GSS 2013 Printmaking Residency Exhibition
Gowanus Studio Space 2013 Printmaking Residency Exhibition
January 10th – January 19th 2014
Opening Reception: January 10th 6:30pm-10:00pm
Featuring the work of 2013 Residents Ann Agee, Saul Chernick, and Zefrey Throwell
Please join us at The Gowanus Studio Space for the reception of our fourth annual Print Residency Exhibition. The three 2013 residents will show a selection of prints and print-related work made during their six months at GSS.
The GSS Print Residency is possible due to generous donations by Bill Goldston and Kiki Smith.
Learn more about the studio and the Print Residency including how to apply at www.gowanusstudio.org
Printed History: Ann Agee, Saul Chernick, and Zefrey Throwell
by Hrag Vartanian
In the contemporary era, the use of printmaking involves a level of nostalgia, as an artist’s decisioto reproduce an image is largely based on aesthetics and artistry rather than practical considerations or ease of technology. In the digital age, the printed image has the burden of physicality, yet it also has a rich history that can be drawn upon and reconfigured into new artistic identities.
That tension between history and today, between an idea made physical and the rejection of the notion of meaning that transcends time and place, is at the core of print-based projects by Ann Agee, Saul Chernick, and Zefrey Throwell. Each artist has taken historical moments and reinvented them through poetic gestures that highlight the unlikely pairing of absurd banality and radical beauty.
A Gothic Windows Operating System
In his own words, Saul Chernick’s art “celebrates virtual realms — both old and new,” and he draws parallels between the windows of computer operating systems and the stark world of early European printed books, with their black-outlined illustrations and free dance of images among text. He imbues seemingly recognizable things with a sense of mystery, and his universe contracts and expands in a matrix that can seem on the verge of collapse, particularly in regards to meaning.
Chernick is not the first person to draw parallels between the contemporary age and the late medieval period. Modern media theorists like Marshall McLuhan have made frequent connections between such seemingly disparate things as medieval religious icons and television, with their unblinking images, or both eras’ preference for non-linear narrative, with their serialization of common types. McLuhan also theorized that periods throughout history have marked shifts in social attitudes towards media, from the “cool” to “hot” and then back, the former asking its audience for passivity, the latter demanding its audience fill in the gaps. The shift from the medieval era’s manuscript culture to early print culture, according to McLuhan, was one from cool to hot, while in the last century he saw a reversal of the temperature as things cooled down. We can’t be sure what McLuhan would’ve thought of our own internet age, but judging by his writings we can assume he would’ve seen the transition to cool as complete.
In Chernick’s work there’s a constant and conscious
sense of unease and transition as a cloud of coolness appears to permeate the normally fixed universe of the early printed image.
In “Totentanz 2.0” (2013), Chernick combines the late medieval world with the screen culture of laptops and desktops. Outlined by a romantically old-fashioned, eyebrow-arched window with an extended leg, the frame looks onto a floating universe of Photoshop tool windows, media player controls, and icons (scrolls, books, drapery, clouds, etc.). The work frustrates any attempt to read a narrative into the scene, but time does exist, as alluded to by the media player and the suggested motion of the human figures, even if it is perpetually frozen. Wallpaper-like patterns fill open windows and hatched shadows suggest light from a singular source hidden from view.
In “Cloudspeak” and “Interference” (both 2013), the compositions are more frantic and suggest an encroaching sense of horror vacui, more commonly known as a fear of empty space. Clouds and operating-system windows jostle one another in “Cloudspeak,” while obscuring images underneath. In “Interference” the empty gothic windows that fill the frame comprise a seemingly endless cascade that appears poised to crash.
Print, according to McLuhan, transformed “the vernaculars into mass media, or closed systems, created the uniform, centralized forces of modern nationalism.” But here, in Chernick’s work, the systems appear more frail, unable to deliver meaning like they once did, as if exhausted of purpose. They turn to playful intrusion and mimic the stockpiles of objects perpetually generated by our consumerist society. This interest in print as historical product and the frustration of meaning is something both Agee and Throwell also demonstrate an affinity with.
The Illusion of the Mass Market
In contrast to Chernick’s zero-gravity visuals, Ann Agee’s approach to printmaking verges on the decorative, with its love of bold color and visual culture; her work is firmly planted in the language of materialism. Pieces like those in her Rules of the Pattern series and her 2012 Playing House installations in the Brooklyn Museum’s period rooms have
a mercantile quality to them, which she highlights by affixing a corporate-sounding name, Agee Manufacturing Co., to their fabrication.
