Art as printmaking: The deterritorialised print.

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Art as printmaking: The deterritorialised print.


Green, Charles.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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Art as printmaking: the deterritorialized print

Art as printmaking: the deterritorialized print.
by Charles Green

My subject is the capacity of printmakers to generate false impressions — in other words, the dubious truthfulness of prints. Printmaking is a medium based on trickery, impressions and effects.

Although, in conventional workshop practices, a false impression is necessarily deficient and consigned to the bin, the idea of a false impression intersects with printmaking’s ability to generate a set of originals. In printmaking, originals are able to vary from each other in such a way that we talk about states and versions — but not one original. As philosopher Friedrich Nietszche noted: “Not infrequently, one encounters copies of important people and, as with paintings, most people prefer the copy to the original.”[1]

Printmaking, Photography and the Postmodern

The conjunction of printmaking and the postmodern is important because changing definitions of truth and identity are central to the postmodern period. What traditional connoisseurs abhor is the disruption of canons of quality by forgery, error, and a disorderly proliferation of originals. However, the unsurpassed ability of print technologies to purposefully generate these same evils is a characteristic of value to contemporary art. If we are unable to tell real from false, and finished work from incompetent trial, then the rules that generate consistency, credibility and prosperity are lost. Here we face two orders: one constructed from a regard for high standards and technical excellence; another that is parasitic (thus, the late Graeme Sturgeon observed that performance art’s relation to sculpture was that of a cuckoo in the next). The first order believes in art as the expression of a unique sensibility: Modernist canons still govern much Australian art.

On the other hand, the second order is almost incredibly different; it belongs to the art that we read about in magazines — art which is discussed and analysed by writers like myself. A contemporary critic is involved in the establishment of certain rules. According to Isabelle Graw, writing recently in Flash Art, these are as follows: ‘an artist has no need of a studio, place specificity is obligatory, craft can be safely ignored, research is compulsory, reference to a concept must be provided, conditions of production and reception must be provided, the real is also imaginary’.[2] This establishes a certain set of expectations that can be easily identified as contemporary, like architectural interventions and references to cultural theory.

Within these expectations, contemporary artists will use and misuse the disciplines of printmaking over the remainder of this decade. They will apparently deny the ideals that drove the establishment of the print movement in Australia, from the new RMIT Printmaking Department, through the establishment of the Print Council by Graeme King and others, to the opening of galleries specialising in prints like Tate Adams’ space in Melbourne’s Crossley Lane.

If performance art was the paradigmatic art-form of the Seventies then, according to many critics, photography was the key medium in understanding the Eighties: ‘Virtually every critical and theoretical issue with which post-modern art may be said to engage in one sense or another may be located in photography’.[3] Firstly, photography is able to disrupt conventional notions of originality through its ability to combine already existing images. Secondly, photography has documentary functions at odds with connoisseurship. It is thus suited to the documentation of post-object forms like performance art. Through photography, artists re-thought the politics of representation. All of these capacities are shared, to different degrees, by print media. Printmakers, however, have often resisted realignment of the discourse of printmaking in order to conform to the demands of connoisseurship and the museum.

Contemporary artists have been able to incorporate into their works the recognition that the aura (an authentic original presence of an artwork) is a social construction. This was seen at its most notorious in Jeff Koons porcelain kitsch figurines or hard-core pornography of the late-Eighties. At the same time, it is clear that this acknowledgment did not result in the depletion of art’s capacity to generate ‘presence’. Contemporary museums are far from being in decline. Artists like Koons have forced us to rethink our traditional idea of art as subversive, since it is now clear that anything can possess an aura if it is embalmed in the funereal economy of the museum. In fact, the aura can persist in a disorganised proliferation of multiple objects: the museum is able to absorb anything. If Isabelle Graw is accurate, what are the current values of the conventions of printmaking? How do contemporary artists use print technologies?

