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The Democracy of Art



With the rise of the digital age, there's no such thing as singularity anymore. At least that's how the thinking goes. There's no one poster of a kitten dangling from a tree, urging us to hang in there. No one cereal box or World's Best Dad coffee mug. Anything that is produced can be replicated. Newspapers. Sheep, even. Human bladders.

So too with art, which once was only possible through carving an image into wood, applying ink and pressing that image onto an innocent surface. Now it's just a matter of hitting "print."

Which explains the theme of the 37th Southern Graphics Council Conference, "Command Print," a reference to the replicating powers of the Macintosh. The conference is the Woodstock of printmaking, the octopus of the art world that includes lithography, etching and screen-printing -- the process of making multiples. It also includes a larger exploration of the value of the mass-produced thing.

The conference comes to Virginia Commonwealth University and 30 local art galleries this weekend and beyond. Once a gathering of a few hundred Southern print-folk, the event has become over nearly 40 years a national gathering for the art.

Andrew Kozlowski, administrative coordinator for the conference (and a Style Weekly art critic) estimates at least a thousand Southern Graphics Council members, portfolios in hand, will flock to the city.

The conference is the culmination of two years of preparation by VCU professors such as David Freed, who proposed the university as a potential site to the SGC Conference but retired three years ago. Professors Holly Morrison and Richard Roth took up the torch and, once VCU was accepted, had to get together the theme, speakers, locations and galleries for the four-day event.

With the Mac-based theme, VCU's Department of Painting and Printmaking plans to extend the concept of printmaking into that realm of all things that can be multiplied.

"Mass production, things that we take for granted, you know — money or cereal boxes — comes out of this traditional sense of printmaking," Kozlowski says. Of the traditional art forms, the reach of printmaking is the most expansive, and now the one most available to regular, non-MFA folks.

"You can go online and make coffee cups, mouse pads and T-shirts," he says, commenting on "where [printmaking] can head, sort of the new territory that's available to it."

The conference considers the relationship of the old techniques, those requiring patience and a working knowledge of the process itself, with new techniques, which place more of the responsibility for the reproduction upon technology (and in the case of computer-aided design programs, the creation itself is subsidized).

So on the one side there are the old ink-stained diehards who refuse the keyboard for the limestone block, and on the other, the people who upload a picture of their dog onto a Web site and three business days later have their own T-shirt: "I ♥ Muffin." Most artists nowadays fall somewhere along the spectrum, choosing their level of direct involvement in the creative process.

"It's just a question of how the two fit together, or don't fit together, or could fit together," Kozlowski says. "It always goes back to the repeatable matrix, the thing you can repeat again and again and again."

Increasingly, artists can take the "manu" out of "manufacture."

But really, it's just been the process of making things easier. From the painstaking carving or etching of relief printing (one Bible page per block) to Gutenberg's moveable type (with its tiny pieces of data, the individual letters, it was the precursor to the digital age) to Alois Senefelder's efficient lithographic process and its children, the newspaper and magazine, to that damn cat on the branch, revolutions occurred "every time somebody figured out how to make something faster or more reliable," Kozlowski says. Or as the title of one of the panels has it, "Printmaking Is the Discourse."

This means a rising tide of messages, too, as advertisers push more cereal boxes and T-shirts, while on the other side artists use the media of mass-production to put their ideas into those same heads. It was inevitable, then, that printmakers would tap back into the techniques of advertising and dabble in "low art." Andy Warhol and his soup cans come to mind, as do his many prints, like the multiplied Elvis at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The SGC hands out a Lifetime Achievement Award annually, and this year it goes to Chicago-based Kerry James Marshall, a painter, sculptor and comic artist, whose "Rythm Mastr" comic (on display at the Reynolds Gallery) spins the African-American experience through the superhero medium and, as Kozlowski says, "blurs all these boundaries between printmaking and multiples and high art and low art."

Richard Roth (left) addresses VCU's Painting and Printmaking brain trust, the organizers of the Southern Graphics Council Conference: Peter Baldes, Reni Gower, Jill Zevenbergen, Belinda Haikes, Holly Morrison and Andrew Kozlowski.

Meanwhile, shows at Ghostprint Gallery and Gallery5 consider the value of the message in the public space, debating whether it's art or vandalism. (Read more about these shows, Ghostprint director Thea Duskin and the art of the stencil at

At Transmission Gallery, director Bret Payne is awaiting the surge of artists. Since the gallery opened last September, he's hung his share of prints, including works by Studio 23, the printmaking collective that's only just opened in Plant Zero. Payne is curious about how the old and new will meet. "Things like screen-printing and digital mediums are at everybody's fingertips," he says. "To have a conference that brings this old world mastery together with new techniques, that's a great thing."

The contradictions are apparent in Payne's own gallery, in which a print that came from etched copper hangs alongside a version of the same print that came out of a computer. Which, then, is the "real" image? Or, perhaps, which one is more valid?

"This is our challenge in the art world," Payne says, "to deal with things like this."

The great definer of the printmaking process is its collaborative nature. Unlike painting, say, which is traditionally considered a solitary art (though those solitary arts have their collaborative elements too), printmaking relies on the sharing of work and ideas, in fact thrives on that. Perhaps that's why it's become so massive as an art form and why new techniques emerge every few years.

The fate of the democratic art is on the minds of Peter Nesbett and Shelly Bancroft, publishers of Art on Paper magazine. They're giving the SGC keynote address, a talk on "Print Without Printmakers, Art Without Artists." Nesbett says by phone from the Art on Paper office in New York that they're interested in how the rise of digital media affects the printmaking process, "what happens when that collaboration is lost between the artist and the printmaker."

