the studio uses to capture the found detritus in artist Mary Weatherford’s work. Once the three-dimensional objects have been scanned, the resulting image is printed using a lithograph press. 

Jacob Samuel of Edition Jacob Samuel is more reluctant to embrace new technologies. A self-proclaimed Luddite, he rarely accepts requests to print in color. In his studio, traditional grayscale is king. That said, Samuel respects the use of digital technology by other printmakers—and in fact he still prints digital images, just not in his own studio. (He takes all of that material to a respected, local expert.) Much of his newer work involves obfuscating the line between the digital and the hand-printed image. His prints of Cristina Iglesias’ sculptures are an elegant example, whose three-dimensional work is translated beautifully onto paper.

Intellectual Property Prints, founded in 2013, has used digital technology less for creating and more for disseminating work. Founders Ryan McIntosh and Daniel Rolnik rely on Twitter and other social media to publicize their release of material. When they convinced beloved street artist Augustine Kofie to design a limited edition print, it went viral the moment it was released.

Digital technology, while clearly a boon, has also muddied the playing field. Take the challenge of differentiating between original prints and reproductions. The former involves the use of printmaking technology to yield a specific result (a woodblock print, for example, might reveal the beautiful texture of the wood grain); a reproduction, on the other hand, will look exactly like the artwork it is trying to “translate.” The latter, by definition, is not the end goal of printmaking; rather, it is to create a fresh iteration of an artwork, partly for wider dissemination, but also for the purpose of adding new dimension to a work. Inkjet can produce remarkably sharp images that are liable to fool a less educated eye.

One thing is certain: digital technology is transforming the landscape of printmaking— and that means not just for printmakers but for artists, too. Indeed one matter the LA PRINT panel unanimously agreed on was their devotion to artists. As long as artists forged ahead, so too would they. 

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