Beyond paper: an examination of alternative supports in contemporary print practice.

The relationship between printmaking and paper goes back to printmaking’s conception with the invention of paper giving rise to printed media and as print technology spread throughout the world, paper evolved reaching a high level of combined aesthetics and functionality. Indeed, the choice of paper for editioning a print is an integral component of the process, with contemporary prints often being placed under the category of ‘works on paper’. So, what happens when artists move away from paper as their primary support? Does it cease to be a print, or does it expand the definition of print? This article aims to address these questions by looking at the work of several artists whose practices represent a range of different approaches to exploring the use of alternative printmaking supports. Concerns range from challenging grand narratives of high art, engaging with environmental and social issues and pushing the definition and possibilities of what contemporary printmaking can and could be. 

With the emergence of postmodernist theory and practice in the mid to late 20th Century, many artists started to work across disciplines combining different media in defiance of socially conditioned value systems, traditional hierarchies and categorization in the art world (Atkins, 1990). This new approach went hand in hand with incorporating every day and found objects, giving rise to several movements including Pop Art, Arte Povera and Trash Art. Although this trend can be traced back to Duchamp and the Dada movement, the reason for embracing new unconventional materials varied between different groups (Ilhan, 2016). In print studios, many artists were encouraged to have a more experimental attitude, developing a more process-based arts practice (Stijnman 2012). Whereas traditional intaglio and photo processes required complex steps, specialized tools and dangerous chemicals, ‘low-tech’ printing methods, including woodcut, screen-print, collagraph and monotype offered a freedom for artists to rip up, collage, sculpt and incorporate other media into their prints.  

John Hancock and his brother Charles, of The Amazing Hancock Brothers, proudly consider themselves ‘low-tech print masters’. They print their bold, colourful images using a combination of screen-print, woodcut, stamps and acrylic paint, printing on anything and everything from discarded plywood, metal trays, plastic shelves and mattress covers from charity stores, dumpster diving and cruising their neighbourhood on garbage days (White n.d). Figure 1 shows rusted barrels covered in layers of spray paint and cut out stencils applied in an apparently haphazard fashion evoking a site of renegade graffiti. Like Duchamp’s Readymades, which challenge the notions about what defines a work of art (Iversen, 2004), low-tech printmaking processes and methods is a means of taking art off its pedestal and stripping the pretentiousness out of art and art making. However, creating art that is democratic and accessible to all is a key attraction for the Hancock brother’s use of alternative supports. Their approach is also liberating their practice from the confines of technical concerns which dominate printmaking discourse and critique (Pelzer-Montada, 2008).

For some artists, however, environmental concerns are a key motivation in printing on upcycled materials. Adding value to waste objects destined for landfill through their transformation into art objects is what William McDonough and Michael Braungart termed upcycling. In contrast to recycling, which uses more of the planet’s resources, upcycling is a model for sustainable consumption and reinvigorating old materials (2002). Hamish Macaulay’s use of cardboard packaging, including wine boxes, pizza boxes and corrugated card, is in direct response to the amount of waste produced and the devastating consequences it has on our planet. His work aims to transform single-use cardboard packaging into a long-lasting work of art. The lines and texture of the cardboard clearly communicate the artist’s ecological narrative and process and highlight themes of permeance and semi-permanence in relation to human structures and the natural world. In all Macaulay’s work (see figure 2), bright architectural forms are superimposed against dark mountain ranges, and although the mountains appear silent and transparent, their dominance in the frame suggests that they will be the last ones standing long after our colourful constructions fade away. 

Co-curator of the landmark exhibition PHILOGRAFIKA 2010: The Graphic Unconscious, Jose Roca, argues that in order for artists to expand the parameters of contemporary printmaking it is necessary to consider print media, processes and materials as a means to build content rather than simply ‘technique-as-content’ (2018). Exploring alternative supports is an effective means to achieve conceptual goals, as artist, Ann Johnson, so aptly demonstrates in her work relating to her Native American and African ancestry. In her installation piece Preserved Genealogy (2012) she printed images of family members on ‘handmade vegetable paper’ which she created from slices of dehydrated cucumbers, zucchini, squash and yams (see figure 3). The prints were then placed at the bottom of dinner plates, encased in resin and arranged in memory of her grandmother’s kitchen. Similar to other organic supports she has used like feathers, leaves, corn husks and raw balls of cotton, the vegetable paper has a soft and ephemeral quality to it drawing the viewer in to intimately engage with her world and personal narratives of identity. It’s hard not to imagine the precision and care needed to print on such delicate materials, alluding to the sometimes difficult and sensitive issues addressed in her work which challenge the viewer to think critically about issues relating to the Black community, in particular the social injustice experienced every day that is largely invisible to mainstream America. In her sunglasses series (2015) a row of plexiglas boxes, hung at eye level, each containing a pair of solar tinted sunglasses. Cast on the wall below are the shadows of the words engraved into the top of the boxes reading YOU CAN’T SEE WHAT I CAN SEE. Looking more closely, you can see that each lens has the image of a youth, some with targets behind them, their faces squinting back at the viewer, which one can only assume is a cop (see figure 4). 

