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What Is Printmaking Today? Philadelphia Dares to Ask

PHILADELPHIA — The fine art of printmaking is not what it used to be. To produce printed images using tools more sophisticated than potatoes and rubber stamps once required the esoteric knowledge of an alchemist and the manual skills of a surgeon. Today anyone with the right software and a good color printer can make infinitely reproducible images that are hard to distinguish from professionally made drawings, paintings, montages, commercial illustrations and other sorts of pictures. Which raises the question: What should a major, international exhibition devoted to contemporary printmaking entail?

In an indoor gallery, Virgil Marti, a Philadelphia artist, has covered the walls with silver paper bearing an ornate, floral pattern that turns out, on closer scrutiny, to be made up of skulls and bones, to create a gleaming, environmental memento mori.

In another gallery the Brazilian artist Regina Silveira has flooded the walls and floors with gigantically enlarged, black vinyl images of insects. It is an eye-boggling, walk-in nightmare. And in a connecting corridor Betsabeé Romero who works in Mexico City, presents prints made by rolling inked old tires that she retreaded with images of birds onto yardslong lengths of paper.

Projects at the Tyler School of Art’s Temple Gallery in a show organized by Sheryl Conkelton, an independent curator, do more still to stretch the definition of printmaking. A Danish team called Superflex has set up a workstation where students are assembling cube-shaped hanging lamps whose paper sides, spit out by an online printer, bear photographic images of copyrighted lights by famous designers. It is a provocative comment on theft and intellectual property rights.

Making points about information overload, Francesc Ruiz, of Barcelona, Spain, has recreated an outdoor newsstand and stocked its shelves with satiric fake magazines, while Barthélémy Toguo, of Cameroon, has covered the walls of a separate space with newspaper pages that have all their words blacked out. In a dark room a hypnotic video by the South Korean Web-art group Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries uses big, block letters appearing in infectiously punchy rhythms to tell a violent story of three young misfits visiting the border between North and South Korea.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art politics meets surrealistic fantasy in a two-artist show organized by Shelley R. Langdale, an associate curator of prints and drawings at the museum. In one gallery Óscar Muñoz, of Colombia, shows a quartet of floor-projected videos in which photo-silk-screened pictures of people from newspaper obituaries float on the surface of water in a white sink. As the water runs out, the images become distorted and go down the drain; then the process reverses and the anonymous faces recohere. The videos poignantly symbolize the tragically ephemeral quality of life in some parts of the world.

In a gallery next door a short animated film by the Japanese artist Tabaimo explores psychoanalytic territory. Called “dolefulhouse,” it shows giant hands installing miniature pieces of antique furniture in a dollhouse. Then octopuses start coming in through the windows, tentacles proliferate like vines, and the house fills with water. Normal consciousness is swamped by previously repressed psychic energies.

The longstanding tradition of populist printmaking is updated at the Print Center in a show of 14 artists and collectives organized by the center’s curator of prints and photographs, John Caperton. Eric Avery, a Texas psychiatrist as well as an artist, has wallpapered the lavatory with small, cartoonish prints illustrating how to use male and female condoms. Woodcuts by Sue Coe illustrate and protest against cruelty to animals. A Chicago collective called Temporary Services presents cheaply produced booklets containing miscellaneous information, including one about illegal devices concocted by prison inmates using legal materials. Upstairs, the Philadelphia collective Space 1026 has constructed a yurt using its own printed fabrics within which people may read, converse and lounge.

The upshot of all this is intellectually stimulating but inconclusive. Is printmaking dead, or is it reborn? Is it a meaningful category at all anymore for contemporary artists who revel in mechanically produced imagery of all kinds and fearlessly use and misuse whatever tools are at hand? If you think these questions matter — and there are good reasons to think they do — you need to plan a trip to Philadelphia.

“Philagrafika 2010” runs through April 11 at various galleries and museums across Philadelphia; (215) 557-8433,

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