Imitation and Illusion: Five Case Studies of Contemporary Printmaking
by Noah Breuer and Julia Lillie
This scholarly paper was presented by Lillie and Breuer as a slide lecture at the 2015 SGCI printmaking conference. All images are from the paper and are the property of the original artists.
Throughout their history in Western art, prints have frequently served as a means of disseminating the likeness of another art object, often a painting or a sculpture. This type of translation began almost as soon as printmaking emerged as a viable artistic medium in Europe in the late 1400s. Artists such as Andrea Mantegna – one of the first Italian engravers – made prints that depicted, or were inspired by, ancient sculptures and reliefs. However, Mantegna intended his marks to read as loose, hand-drawn lines. His distinctive zig-zag marks stand out when compared to the more regimented linework of many engravings from this period. As art historian Evelyn Lincoln has noted, the purpose of Mantegna’s simulation was to raise the status of printmaking, “to conceive of engraved images as taking part in the same courtly, humanist discourses that surrounded the importance of drawings.”1 Mantegna’s successful emulation of drawings speaks to the power of printmaking not just to reproduce another image, but to actually imitate other art forms and materials themselves.
As technological tools for plotting space and rendering lines have become increasingly advanced in the twenty-first century, printmakers have continued to create works which convey the illusion of different media, and that present a materiality thought to be beyond the two-dimensional printed image. This paper analyzes a sampling of five print projects made within the past ten years that blur the borders that define distinct printmaking processes, as well as those between printmaking and other art forms. While Mantegna was arguing for the validity of a new medium through his work, printmakers today experiment with illusion in order to test the boundaries of an established form.
Reimaginings of Print Processes: Multimedia Masquerades
Mining the potential of printmaking to take myriad forms and imitate other media, as Mantegna did, artists Rob Swainston and Noah Breuer recreate traditional print processes through contemporary technologies. The resulting objects invite studied decoding and they resist classification.
Rob Swainston works by layering print processes and expanding their technical possibilities, often through a combination of digital and woodcut techniques and with an eye toward installations. Swainston’s Woodcut Map of Utopia series from 2013 investigates various methods of disseminating ideas through the print medium, from maps to manifestos. The title is inspired by Thomas More’s book of fiction and political philosophy, Utopia. The works in the series take myriad forms in which different types of print media masquerade as each other.
One piece, for example, shares the series title and is a combination digital pigment print and woodcut. Swainston appropriated imagery from an engraving made in 1571 by Cornelis Cort, after a painting by Titian, titled The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence. On top of an enlarged digital print of Cort’s engraving, Swainston added his own swirling marks through an intaglio-wiped woodcut process. The maelstrom lines in the woodcut layer, which Swainston carved by using a computer-controlled router tool, share a similar thickness to the cross hatching of Cort’s engraving when seen at the blown-up scale in Swainston’s piece. The viewer must parse out the layers of imitations: which marks are part of a digital print? Which, if any, are printed “by hand?” Multiple techniques circle around one other, as the digitally-reproduced engraving imitates a painting, and the woodcut marks imitate engraving lines. Swainston connects the router to the burin as tools on the same family tree: those which afford uniformity but which, all the same, must be guided by the hand. Considering this series, one questions the classifications of distinct print media: if a woodcut is carved with a computer-controlled router and is printed like an intaglio print, is it one thing or many? Through looking at his work one questions the boundaries and classification of distinct print media: if a woodcut is carved with a computer-controlled router and is printed like an intaglio print, is it one thing or many?
In his multimedia works, Noah Breuer interrogates the structures of print processes and reflects upon their roles in popular culture. Recently, he has taken commercially printed ephemera from the 1980s and 1990s as his source material and has focused on the halftone dot, creating prints, collages, and books with a fusion of traditional techniques and new materials and technologies.
Breuer’s 40-page risograph-printed artist’s book, titled Team Set (2015), presents a dream-team lineup of 36 baseball players. Each page appropriates imagery from Topps brand trading cards from 1989 and 1990, which were originally printed with offset-lithography. The compositions are magnified reproductions of collages Breuer created by laser-cutting original baseball cards according to an enlarged halftone dot pattern, which is derived from the cards themselves. In the pages in the book, and in their card-collage predecessors, Breuer brings the elemental form of the halftone dot to the foreground and transforms this often overlooked building-block into a central visual trope. The risograph printer, invented in 1986, reproduces images by printing layers of different colors on top of one another to form a composite image with a range of tones.
In his use of retro “low-brow” process-printing, Breuer references the offset-lithography of the baseball cards and contemplates the obsolescence of the most widespread form of popular printing of his lifetime. He deconstructs the cards and unearths the halftone dot through laser-cutting, scanning and digital manipulation, and he rebuilds the card images with the traditional method that was used to create them. Breuer blends his interest in twenty-first century technologies with nostalgia for the ephemera of his childhood, blurring the boundaries between the two worlds.
Illusions of Space and Materiality
Since the late 15th century, when artists began to use single- and multiple-point perspective to render three-dimensional space in two dimensions, they have attempted to create increasingly convincing illusions. One of the most famous examples of this interest is the Gubbio Studiolo, now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This astounding work of intarsia (wood inlay), made for Duke Federico of Urbino, depicts a small room with cabinets along the walls, each filled with objects. The illusion of space is achieved entirely through flat pieces of wood of varying types and shades. The Studiolo can be seen as a Renaissance precedent for the works of contemporary artists Suzanne Song, Alex Dodge and Robert Lazzarini. These artists achieve illusions of space and materiality, often through the use of twenty-first century technologies.
