The Digital Revolution and Creative Miscellany (Ephemera and Knickknacks): Part 1

Steve Lambert and others, The New York Times Special Edition [field photo, as distributed] (November 2008), offset lithograph on newsprint. On view at “Burying the Lede” at Momenta Art, Brooklyn, closed October 27. Courtesy Momenta Art, Brooklyn.

Steve Lambert and others, The New York Times Special Edition [field photo, as distributed] (November 2008), offset lithograph on newsprint. On view at “Burying the Lede” at Momenta Art, Brooklyn, closed October 27. Courtesy Momenta Art, Brooklyn.

As the media panics over the future of the printed daily, a panoply of exhibitions this fall offer food for thought on the role of printed ephemera and other incarnations of the modest and commonplace in contemporary art. (There have been too many, in fact, to fit within a single post; the conversation will continue in December’s INK.) This installment looks at four exhibitions that examine the newspaper, belt buckles, and a gamut of things clustering under the “ephemera” umbrella.

”News/Prints: Printmaking and the Newspaper” (at IPCNY, New York, closed October 19) included historical editorial cartoons, Meiji-era Japanese newspapers, collages using newsprint as a found object and other works of contemporary art in its exploration of newspapers as both primary and secondary sources for art. “Burying the Lede” (at Momenta Art, Brooklyn, closed October 27) offered a variety of works that contemplate the role of the newspaper in culture.

Even as audiences are increasingly reached through primarily digital formats, it has never been easier for artists (or anyone else for that matter) to print works on paper or commission manufactured objects inexpensively, and popular enthusiasm for low-end creative prints and multiples is on the rise. Last month’s New York Art Book Fair was our biggest ever, with 27,000 visitors,” according to Jordan Nassar of Printed Matter, the show’s organizer. In Philadelphia, the editors of Printeresting have partnered with The Print Center to organize the exhibition “Ephemeral Sprawl” (at The Print Center through November 23 and again April 4 – June 7, 2014). As the title suggests, the exhibition casts a wide net, capturing everything from cultural artifacts (feminist literature, earthenware) to graphic design (exhibition posters, bakery business cards), to unique artists’ works influenced by graphic novels, Girl Scout badges, stock photography, and other bric-a-brac. Finally, “Cary Leibowitz: (paintings and belt buckles)” at Invisible-Exports, New York, closed October 13) featured as one of Jerry Saltz’s “most anticipated” exhibitions of this fall. In his usual fashion, the artist juxtaposed his low-brow, inexpensive multiples (in this case engraved brass belt buckles) with his humorous, angst-ridden, pseudo-confessional text paintings.

Benjamin Franklin, Join, or Die (May 9, 1754), woodcut, illustrated in “The Pennsylvania Gazette,” on view at “News/Prints: Printmaking and the Newspaper” at IPCNY, closed October 19. Courtesy International Print Center New York and Yale University Library, New Haven.

Benjamin Franklin, Join, or Die (May 9, 1754), woodcut, illustrated in “The Pennsylvania Gazette,” on view at “News/Prints: Printmaking and the Newspaper” at IPCNY, closed October 19. Courtesy International Print Center New York and Yale University Library, New Haven.

