‘Richard Lees’s Radical Printmaking’
by Dr Barnaby Haran, University of Hull
‘Prints in any technique—relief, intaglio, planographic, or stencil—are the products of immediate risk and implied social commitment. The artist who crafts them must command an often difficult medium whilst also possessing a sense of democracy alien to the creators of unique objects’. Francis V. O’Connor, WPA/FAP Graphics, 1973.
Richard Lees’s ‘This is Hull! Rock Against Racism Posters UK Exhibition Tour 2016/17’ and ‘McCarthy Iconoclast’ serve as reminders that printmaking is, in many different ways, a medium that moves.
Despite being static, mostly two-dimensional, objects, prints are given to movement. They travel well, being lightweight and comparatively cheap to produce and disseminate, and unlike paintings or other one-off works are not bound to a unique place. Indeed, in 1936, an exhibition of prints in the United States called ‘America Today’, organized by the anti-fascist American Artists’ Congress, opened in 100 cities simultaneously for maximum impact. As a material form of communication, prints are inherently social and migratory, and can spur the movement of ideas and values around the world. Able to respond quickly to political events, printmakers have historically excelled as agents for propagating radical movements, as the rapid proliferation of printmaking in the revolutions of 1789, 1848, and 1917 attests. Prints can also move an audience, whether politically, religiously, or emotionally, using potent visual devices, in particular juxtapositions of text and image, to affect the viewer. As such, prints can effect transformation, change minds, and move things along. And so a Rock Against Racism poster on a street wall is a provisional and versatile expression of a movement that aimed (and through it many legacies continues) to confront and ultimately shift prejudicial dispositions.
Printmaking is often heralded as a ‘popular’ medium, i.e. of and for the people rather than an elite, being historically more accessible and affordable than unique works. Though there are many counterpoints to this (prints by Rembrandt or Picasso are hardly economical), printmaking is a visual analogue of popular (or folk) music, a democratic idiom intrinsically conceived for a plural audience, which even in its rarified forms carries traces of the ‘low’ (or at least lower budget). As well as its practical virtue as an expedient, cost-effective, and mobile medium, printmaking’s lowness has frequently corresponded with grass roots politics—radicalism, i.e. the ‘radix’ or root, being the perspective from below—and the creation of alternative, non-official media outlets. Lees’s Rock Against Racism posters operate at the intersection of independent music (and especially its original DIY ethics) and activism, sharing the immediacy and urgency of protest songs.
Printmaking is a medium defined by change. In a technical sense, prints transform during stages of production and states (amendments to the plate resulting in different versions), and individual impressions can vary considerably according to the movements of the printer, whether through the turn of the press or the squeegee on the silkscreen. From the chapbooks, broadsides, pamphlets, and song-sheets of Early Modern radicals and dissenters to the posters, t-shirts, 7-inch sleeves, and zines of Punk, multiple technologies of printmaking have developed to engage with new audiences and contexts. Combining scanning with screen-printing, Lees’s recent prints show that the myriad possibilities of digitization, from editing software to social media, represent an increase in available options of production and dissemination for printmakers, rather than a threat of obsolescence, in much the same way as the pioneers of photomontage, such as John Heartfield and Aleksandr Rodchenko, seized upon the potential of photography to reach the masses in the interwar years.
In ‘McCarthy Iconoclast’ Lees addresses a more sustained and personal theme, asking a broader range of questions for the viewer to consider. This series of episodes pertaining to the author and activist Mary McCarthy draws upon book illustration, comic, and graphic novel conventions, showing significant facets of her extraordinary career, blurring events of her life and her books together in a way that chimes with her fiction, most notably The Company She Keeps, her semi-autobiographical novel/ short story suite of 1942. A longstanding authority on McCarthy, Lees uses his deep immersion into this irreverent and inventive figure to tell the neglected story of a feminist within the male-dominated American Left, who vehemently opposed Stalinism whilst championing the demonized Leon Trotsky, and gave an articulate and intransigent voice to the anti-Vietnam movement. The series as a whole provides a multifarious and colourful composite portrait of a fearless, though chaotic, personage, which investigates rather than venerates the subject.
Lees’s images contribute to a tradition of radical printmaking. To say that Lees’s work might belong to a tradition requires some careful qualification. A tradition can serve a reactionary impulse for stasis, a means of preserving the status quo by stifling experimentation in aesthetics or by stilling transformative political energies. Conversely a tradition can also indicate a continually updating repository or archive of past actions and expressions that are available for mobilization in the present. The radical tradition is more like a library than a model village, i.e. thriving on additions and adaptations and not fixed in time. In culling liberally from the styles and strategies of ‘agit prop’ (agitational propaganda), Lees variously invokes the gouged primitivism of the German Expressionists whose youthful rebellion radicalized in the pandemonium of 1918; the angular and geometric machine aesthetic of the Constructivists, who experimented with a new visual language in the early USSR before the descent into tyranny; and the frantic, scabrous pavement polemics of the student/ worker uprisings of 1968. A form of visual sampling, each reference strikes a particular chord—whether fraught, eerie, or witty—and cumulatively the images reveal an inquisitive and resourceful foraging of earlier iconographies of dissent, activating a radical tradition for a contemporary audience.