Two characteristics can be easily identified. Firstly, the connoisseurship of printmaking is of interest in itself as an obvious model of institutional behaviour. Artists self-consciously exploit print-making’s status as an adjunct to more ‘important’ media such as painting or sculpture. This can of course be inverted so that something dramatically significant is deliberately but unexpectedly fabricated: the traditional notion of the tour de force is demonstrated in Frank Stella’s Swan series. Secondly, craft excellence and the limiting mechanisms of printmaking (by this I mean the editioning, publishing and technically hermetic distinctions normal in print production) are a model for the circulation of ideas in late capitalism. Here, the aura available through the prestige of a signature on an edition functions like a brand-name that certifies quality. This contrived authenticity is the link between printmaking and the postmodern idea of identity. The artist’s self is like a corporation: it occurs in transactions and curatorial activity, rather than in the acts of individual genius. Because the methods of printmaking and its associated quantity of curating assure uniformity, graphic media are well suited to the demonstration of artistic corporate identity.

Art in the Nineties has, therefore, taken on the qualities of both printmaking and photography. Art in large international survey exhibitions like Documenta or the Sydney Biennale requires: the appropriation of authorship; descent from post-object forms; an analysis of representation. Artistic identity is seen, like printmaking and photography, as an effect of forces and the result of impressions. It is marked by the diffusion of authority, in collaborations like that of the printer-technician with an artist. The means of distribution (by curators and museums, for example) are often more important than the artist.

Tabula Rasa: Performance Artists and Printmaking

Since Mike Parr is such an impossible act to follow I shall instead, as a good critic, have the last word. Mike Parr’s prints clearly demonstrate the impact of the post-modern photographic paradigm of printmaking. Parr’s prints, like head, No 1, from 12 Untitled Self Portraits Set 1 1989 come after a long and distinguished history of performance. His performances were theatrical: the audience was forced to be unusually complicit – as voyeurs or as traumatised and terrorised subjects. More recently, his prints are a play on the idea of theatre. Performance artists dealing with investigations and revelations of self — Mike Parr is one — are always doing impressions, in the theatrical sense of the word. Since the connotations of impression are so suggestive, it was probably inevitable that Parr would turn to print-making. His early performances were an exploration of the ambiguous edges of self which could be defined by marks — made on the world, or made on the body, quite literally, when the artist scarred himself with burning fuse-wire. This predicament could be provisionally resolved or recorded by marks on paper. Like an actor doing an interpretation, Parr leaves traces of his body and versions of himself on the etching plate in No 11, from 12 Untitled Self Portraits Set 1 1989.

Parr’s self-portraits, like No 10, from 12 Untitled Self Portraits Set 1 1989 are not revelations of self. I do not believe they disclose much by way of individual character or personality, nor even the artist’s physique. They are, instead, an aggrandisement of conventional ideas of the self to the point that they defeat the idea of a unique personality. Mike Parr does versions of himself. The subject — his face — initially suggests an affirmation of self-expressive subjectivity. However, the artist has repeated his self-image in prints so often and so compulsively that it has lost this naive signification. The face has become an interrogation of his audience rather than a disclosure. The full force of repetition experienced in his long performances is readily available through the production of reproducible but ‘unique’ prints.

Parr takes advantage of the authenticity of printmaking, which is endlessly established and proven by the artist’s signature and by collaboration with master-printer, John Loane. A good craftsman obviously never permits false impressions to leave his atelier. Here, credible identity is deliberately constructed out of the curatorial activity of the print industry, but at the same time printmaking is involved involuntarily in a devious and unsettling game — the dismantling of familiar notions of originality. The virtuoso self-expression of Parr’s individual print is revealed as an arbitrary construction through repetition: this is the antithesis of the familiar Romantic idea of paper as a tabula rasa, awaiting the unique imprint of the artists.

Other artists came to printmaking out of a background in performance art. Like Parr, they were interested in the limits of the body as an object. Bonita Ely was intensely aware, also, of the gendered nature of the blank sheet of paper and its supposedly ‘feminine’ character. Like other first-wave feminists, she was determined to foreground this awareness and turn it into a positive quality. Ely The Murray River in 1980, using a combination of print-based technologies: hand-made paper; staining by natural earths; and etching. She overtly ‘feminised’ her sheets of paper, identifying their white voids as both landscape and a woman's body.

