Fine utility 

I scream, you scream, we all scream for silk screen

Silk-screening, as UM assistant art professor Valerie Hedquist explains in a short essay written for the American Screen Printing exhibition currently on display at the Art Museum of Missoula, is “an American story of creativity, inventiveness and economy.” As a fine art medium, it emerged from its early commercial applications—mostly product labels and signage—and matured during the cash-strapped New Deal years, not least as a cheap printing method to publicize the goals and achievements of the New Deal itself. Artists under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, many of whom had been commercial printmakers before the Depression, produced intricate, varicolored posters using the techniques that were developed for commercial use in the late 1800s.

Screen printers today, in fact, use essentially the same techniques as their New Deal predecessors. First, a thin sheet of textile (origin-ally silk—hence the term “silk-screening”—but now generally nylon or fine wire mesh) is stretched on a wood or metal frame. Frames can also be bought ready-to-use from retail art-supply stores. Next, the printer creates a stencil, for example by copying the desired image from paper onto a plastic transparency at a self-service copy shop. The screen is then coated with light-sensitive emulsion, the transparency placed over it, and the whole set-up allowed to cook for about an hour under an exposed bulb. The light passing through the transparency hardens the emulsion in the exposed matrix, while the emulsion shielded from light by the design can be sprayed out with cold water, thus opening a design-shaped channel for the ink to pass through the mesh to the print on the other side. Where a multicolored print is desired, color separations can be created on individual stencils and printed one at a time.

That’s the basic process. To distinguish screen printing as a fine art from its commercial origins, the term “serigraph” (“silk writing”) was proposed by a gallery director in 1939 and enthusiastically adopted by the WPA artists whose rapidly-evolving work had helped the process achieve fine-art status. If the term “serigraph” strikes you as a somewhat unnecessary fancifying of two perfectly serviceable existing terms (and note that a photocopy hanging in a fancy gallery often suddenly becomes a “xerigraph”), you’re not alone. For printers Tom Dewar and Josh Vanek, whose work can be seen through the end of this month at the Art Museum, “silk-screening” or “screen-printing” will do just fine, thanks.

“I think it’s made to sound like it’s a little prettier than screen printing,” says Dewar. “I really don’t care for it.”

Vanek confesses that he hadn’t even heard the term before his work went on display in the museum, but also that he hadn’t looked into the history or literature of screen printing other than to glean tips for building screens and using emulsions.

“I’m what you’d call ignorant about much of the history,” says the matter-of-fact Vanek, “other than that it was once largely a commercial medium. I don’t necessarily associate ‘serigraphy’ with your high-tier fine art. It’s just not a word I’d committed to memory—or encountered before, for that matter.”

Dewar, a former fine arts student at UM, got his printmaking start in lithography. As he explains it, he moved into screen printing because he preferred using water-based inks to oils and liked the fact that he could make prints at home with a minimum of mess, and without the press needed for making lithographs.

“I found I could get the same results with the style and images that I used for photolithography using screen printing,” Dewar says, “and it’s a lot cleaner and a lot safer.”

Since moving to Seattle some four years ago, Dewar has found plenty of work designing posters for rock shows, teaching himself as he goes. He’s also become an avid collector of other artists’ screen prints, with nearly 300 originals in his collection—most of them traded for help around their studios. And he’s continued to refine his own craft, displaying a preference for oversized dot-matrix designs and trashy images retrieved from old magazines.

“For the first couple of months there,” he recalls, “there was a lot of trial and error with learning how long to expose things and what kind of emulsion to use. Every poster I did, I learned a little more.”

Vanek, also a former UM student, got into silk-screening for reasons that similarly straddle art and commerce, seizing on the technique as an inexpensive and satisfying way to create t-shirts, record covers and rock posters for bands affiliated with his record label, Wäntage USA. Vanek has designed album and poster graphics for local space-pop-proggers Volumen and Portland-based Last of the Juanitas, among perhaps a dozen others. He creates them in his basement workshop, screening the prints on a customized tabletop and hanging them to dry from a modified clothesline.

“While my approach to it is sort of more utility-based,” Vanek says, “It’s hard—for me at least—to draw too big a line in the sand between the art and the utility. It all looks sweet, and what I like about ‘higher art,’ I generally dig about seven-inch covers.”

Like Dewar, Vanek has also developed his own design preferences—most notably a kind of crypto-Stalinist aesthetic that he seems to have absorbed from a Peace Corps stint in Latvia, heavy on the Polish housing developments, Muscovite high-rises and circuitry diagrams culled from the Soviet equivalent of Popular Mechanics.

“The Soviets had several things right,” he ventures, “one of which was a top-shelf, comic-book-like penchant for drawing farmers and factory workers. Our social engineering projects today are just subtler, I think. We see the Dell interns on TV, rather than Anatoly the Wise and Strong Spot-Welder. Bold typefaces, collages—especially the sort of spartan Czech and Hungarian stuff made in the ’40s—that’s where it’s at for me.”

The American Screen Printing exhibition is on display through the end of the month at the Art Museum of Missoula. Call 728-0447 for more information.

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