Over the past six months, my conception of the medium of the print has been reinvigorated and challenged in every respect. I have been working with Sarah Suzuki, Associate Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books, on the exhibition Printin’ (opening February 15), which she cocurated with the artist Ellen Gallagher. Even the exhibition title plays with the traditional term of “printing,” with the vernacular variation suggesting a modernized, and even transformative, take on the medium. Gallagher’s work is characterized by this aesthetic. For example, her print portfolio DeLuxe (2004–05), which takes center stage in the exhibition and interprets “printing” in an expanded sense of the word.
In this series of 60 works, Gallagher takes preexisting printed matter—from newspaper articles about the Harlem riots to advertisements from black lifestyle magazines of the 1930s to the 1970s—as her source material. One might see her as a modern-day Max Ernst (a Surrealist artist who created a series of collage-novels), splicing and seamlessly integrating words and images from everyday printed ephemera into wonderfully bizarre creations. Gallagher goes several steps further than Ernst, making use not only of collage but also of a wide variety of printing techniques, such as lithography, aquatint, drypoint, embossing, laser cutting, scanning, and digital photomontage to reconstitute her material, before adding yet further layers of material and meaning with plasticine, paper, and glittered additions. Through these painstakingly handcrafted appendages, she toys with and undermines the process of reproduction. Not only does she playfully challenge the medium of the print, but also social, racial, and gender stereotypes—taking, for example, advertisements promoting hair styling or skin lightening as her basis. While researching Gallagher’s work over the past few months, I have been struck by how she constantly questions and regenerates all kinds of vocabularies, whether aesthetic, political, or linguistic.
Taking DeLuxe as their inspiration, Gallagher and Suzuki have pulled together an exhibition of works whose artists, like Gallagher, defy categorization. From Experiens Silleman’s 17th-century “pen-paintings” to Simon Fujiwara’s video piece Artists’ Book Club: Harukuberry Fuin Non Monogatari (2010) to Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974–75), this exhibition not only challenges conceptions of the print but also of the use of language and systems of classification. These are works that ask to be deconstructed, but at the same time escape definitive deconstruction.
One such artist included in the exhibition is Rammellzee (1960–2010), a graffiti and performance artist who played a pioneering role in the New York graffiti scene in the mid-1970s and 1980s, earning his fame spray-painting the sides of subway trains. Rammellzee not only interrogated traditional notions of art, but also the notion of the artist. He hardly ever appeared in public without his science fiction–style, machine-inspired costumes and masks, and this constructed persona is almost inextricable from his work.
Like Gallagher, Rammellzee was fascinated by language as a tool for conceptual and visual subversion. He developed a personal philosophy around the theory that graffiti artists were engaging in a symbolic war against the confining standardization of the alphabet, a war that he believed had been initiated by medieval monks in the 14th and 15th centuries. On display in Printin’ are Rammellzee’s “letter racers,” made from pieces of wood merged with the dislocated body parts of dolls and toy dinosaurs. Each racer, using a letter of the alphabet as its starting point, is morphed into a kind of armored vehicle. Here, Rammellzee literally takes the printed word off the page and into a new sculptural realm.
Rammellzee is just one of over 50 artists featured in Printin’, all of whom manipulate their respective materials using unconventional technical processes and conceptual approaches. Gallagher’s DeLuxe acts as the anchor of the exhibition, opening up the potential for multiple interpretations of medium, method, and meaning.
Printin’, in the Paul J. Sachs Prints and Illustrated Books Galleries on the second floor, is held in conjunction with Print/Out (February 19–May 14), on the sixth floor. If you want to hear more about the relationship of text and language to the visual arts, specifically in relation to works in MoMA’s collection, come along to my gallery conversation, Off the Page: Text and Language in Works from the Collection, on February 23.