Metaphor over Medium

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Aron Gent, Untitled, Epson UltraChrome K3 ink on Arches watercolor paper, 30×22″, 2014

To paraphrase (& butcher) the words of the humorist Will Rogers: I don’t make art in a medium specific way, I’m a printmaker. Printmaking is at best a loose affiliation of practices, processes, signifiers, tradition, and history. And that is it’s biggest strengths. From the beginning artists have been inventing new ways to use a specific set of technologies to generate evidence of their creative activity. For many the range between tradition and invention, between process and chance, is where our imaginations became forever captivated by this way of working.

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Bjorn Copeland, Compress/Sustain Black and Red, Vinyl Tarp, Metal Grommets, 95×69”, 2014

While arguably the bulk of our field is engaged in the business of making images, for some the burning questions revolve around print as signifier or metaphor. Print functions so well as a metaphor because often the same processes we use for making images were at one point co-opted from mainstream visual culture, the wider an audiences familiarity with the non-art or mundane function of a given print process the wider the reach of the metaphor. In an overly reductive way, this is why Warhol‘s screen printed ‘paintings’ were easily ‘read’ by a wide audience, and it’s also why everyone understood the transgression inherent in his work. Not only was his artwork quoting from everyday pop-culture, but he was doing so in the cheap, anonymous, disposable half-tone of commercial printing; in a way this is also why it was important that his work occupy a painting space- the graphic mark would be seen as most outrageous when occupying the space formally understood to contain the lyrical gesture of the artist’s hand.

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Bonnie Benda Scott, War and Peace II, laser-cut polypropylene, wood, acrylic, 2014

In an inverse phenomena, the last decades have seen an explosion of popular material and visual culture that is actively quoting the graphic signature print. We’ve posted many such print-spottings here, the gritty stamp of a faux-letterpress type can be found on vinyl adhered to the window of any given Starbucks, and countless magazines, apps, and websites utilize a visible halftone or off-register colors as an aesthetic, haptic, or skeumorphic flourish long divorced from it’s original purpose. While the meaning of this particular use of ‘Print as visual metaphor in popular culture’ is a thesis-worthy subject unto itself, suffice it to say, Printerly is now an undeniable thing. I would go further to say that this ubiquity of, and nostalgia for, a ‘lost’ print language within our shared popular visual culture puts printmaking squarely in the sights of (at least an ad executive’s idea of) ‘good taste’.

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Aron Gent, Untitled, Epson UltraChrome K3 ink on Arches watercolor paper, 30×22″, 2014

The question that keeps me up at night is this- If popular culture is – at least for a long moment- in a love affair with print language, where does that leave those print artists working with print as metaphor? It would be weirdly recursive to approach the issues of pop culture by using print to quote print as it’s quoted in pop culture (this would likely produce only the best/worst kind of ‘inside baseball’ humor), but it’s unlikely one would arrive at the kind of transgression that an artist could previously provoke with Warhol’s brilliant trick of using print language as a mirror to reflect popular visual culture back as us.

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Bjorn Copeland, Compress/Sustain Coffee, Vinyl Tarp, Metal Grommets, 107 x 84”, 2014

Thankfully, a handful of artists have come along to ease my head back on to the pillow.  Bjorn Copeland, Aron Gent, and Bonnie Brenda Scott have each in different ways delivered on the promise of transgression mined from our printed visual culture. All the artwork pictured through out this essay is from, respectively, Bjorn Copeland’s recent solo exhibition Compress/Sustain at China Art Objects in L.A., Aron Gent’s exhibition last October, Pure Pictures, Perfect Prints at Devening Projects in Chicago, and Bonnie Brenda Scott’s current exhibit Year of No at James Oliver Gallery here in Philadelphia or Eat Your Mind at Greenpoint Terminal Gallery in Brooklyn. I don’t mean to put their work forward as the only artist’s solving this problem, I’m sure their are many other talented voices that I’m not aware of, but their work is very fresh and exciting, and it should be seriously considered within any dialogue about the contemporary printed image and popular culture. They all in differently adept ways reveal the mundane, overlooked, or unseen graphic aspects of visual culture, serving it back to us in ways that side-step the troubling, tasteful position that print currently holds in popular advertising.

