Slow road, deep waters
PROFILE: US artist Annie Bissett makes witty use of the elegant and beautiful Japanese watercolor technique mokuhanga to address political issues. Mike Sims interviewed her about her work
AB: I don’t hear the word ‘waggish’ too often over here, but Dr. Google says it means humorous in a mischievous kind of way. I think my work could fairly be described as waggish. The very premise – making socio-political art about American issues using an ancient, stylized, and elegant Japanese art form – has an incongruity that perhaps makes it humorous and disarming. That's a good quality for art that approaches sensitive topics.
MS: In 2015, you were a Jay and Deborah Last fellow at American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in Worcester, Massachusetts – would you like to say something about your use of found material and especially historical images? You seem to be gently poking fun at decayed old certainties.
AB: Initially my use of found material arose from the unfortunate fact that I never went to art school and I’m not a very good draughtsman. I love collage for the way one can juxtapose time periods, scale and styles, and I find that printmaking, with its layering capabilities, invites similar exploration. Historical images allow me to address contentious present-day issues like immigration, nationalism, income disparity or religion with a bit of much-needed distance. I do like to poke fun at old certainties, but I’m also poking fun at new certainties, pointing out that many of the things we think are fresh, modern problems have been with us for a long time, and many of the attitudes we believe we’ve shed still lurk within us.
I’m drawn to imagery from the colonial period because there I find the seeds of American identity and the first appearance of many of Americans’ more problematic attitudes. It was a thrill to have the opportunity to pore over the AAS holdings for four weeks and I think in turn, the scholars enjoyed seeing the freedom I have as an artist to add imagination to historical narratives.
MS: Your Mixed Feelings set deftly points up the close but diametrically opposed language we use to describe rich and poor but elsewhere in your work you show how clumsy an instrument politics can be in dealing with sensitive issues – I'm thinking of your print A real fake: this is not Muhammed.
AB: There’s a place for political art that’s direct and in-your-face, but I don’t have the temperament for that kind of work. Much of what I do arises from current events and news reports, but I try to make work that can outlast and reach beyond the particular politics that sparked my initial interest. Politics is really just about people and how we relate to one another, which I think is an endlessly interesting topic for most people.
MS: You say of your print Earthquake that 'sometimes history rises up seeking justice.' Do you feel very out of step with contemporary US politics? What degree of satirical intent is in your work?
AB: Satire is a tricky word for me. I think of satire as being aimed at ‘others’ with an intention to show their stupidity or misconduct. I would rather point my finger at ‘us.’ No artist – no person – can stand outside her own time and place and see clearly. We’re all wearing spectacles with prescriptions we ourselves didn’t write. So yes, I use humour, I use caricature, and I point out follies or inconsistencies, but I try to also maintain compassion for our humanity and for the great difficulty involved in becoming the people we so deeply want to believe ourselves to be.
MS: I see a little of Terry Gilliam in Earthquake too, do you?
AB: I found a video of Terry Gilliam showing how he does his cutouts in which he says 'easy, no work' at least ten times. It made me chuckle, because he’s trying to show how very simple it all is and all I could see is how difficult it must be to make those incremental little moves with gazillions of tiny pieces of paper and get it to photograph right. In my case: cutouts, easy, no work, yes! Oh, except for the carving…
MS: I suspect one of the chief attractions for you of mokuhanga is all that carving though – the slow working and the slow thinking. Is that right and were these especially important to you after a career in commercial illustration?
|American Bible Story|
MS: Yes, your blog is very revealing about how your thought process evolves through the work. So, your use of mokuhanga is another lens – amplifying your message by combining a familiar idiom with unexpected material?
MS: In your blog about your print Horizon, you question the moral of the old tale of The Fisherman and the Fish: ‘Never let go a Certainty for an Uncertainty.’ 'I'm sure this is good advice for someone,' you write, 'but not for an artist.' Why not?
AB: Artists need to observe, and certainty has no doors or windows. Artists need to attempt things they haven’t done before, and certainty can’t allow failure. Artists need to be afraid or confused sometimes, and certainty cannot abide by doubt. And, in addition to the fact that it leads to fundamentalism, certainty is boring.
Note: Printmaking Today does not post an online version of the magazine, so this is a transcription of an interview from the Spring 2016 issue - Vol 25 No. 1.
Printmaking Today website.