Philadelphia Museum of Art;
Moore College of Art and Design; Temple Gallery at Tyler School of Art; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts;
and The Print Center Philadelphia
January 29 – April 11, 2010
A video in Óscar Muñoz’s “Biografías” series (2002) shows a floating, ethereal portrait rendered in powdery black charcoal. As we watch, the cheek elongates and skews into the eye; we hear the familiar slurp of water sucked down a drain, and abruptly the likeness is gone, slumped into a black heap against the curve of the sink. But this is video time, not real time, and sure enough the face miraculously reconstitutes itself, slowly unfolding, galaxy-like, from its spit of debris, back into a legible, full-size visage.
The dynamic between dissolution and fixity—between the transient and the recurring—is a central focus of The Graphic Unconscious, the core exhibition of Philagrafika 2010, Philadelphia’s city-wide festival on the contemporary print. Taking its title from a line in Walter Benjamin on “the optical unconscious” (the hidden elements of vision rendered perceptible by the dimensions and velocities of the camera), The Graphic Unconscious is an ambitious, multi-site presentation of prints and their protean returns to the surface: as video stills, installation elements, models for process, or foreign objects in collage. While strategies vary among venues, the artists exhibit a common urge to situate the print in wider fields—social, spatial, textual, temporal—or to investigate the networks of distribution and mediation that structure those fields. Does the print hold itself together against such pressures? Does it blur at the edges, or reconstitute itself elsewhere à la Muñoz? Can it mimic, or transform, or work against the grain of those structures already in place?
Permeable and transparent, water is an eloquent medium for Muñoz because it blurs the point of contact, the surface boundary where matrix and impression meet. Throughout the exhibition, the surfaces of things—their interfaces with the world—are highly suggestive sites of metaphor and material play. In Kiki Smith’s work on crinkly Nepal paper, the fibrous weft of the surface bleeds into the weathered skin of her ink-drawn figures. German artist Thomas Kilpper engraves a skin with more overtly political overtones in “State of Control” (2009), a project that uses the linoleum flooring of the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin-Lichtenberg as its printing block. In the video documenting its making, we watch the hands of Kilpper and his assistants as they push lines and hatch marks into the resistant flooring, creating giant images of the GDR officials who once walked its surface. Pulling the prints—large impressions later sewn into two sheet-size banners—takes an entire team, and the results are hung over the building’s exterior.
The exhibition has a number of younger and emerging artists, from Philadelphia and elsewhere. At the Print Center, the site with the densest concentration of youthful inventiveness, the works range from slick abstract screen prints to textured woodcuts, animated video, and the edgy comic books of Capetown group Bittercomix. At the heart of things is the large art yurt by Philadelphia’s Space 1026, a Pantheon-shaped tent of hand printed fabrics designed as a reading room for the Center. Inside, printed fabrics and couches (along with wonky pillows shaped like candelabras and dresser chests) create an oddly homey feel, littered with the detritus of playthings and artistic inventions. Books, plastic figurines, and a bird’s nest line the shelves; the meandering chatter of viewers and a small flat-screen monitor of video work create a running backdrop of social sound.
Not everything hits its mark. There’s a callous hint of dumb-joke humor in Mark Bradford’s beautifully abraded text surfaces in his series “Untitled (Dementia)” (2000), and a familiar soft didacticism in the dynamic display of printed booklets by Chicago’s Temporary Services. More unfortunate are those works that, while visually arresting, don’t get far beyond ornamented detail, or get us only to pat observations on the omnipresence of media and consumerism. A number of these cluster at Moore College of Art and Design, though Virgil Marti’s silver, chilled-out “VIP Room” and Betsabeé Romero’s retreaded bus tires-turned-printing wheels are notable exceptions.
But there are moments that truly sing here. Numerous works thrive at the outer limits of the printmaking process, pushing the definition of print and discovering its particular workings (its indexicality, its emphasis on skin and surface, its capacity for dissemination and the creation of new social spaces) to be coterminous with a host of concerns in contemporary practice at large. Perhaps the most powerful moments happen where the limits of process overlap with the limits of perception generally—where interfaces break down, or where the structuring units of perception become discernibly inadequate. Christiane Baumgartner’s “Luftbild” (2009) is a woodcut of bomber planes shot through with a perceptible moiré pattern, the result of wave interference that occurred when she videotaped the television screen broadcasting the original image. As a woodcut, the image is legible but oddly striated, and its coherence is lost up close. Such material fissures, and the perceptual gaps they analogize, recur in many of the best works on display here. Form emerges despite or against its material supports, suspended spatially and temporally between origin, replica, and our own limits of understanding. As Óscar Muñoz noted, speaking at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in January, his work aims for “the point where it is or is not a memory; or is or is not a document.”
Emily Warner is a New York-based critic and writer, and former Editorial Intern at NYFA Current.