In the 1951 Robert Wise directed science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still, a peace-seeking alien named Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, visits earth, accompanied by his giant robot cyclopean bodyguard Gort. The two have some adventures, make a human friend in the form of Patricia Neal, and mostly spend the movie evading overzealous humans who want to kill/capture Klaatu. Eventually, Klaatu gets shot dead, sending Gort on a rampage that only ends when Patricia Neal utters the secret safe word to Gort, “Klaatu Barada Nikto,” upon which Gort goes into power-saving mode. Klaatu ends up coming back to life long enough to warn the human race that their technology is moving faster than they can anticipate. If you know what’s good for you, start paying attention.
Klaatu Barada Nikto is the title of an art piece in the biennial exhibition by Mark Hosford that is a screenprint, but a bunch of other things as well. It is part sculpture, part electricity. It is an augmented reality graphic, which means when you engage the image through certain technologies (smart phone, tablet), it becomes animation, and, to a certain extent, interactive. Hosford’s piece exemplifies what screenprinting can do: combine techniques and crafts, bridge 2-D, 3-D, and 4-D, branch technologies and perceptions, and, as in the case of the poor humans from The Day the Earth Stood Still, show us things we can’t anticipate.
The work in this year’s biennial exhibition continually exceed my expectations in the way so many elements come together to create compelling, important, and timely narratives. These art pieces also draw upon a depth of expression, and open windows into creative worlds.
When looking at the stories in the biennial exhibition, many fall under the shadow of the stark political landscape that is 2018. When biennial artist Alejandro Arauz creates a series of images of himself sitting on top of an ATV with his young daughter, combined with an image of an immigration form applying for Canadian Citizenship (for minors), you can’t help placing it in the context of detained migrant children here in the USA. Far from creating a generalized, didactic piece, Arauz’s images contain so much power by way of their specificity: every immigrant child is someone’s daughter or son. Veteran political graphic artist Josh MacPhee has no problem with the didactic; his Close Rikers/Build Communities yardage print is made as a work of radical political expression. The power (and the story) of this piece comes not simply from the visual object he produces, but in the social action it is a part of: cut up and used in protests as bandanas and armbands. Screenprinting began acting as a medium of social protest with graphics produced by University of Paris student protesters in 1968; MacPhee’s work is a direct descendant of this tradition.
Many of the artworks in this year’s biennial surprise me at how good they are at generating and amplifying expressive visual experiences. The gesture and action generated in polish artist Stanislaw Cholewa’s prints are downright brutal in their directness and emotion. In Efflictim’s Anguish by Dadisi Curtis, the emotion comes from the friction created by combining figurative elements with popping color. A similar strategy is employed by Emily Harter’s Beast Woman Bull Dyke PT 2, where hyper-harmonious colors and figures express a lonesome story of, well, Beast Woman Bull Dykes. Both Curtis and Harter’s prints would be right at home plastered on the walls of punk rock art space Fort Thunder in the early 2000s alongside the works of Brian Chippendale and Leif Goldberg. Can expression be quiet and loud at the same time? Because Myles Calvert’s Ottoman Empire series are both jam packed with color and surface, while at the same time discretely commenting on class, privilege, and perhaps more than a little Claes Oldenburg/Andy Warhol.
There are more than a few world-builders in the biennial, with artists giving everything from glimpses to panoramas of their imagined artistic realms. In his Factory Fantasy, Robert Schwieger breaks his world wide open for all to see: a scene of playful psychedelia and impossible architecture. Corrie Slawson’s panorama is no less colorful, but at the same time dystopic and glitchy in the best sort of way. Perhaps just as weird, but more personal, are the prints in the show by Matt Hopson-Walker, combining cryptic metaphors, disturbing narratives, and virtuoso printing chops. Amanda Knowles just gives us a brief snapshot of her generated environment: a moment of mysterious tendrils interacting in space, making me wish we could have included a dozen such pieces in the show. Several artists in the show quite literally build a world in the gallery. Shelia Goloborotko’s Sistema is a diverse macrocosm of organic screenprinted components, highlighting the chimera-like properties of the screenprinted medium that can quite easily become embedded in 3-D or 4-D forms. Tatiana Potts is also literally building, combining screenprinted modules into a hybrid of sculpture and architecture in the same artistic vein as a mid-period Seripop.
A combination of politics, punk, and perceptual experimentation permeate the art pieces in this year’s biennial. They work as a masterclass in how to put together disparate thoughts, concepts, emotions, and stories, all using the powerful artistic glue that is screenprinting. These artists have a lot to say, and, as Klaatu warned, we had better start paying attention before it’s too late.
Screenprint Biennial Founder/Curator