Grads Speak Out
In Thoughts on Printmaking's first journal entry, artists Miguel Aragon, Ryan Cronk, Nathan Ellefson, and Matt Rebholz hold a candid conversation on printmaking.
Before this excerpted portion of the conversation with Printmaking Convergence correspondent Jeannie McKetta, the artists discussed what draws them to printmaking in the first place, the sense of community they find among other printmakers, and the idea of the process of printmaking that makes it unique among other artistic mediums.
In this transcribed conversation (held Nov. 18, 2010), the artists continue to relate views and thoughts that come from their personal and professional involvement in the medium of printmaking.
Ryan: When I work on a stone I know that I have an idea, and I work on it, but then I take that first impression, and it’s like, all right, I know this isn’t what I want, and then it allows me to go back, and that may be what Leonard was talking about. It allows you to go back and change it. Almost all print mediums are very open ended, like even with copper you can always go back and scrape out.
Miguel: Yeah, but I feel it’s primarily about planning ahead. Not necessarily coming up with a solution before you finish the project, but there are a lot of things you’ve considered beforehand. It’s not like a painter where you approach and canvas, and your work comes, but you have your idea, but you have this thing you have to approach it in, in a more, I’m going to say, scientific way, that you have to figure out some of those things you have to do, but I agree with Matt that sometimes you really want those extra chances for unexpected results. I like those unexpected results that lead me to some other place that I would never have reached otherwise. I think that’s actually why so many people… I feel like the medium is either: you love it, or you hate it. I feel like the people who hate it, it’s precisely because of this reason — you have to do all that planning beforehand. Their brains just do not function that way. And those who love it, it’s because they love planning up to a certain point, either the entire thing or up to this halfway point, and that’s what binds us together. In a way I think that planning can handicap us a bit, and I think that’s why most of us doing contemporary art are not so much involved in traditional ways of editioning and keeping true to the roots of printmaking, but rather just exploring this idea of the multiple and taking it to other places.
Matt: Yeah, I don’t know if I would argue, I would speculate anyway, that that kind of scientific approach of all the planning that goes into it, might be partially responsible for why print doesn’t enjoy the kind of popularity/understanding that you get from drawing and painting, and that just by its very nature, you can’t witness directly the moment of invention, because it’s just step, step, step, step, step. And it’s also an artifice too, because a lot of planning goes into painting and drawing, but printmaking camouflages that planning in the way that painting and drawing doesn’t.
Miguel: Well, in a way, printmakers are to blame for that. That there are a lot of us who plan all the way to the end, and then when we finish, it’s just sterile. Because you plan everything, so there’s nothing unexpected either for you or for the viewer. I think as contemporary printmakers approaching the medium, we need to allow for that openness, and not be so centered on the roots or the tradition of printmaking, and that’s a trap that most of us who love the medium tend to fall in, because we love the medium so much that we tend to go to the traditions of it just because of the nature of it.
JM: I’m thinking about the idea of the artist’s hand. In painting, you can see it literally, you can see the touch. So where in printmaking do you find that index to the artist’s hand?
Ryan: I think that’s a problem with print is that people think, especially now, I think people think we just scan something and press command print. Which is the case sometimes, but there is a lot of hand gesture. Yeah, anybody who has cut a woodblock knows, it’s theirhand.
Miguel: Yeah, that’s more hand than a painter. More blood! It doesn’t look like it, though.
Ryan: I mean, screen is probably the most…
Miguel: I mean, it’s still kind of mediated. The hand is there for sure. I think none of us disagree, but it does get out of the equation as far as the final output, because our hand goes through this other medium, whether it be the squeegee, the acid, the roller…
Nathan: There’s a lot of alchemy involved.
Miguel: And then it gets transferred to the paper, so it’s not direct, but it’s indirect.
Nathan: I mean, you can see it though, but there are definitely ways you can show hand in printmaking even if it’s a screen print.
Ryan: But it’s funny, that so much contemporary art is about not seeing the hand at all. It’s funny that print is still on the backburner, if the case is that it’s not about who made it.
Miguel: There are a lot of artists whose hand is not in their work at all, it’s just their name or their idea.
Matt: So what is then? Is it some kind of weird, vestigial bias against handicrafts, or something? That’s, like, left over from three-hundred years ago?
Nathan: Could it maybe also have to do with the size?
Miguel: I was going to say that! I was going to say that scale is actually a big part of it, in that we are so, we are very handicapped by process and how large the scale can be, that it just can’t compete. You would have to do a huge print to be able to attempt to compete against painting or sculpture.
