Gallery walls are often discouragingly homogenous places—not just in terms of race, gender, or political leanings of the artists whose work congregates there, but also in terms of renown. There are precious few places where the work of yet-to-be recognized artists gets to rub shoulders with its blue chip cousins, so the International Print Center New York‘s regular New Prints exhibitions often constitute a breath of fresh air. With the reward of an exhibition at a prestigious venue in Chelsea, it is not surprising that these open call, juried exhibitions are flooded with thousands of submissions. What is surprising is that out of this maelstrom of images, cogent and intriguing shows arise. Jurors dutifully trawl through the entries, like admissions officers at an elite college, looking not only for the individual stars, but also for how the parts relate to the whole, for works that speak individually of each artist and collectively for a moment in time.
The New Prints 2011/ Autumn exhibition, which opened during New York’s Print Week in early November, included the work of some 51 artists, from the eminent Royal Academician Norman Ackroyd (a beautiful, atmospheric etching of the looming rocks of Stac an Armin off the Scottish coast) to current graduate students. Alex Katz, Joan Snyder, and William Kentridge all contributed impeccable, professionally printed works, but most things were printed and published by the artists themselves. Brooklyn was well represented, but so was Lawrence, Kansas and suburban Detroit, as well as Poland, Australia, and the UK.
The uniting factor, across continents and generations, appeared to be an acute awareness of prints, not as the disembodied free-floating images of Walter Benjamin’s theorizing, but as physically present, even demanding, entities. These were works that were substantively different in person from the images you see on a screen (though IPCNY does everyone the immense favor of posting a complete, illustrated checklist online). They are not simply printed, but also embossed, burned, stitched, painted, cut and folded; they tumbled off the walls and hung from the ceiling.
The woodcut-printed strips of paper and ribbon of Libby Hague’s My One and Only Life So Far (2011), for example, meandered across the wall and gathered in bunches that shimmered with passing drafts. In Shawn Bitters’, Nature Shadows Him (Fig. 1), myriad printed flakes (too floppy to be crystals, too angular for leaves) colonized patches of wall like lichen. Jarrod Beck bypassed paper altogether, applying etching plates to plaster slabs that jutted out from the wall like disoriented calcite.
Figurative prints climbed out of the frame to lay claim to mass and volume: John Himmilfarb’s woodcut was similar in subject matter to his recent truck prints, but at enormous scale and laminated onto wood shapes that were put together in an oversized approximation of a toy crane. S.V. Medaris adhered life-size woodcuts of sides of beef to slabs of insulation board and hung them from meat hooks.
Several works went further and invited participatory handling by the owner (if not by the gallery visitor). There were artists’ books that would lay neatly between forefinger and thumb such as Tomi Um’s accordion folded Little Opera or Anne LaFond’s etched Advance, and others that exploded out onto the wall (Jane Kent’s Skating). The five printed rectangles of Terry Conrad’s Manipulatives (Fig. 2) stick out of their display box like decorative tongues, waiting to be fiddled with. Elaine Chow’s Year of Oxalis 1 Furoshiki is an ink print on fabric, meant to be wrapped around the box it comes in, an homage to traditional Japanese gift packaging (it comes with instructions). In works like these the printed picture is just the starting point, a set of guidelines for interaction between people and things.
Even within the frames on the wall, materiality and making asserted themselves as subjects. Michael Loderstedt’s screenprint is cut and folded; Susan Goethel Campell’s woodcut is perforated with small holes that allow light to pass through; Marie Yoho Dorsey’s Starry Night (2010; Fig. 3) is an etching that is also embroidered by hand.
It would be a mistake to view this emphasis on materiality as a resurgence of “craft” or an assertion of some atavistic artisanal approach to the image. In fact, many of these works are rooted in the live-wired photo-mechanical pandemonium of the contemporary visual world. Trevor Banthorpe’s magisterial prints begin with perhaps the most disposable, least substantial image there is — photographs taken on his cell phone. He breaks these down into the four colors of the commercial CMYK print process, cuts woodblocks for each color, and prints them by hand. This investment of time, labor, muscle and material transforms the ephemeral snapshot: the realism of the image is compromised while the reality of the object is celebrated. Preeti Sood’s gem-like Patriarchy (Fig. 4) is a dense distillation of the visual flotsam of the urban street, rendered through laser engraving and etching, a layered and dimensional world packed into a tiny space. To make his delicate and distressing prints, Miguel Aragon uses lasers to cut templates that he prints without ink, so the final image consists of a tracery of charred edges. It is only after looking for some time that they resolve into documents of the Mexican drug wars – newspaper photos of tortured corpses shifting in and out of visibility.
This push to give disembodied images substance and specificity is, of course, not entirely new, a point brought home by the latest iteration of Ed Ruscha’s Standard Station (Fig. 5). Since its first, grainy photo-offset incarnation in 26 Gasoline Stations, the Standard Station has undergone many metamorphoses—the majestic 1966 canvas, the famous rainbow roll screenprint, its many variously flavored descendents. This one, made at Mixografia, is an inkless white relief, just substance and shadow.
The presence of the Ruscha underscores the fact that exhibitions like this are possible because of the multiplicity of the print. The Ruscha makes sense here, in the downtown context of new art that deals with the issues of image, meaning, and matter that have been Ruscha’s stock-in-trade for fifty years. But it also makes sense uptown at the Armory, where it was simultaneously on view during the IFPDA Print Fair, amongst the Dürers and Goyas and Cyril Powers, with whom it had a quite different conversation. Prints, by virtue of their multiplicity, can be extravagantly social. IPCNY New Prints shows are crowded, cacophonous affairs. These prints don’t get twenty square feet of pristine (and expensive) wall space to work their magic in quiet isolation. It’s what makes them great.