By Meredith McGroarty
Take a look at the UT Printmaking program, which is ranked fourth in the nation, and student Ashton Ludden. Her printmaking work poses questions about the morality of the meat industry and animal agriculture.
With their unique themes, techniques, and media, it would be nearly impossible to confuse the work of Koichi Yamamoto with that of Althea Murphy-Price, two faculty members in UT Knoxville’s acclaimed printmaking program. Between them, Murphy-Price and Yamamoto show mastery of a wide range of media, including intaglios, relief prints, lithographs, monoprints, and woodcuts.
Murphy-Price and Yamamoto, both assistant professors of art, are key to the success of the printmaking program, which is currently ranked by U.S. News and World Report as fourth in the nation; its graduates have gone on to have works shown in the Whitney Biennial, Venice Biennale, and the Museum of Modern Art.
Murphy-Price uses lithography and screen-printing to produce works exploring the myriad connotations of hair. Lithographic printing allows Murphy-Price to use actual hair in the printmaking process, producing exceptionally detailed images in which the smallest scattering of hair fibers can be seen. One print shows a stenciled design of swirling leaves and stems; up close, one can see the stippled nature of the ink and the scattering of hair clippings that bleed beyond the edge of the pattern. Another presents an assortment of small clumps of hair connected to each other by thin, wiry strands, with some tendrils snaking off into the distance.
“I use photo-based processes to reinvent the linear quality of the hair,” Murphy-Price says. “But the work isn’t entirely about hair. It’s also about identity and how we define ourselves. For me, it’s about expressing what is very human in the relationship of hair to the body.”
In addition to its role in self-identity, hair also carries larger racial and cultural associations.
“Aware of hair’s important significance in the African American culture, I wanted to research its influence in shaping the ideals of beauty within American culture as a whole. The exploration of hair culture amongst the African-American community has a complex history shared by both black and non-black Americans,” Murphy-Price explains.
Murphy-Price’s works often speak of personal relationships, either with oneself or with others, but Yamamoto’s intaglios and monotypes are more interested in the relationship between individuals and their physical environment.
A fan of outdoor activities like snowboarding and rock climbing, Yamamoto has been interested in the earth’s natural elements since high school, when he planned on becoming a geologist. After deciding he didn’t want a career in oil excavation, he decided to work with the environment artistically, first through sculpture and later through printmaking, which he initially pursued for practical reasons.
“Dealing with paper is a lot easier than dealing with clay. It’s easier to move around. You need less space to store it,” Yamamoto says.
Yamamoto greatly respects the history and tradition of printmaking—and other graphic arts—and incorporates those themes into his work. He first started making prints through lithography, which is a 200-year-old practice (relatively new when you consider woodcut has been used for more than a millennium). Lithography also uses limestone, playing into his background in geology.
He notes that graphic arts has played a big role in recent history as well; in Eastern Europe—where Yamamoto lived for several years—posters and other media helped engage the public to bring about regime change in the 1980s. Today, Yamamoto does a lot of woodcut printing—which was an important part of seventeenth-century history in his native Japan—and copper engraving.
“With the copper plates or wood, there’s not a lot of volume or mass; it’s a small surface. But when you print, especially with metal engraving, it does create a bit of texture on the paper. It’s not really sculpture, but it’s three-dimensional,” Yamamoto says, adding that this sort of interaction with the elements is not something newer digital technologies can replicate.
Some of Yamamoto’s prints show broad scrapes of black juxtaposed with more textured areas of dark gray, as well as white. These works are a landscape study, he says.
“When I was traveling in central Idaho, in the early morning I could see the mist and the movement of the air. I was interested in showing the air movement between rock formations,” he explains.
Yamamoto describes printmaking as more of a “discovery” than an attempt to create predetermined objects or images.
“Making art is an adventure for me because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says. “I’m trying to make things, but at the same time I’m searching for things. The artwork is almost a byproduct of that journey. I enjoy the material that resists—copper, stone, wood. If I’m just making a drawing like graphite on paper, it’s a sinuous material, easier to apply. But if it’s a little harder, I get a certain satisfaction from that.”