25 April 2016

Halftone Quran

Watercolor woodblock print
13 x 13 inch image (33 x 33 cm) on 17 x 19 inch (43 x 48 cm) Shioji washi
edition: 8

This is the fourth in a series of halftone prints called Relics which will explore the often unacknowledged but inescapable religious past that underlies our 21st century secularity.

The Quran is believed by Muslims to be a text revealed from God to Mohammad through the angel Gabriel. Respect for the written text and for the book itself is an important element of Islamic religious faith. The Koran is often decorated, but never with figurative imagery.

You can see that the circles I cut from the background were large and very little wood remained, so a number of the tiny pieces fell off as I worked. At first I tried to glue them back on, but then I just gave up and let it be how it was. The layer of wood under the top ply was kind of funky, which was part of the problem. It had a strong grain, which shina doesn't usually have. I took a photo before inking it, because the grain was attractive, even though difficult to work with.

10 April 2016

Halftone Kachina Doll

Watercolor woodblock print
13 x 13 inch image (33 x 33 cm) on  17 x 19 inch (43 x 48 cm) Shioji washi
edition: 8

Kachina are ancestral spirit messengers in the mythology of Pueblo Indians and there is a tradition of carving wooden kachina dolls as teaching tools. I first became acquainted with these figures when I lived in New Mexico in the mid-1990s. The kachina figure depicted here, from a photo I found on the internet, dates to the 1940s and was carved by an unknown artist.

01 April 2016

Interview: Printmaking Today Spring 2016

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


Tai Chi Attitudes-Position 3

MS: Do you use the word ‘waggish’? There are some excellent jokes in your work – I’m thinking of your Tai Chi surfer 
   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.

Mixed Feelings

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
   AB: That’s right. I first gravitated to mokuhanga because I was trying to find an artistic medium that was neither toxic nor messy, and that would be easy and compact enough to do on the side in my small home-based studio while I continued to serve my commercial illustration clients. At the very beginning I had a love/hate thing with the slowness, but I’ve come to appreciate what slowness offers. Although I’m interested in process and in the physical properties of the materials I’m working with, my primary interest lies in the content of the work — narratives, images, ideas — and the slowness of mokuhanga allows me to do a lot of pondering. The slowness also helps me reach beyond simple politics to grasp at some of the underlying social and historical currents. In a culture so polarized, so reactive, so quick to accuse, it feels to me like a deeply countercultural and, well, political act to sit quietly and allow a topic to marinate in my thoughts for a very long time. It allows me to shift from a stance of reacting to one of responding.

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?
   AB: Yes. Mokuhanga is an inherently elegant and beautiful technique, with its use of soft watercolour washes, bright colours and delicate carving. Using this technique to grapple with difficult topics is a little bit strange, even to me. Sometimes I make visual references to Japan – in American Bible Story or Mixed Feelings #8, for example – just because the Japanese-ness of mokuhanga is always a little bit present for me, in the carving tools and the brushes and the elegant simplicity of the materials. I can use the support of the beauty and history of the method without letting go of my own voice and allow my story to emerge within that blend.


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.