The word “printing” carries a sense of monotony and is, in general, rather self-explanatory. People can be fooled by its seeming banality because the frequent appearance of the word “print” in our lives (especially as students) conditions us with the association of repetition and replication — which is true, since the process of printing consists of transferring and mirroring patterns, lines and shapes onto another medium. Nevertheless, the exhibition “Critical Printing” at the Harvard Art Museums’ University Teaching Gallery, which opened Aug. 31 and closes Jan. 5, 2020, leaps beyond people’s common conception.
The exhibition outspokenly instructs the audience to walk around the space clockwise due to the specially designed layout that showcases more than 20 prints. Instead of lining up according to chronology or genre, works are arranged in five clusters depending on their different “fundamental modes of critical thinking” that consist of“Reversal,” “Pressure,” “Color Separation,” “Depth” and “Replicability.” Each mode represents a peculiarity of the printmaking process, which not only galvanizes each print’s artistic purpose but also unveils the embedded power of printing in the realms of history, culture and society.
At first glance, the five terminologies might be confusingly profound due to their terseness and their seemingly ambiguous correlation with the artistically abstract prints. However, it is the perplexing first impression that potentially ignites the urge to decipher the hidden meaning and complete the puzzle.
What’s fascinating about each print is its utilization of the printmaking’s natural characteristics that empower the meaning without extra ornament.
“Camp of Massachusetts Sixth Regt. Vols. Suffolk, Va.” (2006) is an inkjet digital print top-coated with a glassine overlay. Artist Fred Wilson copied and printed an 1863 lithograph depicting the encampment of a Massachusetts regiment of Union soldiers, then laid a sheet of translucent glassine to blur the details. However, the lower left corner contains a hole on the glassine to allow the audience to peek at one specific facet of the print underneath. Because of its two-layered nature, this print is categorized into the mode of “Depth.”
The process of this print seems absurdly simple — “copy and paste” the original image, cut a hole in the glassine and layer two pieces together with a narrow space in between, but what Wilson is trying to convey is the powerlessness and invisibility of African Americans throughout American history. In this obscured image, only a washerwoman’s figure is clarified through the cut-out. Her minuscule presence in the whole frame reveals how negligible she appears in the original print. The visual impact that emerges from the physical “depth” thus not only manifests a reflective and aphoristic criticism toward American history and society but also exposes the grievance of African Americans while upholding their importance and contribution.
In the section of “Reversal,” which is the reversal of image as it “passes between the matrix (the block or plate) and the paper,” artists employ reversed graphics to destabilize and challenge certain historical settlements, social rules and common perceptions. A bolded and reversed “NO” printed in punchy red in “stars” (1967) by Corita Kent aims to erase negative thoughts within individuals and illuminate positivity by “rejecting the rejection.” Indeed, according to the quote in “stars,” “Everyone has, inside himself…what shall I call it? A piece of good news!”
Within each cluster, every print has its own personality, story and power. Their critical nature, as well as their organic simplicity, influence and resonate with the grand environment in unique ways, empowering and redefining the scope of printmaking.