Printmakers are often embarrassed by prints in general by print posters available online, or the canvas prints that design shops stock by the dozen. Tawdry works like these have brought Matisse or Warhol to countless college dorms and dental clinics, but their low cost and ubiquity means that printmaking is often seen as the art-world equivalent of a takeaway cheeseburger: cheap and insubstantial.
But now Asian printmakers with leading artists among them are in the vanguard of rehabilitating the craft. Their base is a renovated former godown in Singapore: the seven-year-old Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI). It runs a course for artists in fine-art printmaking, and then sells their work to increasingly enthusiastic collectors, who during cash-strapped times are looking for quality alternatives to overpriced canvases. "We're an amphibian," says Emi Eu, the STPI's director. "We're a gallery and a learning institution at the same time."
The starting point of the Asian print renaissance is a sunlit studio perched above the sluggish Singapore River. There, resident artists sketch or paint their works. When they're done, they descend to the movement's operations room, a cement-floored space sealed to all natural light. It is dominated by machinery once owned by the hugely influential though now retired American printer after whom the institute is named: Kenneth Tyler, a man who consistently pushed the boundaries of printmaking from the 1960s onward, working with such artistic luminaries as Frank Stella and David Hockney. "All the machines can be pretty intimidating to an artist who is used to working alone," says the STPI's chief papermaker Richard Hungerford, who once worked with Tyler in the master's New York studio and now guides artists during their four- to six-week residencies. He gestures at iron printing presses and a silk-screening machine that claws the works through a series of chemical baths.
The ability of printmaking to augment the depth of original paintings or sketches is the reason artists persist with the techniques. The new print exhibition of Indonesian pop artist Agus Suwage, running at the STPI from Sept. 26 to Oct. 24, is a case in point. Agus began his residency at the Tyler Institute in January with a desire to protest a 2008 Indonesian antipornography law that he felt curbed the freedom of women and artists like himself. "It affects pluralism and Indonesia needs to be pluralistic," he says.
The 51 original works Suwage produced at the Tyler Institute bear the marks of this dissent. One depicts a naked woman against slate-gray letters the text of the antiporn law embossed onto paper that is often kneaded by hand from raw cotton. The physicality of Agus' finished piece, with letters extruding from crenellated surfaces, is one way his print works are unique. The use of repetition is also striking. Suwage is already well known for political commentary. With printing, his barbs have even greater sting. "The message becomes much stronger than on a single canvas work," says Tan Boon Hui, director of the Singapore Art Museum, "because there is more layering and there are more permutations."
Printmaking has had a dramatic effect on most of the artists spending time at the STPI. For Malaysian painter Ahmad Zakii Anwar, the process of lithography emphasized his innate drafting skills, and gave his print series of male nudes cartographic precision. Chinese installation artist Lin Tianmiao, used to working in large spaces with big props, cut her work down to a more intimate scale. She created a series of hauntingly vacant faces over which she superimposed a sheet of ribbed and pebbled paper. The scarred surface of the works imbued them with an irresistible texture.
Furthering the Asian avant-garde is probably not what ordinary Singaporeans have in mind when they purchase tickets for the city-state's 4-D lottery, drawn three times a week at the Paradiz Centre mall. But it was lottery money, channeled through the Singapore Totalisator Board, that was used in the STPI's establishment in 2002. When the sale of a collection of 1,200 original works belonging to Kenneth Tyler was announced roughly a decade ago, doyens of the Singapore art scene including the late arts educator Brother Joseph McNally and prominent architect Liu Thai Ker saw an artistic and commercial opportunity for the city state. They put forward a proposal that the government not only acquire Tyler's works and machinery but also establish a world-beating institute under the guidance of the man many believe to be the greatest printer alive. When the Cabinet balked at the $15 million required, the Totalisator Board, a state body, stepped in.
"Asians didn't really understand what we were doing," says Eu of the STPI's earliest years. Even so, Asian artists began to grow curious, drawn by the technology and on-site expertise that would be at their disposal. "It's like a candy store to most artists," says Hungerford. Painters the caliber of Filipino Ben Cabrera and India's Atul Dodiya took up residencies. Both the STPI's artistic reputation and financial underpinnings slowly strengthened.
Today, the prints that result from the STPI's artist residencies are generating ever-higher sums. Each of the 34 lithographic prints of the female nude Agus has produced, for example, is expected to fetch roughly $7,000 while bigger works will go for roughly $14,000. That's modest by the standards of the art market, where an Agus painting at auction can fetch over $100,000. Nonetheless this is far more than Asians have spent on prints in the past, and that's because the perception of printmaking is finally changing. Somewhere, far above the college dorms and dentists' waiting rooms, another realm of printmaking is taking shape.