ALT-MATRICIES: or How Semantics Makes Printmaking Less Fun
My introduction to printmaking, outside crafty high school art projects using linoleum, was a drypoint assignment for my freshman drawing class in undergrad. My instructor also happened to be the print lab tech, so he often took it upon himself to introduce / indoctrinate his students every semester by using a drypoint project to discuss line and texture. He gave us sintra to take home and scratch self-portraits into. I wouldn’t say I was hooked at this point, but definitely intrigued.
Like many early art students, I was torn between selecting a medium to major in. Of course interdisciplinary practice hadn’t even crossed my lips at this point; I struggled between my love of different process and aesthetic approaches to making. It was through printmaking that I realized I could do it all – I could draw, paint, use photography, sculpture, even new media. As a single medium, printmaking has the potential to be the most flexible of art practices, allowing my ADD to flourish.
But something has been bugging me since enrolling, studying, and finishing my MFA. I was lucky enough to enter an interdisciplinary program where I was the sole printmaker among my cohort. There I was encouraged to utilize both my mastered techniques and also explore beyond my comfort zone of a print shop. This is where I stumbled upon video and performance and found print could become sculptural and immersive, especially when used with ceramics.
Before I get too deep into the discourse, I feel a disclaimer is necessary: everything is a joke to me. That’s not entirely true. A lot of what I’m going to get into I know for a fact is admittedly ridiculous both conceptually and physically. The subtitle “How Semantics Makes Printmaking Less Fun,” should show that I’m attempting to bring levity into what sometimes feels like an unnecessarily serious conversation surrounding printmaking and purity.
I’ve seen discussions online debating on what does or does not constitute as a print, or what is and is not planographic, or whether or not monotyping counts as a form of printmaking. The more I’ve read about how some others feel, the more I get confused as to what criteria is needed, in their minds at least. So utilizing both dictionary definitions and what I’ve gleaned from these conversations, I’ve boiled down to what a print needs to be a print to this criteria:
Matrix that transfers image to substrate
Pressure causing the transfer
Editionability and repetition
It’s through the above criteria that I learned from an artist that monotypes are not prints. They should instead be treated as paintings. I disagree with this notion wholeheartedly due to the fact that pressure and a matrix that enables the image transfer are vital components of creating a monotype. I was taught to make monotypes using a French tool press, which is one of the most emblematic tool for all things printmaking. But even rubbings, trace monotypes (or “frottage,” if you’re nasty,) etc. require pressure and a matrix to transfer the image onto the substrate. Editionability shouldn’t matter when print media tools and techniques are essential to making an image. Monotypes should be considered a form of print media for those reasons, editionability be damned.
If editionability, or repeatable process creating identical results, is necessary for a technique to be considered a pure form of “printmaking”, then drypoints with dainty details or made with soft metals and materials should not be considered a printmaking process. Often times the pressure in a press will soften these small, light marks over time. In undergrad, a peer of mine editioned a gorgeous aquatint print with line etching. The final print showed exactly how worn the plate had become by going through the press so many times when compared to the first. If a copper plate etched with a rosin aquatint wore down over such a high edition, imagine how faint lines in zinc fade over just five runs through the press.
I think if, like I’ve been doing this whole time, you ignore the criteria that editionable process is required to call a print a “print”, then paper marbling should be considered a form of printmaking. The matrix is the water, and the pressure exerted onto the substrate takes the form of gravity. If some can be so semantic to exclude monotypes from the world of printmaking, then I will use similar tactics to include water marbling. At some scale, almost imperceptible by humans, pressure being exerted onto the substrate transfers the image from the matrix.
If we instead focus on editions rather than ignoring them, then I also argue traditional photographic printing process such has gelatin silver or gum bichromate constitute print forms. The only criteria truly missing from these forms of “prints” is the aspect of pressure. Instead of using ink, light is the matrix that carries the imagery onto the paper, using film negatives as a form of stenciling. When put this way, it sounds a lot like screenprinting. Besides, if you can get down with the term “lithograph” meaning “stone drawing,” I think there’s room for “photograph”, or “light drawing.”
Another form of printmaking that focusing on editions allows us to include are digital processes, namely inkjet and Xerox. The nozzles of an inkjet printer allow the image to be carried onto the substrate, which can then be replicated ad infinitum. While still lacking in pressure, there is most certainly a substrate and a matrix involved in this process. Many printmakers have already included digital processes into their wheelhouse to the point where some print exchanges feel the need to explicitly say whether or not such forms are allowed due to their definition of “printmaking”. But other than time and labor, is there really that much of a difference between digitally printing positives, burning onto a screen, then printing layer by layer, versus printing the image directly from a computer?
On the other hand, I’ve noticed the art world in general often ignores prints when they exist on materials outside of paper. I immediately think of the “paintings” of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, who both used silkscreen on canvas to create the bulk of their imagery (Warhol more than Rauschenberg, who more often used other forms of image transfer and mixed media with his silk screens.) Wade Guyton is a nice contemporary version, whose “paintings” are digital prints on canvas, and “drawings” are the same prints on paper. Many ceramists use silk screening with underglazes to transfer imagery to vessels, tiles, and other objects, yet these are rarely considered “prints” simply because they are on clay. I’m not sure if they should be considered “prints” either, but when combined with slip casting, they can certainly fit every single criteria I listed earlier (pressure, image transfer, and editionability.)
Furthermore, if digital printmaking is an acceptable process, where does that leave the new and exciting world of 3D printing? Similar to inkjet or Xerox, it lacks the pressure associated with other processes, but it certainly allows for massive editionability.
Does a print need to be flat in order to be a print? Does it need to be on paper? Does it need to be able to exist in multiples? Rather than flatly saying “yes” to these questions, I find what makes printmaking so exciting as a contemporary medium is questioning and critiquing traditional answers. When I mention I’m an artist and someone asks me what I do, I relish the moments of awkwardness trying to describe my work (typically, I start with “well, I was trained as a printmaker, but…”)
It is my opinion that printmaking practice becomes most exciting when it exists in a liminal space between complete Luddite and new media darling. Cultural understanding of “technology” often is exclusive of older machines, but I argue there is little conceptual difference between a Vandercook and a MakerBot. So many of us fell in love with the repetitive processes, the potential to create and make more, and the complicated chemistries and techniques involved in what we do. Semantic arguments surrounding what is and is not print media or print practice (this one included) are ultimately unproductive within a contemporary context. Let’s just have fun and be nerds together, while sweating what is and is not a print.