They’re like a line-up of female rockers. Sure, some of them no longer young or rebellious – less Taylor Swift, more Sheryl Crow. But clearly visible is the attitude, the urge to create, to show who they are: The Printing Girls, or TPG.
Formed in 2016, TPG is now a 93-strong, all-women printmakers’ collective. To showcase printmaking’s creative frontiers the Artvark Gallery in Kalk Bay is running a group exhibition of selected works, 25 Years 25 Prints. It’s a celebration of the inspiration behind TPG and of Artvark’s 25th birthday. Naturally, it opens on Women’s Day.
Visiting Artvark for a preview, I’m struck by the gallery’s idiosyncratic flair, a reflection of the owner-artist, Theresa Jo Wessels. On display are ceramics, fabrics, jewellery, cutlery; the interior sections are treasure troves of paintings, photographic works, sculptures and steelworks.
In one room Thabang Lehobye’s ironically-named Small Street Pace demands attention, not purely because, at 200cm x 265cm, it’s large. It would dominate the room, except on the opposite wall are two digital paintings, Studio and The Long Haul, equally as impactful, both by Wessel’s daughter, Tessa. Actually, I’m standing in what was her bedroom in bygone years, before the family home was converted to the gallery.
Putting aside these beautiful distractions, I ask Wessels about how she and fellow TPG member Kristen McClarty whittled the 80 entries down to the 25 prints selected for the exhibition. “It was difficult, because we wanted to include different techniques and styles,” she says. Was one of hers selected? “Actually, two of mine,” she smiles. “Well, it’s your gallery,” I note, and we laugh together.
She’s that kind of person: it takes just a few minutes of conversation to feel at ease. So I’m emboldened to ask whether her gallery’s name might put off potential browsers and buyers who think Artvark isn’t for serious art. “Galleries have such snotty names,” she responds. Instead, quite literally, she chose a down-to-earth name. “If it’s good, we take art off the street to give artists an outlet,” she explains further. “So if Artvark means more accessibility for artists, not just established ones, I’m proud of that.”
Wessels, with a Fine Arts degree and a residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, is well qualified to explain the field of printmaking. Essentially, the sky is the limit. Techniques range from classical to cutting-edge, provocative to playful. The printmaker may choose to etch, engrave, handprint or silkscreen-print; use litho, lino or woodcut reliefs; attempt acid baths or cyanotype effects. Wessels focuses her work in the time-honoured process of etching, but newer trends include using vinyl, treated gels, cardboard, and plastic. Increasingly, too, part of the process is digital.
A young TPG member, 23-year old Lauren-Grace Hoffman, explains this potential for experimentation: “I ran porcelain through a printing press until paper-thin, then glazed it to look like skin. Now I’m printing on ceramics…but I love relief woodblock, lino prints – and there’s a special place in my heart for etchings!”
Whilst printmaking often involves a struggle, requiring archaic tools, weird chemicals and constraining mediums, there is also a mysteriousness, or serendipity, in the creative outcome. This is illustrated in Wessel’s Leaving I and Leaving II etchings. With one plate she used two opposing techniques to create thoughtful variations on her central idea, that of the world’s many people forced through circumstances to depart their homes and countries in the face of disorder or devastation.
The first piece was produced as initially intended – a traditional etching, run through the roller with the plate at the bottom. Then she flipped plate and paper “just to see what would happen”; Leaving II is darker, depicting solemness. The recreation surprised her, but by sacrificing control Wessels has created two powerful, complementary etchings.
Indeed, many TPG artists confirm that intuition and discovery are integral to their process. It’s difficult to believe this, looking at one of my favourites on show, Jana Kolodziej’s Wheatfield I, with its innumerable straight lines plotted precisely and carved into the lino with obvious patience to create undulating fields that, impossibly, seem to move with the wind.
Nature and mythology influences much of Judy Woodbourne’s work, the most critically acclaimed printmaker on exhibit. Her work has featured in numerous international curations, including the Summer 2020 exhibition by the International Print Centre in New York. Showcased at Artvark is The Ties That Bind, an extraordinary three-dimensional piece combining various mediums into a paper-based sculpture.
Paula Aucamp specialises in cyanotype printmaking, an old photographic printing process now increasingly used to push printmaking boundaries. On exhibit is If These Walls Could Talk I, one of a series of dreamy, nostalgic cyanotypes overlaid from photographs of dilapidated Karoo buildings.
In contrast, Mariëtte Momberg’s print, Ground Control, is bold, playful, dynamic. A prolific artist based in Kommetjie, Momberg usually focuses on women’s issues (‘womxn’s empowerment’, she writes in her TPG profile, signalling her belief in a more inclusive feminism). Here, she seems to be challenging us to ponder life’s big issues in a general sense.
What strikes me about all 25 prints is that the complex processes – part mysterious, part precision – and fluidity between deliberate, practiced skills and the acceptance of imperfection is what gives them their ephemeral elegance. In that sense, printmaking is shown to be a versatile, feminine art form.
Before leaving Artvark I pore over, again, the range of entries from TPG members. One last, obvious question surfaces. Why is it The Printing Girls – why are no men involved in this printmaking collective? Wessels replies with a grin: “It makes us unique. Men always want to take over – but not here!”
25 Years 25 Prints opens at 6pm on Women’s Day, 9 August, and runs until the end of September
Artvark Gallery, 48 Main Road, Kalk Bay, T +27 21 788 5584