Screen to Screen Dialogue
Interview by Chris Reinewald on the occasion of the first viewing of my travelling show Ultralight, at the University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC), January 2009.
Screen to Screen Dialogue
At the beginning of the 21st century it seems as though the art of fine printing like other applied arts, such as textiles, ceramics and glass, is slowly sliding away into the valley of oblivion. It will probably survive for a short while as an activity only to be performed by diehards, a.k.a. crafts artists. This is totally understandable. Who would bother to mess around with ink, paper, acid, screens or stones, or a printing press when the computer and digital print technologies enable us to work with clean hands?
In talking about his graphic work Harmen Liemburg profiles himself clearly as an interdisciplinary artist. With a broad grin he compares the time consuming process of designing a giant wall screen for a swimming pool with that of being a hermit. Firstly, doing extensive research for images in books or archives, and then afterwards processing and composing these images in his small studio. Still, he also finds time in his hectic work schedule to cherish his journeys to the outdoors, mostly in Asia or North America. Camping, for example, in a National Park in America, he finds moments of fascination in both nature’s quietness as well as in the variety of park signs with information or illustrations of wildlife. Nature nurtures culture and vice versa. As an outdoor man, the designer, journalist and researcher in Liemburg always has his eyes wide open.
Christian Reinewald: How would you describe yourself? As an artist or a designer?
After my initial education as a social geographer specializing in cartography I trained as a graphic designer. Now I feel most comfortable calling myself a designer who prints his own work. Not a graphic artist in the traditional sense who likes to show off with exquisite printing techniques in small limited editions. Instead of five prints I like to print 50 copies or more. I believe in industry and reproduction.
Arousing creativity, like the Rietveld Academy aims to stimulate with its students, must have been quite a change for you as a rationalist, rooted in science when you went to study there.
In the long term I feared cartography would lead me to a boring, dead end street. Different artist friends showed me their approaches to image making which really appealed to me. Still, switching from described procedures in social science and stiff copying techniques of cartography, to the creative methods of an art school proved to be difficult. At the Rietveld Academy my teachers told me my working methods were too result oriented as I failed to dive into creative flows. Now, ten years after graduating at the Rietveld academy and collaborating with Richard Niessen for a period of time, I feel that the working process steers me in a logical way to find new solutions. When all the ingredients and details are present I know everything will work out fine one way or another.
During your period of study at the Rietveld you went to work as an apprentice in New York….
Around 1997 I joined a studio that worked with digital media. This was partly a reaction against all the optional artistry I witnessed in school. By that time the dotcom business was at its absolute peak. I designed websites, which felt ok for a while, but I gradually started missing the physical qualities of printing of which I just had gotten a taste. When I returned to Amsterdam and the studio of the Rietveld, and worked with screenprinting again, it felt great to experiment using images designed for the screen previously in New York. Now, the computer has become a mere tool. After the initial design in Illustrator I do not simply reproduce my design, but rather start more or less anew, playing around with layers, inks and color separations.
You showed me hand drawn sketches which have not been used in print. Is this because you are unsure or reluctant to show any traces of the human hand? Still your work has a distinct signature. I wonder where rationality meets creativity. Or, let me put it this way, if you had to choice between calligraphy and a traffic sign, what would you choose?
Well, the traffic sign. I like display type, logos, and cartoon characters, cut out wooden signs of ranches… vernacular images. Having said that… a few years ago I participated in a master class for Ukiyo-e – traditional woodcut. It turned out to be the complete opposite of my way of working. The cutting of a line in a piece of wood is irreversible unlike in Illustrator.
Because of these new, accessible design programs industrial designers have rediscovered ornament. It is highly popular in lifestyle magazines, interiors.
As a strict functionalist I’m not really into these decorations as they lack substance most of the time. They are superficial and maybe only interesting as a hype. My work defenitely has decorative funtions, but all elements are there for a reason. The patterns I’m currently creating for a new swimmingpool are a good example. By combining elements from biology books I show all the possible flora and fauna of the area around the new swimming pool wall screen. But by combining those dry elements with the exuberant language of comics, I want to create and sublimate my own reality. You also could say I sample images like pop musicians do. I feel inspired by Hokusai Ukiyo-e as well as by the work of the contemporary Japanese artist Takahashi Murakami. I am also fascinated by the child like cartoons the Japanese use in daily life; everything from signs indicating police stations to food branding. I use these and other characters as modules, they are the potential bricks in the building of my compositions.
Does working on an interdisciplinary level mean you only connect images or do want to achieve dialogues?
Hand printing my own designs means that I engage in both a process of reflection and interpretation at the same time. I am upgrading the digital techniques of the computer into analog graphic art. In a noble way, I hope.
Christian Reinewald, chief editor Museumvisie, writes also on applied arts and design.