Artists + Newspapers

Given the prominent struggles of great newspapers to survive, it was hard not to find an elegiac tone in “News/Prints: Printmaking and the Newspaper,” but artist and curator Anders Bergstrom sees the exhibition as a celebration of the newspaper in art. He and fellow curator Anne LaFond were inspired by Manet’s paintings and print of The Execution of Emperor Maximillian (1867-9), which was developed entirely from written news accounts of the event. Works in the show range from Benjamin Franklin’s seminal Join, or Die (1754) political cartoon to Jin Joo Chae’s The Sweet Taste of Capitalism with Communist Cream: The Choco Pie-ization of North Korea, in which the artist screenprinted “Choco-pie” in chocolate (using a more familiar brand’s typography) over a North Korean daily (the treat has achieved the status of currency in that country). News sheets on view documented over two centuries of printed news and illustration, while connecting to works of contemporary art. A censored work by Daumier from 1856 provides a historical counterpoint to Becca Albee’s 4,000 US Deaths and Just a Handful of Public Images (2010), in which newspaper photographs of the Iraq war are replaced with flower pictures shot by her grandfather (a professional photographer). The substitution is apparent because the original captions remain; loss of life and censorship are made palatable. In another example, a spread from an 1838 issue of the Southern Citizen newspaper that includes a classified ad for an escaped slave was set against Glenn Ligon’s lithograph from the Runaways suite (see further discussion on MoMA website). And a 1774 issue of The Pennsylvania Packet by John Dunlap, printed in letterpress with wooden dingbats, offered clues to Ruth Lingen’s thinking behind her contemporary letterpress rag, Red Top Review (2013), a collaboration with Michael Adams, that borrows from this bygone format. Works by Georges Braque, Conrad Marca-Relli, and Jasper Johns all use newsprint clippings as a compositional element, though with different degrees of attentiveness to the content: Bergstrom notes that the Marca-Relli piece is atypical for the artist in its foregrounding of politics (it employs reports on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia). Some contemporary works on view played with the format and aesthetic of the newspaper, as in Robert Gober’s Untitled (Brooklyn) (2011) or Gerhard Richter’s Erster Blick in das Innere eines Atoms (First Look at the Inside of an Atom) (2000), both of which resemble clippings. Others, including Leigh Ledare and Rirkrit Tiravanija, used sheets from the New York Times as backdrops for social commentary. An illustrated checklist is available online.

Becca Albee, 4000 US Deaths and Just a Handful of Public Images (2010) (composite of three views), from the series Newspapers and Flowers. Offset lithography on newsprint, double-sided, 22 1/2 x 12 1/2 inches. Unlimited edition.  Published by North Drive Press, Brooklyn. On view at “News/Prints: Printmaking and the Newspaper” at IPCNY, closed October 19. Courtesy of the artist.

Becca Albee, 4000 US Deaths and Just a Handful of Public Images (2010) (composite of three views), from the series Newspapers and Flowers. Offset lithography on newsprint, double-sided, 22 1/2 x 12 1/2 inches. Unlimited edition.  Published by North Drive Press, Brooklyn. On view at “News/Prints: Printmaking and the Newspaper” at IPCNY, closed October 19. Courtesy of the artist.

Burying the Lede (at Momenta Art, Brooklyn, closed October 27) considered how the decline of the printed paper has led to its “expanded role in our imaginations.” Most of the works on view referred to the iconic American paper of record, The New York Times. A number of artists replaced or altered its contents: Fred Tomaselli’s ongoing series of reworked illustrations lend a vivid nightmarish quality to news stories about Hurricane Katrina and the Bernard Ebbers WorldCom fraud scandal. (There was some overlap between the two exhibitions: Tomaselli’s work was also in the IPCNY exhibition; another work from Albee’s Newspaper & Flowers series was on view here). In a more extreme example of alteration, Steve Lambert organized an effort to craft a mock edition of the NYT that presents the news as we wish it might be, circa 2009: the war in Iraq is over (thankfully now a reality), Condoleezza Rice holds a press conference to confess frankly that the Bush Administration knew all along that there were no WMDs; and all public universities are free. The paper was distributed on the street (illustrated top) and is also archived online at http://nytimes-se.com/todays-paper/NYTimes-SE.pdf. Performance pieces by William Pope.L and Liz Magic Laser considered how we digest the news—in the former case literally (pictured below). Laser’s ongoing series of performances and installations, The Living Newspaper, seeks “to investigate and alter the relationship between the news media and the public.” The video on view at Momenta was from The Living Newspaper: On Location, a participatory performance event in which audience members joined actors onstage to explore how news media provoke emotional responses in order to manipulate public opinion.

William Pope.L, Eating the Wall Street Journal (2000), still from video of performance at The Sculpture Center, New York, video: Lydia Grey. On view at “Burying the Lede” at Momenta Art, Brooklyn, closed October 27. Courtesy of the artist and Momenta Art, Brooklyn.

