On ViewThe Drawing Center
April 22 – June 24, 2011
An engraver’s plate synthesizes image, mark, and idea into one matrix. You can think of it as a kind of drawing that is more visceral and direct, aspiring to sculpture, as a needle extends the hand’s gesture or sometimes, in the case of aquatints, as acid is used to brand the image. Thus, indelibly marked, the plate can be considered as a forensic tableau recording and preserving the actions of its maker. But in the end, the plate, dented and worn by the press, bearing edits and re-touches, is rarely ever shown to viewers. It’s the print that magically appears on the wall, clean and numbered. Very little of the arduous process of drawing and preparing the plate is revealed.
Drawing and its Double: Selections from the Instituto Nazionale per la Grafica at the Drawing Center offers a glimpse at this unseen side of printmaking. All 59 of the engraved metal plates on display have been gathered from ING’s archives in Rome by co-curators Ginevra Mariani and Antonella Renzitti, in collaboration with the Drawing Center’s Executive Director Brett Littman. A short account of ING’s history can be found in the catalog essays written by Mariani and Renzitti. The former’s essay highlights the propagandist use of print by the Roman Curia, a fact that informs the viewing and provides a backdrop for Paolo Canevari’s Decalogo series in the Drawing Room, concurrent with the main exhibit.
As the curators point out, many of ING’s acquisitions can be traced to the 18th century, though the Institute was only formed in 1975 after the merging of Calcografia Nazionale and the Gabinetto Nazionale delle Stampe. Now it houses and exhibits all sorts of matrices and printed matter, as well as videos, by artists from Italy and beyond.
Matrices line the main gallery’s walls, beginning with Marcantonio Raimondi’s frieze-like engraving on copper from the early 16th century and ending with zinc plates from the 1980s bearing abstract compositions by Carla Accardi and Guido Strazza. Framed and presented without any of the ensuing prints, the plates reveal the large amount of drawing that went into their creation.
Looking at each matrix through a magnifying glass provided by the gallery, you can see how the marks are deftly handled grooves, parallel or cross-hatched to form a kind of incised sfumato. At least, this is the case until you get to the 20th century plates. In the earliest matrices, almost all of them copper, the lines have a mechanized precision. You’ll notice as you move forward in time how the marks become more varied and loose. By the 1920s, plates begin to have large crude lines that look like a drill or screw had been dragged across the surface. They recall a segment in one of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s plates, where thin scraggly lines are set next to staccato dashes in the shadowed forms of foliage and arches.
The art historical language used by the curators in the accompanying didactics mirrors the Modernist belief that abstraction is an evolutionary apex in art. But it’s clear from seeing the matrices by Raimondi in 1528, Giovanni Folo’s pristine contours in the 1840s, and Accardi’s Italian Abstractionism in the 1980s that a love of the line, no matter how calculated or spontaneous, a form in itself or as an arm’s contour, is what moves the artist to make a mark.
Noteworthy is Giorgio Ghisi’s 1549 reproduction of Michelangelo’s fresco “Last Judgment.” It shows how several plates can be used as parts to form one aggregate print. The 10 matrices are arranged a few inches apart, forming an irregular grid headlined by a portrait of the painter. A closer look at the lustered pink of copper reveals the delicate line-work that composes Ghisi’s dutiful rendering of classical bodies. Among them is the robust, almost naked figure of Christ, an image which the curators duly note as having been a subject of controversy and censorship during the Counter Reformation.
It is that long history of propaganda and censorship that Paolo Canevari critiques in his series of etched plates shown separately from the other matrices in a custom-made Drawing Room. Commissioned and previously exhibited by the ING in 2008, Decalogo is a set of 10 large etchings on nickel-plated copper. Unlike the older matrices, these plates were intended by the artist to be shown as drawings in themselves, though Canevari’s co-opting of the engraving process sheds light on the series as a conceptual piece rather than as a full-fledged etching plate.
Canevari has applied ink to his drawing marks resulting in a dramatic contrast between figure and ground. A smoky-black image occupies the mirror-like surface with the clarity of a logo. Indeed, these plates refer to engraving’s history as a tool for the broadcast of ideology, communication design as mass control. Other etchings from previous centuries come to mind: Goya’s “The Disasters of War,” with its depictions of decimated bodies hanging from a tree, and Redon’s iconic image of a watchful floating eye.
Canevari’s plates are equally evocative. A veil of fire obscures a gun, a tree, a dress hanging from a crucifix, the Roman Colosseum, and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf—motifs that recur in Canevari’s sculpture and video works. These burning icons, like a traumatic after-image singed in the mind, question a difficult and violent history of censorship and war, in which the role of religion is as sooty as the conflagration evoked by the dark gnarling flame. Decalogo refers to the Ten Commandments, but these icons seem more like ominous indictments with the connections they imply.
One plate is titled “Godog,” a palindrome that conflates dog with divinity. It depicts a wolf chained to a black tire branded with the word “god.” The image alludes to the origin myth of Rome in which a she-wolf discovers and nurses the empire’s twin founders. In this context, Canevari is laying down a heavy critique on the Church’s binding hold on culture as a whole.
It’s enlightening to see Canevari’s drawings in the midst of the older intaglio plates. Together they mark the vast history of printmaking as a complicated process that produces as many originals as it does copies.