Artists and Offset: An Interview with Alex Valentine
Wednesday, April 20th, 2011 » See more posts from From the Guest Curators, Interviews
Artists and Offset: An Interview with Alex Valentine
by Jessica Cochran
For nearly a year, I have been curator at the Center for Book and Paper Arts, which through exhibitions, publishing and advanced workshops, promotes the artist’s book as an innovative site for interdisciplinary activity. The Center, which houses an MFA program in Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts, owns a Heidelberg offset press (which staffers affectionately call a “more recently obsolete technology”) on which we publish JAB, the Journal of Artists’ Books. Students, staff and faculty also use the offset press to produce artists’ books and prints.
A newcomer to the field, I quickly become fascinated with the use of the offset press for artistic purposes. With a history all of its own (check out well known offset artists Brad Freeman and Clif Meador) uniquely situated within the field, the offset press is still under-recognized as a creative tool—much of that is due its limited availability and the fact that it is a very difficult press to master and maintain. The offset press is closely associated with fast, industrial production models. When artists use it, however, they must slow down in the spirit of experimentation that fosters the nuance in printing that the offset press allows.
Artists’ book historian Johanna Drucker, who curated an early exhibition on offset art, compared it to video in a 1993 essay. “Offset art (…) is comparable to video: it is an artistic use of a viable industrial mode (…) As a mechanical mode of production, offset can only be assessed aesthetically in relation to the eroding status of modernist claims about the autonomy of fine art.” (Johanna Drucker, “Offset Printing as a Creative Medium” 1993)
Fortunately, SAIC also offers classes and apprenticeships on the offset press to students. I spoke to MFA candidate Alex Valentine (showing in On the Run and Grand Bazaar) about his use of the offset press to create prints and publications.
JC: Your printmaking practice is characterized by a very prolific approach to image making— not in that you produce a lot of prints, but in that you create so many different kinds of pictures. Images seem to hover at the edges different vocabularies, energized by the use of color, layering, repetition— driven by a tension between surface and depth. Can you describe your approach to image making? Where do you start? Where do you end? How does text play a role?
AV: I have a pliable approach to making images. It starts with what’s at hand and what’s on my mind. It’s a meandering approach that’s unfocussed but alert and open. I think that’s what gives it a varied look. Something keeps it all strung together though. Right now there’s a consistency in format and material. There’s also a set of concerns and ideas that I have been engaged with for a long time. I started making images and prints as promotional / informational material ( posters, zines, and packaging) for bands. My art is still promotional. I view my prints as announcements, maybe in an extremely general sense. Now the work promotes actions and characteristics instead of specific events or things. I am drawn towards life actions that are fun, social and cooperative, so I make posters to champion those actions. Printmaking gives me an opportunity to be endlessy variable and additive.
JC: You create much of your work at an offset press, which is a process much less utilized by artists than other forms of printmaking, probably for reasons related to accessibility. How did you get into offset printing, and what is the process like? How has it informed your aesthetic?
AV: Offset is commercial lithography. It is used to make books, magazines, newspapers, packaging, and posters. It’s suited for large runs of printed material. I used it initially to make a book. Then I got really excited by the possibilities of creating a large volume of prints. It suited the projects I was working on. Todd Rau, the offset instructor and press technician at SAIC, was generous enough to show me how to operate the small format Multi press. He’s established this great voluntary apprenticeship program that I’ve become part of.
JC: You plan to create an installation for the MFA show, in which your prints and zines are strung between two walls in angled rows, creating a sort of ceiling of images requiring the viewer to look up to experience the work, or reach upwards to page through a publication, Walking through the installation itself is much like reading an artist’s book— active and sequential but non-linear. How did this idea develop and what is your goal for the installation?
AV: The idea for the show developed out of conversations with my advisers. I had made all this work but wasn’t sure how to display it. I felt like the work should be active. Displaying it on a line came from displaying posters at No Coast, the store and studio I run with friends. We always had a rotating set of posters and prints hanging on lines for people to look at. It is a casual display and I think it fits the work.
JC: You mentioned No Coast, a cooperative print studio, exhibition space and bookstore. How does your arts administration practice (if you would call it that) relate to your printmaking practice?
AV: No Coast is based around the idea that artists can have everything they want all the time. It is a place to make, distribute, sell, show, see, and learn. There are difficulties in trying to sustain a project like that but its important to be stubborn in maintaining that ideal. We value accessible and affordable mediums. My printmaking practice is a result of those values.