William Pope.L, Eating the Wall Street Journal (2000), still from video of performance at The Sculpture Center, New York, video: Lydia Grey. On view at “Burying the Lede” at Momenta Art, Brooklyn, closed October 27. Courtesy of the artist and Momenta Art, Brooklyn.

Artists + Ephemera

The newspaper is an exemplary form of ephemera, but the two iterations of “Ephemeral Sprawl” demonstrate how rich and diverse the artist’s view of ephemera is today. The inventory of works on view will slowly morph throughout the run of the show as individual objects are switched out one by one in an effort to “model the fleeting nature of the content,” according to co-curator and Printeresting editor Amze Emmons. The idea is “to deepen the viewer’s understanding of how value is generated and accrued within a cultural context” while showing how “printed ephemera has woven itself invisibly into our understanding of art and culture.”

The works currently on display include traditional ephemera (Italian language guides, bakery business cards) as well as original works of art that mimic knickknacks, such as Sinead Cahill’s hand-embroidered “girl scout” merit badges made from lithographed fabric, and many things that are not ephemeral at all, but step outside traditional fine art forms into the realm of the quotidian. For example, the 19th-century earthenware plates from the collection of artist Andrew Raftery depict vignettes and landscapes that were transferred from engravings before the plates were glazed and fired. Other items are the very definition of ephemeral, like Emmett Ramstad’s 1995, comprised of rolls from the register of a defunct LBTG bookstore, which testifies to the power of something as inconsequential as a receipt to evoke an overlooked fiber of the American cultural fabric.

“Ephemeral Sprawl”: installation view. Clockwise from upper left: Marginal Utility exhibition posters (2010 and 2011), offset lithographs; Stephen Eichhorn, Orb III (2013), collage on acrylic-coated panel; Studio ephemera from the collection of Alex Lukas; in case at right: Alex Lukas, Untitled, offset lithograph; in case at left: Feminist ephemera from the collection of Susan Guggenheim. Courtesy The Print Center, Philadelphia and Printeresting. Photo credit: James B. Abbott.

Ephemeral Sprawl”: installation view. Clockwise from upper left: Marginal Utility exhibition posters (2010 and 2011), offset lithographs; Stephen Eichhorn, Orb III (2013), collage on acrylic-coated panel; Studio ephemera from the collection of Alex Lukas; in case at right: Alex Lukas, Untitled, offset lithograph; in case at left: Feminist ephemera from the collection of Susan Guggenheim. Courtesy The Print Center, Philadelphia and Printeresting. Photo credit: James B. Abbott.

“Ephemeral Sprawl”: installation view.  Left: Emmett Ramstad, 1995 (2013), cash register receipt rolls from Giovanni’s Room bookstore, Philadelphia; Right:  England and France, earthenware (1800-50), underglaze transfer printed from engraving, fired, clear glazed and fired again, Collection of Andrew Raftery and Ned Lochaya. In case, clockwise from upper right: Girl Scout Handbook and Badges from the collection of Sinéad Cahill; Sinéad Cahill, Merit Badges (2013), lithographs on cotton, with embroidery; Sinéad Cahill, Handbook, (2013), cyanotype; Bakery business cards from the collection Erika Piola; Italian language guides from the collection of Rachel D’Agostino. Courtesy The Print Center, Philadelphia and Printeresting. Photo credit: James B. Abbott.

Ephemeral Sprawl”: installation view.  Left: Emmett Ramstad, 1995 (2013), cash register receipt rolls from Giovanni’s Room bookstore, Philadelphia; Right:  England and France, earthenware (1800-50), underglaze transfer printed from engraving, fired, clear glazed and fired again, Collection of Andrew Raftery and Ned Lochaya. In case, clockwise from upper right: Girl Scout Handbook and Badges from the collection of Sinéad Cahill; Sinéad Cahill, Merit Badges (2013), lithographs on cotton, with embroidery; Sinéad Cahill, Handbook, (2013), cyanotype; Bakery business cards from the collection Erika Piola; Italian language guides from the collection of Rachel D’Agostino. Courtesy The Print Center, Philadelphia and Printeresting. Photo credit: James B. Abbott.