Both Parr and Ely moved outside the comfortable conventions of modernism, and its formalist view of media as a neutral resource awaiting the artist’s intervention. Representation, both artists assert, is political.

The Print as Body: A New Technological Paradigm

I now come to my second main point. While the traditional conventions of printmaking continue to exist they are also empty shells. On the other hand, capacities that were regarded as inartistic in conventional connoisseurship (The accidental by-products of technology) are currently of enormous relevance as newer technologies impact on the world of printmaking. I refer, of course, to the near-infinite reproducibility of prints, associated deterioration and illegibility of images over large print runs, and the forgery and falsification available in hybrid media like computers. In these technologies, information can be recombined, altered or re-formatted.

We saw examples of this hybridisation recently at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, in the exhibition of recent Japanese art curated by Judy Annear titled Zones of Love. In the recent Criticism and the Lover A 1990, Yasumasa Morimura substitutes his features for the expected surfaces of Cézanne’s fruit – the picture is the same but not quite. Here, he uses computer scanning and laser printing to montage his face onto the apples. The seamless recombination, manipulation and mimicry allowed through new print technologies like computers and colour photocopiers allow artists to create an X-ray view of the body as permeable. Morimura’s electronic body is immaterial, interpenetrating, and allows of many versions, proofs and impersonations.

Many prints made on computers present a symbolic, electric body (which is not always female) as an anthropomorphic map or landscape. In art where print technologies are interwoven, the body even becomes a text: words are incorporated and images can be read or recognised as reproduced from other sources. In European art, according to Claude Gandelman, several stages of this identification occur.[4] First, the universe is made to look like a human body. Second, the body is projected over a map (in the Middle Ages the body is that of Christ). For example, Spain was seen as the head of a prone European body; Italy is familiar as the boot of Europe. Lyn Roberts-Goodwin’s series of computer-generated prints, Possible Worlds 1992 are a meditation upon this synthesis. Classical figure paintings are merged with the form and texture of an antique map of the world: an image of the planet during the Age of Exploration. The separate sources are scanned into a computer’s memory and then manipulated or altered. At this stage, the editing possibilities are enormous: one image can be made more legible than the other; transparency, hue and tone is controlled. Most artists and graphic designers use Mackintosh computers because they are compact, semi-portable and easy to use. This picture was laser printed, rephotographed and finally printed as a large Type C photograph by a technician.

Another genre within the history of images of the body is the sixteenth century Mannerist landscape head. The most familiar examples of these are Archimboldo’s heads and bodies composed of vegetables. For a moment they look like deformed people; after an instant they decompose and deconstruct into rotting fruit. Another type of deception showed faces more or less concealed in landscape: a huge rock, for example, might be the face of an old man with white hair. Phrases like ‘the mouth of hell’ are examples of this method of personification. Phillip George’s giant computer-generated heads fall into this category. Assembled out of a landslide of recognisable or hermetic components, Headlands (1990) coheres into the shape of the body, but also dissolves into a cross-cultural amalgam of incidents that can be read like a map.

The impact of George’s, Roberts-Goodwin’s and Morimura’s work is in their intense sense of the contemporary while, paradoxically, their sources are aged objects from museums. Their co-option of museum culture embodies many widely shared notions of dislocation.

In the works I’ve discussed so far the human body is presented firstly as a symbolic landscape and secondly as a map. The final transformative category is body into text. We are all familiar with the caligrammes of Apollinaire. In the 1930s, Gandelman observes, propaganda posters presented huge heads of political leaders as composite giants. In the United States a poster of Franklin Roosevelt depicted the President as an arrangement of American character types and landscapes. In other prints, faces were composed from words and type. This category can now be expanded to include recent art composed of writing: the artwork is the sum total of a number of texts.

