curatorial lens vol. 4/ stijn maes

Stijn Maes at the opening of the exhibition ‘The Story of M.B. as told by Jef Geys’ (2021) at the Frans Masereel Centrum. Photograph by We Document Art with image courtesy the Frans Masereel Centrum.

Stijn Maes (born 1980) is a Mechelen-based curator, art critic and educator, who acts since 2019 as the director of the Frans Masereel Centrum in Kasterlee, Belgium. The latter is a contemporary art exhibition, residential and production centre cross-connecting print with other visual arts forms. Prior to his appointment at the Frans Masereel Centrum, he was a guest professor at PXL-MAD School of Arts in Hasselt, Belgium; where he co-founded the university gallery KRIEG?. In 2017, he served as a member of the editorial team of the first edition of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA1).

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: As a director of an important center for contemporary art focused on printed matter, the Frans Masereel Centrum, I would like to commence the conversation with how do you see the role of print in today’s art world? How is it evolving?

STIJN MAES: Despite its long history, I often tend to draw parallels between the shifting role of printmaking and how a young medium such as video art has developed since the early 60’s. Both, just like other media, went through different phases, with artists pushing the boundaries, introducing alternative formats and making connections with other forms of artistic expression.

One could say the rather romantic appeal of the technical challenges that come with printmaking and video has been exchanged for a more functional approach that allows more artistic autonomy as well as hybrid practices. Although we definitely should not understand this as a linear evolution, nor underestimate the daring experiments that have seen the light these past decades that we only started to discover and understand today. This said, I’m extremely impressed by how contemporary artists from different generations approach the printmaking facilities in our workshops with an open mind, making them part of their multidisciplinary practices by defining the different roles printmaking as a tool can have for them. And I’m happy that we can offer our residents not only the more classical techniques, but also bring them in contact with more recent, hence digital, techniques.

Of course, these tendencies are heir to a general evolution in art, where boundaries between disciplines are considered less and less relevant. So, our call is also to stop framing print as a distinctive art form, whose uniqueness should be protected. In fact, the maturing, expanding and widening role of print is only one side of the coin: also institutes and curators need to reflect on their role by constantly redefining how to stay relevant in today’s contemporary art world – in order not to become a relic of the past. This is why our open call deliberately reaches out to contemporary visual artists, working with any media. No prior knowledge of printmaking techniques is required. The same goes for our public program, which distances itself from the activist claim ‘Print is not dead’. Art is as lively as never before – we just need to listen to and learn from artists.

LŠ: Print production has always been strongly tied to technological developments and marked by experimentation. What excites you most about the current print production? Could you tell us of artists whose work is of particular interest to you?

SM: A good example of taking technological developments one step further, is the introduction of a laser cutter in our workshop some years ago, which immediately gave a new impetus to a more classical technique as woodcut. In general, however, I’m a bit reluctant when it comes to technological developments and experiments that come along with them, as this seldom results in interesting art. On the contrary, we might rather be misled by its spectacular features.

A remarkable counter example is the underestimated work by the late Pati Hill (1921–2014), whose practice included work with the photocopier, as well as writing, publishing and editing. A more recent example can be found in the long-term collaboration we had with Belgian visual artist Emmanuelle Quertain, which resulted in several new projects, including a series of 12 prints, an artist publication in the form of a mail order catalog and a major loan by a private collector to the contemporary art museum S.M.A.K. in Ghent. During her work stay, Emmanuelle Quertain started researching the experimental possibilities offered by both the RISO and laser machines, questioning the status of what we in general call an image. A question that is central to her artistic practice, but which she mostly developed through paintings, and to a smaller extent artist publications, until now.

At the same time, we see an increasing interest in lithography lately. For instance, in 2021 we commissioned Belgian artist Pélagie Gbaguidi to produce new works in our workshop, as part of the biennial edition project Hibernus #1. Because of her interest in oppression, mining, (post)colonial histories and transmitting knowledge, she was immediately attracted to lithography, which she experienced for the first time at the Frans Masereel Centrum and will continue to develop in the future.

So, maybe what excites me most in contemporary print production, is to develop unexpected encounters and to initiate what doesn’t exist yet. To finish with two more examples: as part of our anniversary program (in 2022 we celebrate 50 years of Frans Masereel Centrum), we invited visual artist Vaast Colson, who is a major figure in the Belgian art scene, to stay with us for a longer period, and develop new projects that resonate with his current artistic research about the role of drawing in his practice. And in 2023 we will develop a brand new project with the Berlin-based artist Simon Denny, which I’m really looking forward to.

Emmanuelle Quertain - La dilution de langage n°12 (2022), as part of Hibernus #1 for the Frans Masereel Centrum. Image courtesy The Frans Masereel Centrum and the artist.
Pélagie Gbaguidi - Hunger (1), as part of Hibernus #1 for the Frans Masereel Centrum. Image courtesy The Frans Masereel Centrum and the artist.

LŠ: How do you understand the development of classical print techniques into digital print?

SM: I wouldn’t mind too much about such a development, on the contrary. As far as you can cope with making decisions, the more options you have, the better. A good work of art is seldom solely defined by its medium – although a specifically chosen medium can definitely be meaningful. It’s not about mastering certain techniques, but what you do with them. This is also why I don’t understand what could be exciting about making an exhibition that focuses on a certain technique or skill – as at that moment you’re rather making an educational or promotional exercise instead of an art exhibition, where artworks are chosen for their intrinsic value and dialogue with each other.

LŠ: Print production is also tied to artists’ publications – as was explored by former MOMA curator Riva Castleman in her 1994 exhibition and accompanying publication, A Century of Artists Books. How are artists’ publications explored, created and presented at your institution?

SM: Our artist-residents explore and create artist books on a regular base as part of their residency – and we occasionally initiate or participate in an artist publication ourselves, as is the case with Belgian artist-architect-writer Wim Cuyvers or spoken word virtuoso Nora Turato. One year ago, we also started a conversation with the Berlin-based artist collective Slavs and Tatars, which will result this Summer in the travelling survey exhibition Лук Бук (Look Book). Focusing on their printed matter for the first time, both the exhibition and the accompanying monograph will underline the central role the medium of print has played in the collective’s fifteen years practice. For them, books are only one amongst several cosmologies using print, including an extensive array of posters and editions; interventions within public space and hospitality establishments; ephemera for esteemed art institutions; and collaborations with popular brands.

Wim Cuyvers - DE-AD (2022), published by the Frans Masereel Centrum. Image courtesy The Frans Masereel Centrum and the artist.