Gavin Turk on What Printmaking Means to an Artist

As ubiquitous as Andy Warhol’s Elvis or the punk rock darling Sid Vicious—both icons he’s famously appropriated—Gavin Turk’s name and image hold a legacy dating from the mid-90s, when he shared the spotlight with Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and the rest of Britain’s provocative Young British Artists (YBAs). No less a fixture today, Turk, who jokingly called himself an “Old British Artist”, is known for his painted bronze and waxwork sculptures, like his ever-iconic bronze cast of a trash bag or the life-sized wax self-portrait of himself, as Sid Vicious, à la Warhol’s Elvis (the latter which has been incarnate again and again since ’93, via silkscreen print). On the occasion of the IFPDA print fair—where Paul Stolper Gallery will debut two silkscreen prints from the Elvis series, two featuring Marilyn Monroe’s sneering pout—we caught up with the artist to discuss his relationship to printmaking, how the process allows an artist to see their work once-removed, and the evolving meaning behind the body of work that’s only gotten stronger since it first debuted in 1993.

Artsy: What is your relationship to printmaking?

Gavin Turk: I do quite a lot of printmaking. I enjoy the inherent distance that printmaking gives the artist—prints move the finished product a step away from the artist’s hand. And in strange ways, prints can be useful for artists to see their work outside of themselves.

There’s also something strangely sculptural about printmaking, which I enjoy. On the whole, though, it’s a traditional media and the language of printmaking is already quite well traversed, so my prints are also a simulation of certain other kinds of printmaking.

Artsy: How involved are you with the printmaking process? Do you make the prints yourself?

GT: I do the majority of screenprinting in my studio. That’s partly because I’m working with the idea of things having a certain type of quality, and that quality is achieved through things not being perfect. The process of printmaking makes certain kinds of marks, which I have to find acceptable or unacceptable, so I can proof, and I can work in a much more off-hand way with the process. If I send the prints off and have them proofed or editioned outside of the studio, I have to end up going and staying in someone else’s studio while they make the prints so I can accept or look at the process and make sure the process is making the right kind of print. It’s a control problem.

Artsy: What was your first experience in making prints?

GT: I made lots of prints when I was in my [university] foundation, and I think that’s probably the best way to get started with prints. I was just doing monotypes, where you literally ink up the plate and then you put paper on it and you draw on the back of the paper and then you turn the paper over. And what’s happened is that the ink’s come through, like a carbon copy.

Artsy: Two of the prints you’re showing at IFPDA, Double Silver Pop Gun and Double Gold Pop Gun, are cross-sections of Pop, your 1993 waxwork self-portrait as Sid Vicious, in the stance of Warhol’s Elvis. Can you tell us about the meaning behind this body of work?

GT: I suppose I was toying with the idea of a signature. It’s like saying, this is a signature artwork, let’s make a souvenir, or let’s make a perfect rendition of this cliché. So I’m trying to make a fake, somehow, to turn it on its head and make a perfect product but actually use things that inherently are problematic or inherently belong to something else.

I suppose the whole idea of making a waxwork sculpture in the first place was to make a sculpture of someone that people wouldn’t recognize. It was about the attempt to try to make a very familiar sculpture, but in the middle, use something that was unfamiliar, an unknown figure, with no representative form. And then the idea of taking that picture, and sending it through a kind of a framing or reframing process, to solidify something that essentially is not solid. I’m trying to make a contemporary classic, but it’s kind of an oxymoron; you can’t have a contemporary classic.

Artsy: And how did the sculpture originally come about? Can you trace the trajectory of the work, from creating the sculpture to its realization as a print?

GT: When I made the sculpture, I wanted to look at the idea of tourism, and I found the wax museum, Madame Tussauds, the most important tourist attraction in London. I also wanted to make a sculpture that was a self-portrait.

I wanted to try and involve other cultural references; like I wanted to be a punk, so then I needed to try and find out what that was. I found this portrait of Sid Vicious, who was in a way, trapped forever as a punk, and I realized that with his gun and his garter on his leg and his motorbike boots and his collar turned up and his hair stuck up on top of his head, he was kind of emulating Elvis Presley. So then I found the Elvis Presley promotion for a film that had been [appropriated] by Warhol; that image was repeated endlessly by Warhol, and I used that as a kind of compositional device to make this sculpture. Once I’d made the sculpture, I photographed the sculpture for documentation. I tried to photograph it from that one particular two-dimensional angle, and I reproduced my photograph, trying to get hold of the feel of the screenprinted Warhol image. So the work comes back even more closely to the Warhol image, because we’re so familiar with the image, but we know immediately that it’s not the Warhol image. So there’s this knowledge that what we’re looking at is kind of a fake artwork, and not a real artwork. The idea is to somehow tap into the original, but also to question the original, and question the reality of the actual thing you’re looking at at same time.

Artsy: What can you tell us about the Sneer works you’re also showing at IFPDA?

GT: Again, it was a quite comic play on the Marilyn Monroe lips, so the sneer was a sneer in relation to Elvis’s sneer, but also the sneer was something that Sid Vicious did. It was this idea of an expression which had a slightly deconstructed look, as an element of disdain within the expression of the sneer. And yet when it’s put on a yellow or a violet background, it’s made into a kind of Pop amalgam.

Artsy: Do you collect art, or more specifically, prints? Can you talk about some of the works you own?

GT: Most of the art that I have sort of arrived, more by accident, rather than me going out and trying to get those things. I’ve basically swapped art for art with friends and sometimes I’ve been given things, and I’ve kind of found things because they related to certain themes or things that I was doing in my work, but they don’t necessarily work outside of that context.

I recently got hold of a piece from 1971, one of the Ed Ruscha prints that says “Hollywood”. It’s a piece made with some sort of vegetable dye, gravy or something, and one of the things I really like about it—one of the problems with this print—is apparently that they fade, the print fades away. I think when I bought it I was told, “the trouble with this one is it’s really quite faded,” but that seems to be good for me. I’ve been thinking about making a series of works that literally deal with this idea of just fading—fading almost to nothing. The faded artwork. So this is kind of a work that felt like a work in progress.

I also bought a work recently by Elaine Sturtevant, a work made in relationship to a show she did at the Serpentine. It’s an inkjet print which is from a stock photo that she found on a Google search, a picture of an owl. Across the face of the owl it says, “iStockphoto.”

Artsy: You are one of the original YBAs. The term has become commonplace but do you feel that the relevance of the term has changed? Do you still consider yourself a YBA?

GT: I’ll maybe always be a YBA, but I just don’t think it’s a relevant category anymore. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be something else; it doesn’t mean I can’t be an Old British Artist. I think YBA was quite a catch-all title; it didn’t necessarily describe someone’s work. It was more of a big baggy time piece than anything else. I think in some ways, it’s not a bad category because it doesn’t condition me in any particular style. It probably only serves to timeframe me.

Portrait of Gavin by Roger Deckker

On view at Paul Stolper Gallery, IFPDA Print Fair 2013, Booth 119, Nov 7th-10th.

Explore the IFPDA Print Fair on Artsy.

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