Intervista a Jason Scuilla, di Adele Marini e Maria Elisa Massetti

A.M.: We would like to have more information about your electrochemical etching technique, developed from 2008. It uses solvents based on biodiesel, which are less harmful and toxic than the ones used in the traditional process. We read on your website that the copper plate is hand drawn by you, but the real etching is made by using this innovative electrochemical process. Is this correct? Could you give us some more details about the whole process?

J.S.: I was trained in the USA and Italy in traditional intaglio (etching) processes. My etchings are all hand drawn onto the plate with a needle, from my imagination, in the traditional manner. However, when I etch my plates, I do not use traditional acids and solvents. I use a bath of electrolytes and use electrical current to remove the copper from the lines of my prints. Over the past 8 years, I have collaborating with chemists at my university, Kansas State University, to refine this technique. I use custom developed etching resists, bio-diesel based solvents, and computer-controlled power supplies that I have developed. These allow me to capture the very precise detail in my images, much quicker than traditional acid.  Forward thinking printmakers in the USA and around the world are experimenting with new technologies and sharing their research with the greater printmaking community. I believe this is kind of research necessary for the growth and sustainability of the fine art printmaking mediums.

M.E.M.: You have Italian origins and the influence of classic Italian art is undeniable in your work. You say that today the United States of America shares many of the same vices of ancient Rome and that, as an American artist of Italian origin, you chose to investigate this subject. Your etchings seem to underline those vices, always remarking that they are there, evident and immovable. Could you explain specifically what are – in your opinion - the convergences and divergences, affinities and cultural differences between the two societies?

J.S.: The Ancient Roman Empire was once the world's superpower, a role currently occupied by the United States of America. I choose to follow in a great tradition of printmakers who raise awareness and call into question the vices of society. In both Ancient Rome and contemporary America, the pride and hubris of supreme power results in social, political, and spiritual confusion. Both empires share similarities in the power dynamics between their religious institutions, political parties, and social organizations. My prints draw attention to these similarities. At a time when American society seems to place value on polarizing positions and simple answers to complicated questions, these prints tempt the viewer to indulge in the imagination, embrace the enigmatic, and consider the preposterous.

A.M.: In Italy printmaking seems destined to a sad and inexorable decline. Artists seem to prefer other artistic forms, medium and small private presses close, old masters are not substituted by new young printmakers. For example one of the most important Italian Master, Giorgio Upiglio, printmaker and publisher internationally renowned for his books illustrated with original etchings, didn't find proper heirs for his atelier Grafica Uno. When he died in 2013 his legacy was not taken by anyone and the immense archive made up of artist's books, press proofs, "bon à tirer", menabò, plates made of metal, wood, stone, plexiglass, plastic and experimental materials of all kinds, invitations, posters, brochures, exhibition catalogs and documents related to the history of Italian art was acquired by the University of Italian Switzerland in Mendrisio. What is the situation of printmaking in the United States? Could you mention the most interesting – in your opinion of course! - artists, printers, publishers, museums, galleries  in this field?

J.S.: The nature of printmaking is one that has always allowed for great flexibility and adaptation. In the United States printmakers are continuing the practice and mastery of traditional print processes, while also pushing the boundaries and expanding the field, through digital media, alternative processes, and innovative commercial technology that challenge the definition of fine art print. There is a large, healthy, inclusive community of printmakers in the United States. This community is supported by academic printmaking departments, nonprofit community printshops, commercial printshops, local art centers, the resurgence in independent letterpress shops, and fabrication labs which specialize in new print technologies. Southern Graphics International, and Mid America Print Council are two major nonprofit organizations dedicated to the art of printmaking. These organizations unite the greater printmaking community through conferences, exhibitions, and publications throughout the United States. Commercial printshops such as Crown Point Press of California, Tamarind of New Mexico, Flying Horse Editions of Florida, pair famous artists with master printers in a more traditional business model. The International Print Center New York is an excellent gallery in Chelsea New York dedicated to the promotion of established and emerging printmaking artists.