Matt: Yeah, and the biggest print is not going to be the biggest painting.
Miguel: Exactly, even though there’s more time and process that goes into the print than perhaps into the painting. I’m not saying that painting doesn’t require time and process, but sometimes it can be the case that printmaking is more demanding, and it’s still not appreciated, because it’s editioned.
Ryan: Even if you don’t have an edition, it’s still a print.
Miguel: But there’s the possibility that it can be editioned. Like, you have one right now, but you can crank another one later, and I think that’s one of the handicaps as well, that you still have that matrix. I mean, I don’t know what would happen if you could prove that that matrix was destroyed after you made the only one. Would that make it better?
Matt: I don’t think it would matter. I think that the closest thing that I’ve seen to the kind of thing you’re talking about are people making the matrix and then having that be the piece. Like a relief-cut that has never been printed, but the actual piece of wood is the piece. Or, I’ve seen Picasso’s plates that he’ll print whatever edition, then he files them, and then they ink them up and cover them with a varnish, and then the plates are on display or for sale in the gallery or something like that. I mean, I don’t know, I always think the matrix is better looking than the print, in a lot of ways, no matter what.
Miguel: Mmhmm, I would agree.
Matt: Like the plate, before it’s ever been in the acid when you have the whole drawing done on the ground, and the gold or the copper and the brown of the ground, and it’s just like, it’s really gorgeous. The print is awesome, and that’s what it’s destined to be, but I want to take a picture of it. You never get back to that moment. It’s got an ephemeral, kind of fleeting quality to it.
JM: When I painted, I felt that way about my palette. I always wished my paintings could be as pretty as my palette.
Matt: I have a friend that she scrapes her palette down. Virginia Yount. She just had a show at Women and their Work, and she’ll incorporate her palette-scrapings into sculptural pieces that are just weird and gorgeous, this big mountain of palette trash.
JM: We have talked about why you are personally drawn to the print—the idea of the community and the process. Is the printmaking medium something you feel you have to commit to? How can your work change? I wonder about commitment, because I think about flatness and texture. Is printmaking flat for you? Or where could it go?
Matt: Are you talking about commitment to the medium, or to what?
JM: With other mediums, I get the sense that you can fudge it, but with printmaking, you’re either printing or you’re not.
Matt: I don’t know, I think people like, say Dennis McNett or like Cannonball Press, and they will make prints and then wheat paste them onto three-dimensional, sculptural forms, and that three-dimensional piece is like way more muscular and way more like a pinnacle of their studio practice than their 2-D pieces, and it’s like almost like all that 2-D stuff and all that editioning is really in service to this big, sculptural pieces. They’re exploiting the texture of the woodcut-- that binary, black and white, very specific, super-sharp mark that you don’t get from anything else, and using that to make the sculptural stuff.
Miguel: But it’s still flat, I mean they’re just applying the print to something else.
Matt: No, it’s legitimately three-dimensional, existing in all three dimensions.
Miguel: Yeah, well, I mean you made a print, a two-dimensional image, and then you applied ink to a two-dimensional image to give the print some three-dimensionality. That would be my argument, and I’m not saying that’s wrong. I’m just saying that’s something that needs to be pushed further. At least from some of the objects that I’ve seen, I feel like it’s still two-dimensional images wheat-pasted onto something else to give it something more three-dimensional.
Matt: So what are you saying? Are you talking about using 3-D printers?
Miguel: I would argue that using 3-D printers, or even just using the blocks themselves, I mean, the blocks are more three-dimensional than the print itself. We do the woodcut. Why do we have to print it? Why can’t we just use that as part of the skeleton for a three-dimensional object?
Nathan: There can also be an interesting play between flatness and three-dimensionality.
Ryan: Then you’re thinking about woodblock, and cutting it, and it ends up even worse, because then you’re a wood-carver.
Matt: Then you go back to seventeenth-century hierarchy of, like, wood people at the bottom, and then metal people here, and then craftsmen.
Miguel: That’s something to figure out. Where we are…
Matt: 3-D printers are really interesting. Speaking of Printeresting, I just saw they had a thing on there, I love that blog, by the way.
Miguel: I do too.
Matt: Someone had patented or proposed a printer that was there to print organs.
Miguel: Oh yeah, that was awesome.
Matt: You would feed it genetic information about yourself, and it could print you a new lung or stomach, or whatever, for transplants, and it would be genetically identical to you, so there would be no chance of rejection. And there was also a food printer that had sixteen different flavors, and you could combine those sixteen different axes of flavor in different proportions, but it adds up to something like five million different possibilities, and you could make your own weird, sci-fi food paste or whatever.