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Bonnie Brenda Scott, For Those in Peril, airbrush on laser-cut found paper, 2014

Bonnie Brenda Scott’s work is just so weirdly awesome. Aggressively combining multiple materials and processes previously found only the fringes of the fine art conversation, like, airbrush, neon (yes, I know it’s making a comeback), and plexi; all of it seemingly sent through multiple kinds of digital, photographic and hand-made matrices. In discussing her process for this essay, Scott said that in making she works with ‘an evolved use of halftone and RGB color separations.’ She went on to say, ‘All the images are made with slightly altered multiples layered together, filling what would be each red green and blue layer with an onslaught of color. I’m interested in holes and voids; halftone patterning really lends itself to using negatives to create an image, rather than positives. Your eye does more of the work of bringing the image together–exactly what halftones were made to do, take the chaos of particles and bring them together to make a whole image.’ Scott’s work draws aesthetic connections in unsettling ways to the low-end of consumer goods and advertising. Her work brings to mind the work of Alex De Corte, similar sense of transgression but with vastly different results.

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Bjorn Copeland, Compress/Sustain Black and Red, Vinyl Tarp, Metal Grommets, 2014

Bjorn Copeland’s has been successfully reflecting pop culture in his work for years, but it’s the altered vinyl tarps from his last exhibition that are most pertinent to this conversation. Printed vinyl banners if measured in square footage are likely the most ubiquitous printed images of the modern landscape, yet they remain largely unseen as our eyes only register their advertising content. Here Cropland’s wry Duchampian collage are genius a kind of slight-of-hand genius at calling the printed object back into our field of vision. The interplay between the obscured photographs and text, reduced to formal, graphic chunks, and the constellation of grommets is mesmerizing.

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Aron Gent, Untitled, Epson UltraChrome K3 ink on Arches watercolor paper, 30×22″, 2014

Aron Gent’s recent body of work begins with the question of object, image and signifier. As his process is complicated, I’ll rely on the description from Devening Projects:

In his first solo exhibition with devening projects + editions, Aron Gent addresses the material and process of his work as a professional photographic printer. Although that process incorporates state of the art technology, his most recent project reflects on the discontinuation of Polaroid film and the Polaroid image transfers that were first made by artists in the 1970s and subsequently explored throughout the history of photography. These prints embrace appropriation; removing the camera entirely from the process to be replaced with digital mark making and digital collage. Structuring the work around found imagery, clip art and other abstracted digital fragments, Gent reassigns and transforms those images by transferring them onto watercolor paper using archival pigment ink. Surprising things occur during that process. The images lose specificity but gain mystery, nuance and narrative possibilities unlikely in the originals. The result is a jump occurring when an image moves out of its world, is radically transformed, but still reflects something of itself and its history.

One aspect of his work particularly compelling for this conversation is the reveal of the invisible technology of the high-end ink jet printer. Particularly with this technology the viewer usually jumps straight to the image, unseeing the print, the printer, and it’s digitally convoluted relationship to image and photograph. Ghent’s work embodies these mental jumps, his hand becomes the ghost in the shell. His choice of easily sourced clip grate against my sensibilities even as the physical qualities of his work are so contradictorily pleasing. The work loops between metaphor, image and object.

tumblr_njaz7q9wQw1un81eeo1_1280-1Bonnie Brenda Scott, The most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life was a perfect circle of fire, or: There’s a Joke Here Somewhere, and it’s on Me, laser cut poleax and mylar, wood, neon, 2014

IMGT Untitled 25aAron Gent, Untitled, Epson UltraChrome K3 ink on Arches watercolor paper, 30×22″, 2014

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Categories: Artists, Critical Discourse


One Response to “Metaphor over Medium”

  1. Ralph D. says:

    Although modern art is sth I don’t understand, examples you showed are great. Great metaphors. Different used materials mean everything here.