The Subsistence Minimum of Graphic Art
Iliana Veinberga, Art Critic
Metabolism: Latvian contemporary graphics
01.10.–08.11.2009. The White Hall of the Latvian National Museum of Art
The exhibition Metabolism was breathtaking, and it was supplemented by a catalogue. Of course, as is often the case with large group exhibitions, many aspects can be debatable. The exhibition featured works by twentynine authors of various ages, working in different media and with diverse subject matter. When such a variety of works are placed side by side, there is always enough open space which cannot be filled out just by adding a descriptive text or the commentary of curator Juris Petraškevičs alone. On the other hand, graphic art is a bit of a stepchild on the local art scene. Even though there are numerous artists of all generations who create original and appealing graphic works, the status, availability and circulation of graphic art in public space (here I do not mean graphic design and applied graphics), as well as its contribution to the art market is poor beyond words. For this reason, I regard the value of the exhibition Metabolism as a unique opportunity to view Latvian graphic artists and their magnificent achievements, while appraisal of the other aspects I consider to be of secondary importance for the purposes of this review.

The exhibition Metabolism was like a treasure chest, where each viewer could rummage through (evaluate) and pick (reevaluate) the varied content, unearthing the items that spoke to their art lover’s heart and soul. With its diverse content, the exhibition sketched in the boundaries and the possibilities of graphic art, which could well develop into a future vision. Truth be told, in this respect the exhibition was on a slippery slope, as it did not present to the viewer the opportunity of gaining an understanding of the reciprocal relationships between graphic art, graphic design and applied graphics and other related directions. Appreciators of art without any prior knowledge could undeniably revel in aesthetic delight, but they were not given a notion of the distinct peculiarities of graphic art and an understanding of what distinguishes and differentiates this art medium.

Linda Blanka. From the series "Looking for a Hero". Aquatint, drypoint. 380x63cm. 2009
Kate Krolle. Summer Is Over And We Are Not Yet Saved. Videoinstallation. 2009
Maija Mackus. Siesta or Lunchtime Love. Linocut. 70x125cm. 2009
To my mind, there are numerous excellent graphic artists in Latvia, and the exhibition was yet another testimony to this fact. Due to limited space I will not discuss every single one of the participants, nor will I single out any particular individuals, as what’s on offer is authentic enough for the works and ideas of the artists not to yield to comparison and contrast within a broader artistic context. However, I would like to mention an important issue which I think served as both an asset and a drawback of this exhibition – that is, the lack of conceptual boundaries. Of course, that is a problem only under certain conditions and where certain purposes are to be fulfilled, for example, in the art market, or when institutions have to plan their collections, publish books and advertise something as a cultural value, i.e. in an institutional context. Outside this context people can rely on their personal and intuitive appreciation of art, and can easily survive without the knowledge of what qualifies as graphic art and what doesn’t, and what could be valued as being of higher quality and “better” graphic art.

The works in the exhibition Metabolism represented classical graphic techniques which have historically defined the boundaries of graphic art, as well as borderline works which play with various art techniques and elements, for example, graphic art which can be likened to painting for its expressiveness, or works using sculpting materials, etc. The exhibition also featured works which could be called linear structures or even graphical aesthetics, executed with the aid of technologies that could be classified as video art or installation, etc. and which have very little to do with graphic art in its classical sense. This could, of course, provoke a discussion about how far the historical criterions may serve as the basis for classification today, or whether these should be expanded to include contemporary technical achievements, which would help to avoid an unimaginable fragmentation of the discipline, yet simultaneously could create a danger of it becoming too unmanageably amorphous.

If we follow sanctioned divisions, the artworks of Metabolism can be roughly divided into three groups. The first group – works utilising classical graphic techniques. The successes and mistakes of these works can be evaluated in accordance with the previously established boundaries of this technique, taking into account the originality of the work and the possibilities provided by our age, etc. The second group or set of works includes those which employ classical techniques with various materials or in a variety of environments and, as a result, the boundaries of several art disciplines are blurred. Based on the interests and interpretation of the viewer these works may or may not be defined as graphic art, but on the whole they do push out the boundaries of this historical medium. The third group would include those works in which the authors make use of or creatively tinker with the classical elements of graphic art: whether it be the materiality, line and graphical interpretation characteristic of graphic art, or – something which I discovered for myself at this exhibition – the specific black-white-gray colour scheme. Works such as these do not add or take away anything from the medium of graphic art, but they definitely convey the specific character of graphic art, that is, they allow modelling the visuality of graphic art, causing the exhibition to be a sensual multi-sensory experience, as typologically these works could be called textile, video, animation or sculpture (installation).

At this point it is fitting to mention that the above classification is senile and practically redundant, as these days the boundaries between the media are insignificant: artists freely manipulate with them, modelling visual, acoustic, tactile, multimedia and other experiences of various problems, identities, states of soul, etc. This conclusion would be appropriate, although if the works of the exhibition were evaluated according to their content, idea or message, one would have to conclude that the majority of the works tackle the issues of form and medium in a conceptual way, and that the different works of the exhibition “hold together” precisely because of this – not because they are contemporary and conceptual, and “crossing the boundaries”, but because they explore various possibilities of form creation within the graphic medium. This process has worked quite well, because that is what makes graphic art different from the other media. It seems that we should appeal to the great teachers of art psychology, who have claimed that certain colours and shapes can trigger certain reactions of perception / emotion in the viewer, almost with instrumental precision. Respectively, graphic works with their lines, dots, colour schemes and peculiarities of the raised surfaces offer the viewers a particular range of experiences that cannot be provided by the other media. Certainly, it is possible to try to imitate this using other media and to gain an equally successful result with regard to emotional experience, and this exhibition proved it to the fullest extent.

Even though Metabolism was fantastic in terms of emotional and aesthetic enjoyment, the very reasons for organizing the exhibition were also the stumbling block, that is – the organizers and participants had not risen above the level of aesthetic enjoyment to present a powerful interpretation of “what’s what” in contemporary graphic art. In contrast to painting or other contemporary arts, where a number of private or state institutions promote their vision, the graphic arts – due to an absence of strong institutional backing – continue to levitate in the common space somewhere among the other disciplines, sporadically delighting audiences with group or solo exhibitions, without a clearly-defined context for these art shows. One hopes that the exhibition of these works in the central hall of the chief museum and all the accompanying public activities will not only provide enjoyment of the infinitely varied and beautiful graphic art works, and the contemplation of its bordering with the pragmatic expressions of graphic arts in our everyday life, but will also announce its rightful place in the institutionalized part of the art world.

/Translator into English: Vita Limanoviča/

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