A New Exploration and Reconsideration of Pictorial Multiplicity
Xu Bing

I have tried to use the purest possible language of printmaking in my work

Xu Bing, male, born 1955 in Chongqing, family from Zhejiang Province, Han Ethnicity. Graduated in 1981 from the printmaking department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) where he stayed on as an instructor. In 1987, earned his MFA from the graduate printmaking department of CAFA, where he again stayed on as an instructor. He is a member of China Artists’ Association. His works have been selected for exhibition both at home and abroad; he is a four-time award winner, publications include the album “Xu Bing’s Small Woodcuts.”

Faculty Supervisor: Wu Bi-duan
Adviser: Wang Qi

As an intermediary art form, printmaking undertakes a prescribed treatment of the medium based on the artist’s creative intentions. Then, passing through the intermediary process of impression, the medium is transformed into the form of a mark presented as the canvas. The appearance of this mark derives from a single medium, endowing the creation of an original print with reproducibility, making it an “art form possessing plurality.” An imprint of multiplicity and prescription is the crucial element that differentiates printmaking from other fine arts and it is only following this line of inquiry that will lead to the discovery of printmaking’s essence.

However, as a matter of habit, our comprehension of the traits of pictorial multiplicity is limited to the visual effects that distinguish the surface of a print from the surface of any other flat artwork, for instance the intensity of blacks and whites; abstractions of shape and color; purity; the flavors of knife and wood, etc. Yet these are merely superficial and inessential distinctions. Vividness, abstraction and purity can be manifest in oil painting and in traditional Chinese painting styles and the flavors of knife and wood present in sculpture possess an expressiveness and beauty in no way inferior to those of the woodcut.

Our previous understanding of pictorial multiplicity, because it lacks a pure conception of the language of the print, has made it impossible in the creative process to harness the unique qualities of printmaking. The print thus trails behind other art forms. And, as a result, the inherent advantages of the print have not been given full play. Therefore, I contend that we ought to discard these superficial, inessential distinctions, and in pursuing the qualities of multiplicity and prescription truly grasp the deepest characteristic of printmaking art.

When I speak of “multiplicity,” it is not in the commonly understood sense of the word: a technical aspect of the printmaking process, as this characteristic is present in all life’s products that make intermediary use of a given medium (e.g. replicas, processed photos, etc.). I am instead focused on the aesthetic sense of “multiplicity” as it exists in art. It is something few people take heed of even today, but is in reality an unexplored domain of the medium’s essence.

It is without a doubt that there is aesthetic value in the artistic phenomenon of multiplicity. An entire edifice of the Mogao Grottoes, lined with an infinite number of near-identical niches, architecturally amplifies in replicated form a single version of a Han Dynasty image. While this result may be an unconscious one, it was nevertheless made with a sense of beauty in mind. In contemporary life, on the other hand, the dramatic advances of industrialization and concomitant standardization have forced a distinct imprint of multiplicity on the human consciousness. Standardized buildings, tools, packaging etc, have all endowed multiplicity with an entirely modern sense of beauty. In fact, it is because of the ceaseless replication of image in the work of Andy Warhol, an artist active in the American art scene of the 60s and 70s, that repetition has been embraced and admired as a kind of beauty. In both profoundly and consciously employing repetition as a form, his work vividly manifests and reflects the spirit and feeling of contemporary man. At a deeper level still, various forms of repetition exist in the natural world: in the leaves and branches of plants and in the bodies and movements of animals. This kind of repetition is objective and functional. It embodies a highly rational and irrefutable significance. Its mere existence necessarily evokes life’s most innate response to the mystery and profundity of the natural world and within it must also lay hidden man’s most primordial experience of beauty. It can thus be said that artistic multiplicity possesses an aesthetic principle in step with the rhythm of life. Moreover, just as repetition in music is cadence, multiplicity is a cadence that differentiates changes in contour, whether textural or syllabic. Through repetition, multiplicity restructures the rhythmless into rhythm, what appears at first glance a flat, cold absence of beauty into a distinct, rational beauty of controlled emotion. As I have alluded to, the beauty of multiplicity has a fuller, stronger sense of the modern than other formal expressions of change, contour, degree, etc.

