Archive: Issue No. 73, September 2003

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Print as metaphor
by Kim Gurney

William Kentridge offered an anecdote in his opening address at the 3rd Impact Printmaking Conference that served as a stark revelation about the power of an effective print. Speaking to a packed audience at Cape Town's Michaelis School of Fine Art, he referred to the image of a cat created by Cecil Skotnes in 1960. Kentridge explained how the print hung on his bedroom wall as a child. Although its latter years were spent shelved in a cupboard, Kentridge said in many ways he has been remaking that cat in subsequent works. Video footage confirmed that fact.

The anecdote illustrated the magical and unknowable connection between a printmaker and the community that owns editions of the image. Kentridge said prints act as "household gods" that relocate with their owners and, like a good collection of books, serve as a talisman or touchstone of identity. But by the same token, he said prints also provide their creators with a concrete "snail trail" of their artistic development.

The feline anecdote was just one of a number of insights so perspicacious they subsequently acted as threads throughout the rest of the conference. Most strikingly, Kentridge spoke about print as metaphor - in particular, how prints act as a way to leave a visible trace or visual representation of "things print-makers have hints of but cannot directly see". Just as human beings have a membrane of skin to separate the internal from the threatening outside world, so Kentridge said printmakers use a sheet of paper to bring parts of the world and parts of themselves together. "The image is a way to trap together things that arrived from outside and from inside," he added.

Kentridge also spoke about the metaphorical link with alchemies of pressure. He said: "One of the reasons I still use intaglio is the way in which a plate acts as a kind of proposition, an hypothesis, and out comes a conclusion which hopefully has something more in it than the proposition. If I am unhappy with it, I can rework the plate or the stone or whatever until I am satisfied."

Kentridge referred to the element of delay between marking a plate and seeing the resulting images, which he regarded as important for objective distance from the work. But contrary to this was the speed with which a print could be made. "The speed of image-making keeps up with the speed with which we appropriate and understand the world. For me, an important part of printmaking is the possibility of speed in the sense of thinking on your feet and keeping a track of ideas."

Faye Hirsch, art critic and founding editor of Art on Paper, expounded on the idea of print as metaphor in the second keynote address. She said printmaking operates as a kind of meeting place between the conscious intention of art-making and the unintended happenings of life.

Her main assertion was that accident and chance could be essential to content. Referring to a print by Rauschenberg, with a crack severed right down the middle of it, Hirsch said this mistake - masquerading as intent - actually enhanced the work and its influence. "The crack is paradoxical because it provides an opening through which the world intervenes - it moves out of art and into life," she added.

Hirsch said prints were regarded by many as "insufferably pre-meditated". But, she said, prints were as open as other mediums to a wide variety of approaches. Her slide show certainly confirmed that assertion. One interesting recurrent element was the performance and bodily aspects of many of the modern prints - a fact commented on in later panel discussions.