Printmaking: explosive communication in a classic media

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Gunpowder For The Mind
Art Gallery Of Regina

Until Aug. 25

Come September, Regina is hosting a print media symposium called Flatgrafika. Details are still being finalized but one highlight will be a joint Canada/Japan printmaking show that opens at the Art Gallery of Regina on Sept. 1.

Curated by Jess Richter, and featuring artists April Dean, Eric Hill, Caitlin Mullan, Rowan Pantel and Robert Truszkowski, the printmaking-focused Gunpowder For the Mind qualifies as a kick-off for Flatgrafika.

I like the provocative title, but when I saw Gunpowder For The Mind I didn’t really get a sense of how it fit with the art. Both in media and subject matter, the artists are all pretty diverse, and no unified theme leapt out. When I considered print media’s history, though, one idea did occur to me. China is credited with inventing woodblock printing in 220CE. Cylinder seals were used before that, apparently, but woodblock qualifies as a pretty big step in printing technology.

Another invention China is noted for, of course, is gunpowder. So it could be that Richter, with her title, is equating print media’s impact on humanity’s intellectual and creative development with the impact gunpowder had on human warfare and related demolition activities.

If so, it’s not an overstatement. You just need to look at the range of art in this exhibition to realize that.

Space precludes me from getting too deep into any of the work, so consider what follows a synopsis. I’ll start with Robert Truszkowski. No woodblock prints are present, so his textual piece, “Am I A Rapper?” references what I believe is the oldest print media in the show.

The letters and punctuation marks Truszkowski uses to spell out a philosophical question about his right as an artist to quote a lyric by a favourite rapper (The Notorious B.I.G.) were created from scans of antique letterpress tympan paper using modern technology. But arrayed on the wall, they do recall the painstaking way books, newspapers and whatnot used to be printed with endless lines of text laid out in lead type.

As for Truszkowski’s question, it raises all sorts of issues: cultural appropriation, identity, artistic freedom, property rights, and even the long-standing practice of artists “sampling” music from outside sources.

Caitlin Mullan’s work also has a strong grounding in history. In her case, she’s used symbols from 16th century European woodcuts as building blocks in four silkscreen prints. Royalty and nobility were all the rage back then, so a lot of the symbols, not surprisingly, have a heraldic feel to them.

When Mullan first arranged the symbols to create the prints, which feature bows and arrows, a cutlass, coins, torches, bird wings, vases, a leaking barrel and more, her main concern was how they fit together visually. It was only afterwards that she researched the meanings behind the symbols. That information is missing from the show, unfortunately, but even on a strictly visual level the prints make for interesting (and surreal) viewing.

Photography was another major development in print media in the 19th century. It’s referenced in April Dean’s seven-piece “Wet T-shirt” series which consists of ink jet prints of different styles of t-shirts with slogan-y messages on them. The prints are on film, so the t-shirts appear wet and transparent.

Now I know what you’re thinking, and yes, the word “tits” does appear in one of the slogans, but sexism isn’t Dean’s main focus. Instead, the slogans, which purposely use the word “we” to include/implicate the viewer, are more broadly philosophical in tone.

Eric Hill’s work, “In Motion”, consists of four strips of clear 16 mm film leader which he’s printed with tiny black ink images. When projected on an adjacent monitor, the images create short animations of a man sprinting and riding a horse, along with an elephant running and a leopard-like cat.

Stylistically, the loops recall 19th century English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who set up multiple cameras to capture various types of human and animal movement — simultaneously presaging the invention of film, and revolutionizing our understanding of biomechanics.

That leaves Rowan Pantel. Along with Mullan, she cleaves closest to the idea of a conventional printmaker. On adjacent title panels, her three works are described as “waterless lithography and silkscreen on mulberry paper, chine-collé.” The works recall collage-style prints where strips of different images are overlaid on a larger image.

Thematically linked, the three works draw their source material from Pantel’s home hamlet of Gronlid in north-east Saskatchewan. She was born and raised there, and returns regularly to visit family and friends, so over the years memories have naturally accumulated.

Through the layering of images in her prints, she presents a visual representation of how those various memories shape her perception of home.

Gunpowder For The Mind is loaded with ideas. Pull the trigger and see it before it closes. ❧