Printmaking as a place for experimentation and discourse forms the basis for Ria LeBov-Czerniak’s curatorial debut.
I first encountered Ria LeBov-Czerniak’s work in May last year, when she took part in a small exhibition with fellow print artists Richard Lawlor and David McGinn in SO Fine Art Studios. Since that time, the artist has been busy. “Around the time I was working on the prints for Sub/Plot, Aoife Scott and I applied to take part in IMPACT, the international print conference. We wanted to represent Graphic Studio Dublin and Irish printmaking on an international platform and were both selected, Aoife as a curator and me as an academic writer. This loosely coincided with my return to education: I am just finishing up the MA Art in the Contemporary World in the School of Critical Culture at NCAD.”
And what motivated the artist’s journey into academia? “I guess my aim throughout has been to theorise contemporary printmaking, as I feel the medium is rarely interrogated the way painting, film or photography has been. I have been steadily making prints for almost a decade but this has been the first time I have really stepped back and examined the social, political, technological and commercial aspects of print culture.”
The fruits of Czerniak LeBov’s reflections are contained in her curatorial debut, an intriguing group show underpinned by the ideas she wrestled with in the paper that she presented at IMPACT, titled “Irish Printmakers in the Age of Digital Reproduction.” For anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of art theory, the reference is clear: Czerniak LeBov’s position is staked within the conceptual boundaries established by Frankfurt School luminary Walter Benjamin, who penned his ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in the 1930s.
Benjamin’s essay has had an enormous impact in the last 90 years: its central thesis is that modernity is characterised by a new form of mechanised art-making, typified by photography and cinema, and that these new media rupture the history of art by separating the art-object from its representation, which in turn erases the ‘aura’ of the artwork. Benjamin was writing at a turning point in the development of modern art, at a time when one’s experience of an artwork, suddenly, no longer had to be located in a particular time and place: you didn’t have to journey to the Sistine Chapel to see its majestic architecture or frescoes; instead, you could render a version of that experience through new techniques in pictorial recording.
Czerniak LeBov develops Benjamin’s premises to engage with our current moment. She identifies two features of our present that intertwine and relate to Benjamin’s central thesis: the acceleration of digital technology, and the restrictions in the wake of the global pandemic. One striking thing about the medium of print for Czerniak LeBov is that it sustained an ambivalent relationship to mechanisation: prints were handmade, and, since the 19th century, standard practice was to limit their iterations. Digital technologies have utterly transformed the medium, and whereas a physical plate (the basis for print-making) would warp and alter over time, a digital print’s reproducibility is “infinite and identical.” If I’m reading it right, this iterability was an issue for the artist – it seemed to represent the absolutisation of the annihilating principle Benjamin observed in relation to the aura of artworks.
However, Czerniak LeBov’s caution changed radically during the pandemic lockdowns. Faced with a two-hour bus trip every day as she commuted to her job in medical administration, the artist began to experiment with image-production apps on her phone. These images fed into the intaglio printmaking she worked on at home (etching onto a plate, where the scoring creates the space for inks to adhere), so that one process expanded upon and informed the other. “What had begun as an exercise to keep my mind engaged in composition and visual research, soon became an entire mode of production that has continued into my etching practice.”
It’s important to understand the content and background of Czerniak LeBov’s essay, because her publication serves as a manifesto for explaining the curatorial selections she has made in Oscillations, her inaugural exhibition in the role. In addition to her own work, three of the artists included in the show are discussed at length in her paper: Aoife Scott, Colin Martin, and Katsu Yuasa. It’s clear from Czerniak LeBov’s correspondence that Scott is a key interlocutor and creative collaborator, evidenced by the fact they are sharing the exhibition space, with Scott curating another exhibition on the ground floor of Graphic Studio Dublin. If you visit the Studio in the next few weeks, you’ll find that the two shows blend together quite seamlessly, however, due to the constraints of my word-count, I’m going to treat them (somewhat artificially) as distinct.
Speaking of whom, Scott’s contributions, Breaking the Surface and Against the Tide, were produced in her signature style, resulting from the modifications she makes to carborundum prints with spitbite and drypoint techniques. If these terms don’t mean anything to you, pay no heed – they produce a colourful, bombastic image, overlaid with viscous splotches and drips that are reminiscent of watercolour paintings. Both prints sit on a bed of deep blue that transitions into an azure band, and both are stained with soft ribbons of yellow. The impression they convey is of a coastal landscape, the image settling somewhere between a map and a memory.
As with all the artworks featured in Oscillations, Scott’s inclusion in the exhibition is motivated by the way her work adapted to digital technology in the context of the pandemic’s restrictions. In this case, Scott’s prints are direct responses to the visual outputs of the Strava GPS app, which she used to track her journeys on the long walks, runs and swims she undertook during lockdown. The yellow lines that wander among the banks of blue and green not only trace the artist’s movement through time and space, but also speak eloquently of her interior journey, warding off the heavy blooms that threaten to overwhelm her; these bright, delicate pathways appear to grow vigilant in the coastal air, as though mindful of carpeting landslides or of being pulled into the inky depths.
Martin and Yuasa address digital technologies by more direct, recognisable methods. Martin’s etchings contain children and animals dressed with motion-capture components, like models in a futuristic fashion show. Yet these images steer wide of the cuteness one might expect – each subject faces the audience listlessly, their eyelines averted and cast downward, as though made costive by the twinned dehumanising effects of technical mediation and consumer-driven entertainment.
Yuasa’s woodblocks are equally sinister: his large-scale monochrome artworks replicate scenes of low-resolution CCTV footage. And the air of uncanny menace isn’t restricted to those artists that Czerniak LeBov discusses in her paper: Richard Lawlor’s scenes, an homage to David Lynch’s infamous webseries, depict human-like ‘bunnies’ in expressionless, shadowy tableux. The other two artists – Mark Francis and Matthew Gammon – pair easily, inasmuch as they transact in abstract forms, albeit Gammon’s visual palette is metallic and architectural while Francis’ is vibrational and subatomic. Finally Czerniak LeBov’s own artworks share commonalities with all of the above, featuring geometrically precise monochrome fields in the guise of atmospheric glasshouses.
As with any group exhibition, there are as many variations and differences among the artists as there are similarities, and part of the fun of the experience is seeing how plastic the medium of print is, how it caters for each artist’s vision equally. As Czerniak LeBov notes, “We have no way of knowing the ways in which future technologies will effect printmaking processes. What is clear however, is the medium’s potential both visually and conceptually, as a site of experimentation and discourse.”
Oscillaton / Geomancy runs at Graphic Studio Dublin until Saturday February 25.