From 1968 to the early 1980s the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) was one of the best regarded art schools in the world, a frequent destination for art luminaries and a hotbed of the then avant-garde art style of conceptualism.
The “art school” (as it was colloquially known) was making a name for itself through programs such as the famous “Projects Class” run by David Askevold, the NSCAD Press, the Mezzanine, and Anna Leonowens galleries, and its visiting artist and guest faculty programs that drew artists from New York, Los Angeles, London, Berlin and other art centres.
Perhaps no program more encapsulated NSCAD’s influence at that heady time than the NSCAD Lithography Workshop which, over a brief period (1969–1976) brought artists from across the world to make prints with NSCAD’s master printers.
These works, editioned and sold to benefit the school’s programs, appear today in major public collections across North America. Artists who made work under this program included Joyce Weiland, Eric Fischl, Sol Lewitt, Vito Acconci, Dennis Oppenheim, and Dan Graham.
But perhaps no work from this storied program was as striking, and apt, as the late John Baldessari’s “I will not make any more boring art.” Based on an earlier video and performance by the Los Angles conceptual artist, the work mimicked the familiar school punishment of writing lines on a blackboard. (Students wrote the lines on a gallery wall for an earlier version of the work at NSCAD).
Recently, NSCAD University (as the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design has been rebranded) revisited this part of its history with a new series of residencies called NSCAD Lithography Workshop: Contemporary Editions, funded by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.
In collaboration with NSCAD master printer Jill Graham, eight artists from across Canada made new prints in 2019. Stone lithography, first developed in the early 19th century, involves making prints from a surface treated so that the areas to be printed accept ink, while areas to be left blank reject it.
Built up in layers depending on the amount of colour to be used, lithographs can be made by drawing directly on the stone, or with various transfer processes. The artists involved (Shuvinai Ashoona, Jordan Bennett, Shary Boyle, Brendan Fernandes, Amy Malbeuf, Ed Pien, Derek Sullivan, and Ericka Walker) made works that reflected a wide range of approaches to the medium. Each artist came to NSCAD University in 2019 to work with Graham.
Jordan Bennett’s print “iljo’qwa’sik” features motifs Bennett adapted from historical Mi’kmaq quillwork. The title, which translates in English as “It rights itself,” references the canoe design that features prominent in the piece. The vibrant colours and dynamic geometric design reflect both traditional Mi’kmaq iconography and Bennett’s own, unique, take on his culture.
Ed Pien’s print The Hungry Sea references a recurring theme for this Toronto artist: water. In this work Pien overlays an image of the endangered wolffish with images derived from the patterns created on paper by evaporating water. This foreboding work is simple and complex at once, and the resulting image evokes a dangerous beauty.
Shary Boyle, whose drawings and sculptures will be familiar to many local gallery-goers, has created an image that provides an allegory of the (woman) artist’s life. In a fascinating interview (playing on video in the gallery) Boyle roots her image in her thinking about the way that the earlier Lithography Workshop privileged male artists over female ones.
The only woman who made a print, Joyce Weiland, did so by kissing the stone with heavily lipsticked lips, mouthing the words to “O Canada.”
Vito Acconci, a more famous artist at the time, made a later print with a similar approach: kissing his arms and hands with lipsticked lips and then smearing the red paste onto the stone.
Boyle described it as Acconci rubbing his kiss over Weiland’s, and she wanted to make a work that reassessed “the boy’s club.” Her artist is modelling a portrait bust out of clay, in a studio inspired by that of the late British painter Francis Bacon.
Her head is a ceramic globe, based on an antique French wig stand. The headless artist is making a head, creating herself through her own creation, rather than the historical role too often relegated to woman of subjects of art, as models or “muses.”
All of the artists included in NSCAD Lithography Workshop: Contemporary Editions are featured in interviews playing in the space, a welcome addition to the show that helps make the complicated process of lithography more understandable. The exhibition is a fresh take on an old process, and the diverse group of artists included all manage to remain true to Baldessari’s edict: they have not made any more boring art.
NSCAD Lithography Workshop: Contemporary Editions is on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia until April 26.