Nesbett thinks a do-it-yourself program like Print Shop "threatens the collaborative process by allowing artists to self-publish."

But, Bancroft notes, "it's not all gloom and doom." Nesbett agrees, adding that digital media has the "potential of bringing artwork to a greater audience. So it's all about that relationship between the artist and printmakers."

(Art on Paper was founded in 1969 as The Print Collectors Newsletter. It became Art on Paper in the mid-1990s before Nesbett and Bancroft became publishers in 2004. The magazine has chronicled the evolution within the printmaking world, but has necessarily added any related forms, anything that can conceivably be reproduced or stuck somehow on paper. The range of subject matter reflects how totally printmaking has infiltrated our culture. "We live amongst graphics on a daily basis," Nesbett says.)

And anyway it's not just printmakers who collaborate.

"There are painters who have people make their paintings for them," Bancroft says. "There are sculptors who do the same. … Artists will be asking printmakers to make their work for them."

"I think it's becoming more accepted in some ways," Nesbett says, "that artists will farm out large aspects of their production."

"I do think that people who don't know much about art are always shocked that artists don't make all their art," Bancroft says. "It's kind of understood in the print world."

"But it's also great for the artist," he says, "where an artist and a printmaker are together in the same room. Without that interaction, Nesbett says, "you lose a lot of opportunity for innovation."

The rise of the digital age threatened that innovation a little by allowing anyone to produce art from their computer desk. The collaboration is replaced by a greater democracy, by the ability of a single pet-lover to print a thousand "I ♥ Muffin" tees and distribute them to friends and family. Which raises the question of the value of the reproduced thing.

"I think that's one of the things that's kept printmaking in the shadows all these years," Bancroft says, "is that 'original.'"

Bancroft and Nesbett clarify "original" to mean "unique," the single artistic product. If you run just one print from a woodcut and then cancel the block (punching a hole in it to render it unusable), you have a single unique piece in the same way that a painting is unique. It's inherently more "valuable," but defeats the purpose of printmaking, the ability to reproduce. On the other hand, producing 1 million prints devalues those pieces significantly, like that freaking cat hanging on in every dentist's office in America. The trick is to find the magic number of prints that justifies the work put into it but maintains a value. As with that cat, it's a question of balance.

"I think it's one of the communities in the art world that has the potential for the most radical change right now," Nesbett says of the printmaking civilization. He repeats this, slower. Bancroft laughs. I ask why.

"I think she thinks that I have some sort of mental disability," he says dryly. He confirms that they are, in fact, married. Another collaboration in the great civilization of the printmaker.

Closer to home, another collaboration is getting firmly planted — thanks in large part to the 1,500-pound printing press that's taken up residence in Studio 23 of the Plant Zero Art Center.

Studio 23 is the large-birthweight child of four recent VCU graduates — Ashley Hawkins, Beth Noe, Sarah Watson and Cindy Eide — who recognized that while many students may come out of art programs in Richmond well-versed in the alchemy of the printmaker, they may not have access to the equipment to run with their art. They luckily found artist Kate Horne, who had graduated from VCU in 2002 and happened to have a printing press, the 1,500-pound beast known as the Talking Horse Press. Horne won't disclose the origin of the press, but now that it's moved into the studio space, it'll be there for a while.

"Being outside of the university environment, there weren't really any places for us to make this kind of art," says Hawkins. "So originally we came together to make art for ourselves." Offering that press to the community was the next step.

The Studio 23 quintet with their baby, the Talking Horse Press. From left, Cindy Eide, Sarah Watson, Ashley Hawkins, Kate Horne and Beth Noe.

The five are believers in the collaborative process, certainly, and hope their press attracts artists looking to etch images on copper or carve them into linoleum and run off prints under Talking Horse's massive roller. They got started in January, so they're still getting together materials, but they intend Studio 23 to be a resource where artists have access to everything they need to produce the next generation of Warhol soup cans or maybe, just maybe, the next kitten in a tree.

They work in intaglio, in which the image is cut or etched onto a surface — copper, say, or linoleum. The group adds another key to understanding the printmaking collaboration: the role of mood. Different jobs require different temperaments, different states of mind, so in working on a project, the gouging of copper might be best for when one's frustrated, while the running-off of prints is painstaking work, requiring meditative patience.

"Because the medium sort of necessitates a lot of set-up," Hawkins says, "it creates a community environment."

And in keeping with the exchange of ideas, they're also looking for a playmate for their Talking Horse, should anyone want to donate another press.

Studio 23 represents the old guard, the reliance on hands and eyes and a knowledge of chemicals and pressure to create and re-create. That they are trying to build a community of printmakers here is a reminder that this is still, and always will be, a democratic process. Under the weight of that roller, everyone can have a voice. But the artists aren't afraid of the new generation of point-and-click printmaking.

"I'm not against the digital printmaking," Hawkins says. "It sort of just opens avenues for expression. I also think it can be an easy way out in some ways."

Hawkins says the point of Studio 23 is to give artists access to these processes that would normally be pretty costly. The studio charges hourly rates for ancient arts.

"You really, as an artist, have to look at the avenues available to you to express your content," she says. The digital revolution, with its lasers and uploaded images, means dragging an image across the screen of a Mac rather than Studio 23's analog dedication to working a piece of copper over in an acid bath.

"It's just that it happens on a screen rather than on a plate," says Hawkins. But, of course, "you can make a lazy etching, too." S

"Command Print," the 2008 Southern Graphics Conference, runs March 26-29 at VCU and participating galleries. For schedules and other information, visit or call 827-1574.

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