In 1971, John Baldessari sent a letter to NSCAD, instructing students to write the phrase I will not make any more boring art on the walls of the school’s Mezzanine Gallery. As far as assignments go, it’s a pretty good one, perfectly encapsulating the absurd necessity and humbling futility of trying to be original within the context of art school—where everyone’s a weirdo, and everyone’s taking the same path to get somewhere new.
What I love about Baldessari’s directive is that it is both chastising and liberating. Yes, my art may have been boring, but why shouldn’t it become interesting as of today? Yes, it seems punitive and tedious to write the phrase I will not make any more boring art over and over, but repetition is a funny thing. Context changes what interests us, and what once was boring may suddenly seem fresh—if the timing is right.
For Baldessari, repetition was an essential artistic strategy, rendering an idea, a dot, an image or a phrase both more and less familiar, both clearer and more obscure. He returned to the phrase I will not make any more boring art in a print he produced through NSCAD’s Lithography Workshop in 1971. Baldessari was just one of many renowned artists who were invited between 1969 and 1980 to make use of NSCAD’s facilities to create limited edition lithographs with technical assistance from the school’s master printer. The program brought Joyce Wieland, Claes Oldenburg, Vito Acconci and many others to Halifax, and in doing so it helped to establish NSCAD’s reputation as a hotbed for conceptual art practice—no small feat for a small school, in a small city, on the rocky edge of North America.
Today’s NSCAD is operating in a very different context from that of the 1970s. But, as Baldessari’s use of repetition demonstrates, a change of context can be refreshing, giving new life to an old idea. When the Canada Council announced the New Chapters funding initiative in 2017, it seemed like the time might be right to relaunch the Lithography Workshop. NSCAD got the funding, and over the next two years, eight artists—Shuvinai Ashoona, Jordan Bennett, Shary Boyle, Brendan Fernandes, Amy Malbeuf, Ed Pien, Derek Sullivan and Ericka Walker—worked with Master Printer Jill Graham to create new editions and to re-establish the Litho Workshop as a going concern. The Litho Workshop was officially declared resuscitated with the launch of a suite of eight new editions (which are available for purchase through NSCAD’s Anna Leonowens Gallery) at an event held in NSCAD’s printmaking classrooms in November 2019. The eight meticulously printed works are on view until April 26 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Melanie Colosimo, director of the Anna Leonowens Gallery, is one of many people who have been working to get the contemporary version of the Litho Workshop up and running. According to Colosimo, the relaunch aims to pay tribute to the workshop’s legacy, while also having it make sense in the current moment. The most obvious update was demographic: the original workshop’s roster of invited artists skewed very white and male. The new editions are made by a more diverse and gender- balanced group of artists, and the cultural reference points are likewise more expansive.
Jordan Bennett’s colourful, energetic forms draw on the patterns of Mi’kmaq quillwork, while Brendan Fernandes points to both the choreography of the court of Louis XIV and the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in his graceful arrangement of dancers poised en arabesque. Ed Pien speaks of “kidnapping” ocean water to create The Hungry Sea, in which drawings of wolffish can barely be seen on black paper, their dark lines swimming in and out of salty textures made by evaporating (or escaping) water from the Halifax harbour. Ericka Walker (who teaches printmaking at NSCAD) engages most directly with the history of lithography itself; her print From Time to Time alludes to the graphic tradition of colonial propaganda and the complex history of the glorification of manual labour. Amy Malbeuf’s prints each feature a hand-crafted caribou-hair tuft, while in Derek Sullivan’s image of scattered book covers, we catch glimpses of EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style and Hans Haacke’s Framing and Being Framed.
As that last title might suggest, Sullivan’s work is the closest in both style and spirit to the conceptual prints that dominated the workshop in the 1970s. A perusal of the archives turns up a lot of text and cleverness, and many sly reckonings with the seriality and flat physicality of printmaking from conceptual and performative artists for whom “boring art” was anything lasting that could be put in a frame. I kind of love the nerdy, bratty visual philosophy of the likes of Baldessari, Gerald Ferguson and Sol LeWitt, but I’m also glad that the art world is a little bigger now, with more room for dreaminess and colour. In Shuvinai Ashoona’s Halipaligazuk Nuzakutaling Kuaniqnii, a figure lies on the rocks at the edge of the sea, with seaweed hair (or twisted green thoughts) growing out from under the hood of an amauti. As much as I like language games and grids, it is also enriching to follow knotted emerald forms into the sea, and to drift into a dreamy, watery world of imagination.
Shary Boyle—who has collaborated with Ashoona in the past— also makes imaginary worlds populated by complicated creatures. Her Cephalophoric Saint shows a faceless figure in an old-fashioned artist’s smock, poised in the act of modelling a red clay portrait bust, in the setting of Francis Bacon’s studio. It’s a multi-faceted allegory of the artist: the blind self-maker, the long-nosed liar, the feminist squatter moving in on another artist’s place in history.
Like Boyle’s Saint, artists continually reinvent themselves, each day affirming I will not make any more boring art. In this way, students and professional artists are the same. All of us strive to keep boredom at bay. The Litho Workshop was one way to keep NSCAD interesting, and to connect its students to a broader art world, while also reminding the broader world that exciting things can happen on the fringes. A revitalized workshop, out here on the ocean’s edge, can help us to keep the faith. I will not make any more boring art. ❚
“NSCAD Lithography Workshop: Contemporary Editions” was exhibited at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, from November 9, 2019, to April 26, 2020.
Erica Mendritzki is an artist and an assistant professor of fine art at NSCAD University in Halifax.