After spending an inordinate amount of time at the inaugural Philagrafika print festival in museum galleries replete with wall labels and overly alert museum guards, it was a relief to encounter the raucous and excited crowd packed into the Print Center in Philadelphia, a nonprofit gallery founded in 1915 as the "Print Club." Visitors were making origami or playing a life-sized board game based on geopolitics designed by Mexican artist Erick Beltrán or lounging in a giant multi-colored yurt erected especially for the fest by a local Philadelphia artists’ collective called Space 1026.
The yurt’s exterior, interior, cushions and floor have all been hand-screened with lively imagery by the collective. Print Center curator John Caperton urged people to grab special hand-printed freebies, and to purchase for a mere $10 exquisite one-of-a-kind books created from recycled materials by the Argentinean nonprofit collective Eloisa Cartonera, which was founded to provide low-cost books made by "cartoneros" (garbage collectors) in poor Buenos Aires neighborhoods. (Ironically the biggest sales of the books are to rare book collectors around the world.)
Caperton explained that for Philagrafika, the Print Center had been radically redesigned as a freewheeling community hub to demonstrate the collaborative nature of printmaking and also to show how artists have historically used prints to disseminate their ideas. Other collectives involved in the show include Dexter Sinister (U.S.), Bitterkomix (South Africa), Drive By Press (U.S.), Dispatch (U.S.) and a Latino publisher, Self Help Graphics and Art (U.S.).
The most radical ideas of the day definitely belonged to full-time practicing physician and artist Eric Avery -- who is a kind of modern-day Ben Franklin. In the Print Center bathroom, he had sandblasted the toilet seat with Dante’s infamous phrase, "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here." The words were ingeniously carved in reverse, so that any imprint they might leave on a visitor’s backside would read correctly. Avery, who previously worked as a medical director in a Somalian refugee camp, linked his printmaking with his concerns about disease by covering the bathroom walls in his special woodcut wallpaper, which artfully demonstrates various safe sex practices.
Philagrafika commissioned two special multiples, which were available at the Print Center gift shop. The first is by Oscar Muñoz and called Ante la Imagen (Confronting the Image) (2009). The artist appropriated the daguerreotype self-portrait of Robert Cornelius, a chemist in Philadelphia who invented the daguerreotype process in 1839. Muñoz has scraped away the back of the mirrored image, so that the viewer’s face is superimposed on the portrait.
Philografika director José Roca explains that "Ante la Imagen" is "the result of Muñoz’ ongoing contemplation of the photographic image and its apparent inability to live up to the memory of a particular person, since the photograph, a fixed representation, cannot fully capture the fluctuations of the human spirit." The opening price for the work, in an edition of 50, is $1,000.
Regina Silveira’s multiple, entitled Pendant (Silhouette) (2009), is a vinyl cutout that comes with a metal coat hook. The image is a trompe-l’oeil of a rather menacing shadow of a corkscrew projected onto the wall. Roca explains that Pendant explores one of the artist’s recurring themes, "the presence of shadows that seem to emanate from an absent object, or that contradict the object that produces them." The edition is 50, the price is $1,200.
In addition, less expensive works have also been made especially by artists for Philagrafika. Sue Coe’s Rescued (2010) is a tiny woodcut of a soulful hound, available for $20, with all proceeds to benefit Philadelphia’s Main Line Animal Rescue.
The greatest concentration of works by well-known art stars was to be found in the exhibition "Graphic Unconscious" the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, founded in 1805 as the nation’s first museum and art school. The show was specifically designed by curator Julien Robson to demonstrate the many ways that artists have pushed printmaking processes in new directions.
Philadelphia’s newspapers definitely took notice of local artist Pepón Osorio’s You’re Never Ready, an 8 x 10 ft. bed of confetti --100 pounds -- onto which an enlarged image of an x-ray of the artist’s mother’s skull was printed using ink-jet. Osorio’s homage to Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (the philosopher’s eulogy sparked by finding his late mother’s photo) takes a surreal, macabre turn, turning his print into a 3D sculpture, and suggesting, perhaps, a freshly dug grave.
Rising up behind Osorio’s piece, on the gallery back wall, were Kiki Smith’s ethereal figures -- enormous unframed mixed-media prints on handmade textured paper that include collaged elements of glitter and silver leaf. Smith, who was one of the first artists to utilize printmaking as a component of her original work, acknowledges the importance of the medium. "Prints mimic what we are as humans: we are all the same yet everyone is different. I think there is a spiritual power in repetition, a devotional quality, like saying rosaries."
Qiu Zhijie’s series of 16 ink rubbings, entitled "Monuments: Revolutionary Logos of the Successive Dynasties" (2007), is the antithesis of repetition. Carving calligraphic letters in cement, Zhijie makes a single ink rubbing of a revolutionary saying of Mao Zedong and then pours another layer of concrete on top, obliterating the first. The process reflects a notion of a deliberately changing political history.
For Zhijie, the Long March is an example of a military disaster but a public relations coup. "Mao’s march symbolized the deliverance of the communist ideal to the Chinese proletariat. . . we must now march contemporary art out to China’s peripheral population." The artist contends that monuments act as powerful symbols to contain collective (albeit altered) memory.
Memory is also the subject of Mark Bradford’s work, Untitled (Dementia) (2000), a series of 12 posters with collage that advertise services to Alzheimer sufferers. Bradford stacked the posters over other scavenged materials and then traced the outline of the text in silicon. The repetition of the words that are then obliterated is a sinister demonstration of the disease at work.
The German artist Christiane Baumgartner presented the monumental woodcuts, done entirely by hand, that had brought her international attention when they were exhibited for the first time in "Eyes on Europe," the 2006 print survey at the Museum of Modern Art. Baumgartner continues her exploration of the medium with Luftbild (2008-09), a blurry video still taken from a World War II propaganda film about bombers.
Baumgartner records the mechanical translation from film to video in the form of a moiré pattern, which is then captured with meticulous precision in a woodcut measuring more than 8 x 13 ft. The idea reclaiming an electronic image as a traditional woodcut turns contemporary printmaking on its ear.
For this viewer, the most innovative use of woodcut was the Israeli artist Orit Hofshi’s 2009 sculpture, If the Tread Is an Echo. The artist has combined the original woodblocks and the printed impressions together to show the positive and negative images. One of the actual blocks was turned into a shed-like structure that is surrounded by enormous woodblock prints that depict a rocky, barren landscape. The result is a meditative work that brings to mind tableaux from oriental scrolls.
Philagrafika’s José Roca was insistent that I view the 2005 music video Serigala Militia by the Jakarta-based artist collective Tromarama. Accompanied by a heavy metal band from Jakarta, each frame of the stop action film was a succession of carved woodblocks that were then animated to create snapping cow skulls and frenetic musicians. The film has become a hit on YouTube.
"Graphic Unconscious" is only one event in a festival that contains a wealth of exhibitions. Roca ruefully hopes that the five years he spent planning "Philagrafika 2010" are not in vain, and that Philadelphia is taken seriously as the birthplace of the nation’s innovative printed contemporary art scene. It is an undertaking that should not be missed.
This is part two of a two-part report.
DEBORAH RIPLEY is a senior print specialist at Artnet.