One of the most effective and surprisingly efficient examples of illusory space in a recent print project is a screenprint on cherry wood veneer by Suzanne Song, titled Reset (2009). Song used only three screens: the printed areas are limited to white rectangles and cascading horizontal bands of gray and blue dots, which resemble shadows and convey a convincing sense of depth. Song airbrushed India ink on acetate in order to create the two shaded areas for the screenprint.
The overall design would have resulted in a successful illusion if printed on any surface, but because Song chose wood, which has varying tones, directional grain and a universally understood textural quality, the trickery is enhanced. Similar to the designers of the Gubbio Studiolo, Song has exploited the familiar qualities of wood grain, which lead the viewer to believe in a three dimensional object. There is a seductive simplicity in Song’s illusion, a beauty of economy. Song likely planned her screenprint using digital means, allowing for a precisely uniform rendering.
In the late 15th- and early 16th-centuries, artists learned how to plot linear perspective from illustrated guides, such as those by Albrecht Dürer. However, every artist did not execute the techniques with the same ability. This idea takes on new significance today with forms of technology that allow precise rendering of three-dimensional space. Alex Dodge is a contemporary artist who uses 3D modeling to create a virtual space, and then freely distorts that space. When asked to compare his methods to early techniques of plotting linear perspective, Dodge writes, “these are tools (digital or not) and tools continue to evolve by necessity.”
From 2002 to 2013 Dodge made four silkscreen print editions depicting swimming pools from an underwater point of view, which were published by Forth Estate in Brooklyn. The perspectival space of the underwater compositions is precisely rendered, but the surface of the water is described in impressionistic swirls.
In an interview conducted over email, Dodge described his frustrating attempts at making swimming pool paintings using underwater photography as his source material. He felt limited by the quality of these photographs and in turn disappointed by the final paintings. He wrote: “It didn’t take long to realize that opportunity was truly in the virtual, that by building spaces in a virtual or simulated 3D environment gave me the ability to not only be the image maker, but the architect too. I could create any scene that I could imagine and it would not be static. It would be accessible from a range of vantage points and thus be the source of not one painting or print but potentially many. Artists have always had to create their own worlds to draw from, but mine could be described in Euclidean space, altered, copied, and varied in ways that became more and more useful.”
In addition to the altered geometric space, a vital aspect of Dodge’s prints is their surface quality. In these prints he applied up to 16 layers of UV ink in 6 colors. The result is that the paper mimics the glossy sheen of the water and the thickness of the pool tiles. Dodge used the term “Braille texture” to describe this effect in which the print takes on the material qualities of the environment it is depicting. The viewer is immersed in the feeling of the space and the print becomes a more assertive object than a traditional work on paper.
The illusions of materiality that seen in Alex Dodge’s screenprints get even closer to reality in the work of Robert Lazzarini. In 2008 he made a series of works with blood screenprinted onto sheets of wallpaper, which he made himself using offset lithography. The wavy patterns of the wallpaper add a sense of distortion, like a horrific memory recalled through a fisheye lens. By creating real blood splotches, Lazzarini made marks with the material that he was representing.
In an email interview with Lazzarini in 2015, he explained the details of his process. He wrote: “It was simultaneously the illusion of blood and the real thing. Starting with the photograph of specific blood patterns, we split the images into 6-8 value layers. Each was turned into a corresponding film to be shot on a silkscreen. The blood (unsalted), which we got in gallons from a butcher was then mixed in various ratios to create between 6 and 8 values. When printed, the values combined to create the photographic image of the blood patterns. Because the prints were two-dimensional, all of the designs were done in Photoshop. The blood patterns were combined with various wallpaper patterns.”
As both “the illusion and the real thing” Lazzarini’s work brings full circle this discussion of imitation and illusion in contemporary printmaking. However, the imagined event which caused the blood spatters in the prints remains a fictional derivation of a real occurrence from the now abstracted source photography.
The creators of the five projects discussed above have harnessed digital technologies, using them to investigate older forms of printmaking and to simulate three-dimensional spaces and materiality. Rob Swainston and Noah Breuer translated source imagery through multiple processes, opening a dialogue between traditional and modern technologies within their work. Suzanne Song conveyed the illusion of depth on a flat wood panel, following in a long tradition of trompe l’oeil effects in print and intarcia. Alex Dodge built realistic spaces through 3D rendering software, and Robert Lazzarini moved beyond mere illusions of materiality through his use of actual blood. Technologies like laser cutting, computer controlled routing, rendering software, UV-reactive inks, and 3D printing enable artists to imitate a variety of media and materials, and to realize their ideas in new ways. Printmakers will continue to use the increasingly sophisticated tools at their disposal, sometimes in combination with the most simple ones, to critique our image-saturated world.
1 Evelyn Lincoln, The Invention of the Italian Renaissance Printmaker (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 17.
Julia Lillie holds a BA in Art History and Modern History from the University of St. Andrews, and an MA in Decorative Arts, Design History and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center. Her MA thesis, titled “The Cult of Dürer in First World War German Printed Propaganda”, explores the ways in which war posters and other forms of propaganda in Wilhelmine Germany incorporated the imagery of sixteenth century German printmaking. Julia is the Collections Management Coordinator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Noah Breuer is an American artist and printmaker. He holds a BFA in Printmaking from the Rhode Island School of Design, and an MFA from Columbia University. He also earned a graduate research certificate in traditional woodblock printmaking and papermaking from Kyoto Seika University in Japan. Noah’s work has been included in numerous group exhibitions in galleries and museums locally and internationally. His work is in the collection at the Brooklyn Museum, the Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art as well as numerous private collections. Currently, Noah works as a Full Time Lecturer at the University of California, Davis.