This year marks the 15th anniversary of the International Print Center New York and the 50th iteration of its New Prints exhibition program.1 For people who care about prints, IPCNY is so essential an institution that it is hard to believe it is a full generation younger than spaces such as the Drawing Center (now 38 years old) or International Center of Photography (41). Its modest Chelsea gallery has hosted dozens of critically important curated shows, from the six-century survey “Hard Pressed” to the more recent “1913 Armory Show Revisited” [see Art in Print Jul–Aug 2013], but the backbone of its exhibition program has always been the free, open-call competition, New Prints. Three times a year, thousands of artists around the world submit works produced over the previous 12 months for consideration by outside jurors. While only a few dozen can appear in any one show, more than 1,200 artists have now had their works hung on IPCNY’s walls. New Prints constitutes one of the very few places in the contemporary art world where the playing field between the eminent and emerging is truly leveled. Shaking up the usual curatorial categories, it prompts us to look at everything in a new light.
In “50/50” six jurors—Joseph Goddu, Jodi Hauptman, Jane Kent, Andrew Mockler, Carrie Pollack and Marc Schwartz—put together an exhibition that was diverse and insightful. Some of the work selected would be familiar to readers of this journal: Jason Urban and Leslie Mutchler’s Universal Gate, David Altmejd’s Ringers, Hank Willis Thomas’s Blow the Man Down (2013) and Ann Aspinwall’s Fortuny have all appeared on our pages.2 Most, however, would have been new to even the most assiduous follower of contemporary prints.3
As humans we are hard-wired to spot (or imagine) trends—give us two points and we can plot a line to infinity, give us an array of 50 points and we can draw a dozen constellations. Some articulated conceptual alignments, some kinships were entirely superficial: the chromatic bands of Deborah Chaney’s monotype echoed the pleats of Ting Liu’s black and white stage curtain, which nodded to the syncopated bars of Matt Magee’s reduction woodcut. The branching structure of spillage tied Szilvia Revesz’s marbling to the organic screenprints of Mark Williams and Janis Murovskis, and on to Jennifer Marshall’s botanical reductions.
Some broader tendencies were apparent: the romance with mass-market manqué editions was nowhere to be seen—almost half the inclusions were unique and among the remainder edition sizes were often in the single digits. At the same time, the printerly habits of layering, cutting and pasting—now the digital habits of everyday life—were everywhere, and the resulting friability of meaning was the show’s most visible subject.
Though completely different in appearance, John-Mark Schink’s layered architectonic remixes and Håkan Berg’s off-kilter object drawing both hover in the space between abstraction, naturalism and schematic representation. So does Chiara Principe’s beguiling dinosaur—a lower case “a” transformed into a brontosaurus through the simple expedient of filling in the negative space. The collected polygons in Marianne Dages’ letterpress Grid might be borrowed floorplans or inked-up lumber scraps; for the artist they embody “the boundary between the readable and the unreadable, the feeling of half-understanding one feels when experiencing a language they cannot speak.”4 The strategy of shifting the balance between the content of the image and the syntax used to reproduce it has been familiar since Warhol and Lichtenstein, but several artists here saw its deeper history. In Steven Arnerich’s untitled aquatint, a black-and-white photograph is broken down into the swelling curves and mass choreography once used by pictorial engravers, suspending the viewer between the urge to resolve the image and a desire to follow the course of line. Kate Shepherd says her etchings were “inspired by repetitive lines in Rembrandt and Durer’s prints,” but their incipient elegance is knocked askew by intense color and printing misregistrations derived from cheap comics.5
In physics, interference patterns and moirés are formed when two or more sets of waves or linear patterns collide to cancel or augment each other: a new pattern is perceived as a result of interaction. This idea is put to use in Rob Swainston’s image honeycomb shadows on piled mesh, in Robert Howsare’s digital glitches screenprinted in ecstatic color and in Travis Janssen’s Slate Concentrics, where tightly packed circles of ink shimmy against the weave of their bookcloth substrate. In Golnar Adili’s Letter Triptych (2013) interference patterns are both an optical effect and a poignant metaphor: she printed a personal hand-written letter on multiple sheets of tracing paper, then stacked them and skewed the stack such that a single word at the pivot point remains legible (if one reads Farsi), while the others coalesce into a hypnotic swirl. A new images arises from the slight displacement of the familiar, but at the cost of explicit understanding and specific history.
Other artists used concrete devices to disrupt the coherence of object and image: the swaying grain of Evan Bellantone’s woodcut runs into his precisely incised lines with an almost audible smack; Monique Martin twisted her decorative devices into Mobius strips, while the face in Eszter Sziksz’s Sustainable Development II was screenprinted on the edge of a stack of cards—individual identity held together only by circumstance.
On the basis of this sampling, it might be tempting to propose a thesis about the state of contemporary printed art—its self-awareness as an instrument of both image reproduction and material craft; its status as a metonym for the contingency of comprehension. And were this a curated show, in which evidence is cherry-picked to illustrate a particular point, we might be convinced. In “50/50,” however, things aren’t that simple.
What are we to do, for example, with Mary Lynn Blasutta’s stylish monoprints with their Alex-Katz-meets-Charley-Harper pictorial perfection? Or Kevin Frances’s beautifully rendered mokuhanga-style woodcut of a cluttered student desk? Or Ross Racine’s intricate aerial views of fictional suburbs? Compelling artworks evincing faith in the function of pictures.
“50/50” and New Prints in general offer a salutary alternative to the epidemic of curating in contemporary art. What was once a profession predicated on caring for objects in all their ornery singularity has gotten confused with the practice of grouping things to illustrate an a priori point. The IPCNY shows are not unmanaged—the jurors clearly look and think carefully about their selections—but they are responsive rather than programmatic, inductive rather than deductive. The ideas arise, like interference patterns, from the rumble between things. In the text for “50/50,” juror Jane Kent notes that “working from observation takes on a new meaning.” This goes for viewers as well as artists.
- The organization itself was founded in 1995, but its exhibition space opened in 2000.
- Altmejd’s, Urban’s and Mutchler’s prints were reviewed in March–April 2015; Thomas’s screenprint was reviewed in July–August 2014, and Aspinwall’s Fortuny won the Prix de Print in the same issue.
- Submissions to New Prints must have been produced in the previous 12 months. All works mentioned in this review are 2014, unless otherwise noted.
- Statement from artist’s website, “Small Fires,” http://mariannedages.com/section/363971_SMALL_FIRES.html
- Kate Shepherd in “Kate Shepherd on Color: Interview with Ridley Howard,” Atlanta Contemporary, 26 Feb 2014, http://atlantacontemporary.blogspot.com/2014/02/kate-shepherd-on-color-interview-with.html