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Alternative Digital Printmaking and its Tribal Roots

By Leslie Nobler Farber
ART TIMES April 2009

Looking at ways in which artists bring their heritage and their hands into their computer art has long been a research thrust and influence upon my own, and fellow artists’, art practice. We look to the approach and techniques of traditional fine artists as much as we look to the logic, power, and open-endedness of experimental digital pioneers. I both study and teach these kinds of creative art-makers; I see how they grapple with being between two worlds. Even those hot, marketable, artists that safely avoid the digital, are in a sense, following the dictates of the computer age. Investigating the producers, since the birth of electronic image-making, has led me to believe that these are the best teachers and documenters of our day, its hybrid inventors.  Designer/artist April Greiman wrote a 1990 book entitled Hybrid Imagery, defining a computer/traditional art form. Now, eighteen years further into it, and the hybridizing seems limitless. As we come up with new intermediaries between the handmade and the electronically mediated, we are our own pioneers, or original, tinkering, creators – which takes us back to those very primitive queries of "How do we use TOOLS?" This question addresses our bimodal environment, forcing us to be ingenious with our “givens” much the same as our forbears did with only their physical environs, and typically organic substrates/structures. So with this search, there is a throwback phenomenon – there is a sense of returning to the beginning – a tribal or ancestral effect.

Often these hybridizers select formats that even feel more tribal, such as prayer flags, wearables – ornamenting the body, scrolls, thangkas (meant for meditation), and handmade artist’s books. It seems as though all the new media forms, the internet, and all the fodder it gives the artist for content, needs more than the typical rectangular flat surface for its outlet. Artist Katherine Crone, who digitally creates artist's books, is “pleased that when the images of water are printed onto [her] silk organza pages, the edges and colors become less defined.” [Beck 2006] A reviewer explains my book & scroll arts creative process: “she prints out computer images, monoprints over them, then scans and combines them into collages, thereby” [Beck2006] pushing hybridizing even further. She continues, this format enables “referencing themes of consumerism, spirituality and the contradictions of natural versus simulated imagery.” Crone concludes, “it is all an evolutionary process and my work is beginning to change again.” [Beck 2006]

One of our most influential and important contemporary artists, Robert Rauschenberg, epitomizes this search/process perfectly. His works now are wonderful blends of digital printmaking technology within traditional painting structures; previously they had been assemblages of found objects, paint and print media – he termed “Combines.” Other renowned multiple- or mixed-media artists such as Kiki Smith and Jane Hammond have followed suit, utilizing digital printmaking with conventional collage or painting/drawing. Just as these non-electronic artists are bridging the divide into digital – always valuing the importance of the hand while placing faith in the advances of technology, other rising, up-and-coming stars of the art world are casting aside their "hands" – albeit producing what we think of as paintings.

Christine Streuli, the Swiss representative at the Venice 2007 Biennale, intentionally removes her hand from the process of painting. "For her, expression resides in colour [and its form] rather than in touch.”[Frieze 2007] Printing, pressing (decals), and tracings are used to create her psychedelic landscapes. And painters Phillip Taaffe and Beatriz Milhazes also handle their original “decals” (of motifs taken from past, tribal or other cultures)- but less frequently mark the canvas surfaces directly. Milhazes states that she does not allow any brushstrokes to appear. “If you would touch one of my paintings you would feel that it is totally flat. There is [barely] a trace of the hand. All the paint has taken on the texture of plastic.” [Kerguehennec 2004] When asked if she has ever used graphics software because her process is so close to that of working on a computer, she replies, “I don’t use a computer because the screen is too small. I have a compulsive need for physical contact with my [work.]” The interviewer responds, restating that one would think these are made with a computer, adding, “that it is so interesting – making something very contemporary by hand.” [Kerguehennec 2004] So as some artists shift to the electronic and try to keep the touch "in", others, fight the natural move to electronic media, yet go about removing tactility. “Hands” visible or not, they all strive to provide a future history – to leave generations to come a legacy about this time and what our RAPID move to an online global society meant to us. Quite ironically those “hand-reducing” artists are likely reflecting that prevalent feeling of disconnect we get with the digitization of so much of our lives.

We, as artists, borrow motifs from the past, going as far back as tribal cultures from distant lands, or as recent as from the Pop Art movement, to convey a new diversity and web-fed global society of today. In doing so, to do the job right, we must slow down the process. I draw out the process, quite literally, by drawing. After finishing a computer painting and printing out on transfer sheets, I produce the final image on a substrate that befits the intent of the work, and the responsibilities of the contemporary artist. Reflecting on our duty to take care of our planet, I incorporate drawings of weather-beaten manmade structures and images of houses that reference family and community. I often transfer print onto inorganic – non-biodegradable – but very mobile and lightweight surfaces (less fuel to transport), highlighting the contrast between what can or cannot be recycled. I print using light ink coverage (limiting use of resources), transfer this matrix and then re-draw the entire piece over this delicate guide. The process slows dramatically, as I toil by hand, very physically, over each piece. The deliberateness is welcome; it is meditative. As it enables me to consider my work’s impact on society and the environment, it allows me to get my hand back into the act of art-making. Digital technology has brought on an explosion of imagery on all kinds of surfaces in the graphic landscape; let's keep the hand, keep the land, respect the tribe, and use the tools of the explosion responsibly.

(Leslie Nobler Farber, a Digital Mixed-Media artist who works in Alternative Printmaking, Book Arts and Surface Design, is Associate Professor of Art, Wm. Paterson University).

BECK, J.R. 2006. The Inkjet Printer as a Versatile Tool. SurfaceDesign. Fall Edition, Sebastopol, CA. 29, 33. 2007.
www.friezeartfair.com/artists/yearbook/christine_streuli. Frieze Magazine. London, UK.
DE KERGUEHENNEC, D. 2004. Beatriz Milhazes. La MaisonDes Ameriques Latines. France. 62, 66.