The State of the State: Philagrafika 2010

Book Review

  • The Graphic Unconscious

  • José Roca and the curators of Philagrafika 2010
  • 256 pages, 210 color images
  • Philagrafika, 2011
  • $30

Back in the year 2000, a dedicated group of print artists, master printers, curators, collectors, educators and dealers came together in the city of Philadelphia. Alarmed by the declining status of prints in the contemporary art scene, their mandate was clear: protect an endangered species.

Philagrafika was born.

A decade has passed, and in that time, the group has become a major force in the field of print—organizing an ongoing series of events in and around Philadelphia and mobilizing members of the print community around the world. The project’s first book, The Graphic Unconscious, is a record of Philagrafika 2010, last year’s critically acclaimed international festival focused solely on the print.

In the introduction essay, Philagrafika’s Executive Director, Teresa Jaynes, outlines the situation that prompted their initial efforts over ten years ago: “the medium and its practitioners were seen as subordinate in all aspects of the field of contemporary art: enrollment in university and college print departments was in steady decline; academic print departments were being squeezed out by the perceived need for new digital labs; fine prints were rarely included in the growing number of international biennials; and international art fairs would soon begin to exclude fine print dealers… there was an increasingly pervasive anxiety about the future of printmaking and its relevance to contemporary art.”

The Graphic Unconscious seeks to dispel this negative image. The catalogue offers over 40 artists, more than 200 images, and a dozen interviews. It presents nine highly readable essays by Philagrafika’s Artistic Director and Chief Curator José Roca and other members of the Philagrafika curatorial team, who provide thoughtful discussions of the concepts, issues and terminologies of print today. These essays address the problem of “medium specificity” head on, arguing that limiting the scope of the subject allows us to focus on precise language and definitions. According to Roca, “any attempt to narrow the field produces a more manageable universe to navigate.”

The authors seek to pare away the uncertainty about what is and what is not print, to develop a useful contemporary definition. According to Roca, a print derives from an “imprint.” He cites an essay by French curator Georges Didi-Huberman who offers his quintessential explanation: “Something corporeal transferred the information by physical contact and rendered the image that you are witnessing.”1 Contact/impact is the essence of print—and easily distinguishes it from photography, which Roland Barthes would call “an emanation from the referent.”2 By extension, a print is clearly defined according to Roca and his colleagues as anything that has “three components: a matrix, a transfer medium, and a receiving surface… The matrix stores the necessary information to reproduce; the medium transfers that data, and the support, in turn, receives it. All kinds of contingencies can alter the outcome of the process and often enrich the results.”

Such a concrete definition is essential to our understanding of prints, but so are the powerful abstractions that attend printed matter: the role of reproduction (in the age of the internet, now more than ever); multiplicity and the “quest for infinity”3, democratic distribution and political engagement; process and craft; materiality and ephemerality; urgency; and the inescapable syntax of technology.

Roca claims that these intangible qualities may be far more important than the tangible object called a print.  They may be the most valuable legacy of over 500 years of print practice. So deeply imbedded are these intangibles in the making of art at this moment that they are now part of “the graphic unconscious.”

Swoon, Bethlehem Boys (2008/2010), woodcut and paint on wall.

Swoon, Bethlehem Boys (2008/2010), woodcut and paint on wall.

The artists featured in this instructive and visually satisfying book include those who work in—or riff on—traditional print forms. There are new large-scale “composites” of etching and lithography by Kiki Smith, monumental woodcuts by Christiane Baumgartner (see article this issue), carefully manipulated, politically-charged cartoons by Los Angeles-based artist Enrique Chagoya, the evocative woodcut street art of Caledonia Curry a.k.a. Swoon, as well as comics, pamphlets, broadsides, posters and books.

At the same time, it includes artists who are pushing the boundaries of print across multiple disciplines, creating what Roca would call “the expanded print.” Berlin-based Thomas Kilpper’s giant floor carving in the former Stasi headquarters used architecture as a printing matrix and required complex collaborations between the artist, his team and the viewing public; Gunilla Klingberg drew from her experience as a graphic designer to construct an intricate graphic environment that is also a commentary on ubiquitous consumer culture; Ayako Tabata (Tabaimo) explored disorienting themes in her animated videos which used hundreds of drawings inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts, scanning the wood grain patterns and ink colors and incorporating them into each video frame;  LA artist Mark Bradford repurposed scavenged print material into abstract compositions of subtle mystery;  and Young-Hae Chang and Mark Voge of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries created compelling web-based “type experiences” that dodged connections to any particular medium while playing with the syntax of print and text. The catalogue contains interviews between José Roca and many of these artists that often dig deep into personal practice and the broad issues facing not just print, but contemporary art in general.

The world of print, redefined in The Graphic Unconscious, is now free to include these innovative works and take the medium in entirely new directions.  This book is an essential building block in a new understanding of the print.

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  1. Georges Didi-Huberman. La Resemblance par contact. Archéologie, anachronisme et modernité de l’empreint.e (Paris: Editions de Minuit, Collection “Paradoxe.” 2008.) []
  2. José Roca cites a Spanish translation of Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida. Publication information refers to the English version. (New York: Hill and Wang, A Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1980/81.) []
  3. Luis Camnitzer. “Printmaking: A Colony of the Arts,” The Graphic Unconscious, Philadelphia: Philagrafika, 2011 (http://www.philagrafika.org/pdf/WS/Printmakingacolony.pdf). []