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Kathleen Caraccio and Roni Henning, our two jurors for 440 Gallery’s Off the Press show, are unquestionably remarkable. Both boasting nearly 40 years of experience in printmaking, they have worked alongside artists from all walks of life– from the immediately recognizable names, such as Romare Bearden and Andy Warhol, to teaching and inspiring the eager young minds of tomorrow.
Given their impressive credentials, it may come as a surprise that neither artist originally had any intentions to become a printer. Both entered college– Caraccio at Hunter, turned Lehman, College, and Henning at Cooper Union– wanting to pursue completely different paths. “Hunter College was known for training teachers, so I had the mindset of studying to be a teacher,” Caraccio explains. “Until I met this teacher. He was from India– a painter new to printmaking– who had just come from Paris but had never taught in the US before. Because of that, he didn’t have any rules. It was all about being creative. He loved everything he did– teaching, students, colors– and he treated me and talked to me and hung out with me like an artist. For me, that opened a door so wide– I realized that I’d been trapped and institutionalized all these years, and that the things he was talking about were the things that an artist should be talking about.” Because of him, Caraccio was not only introduced to printmaking, but was able to fully delve into the medium. He was adamant on making her see that printmaking allowed the artist to do both painting and sculpture in the same place. “Don’t do a drawing here,,” he told her. “If you want to do a drawing, go to drawing class. But here, you have to learn what acid does to metal. You have to learn what the medium had to offer.” “At first, this upset me, because I was a brat and wanted to do what I wanted to do,” she recalls with a laugh. “But I quickly found that I loved all the processes.”
For Henning, printmaking was a similarly surprising, yet joyful discovery. She had gone to Cooper Union wanting to become a painter– but this was during the late 60’s/early 70’s, right in the midst of the Pop Era. “While I was there, I immediately became fascinated with silkscreen, because you could get these beautiful flat surfaces, without any texture,” she explains. “I’d tried to achieve that similar look in my painting, but it was incredibly hard to do. But now, I could create that very graphic look by making prints of my own images.” But, for both Henning and Caraccio, once they found printing, they never looked back.
Despite their different paths to it, one thing in particular stood out in both of their remarks about what drew them to the medium: the truth and originality the work produces. “When you’re hand pulling a print,” Henning describes, “it’s always a little bit of a surprise of what you’re going to get. Often, the result pushes you in a different direction than you intended or would’ve ever thought of.” Caraccio compares it to a handwriting analysis course she took in high school. “There’s a part of your brain attached to your phalanges, so aspects of handwritten expression can give you an insider look at a deeper emotive layer. You can falsify your presentation of who you are, but you can’t falsify handwriting. Similarly, I work with artists who make marks– not concrete imagery, like a vase or a person– so you can understand what’s important to them in the marks they make. If there are lots of long gestures, truncated marks, scribbly type stuff, there’s a lot of clarity there. And once you pinpoint that and ask them about it, they can reveal something about themselves that they might not have even been aware of.”
However, there’s a hard truth lurking in the shadows of their sentiments. After all, the world that we face now is very different than the one where both women first fell in love with printing. Today, they stand as masters of their craft– a craft grounded in hard labor and repetition– in a technological society where such words are becoming increasingly rare and undervalued. Especially for people of the millennial generation or younger, we take for granted a world where the pace of life is defined by instantaneous speed and ease. Quite literally, we have everything we could ever want at our fingertips– to create and copy involves nothing more than a few simple keystrokes. “Printing didn’t really change that much until the computer,” Henning admits. “But as soon as it arrived, I always thought it was going to last– even when computers were costing $100,000 and we were just beginning to play around with paint programs. It seemed so complicated and I found that I always preferred to draw or paint, but it was like when photography first came out and portrait artists were really upset. It all sort of falls together– it’s all just tools that artists can use.” Caraccio has a decidedly less positive take on it: “When I got my first computer, I pressed a wrong button, didn’t save something, and a screen came up that said ‘fatal error.’ Hardly confidence-inspiring.”
