Going to print: Maggie Gray introduces printmaking in contemporary art

Posted by Maggie Gray on 02nd May 2012

 

Just over a week ago the London Original Print Fair popped up at the Royal Academy for another year. The longest running specialist print fair in Europe, it provides a stage for around 50 dealers to showcase prints from Rembrandt’s etchings to Hockney’s iPad drawings. Prints are often billed as a more affordable way of getting art on your walls, but this doesn’t mean that they are second-best substitutes for the painted ‘real thing.’ Printmaking (as anyone who’s made even the most basic of childhood art class attempts will know) works to its own rules and is a standalone art form in its own right.
 
Katsutoshi Yuasa - An Impossible Extreme Reality #1
Image courtesy of TAG Fine Arts
 
 
An original print is produced when an artist works a design onto a surface (cutting into a block of wood, for example, or engraving onto copper) and then transfers the image from that surface onto another to create an ‘impression’ of it, normally printing ink onto paper. Because the original surface can usually be re-used, original prints are often produced in limited editions, which make them more accessible and cheaper than one-off artworks. Printmaking is an umbrella heading for a whole host of complex and beautiful creative processes. For anybody wanting to find out more about the various techniques, the London Original Print Fair website and Own Art’s online introduction make great starting points, neatly summing up the basic qualities of intaglio and relief printing, screen printing, lithography and more.
 
Elisabeth Bond - By Bevin Court
 
It’s worth familiarising yourself with them, because printmaking effects vary hugely depending on which technique an artist has used, with some (like engraving) lending themselves to delicate linear detail, and others (like screen print) to bold graphic imagery. But the diversity of styles within any given method can be vast as well. Take woodcut, one of the oldest printmaking methods, where the artist carves a design onto a wooden block, before inking it and printing onto another surface: Katsutoshi Yuasa’s contemplative, painstakingly detailed monochrome print ‘An Impossible Extreme Reality #1’ (which I had the pleasure of viewing day in day out at TAG Fine Arts’ stand at LOPF) could hardly have looked more different to Gillian Ayres’ ‘Tivoli’, a fantastically colourful, collage-like composition at the Alan Cristea stand, yet both of them are hugely accomplished celebrations of the same medium. Woodcuts and linocuts (prints created using linoleum blocks instead of wood) have a beautiful textural quality. It’s worth viewing them in the flesh to really appreciate the grain of the wood, or the catching pools of ink where it’s been pressed onto the paper. Elizabeth Bond’s work on this site skilfully harnesses these effects: in By Bevin Court her rough, bold woodcut method brilliantly conjures up the crows’ scratchy, wind-chopped feathers.
 
Jeremy Wood - My Ghost
Image courtesy of TAG Fine Arts
 
One of the most exciting things about printmaking today is the number of contemporary artists devoted to mastering and reinventing it, inevitably pushing the boundaries further than ever. Cornelia Parker’s meteorite prints are a good example: to make them she heated an actual meteorite, and used it to burn impressions onto paper maps. It’s a fantastically simple approach to printmaking, used to create something startlingly new. Continuing the map theme, Jeremy Wood’s ‘My Ghost’ prints are created using data from a GPS tracking system that he has worn on every journey in the capital since the year 2000. Tracing his own movements to build up a haunting after-image, he has essentially used an entire city as his printer’s plate, ‘etching’ years onto a digitalised landscape. Maps, which have a history of reproduction and dissemination, lend themselves to editioned work, and it’s fascinating to see increasing numbers of artists (including Kristjana Williams on this site, whose world map of exotic fauna captures the Victorian spirit of exploration and discovery) investigating their potential.
 
Kristjana S. Williams - Ros Two Animal Garden 
 
The London Original Print Fair returns to the Royal Academy in a year’s time. Before then, there’ll be plenty of opportunities to explore the world of printmaking in London. Start with ‘The Mechanical Hand – 25 Years of Printmaking at Paupers Press’ (open now at King’s Place Gallery and accompanied by a book of the same name, published by Black Dog) and keep an eye out for the Multiplied Contemporary Editions Fair at Christie’s, which opens during Frieze week in October. Good quality, signed limited edition prints are a fantastic addition to any collection, so take the time to find out more, get to know what you like, and enjoy.