A 1968 artists centre incubated counter-culture Prairie printmaking
Art | by Gregory Beatty
“Look! Up on the walls! It’s a psychedelic design! It’s a Pop Art reference! It’s Superscreen!”
Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But it’s an appropriate intro considering that the subject of this exhibition curated by Alex King and Timothy Long is a “super” screen print shop that opened in Winnipeg’s then-sketchy (later, uber-hip) Exchange district in 1968.
The Screen Shop, founded by artist Bill Lobchuk, opened at a time when Canada was in the grip of a counterculture fervour that rebelled against old school European and more recent American cultural influences and championed an authentic Canadian identity. It became a key hub for young Winnipeg artists and artists from other prairie locales.
The initial intention of the exhibition, says King, was to mark the shop’s 50th anniversary in 2018.
“We’re a few months late, but the show was conceived as a celebration of that anniversary,” she says. “We really started from scratch, gathering what material we could and seeing what narratives came out. Obviously, we wanted to showcase the art that was made at the shop. There was a huge variety. The Screen Shop was known for being highly innovative.”
Most of the art is from the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Winnipeg Art Gallery and University of Manitoba collections. Research-wise, King and Long were also able to access valuable archives at the University of Regina for Lobchuk and artists such as Tony Tascona who printed there.
“We wanted to give a real flavour of the energy of the shop,” says King.
That’s done nicely at the MacKenzie. There’s even a special room where you can see a suite of black-light prints made by Winnipeg poet/painter Winston Leathers.
Structurally, King and Long have grouped works at different spots in the gallery to explore themes relevant to the shop, and the broader political and cultural reality of the time.
“If we look at Winnipeg as a microcosm, there was a real divide between the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the youthful contemporary artists in the city,” says King. “It was felt that the WAG was not representing what they were doing, and did not have a commitment to local work.
“At the time, the WAG had a European director,” she says. “The gallery had a very Modernist philosophy about art, about it being universal, and they were interested in bringing in art from outside of Winnipeg. It was felt there was a lack of support for local artists.”
King describes Lobchuk’s shop as a muster point for Winnipeg artists.
“Up to then, there hadn’t really been a place for artists to hang out and make work. They were also big drinkers, so it was a bit of a party scene. But it evolved into talking about local art politics — not just with WAG programming, but also the payment of artist fees.”
The practice at the time was that when an artist had a show at a major public gallery, they weren’t paid. Everyone else who worked at the gallery, from the curators and educators to secretaries and janitors, got paid. But the artist, whose work was core to what the gallery did, got zilch.
Through CARFAC, a national organization with provincial chapters that was founded the same year as the Screen Shop, artists pushed galleries to change their policies. When that didn’t work, CARFAC successfully lobbied the Canada Council to make exhibition grants contingent on galleries paying artist fees. That happened in 1975.
Lobchuk was a CARFAC representative, so he travelled a bit between Prairie cities, which helped spread the word about the Screen Shop.
Screen printing, at the time, was undergoing a revival, says King.
“Bill describes screen prints as printmaking’s little sister because it has roots in the commercial world. So it took awhile to be taken seriously as an art form. But Andy Warhol’s experimentation with screen printing changed that.”
Screen printing is a unique art form as the artist typically works with a master printer who understands the technical nuances of the medium.
In Winnipeg, Lobchuk filled that role along with Len Anthony.
“It was a perfect place for artists interested in experimenting in different media,” says King. “You can’t do that in a commercial shop, as they’re not able to spend the time. The Screen Shop, though, was very willing to do that.”
And the artists, in consultation with Anthony and Lobchuk, did experiment, says King. “They would’ve made suggestions to artists, but also artists would’ve challenged them and said ‘I want to print on this fabric’ or ‘I want to print on plexiglass’ or ‘I want to experiment with flocking’, and they would try to find a way to make that happen.
“The beauty of the shop was that they became more technically proficient as time went on, because there was that peer-to-peer element,” she says. “So there were things they probably never would’ve done had an artist not come in and said ‘Hey, can we give this a go?’ And they would try it and see if it would work.”
During our tour, King pointed out one 1973 print by Jack Butler, who was a founding member in 1969 of the Sanavik printmaking co-op in Baker Lake, Nunavut. The print is called Eskimo and has 53 separate colours. “It’s incredibly difficult,” she says. “The registration is amazing, so it’s a feat of technical brilliance.”
King also highlighted two works by Manitoba artist Don Proch. Even relatively close up, they look like graphite drawings. Drawing was Proch’s principal medium, but here he gave it a twist.
“He got graphite powder from an automotive shop and worked with the printmakers to develop an ink that suspended the graphite in clear varnish,” says King. The technique gave the prints remarkable tonal shading between black, white and grey just like a graphite drawing.
Seen through modern eyes, King says, some of the works might not seem “super unusual.” But in the 1960s and ’70s doing things like printing on cloth and plexiglass, and using different materials to incorporate three-dimensional elements into prints, was groundbreaking.
Usually, the artists came to screen printing after training in other media. They didn’t leave those media behind when they worked at the shop, though. Instead, like Proch with drawing, they regularly dialogued with other art media including painting, sculpture, photography, even performance art courtesy of two body prints by Karen Belisle.
Those prints are in a section devoted to feminism. The section is more of a nod to the times than the Screen Shop itself though, says King. “The shop was known as a boys’ club, so not many women printed there. The best-known female artist was Daphne Odjig.”
In 1974, Odjig had founded Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. just down the street from the Screen Shop. Made up of seven artists, PNIAI has been described as the Indigenous equivalent of Canada’s famous Group of Seven. Along with Odjig, Carl Ray, Alex Janvier and Jackson Beardy all printed at the shop.
Their inclusion is a welcome addition to the show, as is work by the Canadian art collective General Idea. While Toronto, and later, New York-based, two of the three artists had ties to Winnipeg — so General Idea knew of the shop, and did work there.
Lobchuk had gone to school with Joe Fafard too, so there was a strong Regina connection, with artists such as Fafard, David Thauberger, Russ Yuristy and Vic Cicanksy printing at the shop.
An edited version of Superscreen will be shown at the University of Manitoba in the fall, says King, and a major catalogue is planned. That’s fitting, because the Winnipeg Screen Shop is an important story in western Canadian art history. But the principle reason you should see this show is because it’s got a lot of great art.
“Winnipeg was a city where everyone left and moved to Toronto,” says King. “There was a hot scene in Vancouver as well, but the Prairies were kind of ignored.
“Artists were highly informed about the work coming out of [bigger centres in Canada and the U.S.],” King says. “It’s not fair to say they didn’t like it or didn’t see value in it. They just wanted space for their own work as part of a broader Prairie regionalism movement.”