From an art historical point of view, it is fair to say that Vancouver is a young city. Far from the monumental museums of Europe, this city has had to stake its own claim in the art and culture scene, and it has done so with surprising originality and success through its artist-run centres. These public spaces have a tradition of breaking with tradition, and for the last 50 years have been creating and curating experimental exhibitions that are on the cutting edge of contemporary art. For Malaspina Printmakers, however, it is not a question of innovation versus tradition; rather, this vibrant artist-run centre, which melds gallery and studio space in a unique, multidisciplinary workshop, upholds both. “We really are trying to push the boundaries of printmaking, and incorporate traditional media into more contemporary practices,” explains Justin Muir, the executive director of Malaspina Printmakers. “There is a trend within contemporary art for artists to work not just within one material or one medium. They usually work with an idea or a concept, and then over the span of their career they’ll find tons of different materials and processes to communicate this concept. And so we want to provide for artists to do that.”
Malaspina Printmakers was established in 1975 when students, faculty, and fellows of the Vancouver School of Art intended to mount an international exhibition of print artists. “After the exhibition, they used the society to not only continue doing print-based exhibitions, but to have studio space with print equipment that artists could use. The equipment is so heavy and old and rare that it’s not the type of thing that an individual artist can just have in their private studio,” notes Muir. “It necessitates this idea of a non-profit space the public can access.”
Public accessibility is a major part of Malaspina’s philosophy. Along with a gallery that is open to art appreciators seven days a week, 30 to 40 workshop courses are offered annually which teach different modes of printmaking. And there are many types, from etching and engraving to the digital prints of the modern day. When asked what types of printmaking practices Malaspina has facilities for, Muir lists 17 without so much as a pause. These include stone and plate lithography, intaglio, aquatint and mezzotint, monotype, letter press and collagraphy, to name just a few; in fact there are so many types, and so much interest, that Malaspina Printmakers necessitates a larger space than the 2,500 square feet it presently occupies.
But Malaspina is not about preserving printmaking so much as it is about advancing it. “We’re trying to create a space where that spirit of experimentation and discovery and accident can lead to new forms of printmaking, and maybe even new forms of art outside of printmaking,” Muir says. “And I think that’s a large part of what art is about.” As an example of this, Muir cites the work of Oscar Valero Saez, whose 2013 exhibition, “In a Landscape”, explored the synaesthesia of sight, sound, and touch by generating an embossed, Braille-like musical score which simultaneously engaged visual, audial, and tactile senses. In 2014, Suzie Smith’s “Hollow Anchor” breached the boundary between print and sculpture; the artist folded meticulously-rendered silkscreen and digital prints to make a series of realistic, three-dimensional objects whose presence pushed the limits of formal representation. “Our artistic and curatorial mandate right now is to figure out where print begins to intersect with other artistic disciplines, be it video, music, performance, painting, social practice,” says Muir.
In its most basic form—or perhaps its most complex—printmaking can be considered an intrinsic part of cognition and perception; Muir cites neuroplasticity, the process by which sensory information makes a physical impression on the brain, as a compelling analogy for why printmaking is a natural application of human creativity. After all, no matter how diverse printmaking practices may be, all printmaking—from Dürer’s Rhinoceros to Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans—is defined by forming impressions. “Printmaking is the process of having a plate that acts as a matrix, by which another object forms an impression; and that impression becomes the work of art,” says Muir. “And so that relationship between the plate, or the matrix, and the impression that it makes, can work as a metaphor for a lot of other practices. It’s less of a process and more of a concept.” This holistic, experimental attitude towards art has enabled Malaspina Printmakers to evolve since its establishment 40 years ago. This artist-run centre is a space where the art of the past collides unpredictably with the art of the future, providing an invaluable contribution to the culture of Vancouver.