The MTG International Print Triennial has been an important event in the global landscape of art festivals since its inception in the 1960s. It began as a biennial in the era of the soviet dominance, bringing together artists from the east side of the Iron Curtain to grow into a triennial in the ‘90s, celebrating graphic artists from across the globe. This year’s edition called Dissonant Futures, besides the thrilling main exhibition, has opened the show ProTO-types, which invited 20 Canadian artists to respond to the processual nature of the medium of print. Guided by the profoundly indexical nature of this technique, the artists in the exhibition explore the processes in which mental images – the eponymous prototypes of artworks – are mapped onto surfaces. I spoke with Derek Michael Besant (b. 1950, Alberta, Canada) about the unique possibilities yielded by the medium of print making, his artistic experiences in Poland, and the particularities of the graphic art scenes in Canada and in Poland. Besant is an acclaimed graphic artist, well known for his experimental prints and large public commissions in Toronto, Ottawa, and New York. He co-curated ProTO-types with Margarita Vladimirova and Mateusz Otręba. His works are currently on view in the Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow as a part of the exhibition.
Dominika Tylcz: Is it the first time you are participating in the MTG International Print Triennial?
Derek Michael Besant: The Krakow MTG exhibition’s evolution has been the flagship of international graphic exhibitions worldwide in how it explores the changing dynamics of the various mediums and invites discussion amongst artists, curators, and the public at large.
I’ve had the honour of participating in many editions of the Krakow main exhibition over the years, so I have always seen it as a meeting ground for myself to be kept informed on the international developments in printmaking. And also, the adjunct exhibitions that accompany each of the MTG International shows have always been of interest to me, as they reflect certain characteristic themes or identities that give insights into the ways other artists are working elsewhere, under other circumstances…
From my own experiences, I’ve always taken the Krakow Triennial to be the opportunity to propose whatever I am working on that is new and not necessarily similar to previous work, as the exhibition really documents critical forward thinking that embraces not only traditional graphic media but is open to hybrid methods of ink and material technological frontiers.
The measure of having three years between the exhibitions allows for this development over time, so the Triennial reinvents itself every three years with current concepts. By having a relationship history with the Krakow show, I am able to see my own studio work develop in context with a broad cross-section of my colleagues’ works.
DT: You co-curated ProTO-types together with Mateusz Otręba and Margarita Vladimirova. How did this collaboration came to be and what ideas gave rise to this show?
DMB: I curated another Canadian group project with a dozen print-artists in 2017, titled: INTER-WOVEN / NEW CANADIAN PERSPECTIVES INTO TEXTILES + PRINTMAKING, for the Kobro Gallery at the Strzeminski Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź, Poland. That exhibition drew large crowds and was so successful, it travelled to the Warsaw Cultural Centre and was opened by our Canadian Ambassador as a celebration of Canada’s 150th Anniversary of Confederation but also an acknowledgement of the 75 years of diplomatic relations between Canada and Poland.
With such a focus on us with that particular show in Poland, I wrote to Marta Anna Raczek-Karcz, the Executive Director of the Krakow Triennial, with the proposal of the exhibition to be one of the adjunct shows accompanying that year’s Triennial… However, the 2018 Triennial was already planned, so Marta proposed we consider the 2021 edition. But of course, the pandemic placed so many museum projects in jeopardy and rescheduling… none of us were certain at what date the Krakow Triennial might even take place.
By the time the decision was made to have the 2021 Krakow Triennial move forward, there was a much shorter timeline to notify the artists to make new pieces. Meanwhile, Marta had spoken with Mateusz and Margarita who enthusiastically agreed to have the show and she secured the entire gallery space of the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts for it.
Rather than simply reassemble the Łódź exhibition works after this many years, I saw this as an opportunity to excite and challenge artists to make new large-scale works during the COVID-19 restrictions, which was both difficult and rewarding as something to focus attention on and lift their spirits with a different kind of exhibition.
DT: Since the 1980s, you have worked in print and large photographic installations, for which you are widely well regarded. I wonder what drew you to the medium of print. What does printmaking mean for you in the contemporary context, when the digital image is increasingly the dominant mode?
