uring a recent installment of 12@12 (a twelve-minute gallery talk at 12 pm), Mary Tasillo of the Common Press responded to our current exhibitiovn “William Kentridge: Universal Archive”:
I’d like to talk about paper and process – as both a papermaker and a printmaker. Right now we’re surrounded by linoleum cut prints based on ink drawings. One of the things I love about relief printmaking is the transformation that happens as you go from one medium to another – from an initial drawing, file, or photograph – to a dimensional, somewhat sculptural process such as carving into a block – back to the primarily 2D result of a print. What changes in the character of a line through those transitions?
What is remarkable about this exhibit is that these prints retain so carefully that gestural quality of the brush painting – a result of the painstaking detail with which the drawings were transferred and carved.
So…why not just make a brush painting? Why make a print at all? Certainly making a print, the process of creating copies for an edition, has implications for value and distribution – the potential for a wider reach.
As Kentridge explained in 2010, “at the other side of the press is a version of your drawing that is different to the marks originally made. A separation, as if some other hand had made the print.”
Clearly Kentridge is interested in transformation – much like the shifts that take place across a series of coffee pots, morphing into a human figure. A transformation from a quick, loose capturing of the moment to a meticulous and slow process of codifying those images by carving them into a block. We discuss a “vocabulary” of images, of everyday objects. A visual lexicon that reflects the idea of the dictionary pages onto which these images are printed. Also, we have multiplicity – here we can view the same bird, or the same tree, displayed on its own, or seen as part of a larger composition – allowing for repetition and driving home this idea of a visual language. The matrix of the linoleum block like the matrix that casts the letter “e” in metal in a system of moveable type or the typewriter key striking the page.
Coming back to those dictionary pages. Once you create a linoleum block, your matrix, your print can exist on multiple substrates. We tend to think about paper as neutral – but it needn’t be, and as a papermaker, I’d argue that it never is.
Some examples, beyond the found pages of the dictionary, from the world of contemporary hand papermakers: the Combat Paper Project has facilitated art-making workshops with veterans for the last decade, in which veterans are invited to transform their uniforms into paper pulp, make sheets of paper from the pulp, and create works of art from the sheets. The People’s Paper Co-op and Re-entry Project, here in North Philadelphia, facilitates handmade paper art at criminal record expungement clinics where participants are invited to pulp their just-expunged criminal records and transform them into paper that holds their personal stories. Here, taking meaningful materials through a physical transformation is a vehicle for emotional transformation – and anyone holding that piece of paper in their hands connects to that transformation.
William Kentridge is no stranger to the breadth of possibility that lies within paper, having collaborated with Dieu Donne Papermill in New York, which has really pushed handmade paper as an art medium unto itself. In a few of editions, making use of the watermark (the image one might see in the corner of a sheet of resume paper when holding it up to the light) as a drawing medium – the entirety of the piece held within the sheet of handmade paper.
If Kentridge is interested in the metamorphosis of his work through process, surely it must delight him to see the dance of meaning when his imagery becomes juxtaposed with various pages of the dictionary. How do we view the bird, when the word “visitation” crops up in the background, versus when layered over words such as “exodus”? One reading, a pleasant encounter with nature – the other coming closer to the idea of “extinct.” Thus printing on the dictionary pages gives us the potential for endless readings, based on chance encounters between surface and substrate. And the more gestural the image, the more subject it is to the influence of the page.
The nature of the paper has other implications for the life of the work. You’ll notice throughout the exhibition labels that the dictionary pages are continually marked as “non-archival” — and the label for “If you have no eye” also specifies the “archival tape” piecing things together. It’s a bit funny for an exhibition named “Universal Archive.” The found pages are not pH neutral, and will continue to yellow and deteriorate over time. Much like Kentridge’s collection of everyday items, plants, and mammals will deteriorate or be tossed away over time. This is in contrast to the typical notion of archive, preserved for all time – but in line, once again, with changes and shifts, and with the ongoing construction and deconstruction taking place in the collaged prints, such as the cats, where the pages making up the prints have been both torn apart and pieced together. The shape of the dictionary pages follows the shape of the cat, using the substrate, the page, to reinforce the form and sense of movement.
So as you view this exhibition, I ask you to consider process – the print and the substrate? How does Kentridge use the multiple? And how would the work change with a different substrate – either with a plain background, or with found paper of a different nature?