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Sacrificing the Ego in Prints from “In Translation”

Today’s post comes from Johanna Shain, Vassar class of 2024 and Loeb student docent.

I have always been interested in the process of making art. As a child, my understanding of art-making was that one could draw, paint, and sculpt. It wasn’t until further in my art education that I learned of the existence of one of my now favorite processes, printmaking. I first started printing in my high school art class, and quickly fell in love with its rhythmic and systematic nature. Soon I began to do it in my free time, printing shirts and album covers for friends, and then once I became a Vassar student, I spent nights in the printmaking studio running experiments through the press. The press had a way of transforming the information you input—in this case, a plate covered in ink—into something entirely different. These experiments were sometimes terrible and sometimes terrific, but the results were almost always unexpected. Relinquishing some control to the machine was the most attractive part.

This summer, the Loeb is featuring an exhibition centered entirely around printmaking. As a printmaker myself, I was interested in writing about it. The exhibition is titled In Translation: Prints Across Media, and was curated by John P. Murphy, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings. This was John’s first exhibit at the Loeb. He has a broad knowledge of the history of printmaking, which the exhibition reflects. rom his insight I gleaned that printmaking has served its artists in many different ways throughout its existence. From historical printmakers to modern art icons like Warhol and Duchamp to an array of contemporary artists, the exhibition covers a group of printmakers with diverse goals and methods. 

The exhibition is divided loosely into three sections. The first section, on the left when you enter the exhibition from our other temporary gallery, features several early European prints. Most of these printmakers pulled images from 15th and 16th-century drawings and paintings—some by notable artists like Michelangelo Buonarroti and Leonardo da Vinci. These printmakers’ main goal was reproduction. John said that when choosing these works, he was interested in their mechanical and derivative quality, which this printing style was disparaged for at the time. However, some of the images shown were creatively interpreted by their artists, reflecting a common thread in the exhibition—translation. For example, In The Bathers by Marcantonio Raimondi, he selects three figures from a Michaelangelo drawing and situates them in an environment taken from an engraving by Dutch artist Lucas Van Leyden. These historical prints force us to reassess the value of originality and the expression of the individual in art.

When you move across the room to the middle of the space (seen in the above slides), there is a glass case that displays a chaotic pile of photographs, drawings, and notes printed by Marcel Duchamp, famous for his sculpture, Fountain—a repurposed urinal with a name scrawled onto the side. Titled The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Green Box), this collection of ephemera chronicles his planning of another one of his sculptures, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), now housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He printed these copied versions of his original notes and sketches. Duchamp coined the term “readymade” to describe art made from objects already existing in the world. This concept was subversive at the time; it resisted expectations that art of merit should demonstrate skill and labor. Duchamp and the readymade inspired many modern and pop artists, most notably Andy Warhol, whose print, Marilyn, hangs on the wall directly behind the glass case. Warhol pushed reproduction to commercialization, churning out pop culture images printed in his NYC studio, the Factory. This section of modern artists, which extends to the wall to the right of the Duchamp case, highlights printmaking’s tradition of reproducing images already circulating in the world but articulates a shift as well: artists began to bring practical and worldly objects into the framing of art. There is a print in this section by Ellen Gallagher, Duke, on which she layers hair pomade. The work uses imagery from a postwar Duke pomade advertisement to comment on commercially imposed beauty standards on African Americans. Art can confront the world we live in by directly sourcing from the substances and goods we come into contact with every day.

When you step into the next room, you find the third section of the exhibit, which features a selection of the Loeb’s newly acquired prints. When I asked John if a particular work resonated with him during the curation process, he walked me to a piece in this section, a work by contemporary artist and Diné Tribe member Raven Chacon. Chacon printed Horse Notations while in residence at Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts on the Umatilla Reservation in eastern Oregon. Crow’s Shadow is a non-profit formed by Indigenous artists to expand opportunities for Native Americans through artistic learning. The organization functions primarily as a printmaking studio, which John had the chance to visit.

For his print, Horse Notations, Chacon was inspired by an 1876 Popular Science article about a scientist who studied the gallop of a horse. He mentions that horses are sacred to Umatilla and other Native American tribes in the area. The scientist in the article created a visual script that represented the rhythms created by the horse’s trot. This article inspired Chacon, mainly known for being a composer and noise music performer, to compose a score that the Oregon East Symphony performed in 2019. He created the print after the performance of Horse Notations.

Chacon is an excellent example of an artist who reproduces and translates, allowing himself to move across multiple mediums and pull from life and existing artworks. Additionally, there is an emphasis on the process of art as an experience and an experiment. One of his other projects, Compass (2021), is art in almost game form. Compass includes a diagram of symbols and instructions and requires an electric guitar. A user positions themselves in an open space, and using cues from their environment—such as wind, shadows, and nearby moving objects—they move through the diagram. Symbols indicating various actions make up the diagram: to create a pitch or a chord, to alter the tone using an effect, to hammer on, bend, or slide your fingers across strings. These actions, in succession, create an experimental guitar solo. This work of art is all in the experience of the process, paying attention to one’s surroundings and feeling the noise as it erupts. And it sacrifices the ego, leaving certain decisions up to the natural probability of the universe. 

In the print Horse Notations, the patterns shown didn’t originate in the artist; they originated in a natural phenomenon, the horse’s gallop. And Chacon identified this phenomenon as having artistic value. Another work in the section of recent acquisitions, Kryptek by Matthew Barney, utilizes a unique process of immersing an engraved copper plate in a chemical solution, causing a web of nodules to grow over the incisions. Barney identified this natural phenomenon as having creative power, surrendering some of his own in the process. This release of pressure on the ego and its need to express itself allows a greater degree of exploration and innovation, which I can see in many different eras of prints in the collection. 

Lucky for the Vassar and Poughkeepsie community, Raven Chacon is visiting the Loeb on September 1, 2022, to host a Q&A about his work. In Translation will be on display until September 18, 2022, and I highly recommend you visit.

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