M.E.M.: Do you think that printmaking can be considered an art form too little immediate, fast, agile? For example, compared to digital photography and its immediacy, instant availability, aptitude in recording every small and big event of our lives. Printmaking needs long times for the (hard) process of etching a metal plate and the various necessary tests with acids, ink, paper. Are these times still compatible with those of the ”main stream” art of today?

J.S.: The immediacy of technology has shortened all of our attention spans. In many instances, speed and efficiency are valued over quality and craftsmanship. This is great for commercial mass production, for example. However, I believe that there will always be an innate human desire, and appreciation for the handmade print. I teach printmaking to university students who have grown up with internet, tablets, smartphones, and computers since birth. These students are attracted to printmaking because they crave the authenticity, physicality, dexterity, and discipline of making by hand. Printmaking forces the mind and the hand to slow down and be considerate. The mark is consequential. To make a successful print, the artist must let go of ego and control, and form a relationship and partnership with the process. I think it is an important point to make, that printmakers such as myself are not luddites, or anti-technology, advocating for printmaking out of fear of the machine. We dedicate ourselves to this time intensive, complex, traditional medium because despite all of the great advancements and benefits of new technology, no mark can surpass the quality, crispness, richness, and beauty of the hand drawn and etched line.

A.M.:  In 1755 Johann Joachim Winckelmann, talking about ancient Rome and its vestiges, said that its art was characterized by “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”. In your etchings we can find somehow these characteristics, but they are "disturbed" by a subtle irony that disorients the viewer. Your human beings are often represented as microbes that are about to be squashed by enormous big toes or meteors. Can you tell us more about your choice of representing small - almost ridiculous - men facing the immeasurable greatness of nature and life?

J.S.: Thank you. I aim for a simplicity, economy, and sense of poetic space in each of my etchings. Much of my time is spent removing and reducing down the complexities until I reach a point that everything left seems absolutely essential. Giorgio De Chirico was an early influence in this regard. Whenever I return to Rome, I am struck by the scale of everything. I never get used to the awe and personal insignificance I feel when entering San Giovanni, or the Pantheon, or standing amongst colossal fragments and ruins. This is a feeling I try to capture in my prints. The dramatic scale shift between man and environment is something I have long admired in the 18th century Italian vedute prints. My prints draw reference to these vedute printmakers, but with a contemporary re-imagining, full of the absurdity, humor, magic, and the intensity of today. “Meteor with Preppers”, the image on the exhibition announcement, is a good example of this. Where I am from, in Kansas, wealthy citizens are purchasing abandoned army missile silos and converting them into luxury shelters to survive man made or environmental catastrophe. In this print, dramatic scale, humor and satire address our fears, our false sense of security, and the absurdities we go through to alleviate our fear of suffering. No matter our successes or social standings, we are no match for the power of nature.

M.E.M.: About the future. In our world more and more centered on hi-tech and speed and innovation, are you already thinking to experiment with new types of contamination between the old art of printmaking and the new technologies?

J.S.: In my own work, I am not utilizing innovations in technology that value speed and efficiency at the expense of quality. But to avoid new technology out of pride or principal, I think can be very detrimental to the contemporary printmaker. I can give you a few examples of how I am beginning to employ new technologies. Currently, in my studio, I have been using 3d sculpting software to digitally sculpt 3d fragments of colossal feet, finger, and toe fragments. These fragments are then printed using 3d printers and altered using traditional sculpting materials. I am now drawing from these fragments onto my etching plates, to create unique poses and compositions for my future prints. In this way, the technology has informed my work during the creative process. The use of high resolution scans allows me to study old master prints in Kansas, from collections all across the world. And of course, another example, is the electrolytic etching process mentioned earlier, which allows me to quickly obtain superior detail and range of mark and create new effects and tones on my etching plates.

(il ritratto dell'Artista è di Martha Micali)

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