Miguel: There’s this guy that I just saw recently, on that blog as well, who does screen-prints, but he’s screen-printing sand, like he’s passing sand through a screen and that sculpture, or whatever, is his print.
Nathan: He can print it lots of times, right?
Miguel: Yeah, he prints several times, so you could do different heights. It’s still semi-2-D, because it’s obviously still two-dimensional angles, but it becomes more three-dimensional, in that sense, because he’s still printing, but it’s not on paper or it’s not on something that’s necessarily flat. It’s an avenue that is still unexplored, but I feel that would be the logical route to go.
Matt: I don’t know. It’s definitely printmaking in a way, but it’s about as far from printmaking as you can get from traditional printmaking and still be messing with multiples, which is not a judgment call, but it’s how I look at that stuff. But with the 3-D printer, it doesn’t have that much to do with lithography, for example. Maybe I’m wrong.
Miguel: But that’s where the old-school approach to printmaking stops. It’s about the same process: it’s planographic, it’s relief, it’s stencil-based.
Matt: I think of traditional printmaking as a graphic medium. That’s what draws a lot of people, myself included, to it in the first place. Kids that grew up reading comic books get that very clean kind of aesthetic to it, and that’s got nothing to do with an organ printer, even though an organ printer is fascinating to me. There’s so much that can be done with that artistically and intellectually, but you don’t get that kind of relief cut where it’s just like “POW!”
Miguel: I think in the end it all comes back to having a matrix. In this case, for the organ printer, the matrix is you.
Matt: Someone should make a lot of stomachs.
JM: Maybe in a minute could you give an example, from your privileged vantage point as a printmaker, could you describe a really delicious moment in printmaking?
Miguel: What gives us the most pleasure?
Ryan: I think for me rolling ink on a woodblock, and seeing it, lines come out, just the texture of the ink, maybe on stone too, or on a plate.
Miguel: That is up there.
Ryan: Seeing the tactile, the way the ink is on there, before it gets printed. There’s something giddy about that.
Matt: I like pulling a print for a group of people who have never seen it before. People loose it.
Miguel: That a-hah moment.
Matt: That’s literally the only time in my life when I genuinely get oohs and aahs from people, like unconscious oohs and aahs.
Nate: For me it’s probably pulling intaglio prints. Those, of any print medium, are the most surprising, it’s really exciting, enjoyable to see what happens.
Miguel: For me it’s the smell. I mean, it has a certain smell. If you go to a printshop. All printmakers, as soon as you enter, you smell ink. You smell the paper. You smell everything. Even if it’s in boxes, you smell, screen-printing ink, relief ink, intaglio ink. When you pick up a print that has been printed so many years or weeks ago, I always go back to smell, because it still smells. It’s something delicious.
Matt: Especially if you’ve been unfortunate enough to not be in a print shop for a couple of years.
Miguel: It takes you back.
Matt: It hits you right between the eyes.
MATT REBHOLZ: Matt Rebholz's works on paper explore mythologies, technologies and the intersections between science fact and science fiction. His intricate intaglio etchings, drawings and collage are influenced by technical illustration, comic books, art historical figures such as Albrecht Durer and the films of Stanley Kubrick.
Matt Rebholz received a M.F.A. from the University of Texas at Austin in 2008 and a B.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis in 2000. His work has recently been seen in exhibitions at The Front Gallery in New Orleans, Davidson Galleries in Seattle, the S.N.A.P. Gallery in Edmonton, Canada, and Space 1026 in Philadelphia.
He currently teaches printmaking and drawing at Texas State University in San Marcos and Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Learn more at mattrebholz.com
NATHAN ELLEFSON: Born 1988 in Seattle, Nathan Ellefson earned his BA in Printmaking from Whitworth University, and is currently an MFA Candidate at University of Texas at Austin.
MIGUEL ARAGON: Miguel A. Aragon was born and raised in Juarez, Chih. Mexico; currently he is pursuing his Master of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. Growing up on the border exposed him to multifaceted experiences, which he translates in his art by conflating different elements and mediums. The current violent events in his native city continue to influence his imagery, which he reacts through and by pushing the limits of traditional printmaking. Learn more at aragonmiguel.com
RYAN CRONK: Ryan Cronk was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. He received his of B.F.A. from the School of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In May 2010 he received his M.F.A. in printmaking from the University of Texas At Austin. Currently he is working on a tiny publishing venture of artwork and poems with long time friend and collaborator Phil Cordelli. Learn more at ryancronk.com