Her latest series, Guidebook Covers (2013), takes familiar mid-century multilingual guidebooks, ubiquitous on the racks of European tourist hotspots like Florence, Paris, and Barcelona, and scrubs them of their usefulness. She mines these throwaway forms of culture for their modernist sensibility, which seems evident only after she erases the clutter of photographs and blurbs that normally crowd their pages. What we’re left with are clear blocks of color printed with a visual ease that feels like a misregistered color plate by Henri Matisse or Jean Arp. Each cover exclaims “Guide” and is created in a different language, which she translated using Google, but she has stepped back from slavishly copying the text to contribute artistic flourishes to each alphabet. While her drawings partially cloud the meaning of the words, making them almost indecipherable in some cases, they suggest a leisurely attitude towards the subject and a sense that these guidebooks could easily lead you astray. As expected, the name of Agee Manufacturing Co. appears on the cover of the guides to complete the illusion of mass production.
The freedom of forms is also at the core of Agee’s large-scale “Department of Memory Wallpaper” (2013) print, a unique work created from patches of oddly shaped plates that, together, radiate like a bold modernist supergraphic in a mid-century tourist office. Here, the playful color of the guidebooks is supersized, distorted, and overlapped, but without the text; the only meaning comes from a mood of joyful exuberance typical of the graphic sensibility of the era. There is a sense of utopian universality in both “Department of Memory Wallpaper” and Guidebook Covers, which present a world without shadows or hierarchies, a place where pure, unadulterated color is liberated from purpose and didactic meaning.
Woody Allen 1 Nazis 0
If the liberation of meaning is an underlying element of Agee’s mid-century revelrie, then Zefrey Throwell’s fixation on the darker corners of the modern era suggests that meaning never quite disappears.
In his Woody Allen vs. the Nazis series, the artist pairs infamous Nazi war criminals with an unlikely foil, Jewish-American director Woody Allen. The contrast is Allenesque, but Throwell frustrates all meaning with a subjective tally in the form of colored dots below each image — he is keeping score for a mysterious game for which he has obviously invented the rules.
Each panel couches the silkscreened photographs in a strongly modernist aesthetic that includes bright squeegeed streaks of color and clean planes of gold, black, or silver. In “Annie Hall vs. Himmler” (2013), a formal portrait of the high-ranking Nazi on a silver field sits to the left of a confused-looking Allen holding lobsters in one of Annie Hall’s (1977) most famous comedic scenes. Allen comes out ahead.
In other works from the series Allen and the featured
Nazi switch places, but the tally continues to accumulate, with Allen’s dots always in an ominous yellow (the color of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps), while the Nazis are always annotated in blood red. It’s clear whom he
wants to win.
In “Stardust vs. Goering” (2013), Hermann Göring is placed on a golden field that gives the German a glowing aura, like the one in Andy Warhol’s “Gold Marilyn Monroe” (1962). Allen’s brooding figure on a black ground chalks up another arbitrary point.
Like Chernick’s historically based aesthetic, Throwell uses the language of another era, this time Pop Art. The streaks of color and the silkscreened photos resemble the early 1960s works of Robert Rauschenberg, such as “Retroactive” (1964). National Socialism of the 1940s and American cinema of the 1970s are united under the rubric of early Pop’s punched up — if highly stylized and somewhat hollow — expressiveness. Even if we’re all hoping Allen will triumph over the comic book–like evil of his foes, the contest seems fixed. The system Throwell has devised for his game has capricious rules, but the images themselves continue to resonate, even if we’re uncomfortable with the use of war criminals as game pieces. It’s as if the artist is thumbing his nose at Rauschenberg’s famous phrase, “I don’t want a picture to look like something it isn’t. I want it to look like something it is.” What if, Throwell seems to ask, what it is is really despicable?
Past as Present
The role of history in these works is partly based on each artist’s fascination with the print as an object and the change it has endured over time. By combining a living, online iconography with a largely dead visual language, Chernick makes his case for the limited shelf life of our latest lexicon — its death seem almost unavoidable. Agee’s whimsical treatment of objects of utility injects a sense of shiftiness into the modernist utopianism that once permeated her original sources. And Throwell’s work, with its subjective game and sleek packaging, pushes the boundaries of acceptable meaning, making us curious about his hidden agenda.
In all these works, history is a living force. In an era of disillusionment, when maintaining a coherent sense of self can be dauntingly difficult, it’s no wonder that most of us feel compelled to remember, reminisce, and ruminate on the past to find the foundations of our lives today. Meaning, these artist seem to suggest, is in the retelling and updating of the tale until it potentially becomes something new.