The Unstable Image

In order to do anything, equilibrium has to be sacrificed. The moment we set ourselves in motion, taking that first step, a counter motion is required to prevent us from simply falling over. Likewise in making, it is a continuous series of actions and decisions, each compensating or responding to what went before and in this way, either ungainly or with elegance we proceed.

Printmaking is particularly interesting as a prism to reflect on this process since between the artist and the final image is the matrix, that intermediary such as the woodblock, the etching plate, the silkscreen stencil, the lithographic stone that the artist engages with in order to create the resulting printed image. Traditionally the matrix was a physical entity, onto which the artist would draw, cut or engrave and through a direct engagement with the particular qualities of the stone, wood, metal or stencil develop their image through to a resolved print. Now, the artist can also add the digital file to this pool of possibilities along with a wealth of new outputs such as laser cutting or 3D printing. The digital file also allows for working in combinations with all the aforementioned and indeed, digital technology, rather than heralding the demise of more traditional processes has served to invigorate them. Laborious darkroom techniques have been replicated through such programs as Photoshop, and the photographic image, once a fixed set of relationships, can now be reconfigured and manipulated through common software with the same degree of fluidity as in drawing.

Printmaking occupies a very particular place with visual culture, spanning as it does commercial and industrial production alongside fine and graphic arts. It sacrifices that aura of the original that is so fetished in painting and sculpture, for the idea of the multiple image and all that that implies. Certainly before electronic and subsequently digital processes (Radio, TV, Internet), printmaking was the principle means of spreading visual and indeed textual ideas, through printed books, maps, architectural studies, scientific propositions, medical diagrams etc. as well as those images resolved as images in their own right, conceived and executed through the language of printmaking.

Printmaking’s history has also been inextricably linked to collaboration and exchange, irrespective of whether one considers the complex relationships involving artists, publishers and specialist print studios, or in the more familiar context of the university print workshop where student vie for space and time on the presses and discussions conducted over freshly printed prints. In either case, printmaking is made where technical as well as aesthetic and practical ideas are freely exchanged, a very distinct model to that of the solitary artist’s studio. That exchange ensures a free flow of knowledge, both explicit and tacit as well as drawing from past processes alongside new and emerging technologies.

Printmakers now have a huge range of possibilities at their disposal and whilst some are returning to earlier processes to comment on our contemporary condition, others are engaged with the possibilities offered through pure digital printing. However we should be wary that new technology doesn’t necessarily mean new ideas, in the same way as the use of tradition processes, doesn’t necessarily mean a retreat into tradition.

The Unstable Image is an intriguing heading under which to consider some of the particular characteristics of printmaking and offering the viewer insights into the act of making. The title itself, The Unstable Image, implies work that has sought a dynamic balance; it is not safe, grounded on solid foundations, but looks to create an image that is more speculative, more risky hopefully a little unsettling.

The exhibition presents a range of approaches, from work that might be at first glance fitting into traditional forms such as the editioned print or the artist’s book, to that which present the evidence of performance or references the mass production of printed material. Some of the work is openly challenging, calling into question the very nature of print, while others have adopted a more reflective approach. This collision of ideas and strategies seems a fitting reflection of just how diverse contemporary printmaking has become.

Marian Crawford takes images and texts from daily newspapers to make bookworks, which seek to recontexualise this continuous stream of information that as global citizens we are subjected too. Her bookwork’s momentarily halt this flow and present a space for reflection and the opportunity to take stock. Aleksandra Antic likewise takes world events as starting points but hers is a more metaphysical response. In her installation, Lapse, layers of drafting film are suspended from a rack near the ceiling. Onto each sheet, at its base, is a printed silhouette of a head, giving the illusion of weight, as they appear to anchor the piece to the floor giving a deep sense of melancholy and loss. While Antic takes print into installation, Performprint do exactly what their name implies; this is print in the making, performed live with only the traces of their actions remaining. In their universe, skateboards can be as expressive as etching needles and the impromptu use of letters can provide material for sculptural prints. This spirit pervades the individual work of Joel Gailer (a member of Performprint) whose work takes a light hearted look at printmaking and its relationship to mass production, media and print processes.

Olga Sankey engages with that fundamental aspect of printmaking, the process of layering and through this to subvert an easy reading of the image. Each layer both serves to assert and negate, leaving the viewer questioning the truths that we so often associate with printed material. My own work is also preoccupied with layering with the specific intention of unsettling the viewer. The images are made within the computer and then reconstituted using a range of processes including inkjet, relief and photo etching.

Printmaking is too often regarded as a secondary activity by many artists, with its prime function being that it allows for multiple impressions. The artists in this exhibition lay claim to printmaking as a primary activity, offering as it does, unique qualities and opportunities to develop work and engage audiences within the very language of print.


Professor Paul Coldwell