One example is Scottish artist Peter Hill’s creation of a curatorial body composed of many people, using print media like photocopier and typewriter, in his Museum of Contemporary Ideas. Hill sends out press releases from the apparently real Museum, through art magazines and the mail. His imitation is accurate enough to pass as real. The Museum of Contemporary Ideas is located on Park Avenue, New York. The myth of the Museum is manufactured through its traces — press releases on letterhead paper, exhibition documentation, reviews and samples of its fictitious exhibitors’ works. These appear in Hill’s ‘group’ exhibitions in Australia (the most recent timed to coincide with ACAF 3 in Melbourne), where he has based the Museum’s activities for the last three years. His artists’ names read like a roll-call of the month’s art almanac. Almost all, fashionably, are collectives: The Nouvelle Kunst Faction, Made in Palestine, The Logical Extremists, Art against Astrology. Art against Astrology is, in Hill's press release, ‘a trio from London, England. This group attempts to deconstruct myth — aware that over 50% of the population in first world countries still live in a state that can be described as magical’.

Fact and fiction are blurred, as they are for most artists who also work as critics; Hill worked in the late Eighties as founding editor of the Scottish art magazine Alba. Wary but intrigued, Flash Art published a news item on the Museum in Summer 1991; The Museum of Contemporary Ideas had published a list of the Art World’s Top 100 Words and Phrases, in a computer analysis of the world’s leading art magazines.

‘Postmodernism’, ‘modernism’, ‘fiction’, ‘humour’ and ‘irony’ led the pack. ‘Neo-geo’ dropped from 9th position to 79; ‘tragedy’ dropped from position 4 to 83; ‘secondary market’ jumped from 62 to 10. Galeries Magazine, in May 1992, published an equally ambivalent news item about Hill’s Museum: the artist had just completed a mail-out to the world’s curators and museums of a new press kit, comprising a complimentary MoCI pen and a drinks coaster for the Museum’s Bar, Plato’s Cave. At a time when the lecturing of an audience is taken for criticality, Hill’s target — art galleries and his fellow artists — is more unusual. One recent press-release, on the current Documenta, indicated the direction this artist’s new work is taking: simulating an insider’s industry newsletter, the Museum is now circulating fabricated art world gossip.


The Printmaking community should avoid sterile discussion about the ‘use’ of new technologies; otherwise, it will fall prey to the ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’ syndrome. These debates are a distraction from more substantive scrutiny, because they assume the neutrality of blank sheets of paper and take for granted the modernist notion of the dignity of an artist’s work. Since the Seventies, contemporary artists have questioned the validity of stable notions of quality and used the conventions of art in a parodic or citational way.

At the same time, the whole idea of art’s subversive capacity is itself under review. Metropolitan avant-gardes, with their desire to critique society, have been indicated ever since the late 1960s.

Contemporary art communicates through the manipulation of the media and its reception of art. It is thus intensely theatrical and its stage is usually the gallery or museum. As the ‘prints’ that I have discussed illustrate, the art we call contemporary has by and large abandoned the idea of an eternal, archetypal museum without walls.

© Charles Green, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1992.

[1] Friedrich Nietszche, cited in Imants Tillers: Venice Biennale 1986, curated Kerry Crowley, exhibition catalogue, Australia Council, 1986, p. 5.

[2] Isabelle Graw, “How does one become an art critic?”, Flash Art, Vol. XXV, No. 165, Summer 1992, pp. 149–150, p. 150.

[3] Abigail Solomon Godeau, “Photography after Art Photography”, in Brian Wallis (ed.), Art after Modernism; Rethinking Representation, 1984, pp. 75–86, p. 80. Here, I briefly recapitulate the arguments of American critics Douglas Crimp and Craig Owens. Both wrote in the early Eighties for the influential journal October. They theorised postmodern photography in essays that established the importance of a generation of artists, including Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince.

[4] This section borrows from “Bodies, Maps, Texts”, Chapter VII, in Claude Gandelman, Reading Pictures, Viewing Texts, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1991, pp. 81–93.