The exhibition will take a breather over the winter and reappear in the spring with an entirely new set of works that will also change over time. The curators hope that the second installation will include a number of contributions from the public that have come to their attention through responses to the exhibition and its blog, where many of the works will be discussed in depth. According to John Caperton, Curator of The Print Center, the checklist for the second installation currently includes ephemera from the collections of U Arts gallery director Sid Sachs and ICA curator Ingrid Schaffner, items from Interference Archive and the Urban Archives at Temple University; and “an array of Duchampiana from an amazing Philadelphia collection.”

Cary Leibowitz’s “(paintings and belt buckles)” show at Invisible-Exports this fall (closed October 13) toyed with the specious distinction between highbrow paintings and lowbrow collectibles. (Sometimes known as Candy Ass, Leibowitz is also Director of Contemporary Editions at Phillips auction house.) Leibowitz has an affinity for Pop art, multiples and especially for Warhol (he stamped his early pieces with a rubber-stamp signature similar to Warhol’s – a red “Candy Ass” in his case). Of his devotion to material flotsam he says, “I love flea markets with lots of junky 25-cent tables or maybe even up to $5 tables – I hate so-called flea markets with tables of sweat socks still in their packages. Duchamp’s, Mondrian’s or even Richard Prince’s old sweat socks on a table would be inspiring (little plaques to keep it official).” Leibowitz applies his own quirky texts to the kinds of commonplace wares that usually get slapped with the logo of an insurance company or local real estate firm. Prior projects have included pencil cups, shot glasses, and printed footballs—the very things one might find at a junky flea market.

In the exhibition, Leibowitz offered an assortment of brass belt buckles engraved to commemorate imaginary art-meets-regular-life events such as the “New England Concrete Poets Picnic, New Canaan, 1981,” or the “Forty-Fourth Fluxus Ice Cream Cone Lick-Off, Detroit MI, July 4th, 1976.” As in most of his solo shows, these low-rent objects are accompanied by oversized paintings of texts delivered in child-like handwriting resembling Comic Sans, with intentional misspellings and grammatical errors. His palette comes from Crayola: this time the paintings were done in a Pepto Bismol pink that also covered the walls and most other objects in the room. The content ranged from child-like poems with a decidedly adult twist (“Roses are reddish / Violets are Bluish / Mrs henry kissinger / still doesn’t realize / her husband is jewish”) (sic) to conversational snippets, such as “I just got a pair of gucci for bergdorfs loafers for 50% off and i really do feel better” (sic).

Cary Leibowitz (Candy Ass), Forty-fourth Fluxus Ice Cream Cone Lick-Off Detroit, Michigan July 4th, 1976 (2013), brass belt buckle with custom velveteen bag (not pictured), 2 1/2 inches (diameter). Edition of 50. Published by the artist. Courtesy of the artist and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS, New York.

Cary Leibowitz (Candy Ass), Forty-fourth Fluxus Ice Cream Cone Lick-Off Detroit, Michigan July 4th, 1976 (2013), brass belt buckle with custom velveteen bag (not pictured), 2 1/2 inches (diameter). Edition of 50. Published by the artist. Courtesy of the artist and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS, New York.

As can be seen in the rash of exhibitions recently or currently on view, the digital revolution has been a double-edged sword for artists who work with or in the medium of ephemera and miscellany; on one hand, artists can easily manufacture their own work; on the other, some printed materials may soon be obsolete, changing the nature of the visual landscape and cultural communications. The next installment of INK will offer further thoughts on the role of these marginalized formats in culture and art, with discussion of the following exhibitions, among others.


Remnants of Everyday Life: Historical Ephemera in the Workplace, Street, and Home” at The Library Company, Philadelphia (through December 13)

Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980” at the Whitney Museum (October 30, 2013-February 2, 2014)

Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey” at the Brooklyn Museum (through March 9, 2014)

“Please Come to the Show: Invitations and Event Fliers from the MoMA Library” at MoMA, The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building (Part 1, May 8–July 22, 2013; Part 2, July 24–September 23, 2013).

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