Art / The archaic art form of printmaking has become a plus-one at the global art party, a way to make fine art affordable. These days, it is more of a skill used by artists working in another media to supplement a separate body of work. It can be done in a variety of ways; relief (pressing an inked woodblock onto paper, say), engraving/etching, lithography and screenprinting are the most widely used. But these days, digital prints flood the market with high quality reproductions of existing well-known masterpieces, and every subsequent innovation in print technology taunts and threatens the hand-pulled print.
Hawaii’s printmaking culture is far from dead, however, thanks in large part to the Honolulu Printmakers (HP). Every year, HP quietly takes on the task of organizing and executing an annual juried exhibition. A call for print submissions is sent out encouraging any artist, not just HP members, to send in their best prints. The opening is an evening when artists, often isolated in their creative practices, socialize with peers, family, friends and the public.
This year, the show marks HP’s 85th year, making it one of Hawaii’s oldest arts organizations. Its executive director of 27 years, Laura Smith, will retire in April. Smith did something different this year by establishing a theme for the show, 85, polarizing those on HP’s board not comfortable with such restriction. She also hired a local juror, Hiroki Morinoue from the Big Island–the first local juror in 26 years–in an attempt to eliminate the “tourist pictures” prominent in previous exhibitions.
The selections made by Morinoue thankfully exclude the Hawaiiana clichés attractive to mainland jurors of past shows, and instead showcase truly challenging contemporary art. Seventy-five artists are represented through 85 total works. It’s a smaller but conceptually rich collection punctuated by surprising installations. In 49-36 Jablonski, Kyle Jablonski and Noah Matteucci document 85 consecutive ping-pong matches on four copper plates, letting the bounce of their game ball mark the surface of the plate they etched and printed. Allyn Bromley’s 85 Monoprints is an ode to construction and change in the Hawaii landscape over time. The installation looks like a pile of rebar laid out on the gallery floor, but looking closely reveals that each bar is made of carefully embossed and printed paper. David Randall’s Myles Fukunaga is inspired by a murder that took place 85 years ago in Hawaii and overlays rich, dark etchings of the murderer’s mug shot with the chisel he used as a murder weapon.
Not everyone who submitted made it into the show, of course, and those rejected appear in Salon des Refusés, a show within Ektopia Gallery in Kaimuki that illuminates the subjective and sometimes arbitrary nature of judging art. Organized for the second year by University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM) printmaking student Jeremy Pang, the “rejects” fill the gallery with a vibrant counter-dialogue to the work chosen by Morinoue. Pang expresses a desire to involve emerging printmakers in the HP community. Duncan Dempster, who succeeds Smith as executive director, is a printmaking instructor at UHM and will undoubtedly be a great resource for including a younger, tech-savvy generation.
At UHM’s Hamilton Library, a smaller body of prints comprises Lineage, an exhibition highlighting the relationships of Hawaii printmakers. It focuses on the medium as a tradition passed down by masters whose works and technique inform students and peers. Curated by Erika Molyneux, prints of recognized instructors and influencers are showcased alongside various print tools and techniques. A wiki-like family tree, created by Molyneaux, tracks these relationships by drawing connections between shared studios, workshops, supporting scholarships and foundations and other roles. The names of UH printmaking instructors–Charles Cohan, Dempster, Allyn Bromley, George Woolard and Lee Chesney, among others–act as wells from which students’ names spring.
The persistence of the handmade is still alive inside the Honolulu tech bubble. To print is to step back, to have restraint and to commit to an idea enough to locate it within a print matrix. Printmakers are united by the unique desire for the structure and rigor inherent in a medium such as this, and sometimes being confined to the structure of a plate, block or stone is just the kind of clunky, absurd limitation an artist needs to propel an idea.