Printmaking has often been used to disseminate information and protest social and political issues. Artist Adam DelMarcelle covered the walls of his hometown with posters criticising the mayor’s lack of response to the rapid spread of opioid addiction, which had taken many lives, including his own brother. After the posters had been removed twice by city officials, DelMarcelle adopted a new strategy projecting the images onto the façade of public buildings. Elusive, mobile and highly visible these images are what he calls guerrilla projection, a form of design activism bearing witness, exposing and documenting societal injustice (Tallman n.d). As society has become increasingly digital, Paul Thompson (2011) argues that contemporary printmaking likewise needs to engage in digital technologies, stating that the history of print media has always been led by technological innovation to reach wider audiences. In 2018 DelMarcelle teamed up with artist/printmaker Dr. Eric Avery to produce Farmland Epidemic -a large digital projection onto a grain silo of a syringe protruding from a forearm, fist clenched and veins pulsing (see figure 5). Avery had made the woodcut several years previously as part of a body of work to critically engage the public on the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. As an ex-physician who had worked for over twenty years with HIV/AIDS patients, Avery shared DelMarcelle’s pragmatic approach of using art as a vehicle to educate the public about the crisis and destigmatise its victims. Their woodcuts and screen-prints are a floor-to-ceiling montage illustrating emergency procedures, medical kits and lived experiences. In the centre of the gallery the artists have created a ‘harm reduction space’ providing educational resources and hosting workshops by local health workers from the community. Although it’s hard to quantify to what extent this type of radical printmaking has on saving lives, it seems likely that stepping beyond the normal conventions of printed media has a higher chance of connecting with and impacting a wider audience.

Columbian artist Oscar Munoz has been exploring unconventional supports since the 1980s as a way to investigate the fragility of human life, using the process for creating a printed image and its subsequent disappearance as a metaphor for the fleeting existence we have on earth (Bunyan 2014). Undoubtedly, his most well-known piece is Narcissi (in process) (1995 – 2011), where he developed a completely new technique of printing on water (see figure 6). Munoz created a self-portrait using a silkscreen which he placed over a shallow tray of water lined with pages from a book. He then transferred the image by sifting charcoal dust through the screen. From when the particles hit the surface of the water (birth) to floating to bottom of the tray (life) eventually the water evaporates leaving the image on the paper (death). He created further technical innovation in his work Breath (1995), this time engaging the viewer in the process of bring the image to life (see figure 7). In fact, as the viewer approaches one of the seven circular mirrors on the wall, the condensation from their breath reveals the portraits of victims of violence collected from obituaries in local Colombian newspapers. Christina Mills proposes that when the viewer can interact with a work and have a direct experience, they attach more meaning to the work (2009). The surface of the mirrors had been screen-printed with grease, so the appearance and disappearance of the images are fleeting. Briefly, viewers give life to these victims through their breath before they cease to exist again. Similarly, his work deals with impermanence, the ongoing relationship between life and death, memory and loss of life, self and other. 

It is possible to argue that much of the work discussed could be placed under the umbrella of more dominant media such as performance, installation, sculpture, and even graffiti. Certainly, many artists and curators themselves use these terms when discussing these works. However, it is evident that rather than becoming absorbed by these more dominant mediums, print is in direct dialogue with a broader narrative of the contemporary art scene. Indeed, if materiality is considered to be predominant over all other methodological considerations in contemporary art practice (Mills 2009) then by breaking away from the two-dimensional confines of paper, printmakers are able to experiment more freely with the process and possibilities of printmaking as a tool to explore relevant themes and issues. For Munoz, DelMarcelle and Avery, non-traditional supports allow audiences to interact with their work directly, arguably having a greater impact on the viewer. However, for DelMarcelle, Avery and the Hancock brothers their approach is aimed at reaching wider audiences, choosing materials and supports to increase accessibility and break down barriers between high-brow and low-brow art. For Johnson, pushing the boundaries of her choice of support has resulted in her practice combining several mediums, simultaneously straddling print media, sculpture and installation. As keenly observed by Pelzer-Montada, there are few well-known artists that are working exclusively in print media, with those who do often forming constituencies of their own (2008). It is safe to say then that if the critical profile of printmaking in the contemporary art world is to be elevated, artists will need to step out of their comfort zone, adopting new technologies, approaches, matrices and substrates.  


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