DMB: My main studio work was always drawing and painting but my solo exhibitions included either a single newly editioned print or portfolio related to the body of work being exhibited. I was also fortunate to be working on large-scale public art projects in different cities, which exposed me to the inner workings of the billboard industry.
What continues to excite me about the outdoor industry is the research and development carried out in commercial industrial printing technologies, using latex ink, recycled plastic, woven fabric, anti-graffiti coatings, laminated metal, and digital-cutting shapes, which result in billboards that are large graphic printed images in the public domain. So I have incorporated many combinations of these industrial methods and materials into my own studio practice as our world becomes more and more bombarded with digital imaging in everyday encounters.
My relationship with printmaking has become its own research project where I am constantly experimenting with ways to take images apart and to reconstruct them in new ways. This sometimes involves combinations of traditional methods but it transforms them with how more industrial technologies are included in contemporary explorations. Because printmaking forces you to work incrementally in stages while developing images, there is a strong relationship to science in how you observe small changes at intervals, in order to see the final bigger picture.
Printmaking therefore is at perhaps its most exciting era now
with how artists are working and not keeping between the lines of what is considered traditional or more technological approaches to how they work.
DT: How do you approach printmaking and graphic design? What kind of process is it for you?
DMB: Printmaking and graphic design invites experimentation. The whole act of placing a plate into an acid bath, proofing a solid colour in serigraphy, or the reticulation of a lithography wash drawing on a stone, is an act of alchemy for me! Taking these experiences into play on a large flatbed digital printer or router bed always shows me more ways to do something. And so, the process is much like composing a music score of sorts, where the orchestration as a process gives you time to try alternatives, or to follow the progressive stages one requires to “proof” an image.
I tend to work in series as a side-effect from producing solo exhibitions with my gallery dealers.
Working in print media involves taking chances because anything can go wrong in a hurry.
But an element of chance often reveals visual possibilities you might not have considered before.
I like to go into the print studio with that goal, to find out something I don’t already know.Hungry for more?
DT: Could you tell us a little bit about your works in the exhibition?
DMB: Since I gave the other artists in the exhibition a challenge to produce something new that could occupy an area 3M x 3M, and it was at a stage of unresolved development under the theme of “prototypes”, I had to take the same chances with what I included too.
Deconstructing a film has always been an interest that has influenced my studio practice. So, a film is only a set of still images that moves. Taking hundreds of still images that are different depths of field with the subject being the forest my studio is located in, as sunlight comes through into shadows, is my subject matter for this work. But it is really all about how we “see” and how the optic nerve records imagery, translated by how the brain “sees” the elusive “light” image.
Rather than installing finished large-scale prints of these ideas, I want the images to become a projection that mimics the flickering sunlight, using the video as the illumination source.
With the subject being trees in the forest, I want the projection to be interrupted farther by being projected onto the wall but having lengths of unrolled toilet paper as the ground. Since each summer our Western Canadian environment is plagued by the global warming effects, we suffer wild fires that destroys large groves of forests in the mountains. Here, the work is my way of considering this phenomenon that is a force of nature…
DT: You are an important figure in the Canadian art scene. You taught for 40 years at the Alberta University of Art and Design, training new generations of artists. How has the printmaking and graphic arts scene changed throughout this time? What characteristics stand out to you?
DMB: In my time teaching, I always found it interesting to be involved with the changing generations, observing their informed opinions and artistic growth over those decades as time went on…
Printmaking in Canada was born out of influences brought here by immigration.
The British brought engraving.
The French brought lithography.
The Asians brought woodblock.
First Nations and Northern Inuit used skin stencils for design art motifs.
And others too, brought their own printing methods that were part of their cultures.
When I came out of the University, Canadian printmaking was historically black and white smaller scaled prints. But the development of water-based and polymer mediums, as well as the evolving art scenes, were to include land art, performance, video, and more cross-overs drawn from movements outside traditions of printmaking. They were the forces that helped grow printmaking development in Canada. An attitude of experimentation.
