Visiting artist shows students another side of printmaking

GVL / Amy Hammond

Josh MacPhee spoke to students on Thursday

Amy Hammond

GVL / Amy Hammond Josh MacPhee spoke to students on Thursday

Stephanie Allen

Brooklyn, N.Y. printmaker Josh MacPhee never had any formal art training. He doesn’t hold a traditional gallery-style view of art. And all of the art he creates has a greater social meaning, other than being aesthetically pleasing.

He’s a printmaking political activist.

MacPhee came to Grand Valley State University last week as a visiting artist to create a project with help from printmaking professor David Keister and to speak with students about his artistic journey.

Printmaking and drawing professor Brett Colley chose MacPhee as the week-long printmaking project artist after finding out about him in “a really bad job of stalking him,” Colley said.
He originally found some of MacPhee’s work online, then saw one of his projects at an exhibition, and started noticing books edited by him.

Colley knew MacPhee’s work was different, and he said it brought a fresh idea to students.

In his discussion on Nov. 1, he gave students a political look at art, which Colley said is distinctive about MacPhee because he focuses on the collaboration and social context of images.

“Very little of the work that I do, the art and cultural work that I do, is distributed or comes out through the traditional art world,” MacPhee said. “I think its good to talk to, or show students that there are other ways of being artists and there are other ways to support yourself as an artist without having a gallery career.”

Students were engaged during the discussion as MacPhee gave an hour-long overview of five projects he’s worked on, all with a social printmaking standpoint.

“He’s involved in social justice issues and he brings printmaking back to its history as a sort of tool as a social and political discourse,” Colley said.

Hearing the different ideas MacPhee discussed inspired students, Colley said. And gave them a new idea to explore different aspects of their art and the social context behind it, he said.

“I thought Josh did an excellent job of covering a wide range of ideas and individual projects, knitting them together around the dual concepts of history and social movement building,” Colley said.

But hearing his story didn’t just inspire students, Colley said it emphasized some of GVSU’s core education values, too.

“I think it is a reminder of their context here in a liberal arts college that there’s a lot of other disciplines with a lot of different concerns and it sort of places an emphasis on the knowledge that they’re getting from those other areas and not just the technical tools that they’re learning as artists.”

Political art as a living

MacPhee is a non-traditional printmaker. He first got involved with the idea of political printmaking as a teenager doing street graffiti when he realized the political impact it had on society.

“…Josh himself did not receive a formal education in art, but instead came to it as someone interested in the punk movement, anarchism, and basically growing your own culture,” Colley said.

He started developing his printmaking skills with stenciling and then moved on to screen-printing, which developed with his projects.

His latest work is running the Interference Archive in Brooklyn, N.Y., which is an archive of what he calls “social movement culture,” or political art. The collection includes placards, buttons, posters, songs, and performance documents that people have actually used and created.

“There’s actually a fair amount of the things that we use or think about in our culture that we don’t realize actually came from moments of people organizing,” MacPhee said.
The archive works to keep those items from history in the public’s mind.

“The idea is to take them and reintroduce them back into the world so that they don’t get sort of forgotten or they lose their context, but we get to remember them and why,” he said.

The radioactivity project

When the tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, it caused a series of reactions that lead to a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima power plant. More than a year after the disaster, its implications are still evident.

The weeklong project MacPhee worked on at GVSU came from his work with Japanese activists who are working to raise awareness of the radioactive disaster that is still happening.
“There are actually pieces of Fukushima that are starting to wash up on the shores of California,” MacPhee said.

The wood-printing technique used was new to MacPhee and he said he learned from Keister, who helped develop the finished print.

“Working with David is fabulous and he’s an amazing printmaker and has been able to troubleshoot and problem solve everything that’s come up within seconds,” he said.

Fitting with the project’s cause, he said the printmaking technique is a Japanese style that is also a “suicide print” because it gets destroyed with each layer – an idea that MacPhee related to the Fukushima disaster.

The finished print is a shot of the hills and “Hollywood” sign in California, replaced with “Fukushima.”

“There’s an apocalypse unfolding in Japan right now,” MacPhee said.

And he’s hoping his radioactivity project brings awareness of that issue.

For students who asked MacPhee how he made it as an artist, and for advice on how to proceed, he gave them a different idea of what to expect in the art world.

“It’s like a lottery, which we all through our names into the ring and very few get picked,” MacPhee said. “And who gets picked is almost always arbitrary or nepotistic. I think it’s really hard to study and learn and work really to want to become an artist and then enter into a system where none of that really matters. I think it’s important for artists and particularly young people, young artists to start to experiment with other ways to be artists in the world.”

He told them to keep going and to keep pushing everything until it breaks, just like his suicide prints.

“Take things, even if they’re successful and keep pushing them,” he said.

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