Consistent Variety

Consistent variety...that could be a succinct description of my job right there, but it's actually the name of a new RMAC exhibit in Horgan and Graphics Galleries. Let's take a look, shall we?

Consistent Variety explores the diverse world of silkscreen through RMAC’s serigraph collection. Spanning from the 1930s through the 1980s, the selections featured in this exhibit encompass five decades of artistic activity and innovation.

Louie Ewing, Rio Colorado, n.d. Image courtesy of RMAC.

Catryna Ten Eyck, Canyon de Chelly, 1972. Image corutesy of RMAC.
Silkscreen printing, also known as serigraphy, is an important medium within the history of modern art. Based on the concept of stenciling, screen printing has been used to create some of the most striking visual images of the twentieth century, from the poster designs of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, to the Pop Art of the 1960s. 

Garo Antreasian, Bebek I, 1984, silkscreen and pochoir. Image courtesy of RMAC.
Serigraphy and silkscreen are interchangeable terms for the same printing process. The name “silkscreen” refers to the fact that the mesh used on printing screens was originally made from silk, though today synthetic materials such as nylon or polyester have replaced it. Artists invented the term “serigraphy” in the twentieth century to distinguish their work from more industrial, commercial printing. It is a combination of seri, the Latin word for silk, and graphien, the Greek word meaning “to draw.” 

To make a silkscreen print, a piece of nylon or silk mesh is fitted into a wooden or metal frame, and coated with a light-sensitive liquid called photo-emulsion. A transparency containing an opaque design is then placed over the mesh, and the entire screen is exposed to light. The areas covered by the opaque design remain protected from the light exposure, while the rest of the photo-emulsion hardens. The screen is then rinsed to wash away the unhardened emulsion, leaving behind the transferred design on the exposed mesh. To print, ink is applied to the screen and pushed through the mesh with a flat tool called a squeegee. 

Louis Siegrist, Apache Devil Dancer from an Indian Painting-Arizona, 1939. Image courtesy of RMAC.
Variations of screenprints have existed for hundreds of years, with the earliest surviving examples dating from the Song Dynasty in China (ca. 960-1279). Prior to the twentieth century, silkscreen prints were made using actual stencils pressed against the screen mesh, but around 1910, printers began experimenting with light-sensitive chemicals to create stencils directly on the mesh screen itself, making the printing process more efficient. More recent innovations have allowed artists to make prints without photo-emulsion, including stencil film, and screen fillers that harden through air exposure rather than light.   

Louis Siegrist, Eskimo Mask-Western Alaska, 1939. Image courtesy of RMAC.
The popularity of silkscreen printing increased during the 1930s through the Works Progress Administration, the largest of President Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies. In 1936, the Federal Arts Project, a branch of the WPA, began producing posters for its various programs, an initiative begun in New York through the Civilian Work Administration. Posters were designed and painted by hand until artist and printmaker Anthony Velonis introduced screen printing to the FAP’s printing workshops, greatly improving the efficiency of the poster-making process. The posters on view advertising the Indian Court at the Golden Gate International Exposition, held in San Francisco in 1939, are examples of WPA poster design.

The WPA posters are admittedly my personal favorites in this exhibit. I just love their bold imagery and clean, sans-serif fonts. I've been wanting to put these in a show for a couple of years now, so it's really satisfying to finally see them on the walls.
Louie Ewing, Navajo Blanket Portfolio, Plate #2, ca. 1940. Image courtesy of RMAC.
New Mexico also played a role in the popularization of silkscreen. Between 1939 and 1942, the WPA printing workshop in Santa Fe produced a portfolio of serigraphs depicting original Navajo blanket designs. The project was co-organized by the New Mexico Art Program and the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, with artist and printmaker Louie Ewing directing the execution of the prints. Portfolios were distributed among different schools, libraries and other cultural institutions with the intention of introducing Native American design to a larger viewing public. 

I like the blanket portfolio a great deal too, especially knowing how much work was required to print each color to assemble these complex designs.

Harry Shokler, Triple Arch Connecting Reunion and West College, 1945. Image courtesy of RMAC.
During the 1940s and 1950s, artists continued exploring the visual possibilities of silkscreen. Harry Shokler (1896-1978) created complex, multi-colored prints similar in appearance to traditional color woodblock printing. In 1946, he published Artists Manual for Silk Screen Print Making, one of first instructional books on the technique.  His print, Triple Arch Connecting Reunion and West College, uses twelve different colors, with each color requiring a separate screen.

James Rosenquist, Somewhere to Light, 1965. Image courtesy of RMAC.
During the 1960s, Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987) began incorporating silkscreen printing into their own artistic practices. From a visual standpoint, these artists appreciated its ability to clearly print multiple layers of bright colors, which suited their vibrant aesthetic. They also embraced the process’s commercial associations by making prints that addressed the consumerism they perceived in modern culture. Pop Art wasn’t the only movement to embrace silkscreen during the 1960s. Abstract Minimalist painter Charles Hinman incorporated the medium into abstract collages.

Pop Art usually isn't among my favorite art movements, but I have to admit, Rosenquist's Somewhere to Light is fantastic.

Charles Hinman, Print Collage, 1965, silkscreen and collage. Image courtesy of RMAC.
Screen printing’s enduring popularity stems from its sense of consistency and variety. While the printing process itself ensures a uniform application of ink to each image, the actual designs can incorporate numerous visual sources such as drawings, photographs and other media, and can be printed on paper, textiles, metals, and other surfaces. Come learn about the history and process of this fascinating printing technique while exploring a diverse array of images. 

Robert Davidson, Untitled, 1974. Image courtesy of RMAC.