Whether they like it or not, the prominence of the digital age has had unavoidable implications for their work. “I don’t want my work to have anything to do with technology at all,” Caraccio states immediately and frankly. “I often have people come to me, wanting to work with digital prints, and I send them away to someone with more expertise. But for me, I’ve always been a printmaker who works with my hands. I could work blindfolded or by candlelight next to Rembrandt. I know how hard to press, how far to move, and I trust and feel it in my hands. On a computer, you don’t use your hands. You use your brain and logic, and that’s how it was designed.” Caraccio’s wariness also extends to the use of photographs in printing: “When things are more or less photographic, so many more things can be said. If you’re using a photo of a real person, it’s guaranteed that all of the personality will come through. But it’s a different creative process when you have to express it by hand.” But for Henning, though she still does prefer and value the handmade aspect of her work, she’s able to keep a more open mind about the use of digital images and technologies. “In Kathy’s case, because she would use acid to burn a zinc or copper plate, she doesn’t deal with photographic things. But for me, photographs don’t change the actual printing part. I still put it on a screen, and I still have to print it. It’s just a combination of the photographic and hand-drawn things.” Instead, for Henning, “what’s really changed is that I used to spend hours making handmade separations– sometimes up to 120 handmade separations, where you break down the imagery, make the decisions, break them down individually, paint them on acetates, and then they get put on screens. But then Photoshop came into being. So now, you can do all the separations digitally. There are still certain things that you can’t do in Photoshop, and sometimes I can actually do separations faster by hand since I was trained that way. But the thing about the computer is that it’s not haphazard– you can program it in to look like something, but if you wanted it to give you something randomly different, it can’t do it. It only follows instruction.”
In fact, the initial conception of this show and how it was juried was born out of a reaction against this increasing digital influence. “I recently juried a show and was extremely disheartened because everything came in a digital file,” Caraccio explained. Thus, when Gail Flanery– one of the artists at 440 Gallery and the one who came up with both the idea for the show and the name Off the Press— approached Caraccio about being a juror, Caraccio had an unusual request. “Is there any way we can have an analog show?” she asked. “Can we pretend that people are still creating in the analog world, and see if we can get enough people to apply to show the difference?” In doing so, Caraccio wanted to prove a point. “So many artists these days don’t even know the difference between digital and real. But with an analog show, it’s more about the impression on the page, not about the trickiness of making images. After all, if I have to select them digitally– a digital file can never transcend itself beyond what you see on the screen, you can read its size but you can’t intuit the size or anything else about it– the work itself at least has to be analog.”
Despite the seemingly unstoppable tides of an art world that is determined to move ever forward both Caraccio and Henning remain hopeful about the future. In addition to being printers, both women are also teachers. “Students come to me to print because they’re sick of everything in their life coming through a screen,” Caraccio says. “They want to create. They want to feel the ink on their hands.” When Henning asks her students why they are choosing to engage in a medium that is so labor intensive, they express much the same thing: “we want to mix colors by hand because we want to feel a connection to it. Like we actually made something ourselves.” Furthermore, for Henning, there’s another crucial element involved in the sustainability of printmaking into the future– environmental sustainability. “Silkscreen printing is much more toxic than etching because of the nature of how you print– all of those heavy metals are more in the ink, which just evaporate in your face. And then that’s paired with heavy duty solvents and the hugeness of the prints themselves.” Henning herself switched to nontoxic water based silkscreen ink in the 1970’s, and has seen it become more prominent in the printing community. “A lot of professional master printers are very resistant to water based ink, because it’s difficult to perfect and get the same quality of oil based ink, but there’s a lot more now. And because of that, silkscreen– which had been abandoned for quite a while due to the toxicity– has started to come back into the schools.”
At the end of the day, Off the Press stands as a bittersweet reminder of the uncertainty surrounding the future of printmaking– both for the medium and the artists it attracts. “Printers are a funny breed,” Henning remarks, with a hint of both humor and sadness in her tone. “Once they’ve perfected something, and know how to work well with it, they don’t want to change and move on.” But perhaps there’s precisely something in this quality that makes printers so special. In spite of all this uncertainty, one thing is clear: all of these issues and complex considerations have been deeply infused into every single piece in Off the Press, which only heightens the level of care and thought that these fascinatingly extraordinary jurors have put into the show. The resulting depth, beauty, and poignancy that their array of choices evokes makes Off the Press an exhibition you won’t want to miss.