Life's Unfolding Drama: 2008 Pacific Rim International Print Exhibition
‘Printmaking, in all of its forms, is perfectly suited to a post modern approach to appropriating and ‘constructing’ images…. The very nature of the repeatable image mirrors many aspects of modern mass media communication while simultaneously allowing for the creating of a more tactile and personal image…’1
In an era of increasingly saturated global communication, exemplified by the constant consumption of images, printmaking is the ideal medium for the exchange of intelligent, subtle and provocative thought. This inaugural Pacific Rim International Print Exhibition includes work by artists from Australia, Canada, China, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and the United States and the request for submissions prescribed only that the works for exhibition were completed within the previous three years. However, many of the selected prints reveal a surprising consistency in their imagery and are often informed by a very conscious awareness of issues such as migration and globalisation, or by narratives about conflicts and negotiations between cultures and communities. In summary; evidence of the experience of the historical and present-day impact of global communication.
From New Zealand’s perspective it is appropriate that the hosting country should have initiated such a project. Voyage and communication between countries in the Pacific have been fundamental to the vitality of New Zealand printmaking for at least the past 80 years. For example, upon his appointment as lecturer in sculpture at the Canterbury College School of Art in Christchurch in 1924, English artist Francis Shurrock encouraged students to consider the merits of Japanese printmaking and the coloured woodcut.2 Furthermore, the establishment of the New Zealand Print Council in the 1960s witnessed the reinvigoration of local printmaking through the curation of annual survey exhibitions. The first was held in 1967 at the Auckland City Art Gallery, but it also toured ‘off-shore,’ to Australia.3 In 1974 a selection of works from these shows were purchased by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and travelled throughout the United States.4 Indeed, by this time it was claimed that the country’s printmakers were influenced: ‘not merely by New Zealand but by the rest of the world.’ In 1978 the Autographic Printmaking Workshop was established by Cathryn Shine and Graeme Cornwell and in addition, the attendance of printmaker Jule Einhorn at the Tamarind Institute in New Mexico in the late 1970s led to the establishment of the Gingko Gallery. Master lithographer Marian Maguire also studied at the Tamarind Institute and opened Lime Works printmaking studio in 1986 and Papergraphica in 1996.
Not surprisingly, the imagery of Maguire’s contribution to this exhibition, The Labours of Herackles, recognises a history of migration and the influence of cultures from across the globe. Her work references Grecian black-figure vase painting and the early nineteenth-century watercolours of New Zealand surveyor /settler, Charles Heaphy. In contrast, a far less public face of the meeting of cultures and ideas is manifest in Indianapolis-based lithographer Chunwoo Nam’s Individual Story IV. Nam reconstructs memories of personal relationships that unravel the intricacy of responses to life’s experiences: ‘I try to represent how I’ve dealt with the complexities of identity, isolation, cultures bias, linguistic barriers, and social pressures in my life’s journey.’5
Similarly, the anxieties of humanity’s efforts to establish authentic communication in a global community inform Canadian artist Briar Craig’s Nostradam Me. Seeking to connect associations between the seemingly haphazard compilation of subjects in a popular publication such as National Geographic, Craig draws a link between the prophecies of Nostradamus and the current state of the world. Assaulted by information that seems both imperative and ephemeral, the artist adds her own messages to encourage further complications that just might ‘make sense’ of the kinds of narratives the international magazine contains.
However, it is not merely the subversive potential of an image such as Craig’s that suggests that serious printmaking retains an authority to act with intelligence, subtly or provocation in the early twenty-first century. Equally significant is this practice’s position as an art form that is capable of being administered and assembled into an international exhibition and travelled half way around the world with relative ease. Packaged and posted in cardboard tubes and prepared for display within three months, the works in this show have undoubtedly required good management and resources. However, they also partake in a unique international survey exhibition that operates beyond and outside the influence of large arts institutions often seeking substantial funding from central governments. (ie, this is not an international biennial, yet the art works encompass all the best qualities of such an event). In the independence of selection and assemblage this exhibition confirms that printmaking still maintains an integrity that is free of political persuasion.
But do we really need another body of images on public display in a world inundated by popular, mass-communication? After all, there are pictures to download, cut and paste, or watch in rapid succession on cell phones, bill boards, television, computers, etc. Can a printmaking survey exhibition contain anything that will improve or add to our visual and intellectual experience? I would trust that the quality of the visual experience and ideas contained in a show such as this will bring forth a resounding ‘yes’ from even the most sceptical art commentator, gallery or website visitor. In his artist’s statement for this exhibition, Chunwoo Nam captured this principle perfectly:
These images speak not only about private memories, but, concurrently, about my profound love of printmaking – its possibilities, opportunities and challenges. As with my new [life] in another country, printmaking continues to offer up fresh insights in life’s unfolding drama.6
It is this commitment to both the processes of printmaking and the realisation of images and ideas of eminence that remain entirely worthy of our attention.
- Briar Craig to Cathryn Shine, 24 July 2008.
- Gail Ross, ‘New Zealand Prints 1900-1950: An Unseen Heritage,’ Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts, 2006, p. 55,
- Jill McIntosh [ed], Contemporary New Zealand Prints, Wellington: Allen & Unwin and Wellington City Art Gallery, 1989, p. vii.
- McIntosh, p. viii.
- Cunwoo Nam to Cathryn Shine, 8 August 2008.