Any flat art takes the form of a mark left behind on the canvas. But the mark of the print, which derives from the prescribed processes of plate-making and impression, is distinct from that of the brush making direct contact with the canvas (as in other art forms), wherein the mark takes shape amidst the movement of the brush. Therefore, what may be called a fluid mark has an uncertain quality, a rich, multifaceted, animated, elastic beauty, which also constitutes an aesthetic value unique to painting and drawing, whereas the mark of the print is comparatively defined and fixed. Such a can assumes two divergent forms: A.) flatness: because ink or pigment is transferred onto the page through a press, printmaking can achieve an extreme degree of flatness, thinness, uniformity and clarity, which all produce an ordered, clean, sharp beauty; B.): intense texture: the effects of pressure in the printing process bring the physical qualities of the medium into stark relief on the surface of the print. This quality is apparent in such techniques as blind embossing, internationally-popular paper pulp printing and in the raised lines of intaglio prints. In these solid, defined and profound qualities there exists a strong and almost tangible beauty. This, the beauty of the prescriptive imprint, is the fixed rendering of a mark of transient emotion. Thus the print can achieve a uniquely high degree of unity between the rational and the emotional, and can take the form of a concealed, languid rhythmic order, a sense of beauty in which control and fluidity are mutually reinforcing.

In taking a broad view of contemporary art, we see that the print has a more intimate and direct connection to modern art than other forms. In addition to the thoroughly modern sense of rhythm that comes from the profound contact between material and process in printmaking and from the multiplicity therein, the quality of imprint also has its own unique function. In terms of external form, the overall sense of imprint differs in a hand-drawn work as in a printed work. The beauty of the former is a direct expression of catharsis; it has a definite sense of dynamism, extemporaneity, one-off-ness, and relative individuality; it is a classical, natural beauty. The beauty of the latter more closely follows the normalization and standardization of modern society. It possesses both a strong technical aspect and distinct multiplicity; it is a deeply spiritual, incredibly rational, man-made beauty that comes when emotion has been eliminated or controlled.

In my MFA thesis work—which includes two series of woodcuts—I attempted to use the purest possible printmaking means. The first is a single large work composed of four small groups, totaling 18 prints. In this series I strived to bring to bear all of the effects that derive from impression and repetition in the printing process. I employed repeat printing, light to heavy inking, detail over-printing, off-register printing, auxiliary printing, reverse-printed rubbing, and other techniques which lend an intense and rhythmic visual quality to the overall work. The second series is composed of eleven prints arranged in a row. The entire work is taken from a single medium using the technique of reduction printing, another form of multiplicity. The first print in this series is taken from the entire block before it has been carved. The very first marks of the knife appear in the second print. From the third print on, these marks increase, slowly taking the form of an image. The sixth print is what would normally be conceived of as the finished state. On this basis, the process of reduction continues, until the image begins to disappear, and by the eleventh print, with the exception of the faintest borders and marks, all that is left is white paper.

The significance of these two series lies in:

1.) Their entirely new visual effects open a massive sense of distance from other art forms; they allow for the development of a truly independent identity for pictorial multiplicity, and in adhering closely to the print’s innate qualities of multiplicity and impression and in using these two crucial aspects of printmaking as an independent language with an important aesthetic function, they are capable of assuming the greatest possible degree of expressiveness. The results of this attempt—results that are nearly impossible to achieve in single-sheet printmaking because of its limitations on the print’s dimension and its adherence to traditional forms of presentation—through the purest printmaking language, have a high capacity for expressing rich affective content.

2.) Through the print’s unique quality of prescriptive imprint, they record whatever is of value in the creative process.

3.) They reconfigure the relationship between viewer and artwork.

4.) The exploration undertaken by the second series of woodcuts possesses an aggressive meta-consciousness. Work that is done beyond the “finished” sixth print, symbolically presents an artistic death-course. In a deeper sense, it breaks with the common understanding that works of art always appear in rigid form, revealing an aspect of art that is hidden, but which truly exists. It greatly expands previous artistic approaches, and it not only emphasizes process, but also gives complete expression to the artist’s line of thinking.

In sum, an aggressive exploration and reconsideration of pictorial multiplicity has allowed me to begin to touch upon a world unique to printmaking and step into an unusually open, rich and appealing artistic realm. Moreover, it has allowed my printmaking to move closer to perfection.

‘Dui fushuxing huihua de xin tansuo yu zai renshi’ [A new exploration and reconsideration of pictorial multiplicity], Meishu, no. 238 (October 1987), 50-51.