I know that Canada, being a comparatively young country and part of the “New World”, developed the art scene in an almost Darwinian fashion, with the isolation and space of a vast geography, allowing freedom to not necessarily follow traditions but move out into new approaches. That being said, we are next door to the USA, which has influenced our culture on every level.
I’d have to say though, with the increasing access to what we call “communication”, the influences for print-artists in Canada have become, through a larger international community, what it is today. But the geography of the country still remains the common link between cities and that fosters unique development patterns where the work coming out of the Maritimes is different than Québec, the Prairies is different than Ontario, the West Coast is different than the northern Territories, and Newfoundland maintains its own cultural identity strongly.
I believe one of our strengths are these implicit differences and that it is still apparent when observing students that come from these regions to the cities for post-secondary education. They carry those identities with them.
DT: I would like to invite you to compare the Canadian printmaking scene with the Polish one. The Polish graphic design obviously has a different tradition, but maybe you do see some affinities? How is this medium approached in these two countries?
DMB: Interestingly, Polish graphic arts, printmaking, poster design, and textile design has always been identifiable to me since I embarked on becoming an artist. There is a strong linear boldness and interplay of line, sculptural geometry, and surface that is tangible in Polish work.
What was so interesting about doing the Łódź project in 2017, is that the city is known for having a history in both textile design and graphic arts. This fact gave us an informed audience that was curious about Canadian art, as I invited the artists to incorporate the two mediums in some way into the works they made for the show.
Whereas a lot of what I considered to be Polish graphics had this directness, optical boldness, stark sculpted solidness, or description of form as its strengths, the Canadian graphics in my mind, ventured into what technical “process” might reveal in the making of their works, with stripping back of ink surfaces, or additive ways an image is constructed by layering colours until it constructed the print surface into something… Of course these are not the only developments Canadians worked on but over the decades, I’ve seen much art that followed these attitudes.
One of the purposes of organising group projects or exchanges between a dozen or so Canadian printmakers and showing work in other countries where we are aware of one another’s national print community is to have a conversation, a dialogue, a conference with our counterparts. This allows the possibility for us to discover what might be a Canadian identity, or a Polish one, somehow embedded in the works.
DT: Have you witnessed any interesting cross pollinations between Polish and Canadian print artists, maybe thanks to events such as the Triennial?
DMB: Thanks to the Biennials and Triennials like the one in Krakow, we in Canada have had an informed exposure to what the Polish printmakers’ work is addressing or looking at. And conversely, with the international forum of the Krakow Triennial, our Canadian work is known worldwide as well.
I am not sure if there is any cross-pollination, as much as a respected recognition of the differences that show up. I do know the geometry, form, line, and a certain physical use of “black” can be traced across the Polish works from the 2018 Krakow main show – that is a powerful set of skills that makes those prints uniquely identifiable as “Polish” – and that our Canadian contingent from that last Triennial, all used photo-based combinations that included digital, sometimes with traditional hybrid mixed media, which is evident also in much of the ProTO-type’s exhibition presented from Canada. But having said that, I think it would be very interesting to organise an exchange exhibition where we might take on a contemporary topic from both countries’ perspectives and see what that might reveal about our differences and similarities.
ProTO-types. Experimental Contemporary Canadian Printmaking
9 July – 24 August 2021
Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow
Basztowa street 18, 31-157 Kraków
Artists: Jordan Baraniecki, Bonnie Baxter, Derek Michael Besant, Mark Bovey, Yael Brotman, Sean Caulfield, Briar Craig, John Dean, René Derouin, Karen Dugas, Alexandra Haeseker, Libby Hague, Bernd Hildebrandt, Liz Ingram, Jo Ann Lanneville, Julie Oakes, Patricia Olynyk, Richard Sewell, Jewel Shaw, Tracy Templeton, Walter Jule.
Curators: Derek Michael Besant, Mateusz Otręba, Margarita Vladimirova
Read the essay written by Katarzyna Zolich and Katarzyna Ewa Legendź.