I have quietly been organizing a BEASTS! print show for the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery's Second Anniversary in December. Details will come in November but in short: The show will feature art from any of the 180 international artists who wish to make non-digital prints of their beast, whether it's the art that ran in the books or new variations. What follows here is simply a manifesto of sorts– an explanation for why this print show is what it is. This came about because some people were confused why I don't want to sell digital prints, including our hard-working gallerist who was supportive but stressed the pragmatic fact that digital prints sell.
Admittedly, I'm making a soapbox stand with this show by insisting on prints that have had the human hand involved somehow and by denouncing digital prints which are exactly what they sound like: Prints done on an inkjet printer. These prints are also called "giclée" by those who are understandably embarrassed by all the coldness that is connoted by the term "digital print." Honestly, the only reason to call digital prints giclée is to distract from their origin and to imply repsectability. What is a screenprint? A print made through (traditionally silk) screens. What is a giclée? I have no idea. This great article on the etymology tells me it's a French term that could mean the following: "a spurt of blood, a burst of machine-gun fire, a splashing with mud." So the term is awesomely poetic but still only poetic propoganda.
In fairness, the argument for giclée prints are their high quality (born from the computer's exactitude) and if your only concern is one of precision replication of an other, original piece of art then giclee is the way to go. However, as an emotional investment in Art Making its print-on-demand nature makes it a cop-out on the part of artists or, more commonly, the merchandiser (or, uh, gallery) who offers to make the prints for artists. Furthermore, compared to the meticulous craft that goes into all traditional print-making forms a giclee print is truly nothing more than Product. Even if the original creation was unmistakeably Art, the shadow that is a giclée is but a soulless Product.
I think it's crucial that the buyer is aware that the print is a product that can be replicated at a moment's notice (just send it to print on the computer) and reproduced infinitely, without variation. And while these prints can be promised as limited editions this is still essentially meaningless inasmuch as a person could scan and print a virtually identical giclée. Frequently this limited edition is only printed as orders come in so a limited edition of 10 prints may never even get made past the one you order. I'm sure this rarely happens but it does happen and even as a theoretical practice I find it cheap and subversive to the model that artists rely upon in valuing reproduction editions.
Meanwhile there is a mind-boggling craft involved in all traditional print-making that makes any hand-crafted print far more valuable than any digital print. Perhaps it sounds snobbish to make these distinctions but the truth is that giving something a French name in order to sell it is far more snooty than my position which is as an advocate for the value of Art in this Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Aside from the fact that giclée prints are far more expensive per-unit than most any other process, I simply find it consumerist and soulless to actively convince people that a digital print has any value beyond decoration or as reference material. It is, as a kind of Platonic thing, not capable of being Art. For example, screenprinting is perhaps the most common and well-known non-printing-press, print-making technique [entertaining Aesthetic Apparatus instructional video here]. It's potentially cheap and easy if also messy. It can be as simple as one-color screened on paper or something complex and nuanced like this 24-layer Gary Baseman print from Decoder Ring. But it has SOUL that resonates back through generations of our ancestors who developed hands-on methods for spreading information and art.
And you can FEEL the ink when you run your hand over the surface of a screenprint. You can see flaws, shifts in registration, places where the screen flow became dried up, etc. The ink has characteristics that interact from one color to the next. You can stare at the art as a built-up object and every print is crafted— either with such imprecision that every print is distinctly unique or with such precision as to baffle the viewer who understands the process (like anyone who has ever picked up a pen can marvel at Charles Burns' machine-like lines). But the point is that every one of these prints becomes a new piece of art. The original art is its own entity and every single reproduction is another.
Jordan Crane is a surprisingly perfect example of this. A man of absolute craft, he has decidedly flawed screenprints. His original art for the Lestrygonian of BEASTS! Book One is gorgeously executed with subtle pencil marks still showing under the seemingly-effortless inked art (with almost no correction fluid used on his lines). The black line art of the original is brought to life further through his coloring in the screenprinted version of this art but it also shows the inconsistency of watery inks that are laid down by the artist in his makeshift print studio. Every screenprint certainly has its own final appearance but more importantly it feels like an extension of the artist and if you know that he personally researched and built the studio and makes these prints himself and probably destroys half the run in a rage against the imperfections, well, it just imbues more life in the print when you look at it.
Some artists use this process as a means to essentially create the original art. For example, a few years ago I bought this print by Mat Daly. There is no original art as such– this is all cut from rubylith. If you don't know what that means you probably can't appreciate every level of this complicated print but suffice it to say that there is no "original" art except in the form of many ruby-colored translucent sheets that have been cut into shapes and layered on top of one another. It requires someone with a keen ability to intuitively pre-visualize and it's jaw-dropping what he does– beside the fact that the art itself is beautiful and smart.
Jay Ryan might be a more traditional example of someone using print-making to create a new "original" work. His posters start out as original pencil drawings which are sometimes collaged together via xeroxing (creating a kind of third "original") and then colored by means of cutting film in the screenprinting process I believe. (He also uses a lot of "split fountains" to dynamic effect– a coloring process that is intrinsically ever-shifting.)
Jesse LeDoux represents a mostly-digital artist who makes printed work via screenprinting. His art becomes all about reducing the work to simplified shapes and colors that translate to the limitations and opportunities unique to screenprinting (for example, he uses a lot of overlaying of colors to extend his palette– for people only familiar with Photoshop that's like using the Multiply feaure in your layers palette but you only get to see the result by burning film and printing the layers).
Monoprints are the ultimate example of print-making as Art. Lizz Hickey is one of my favorite artists carrying that torch. Much of her work involves physically and chemically etching metal plates (sometimes shaping the plates into specific forms that leave a desired imprint in soft, cottony paper) and she frequently takes this print-making a step further by hand-coloring or drawing on the print, potentially ruining her efforts. The work is obsessive and if you don't feel life coarsing through the print when you hold it then none of this writing here probably matters to you. I sometimes (seriously) think that if I left the house for a week I could come home to her print having spawned Killoffer-like, taking over the walls of every room.
Meanwhile, readers of this diatribe might wonder about all the digital artists whose work seems too layered, too full of continuous tone to make affordable prints other than inkjet giclée. I felt badly excluding those artists from the print show but two brilliant artists put me at ease by endorsing this stand against giclée: One who will be part of the show and one who will not. Collagist/photographer Thomas Allen told me that he still shoots on film (because it matters) and maybe he doesn't make albumen prints but he does make prints on good old-fashioned light-sensitive paper.
Yuko Shimizu is a highly-regarded mostly-digital artist who I admire all the more for writing this to me: "As a digital artist I don’t believe in selling digital prints, so more power to you. I won’t be able to participate in the show, but that sounds great, congratulations. …People constantly ask me why I don’t sell prints. I just don’t believe in them!!"
So that's my reason for the non-giclée BEASTS! print show. We, the 180 artists, hereby offer an anomaly befitting the subject of mythological beasts: Prints made by hand. I hope people will support these artists who are invested in giving traditional stories a form and allowing meaning and craft to hold primacy over technology.