The Everyday Reality of a Different World: Endi Poskovic Shares his Vision

When did you decide that you wanted to be a visual artist? What first drew you to printmaking and graphic work in particular?

As a child growing up in Sarajevo in the 1970s, I first discovered the world around me through mark-making.  My obsession with drawing led to the decision to enroll in a local high school for applied arts when I was 13.  At the time, Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia had an official policy of bratstvo i jedinstvo or “brotherhood and unity” that promoted interrelations between all Yugoslav nationalities. President Josip Broz Tito encouraged the formation of artistic societies and schools in which youth would interact and everyone contributed. I played music and drew.

The grammar textbook used in primary school at the time, a Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian language book, prominently featured reproductions of works by modernist painters such as Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning, Klee, Kandinsky, and others. In retrospect, thirty years later, it stands out that a textbook used in a communist country would feature works of artists from the West. This early exposure to art from outside the curtain, among other things, triggered an interest in me in studying art and becoming an artist whose applied skills could be used beyond painting signage, banners, and slogans.

During a week-long entrance exam to the Sarajevo School of Applied Arts, I overheard a fellow graphic arts student talking about, by those standards, alternative ways of making many images at once using matrix plates and printing presses. Shortly after I enrolled, I switched from painting to printmaking.  I quickly became drawn to the ubiquitous nature of the printed image and mesmerized by the potential of the medium to respond to changing technologies, while allowing for the reinvention of otherwise outdated processes.  Awed by graphic-arts traditions and printmakers such as Käthe Kollwitz, James Ensor, Goya, and others, I began to view myself as an image-maker, an artist, who by conscious choice makes prints, multiple images designed to be more easily disseminated than unique objects of art.

Tell me a bit about your printmaking process, which often invokes the ukiyo-e tradition of woodblock printing.  What are some of the things you find yourself considering the most as you embark on a new print?  Do you ever find yourself collaborating with others?

Printmaking is inherently a collaborative process.  My interactions with many printmakers, artists, and other inventive people have frequently acted as the catalyst for creative exchange and collaboration. Multiple points of engagement encourage an ongoing exchange of ideas. This form of direct interaction with creative communities provides me with a rich perspective not available in the solitary environment of my own studio and can be an important influence on my creative practice.

My choice of ukiyo-e woodblock printing was the result of serendipity as much as anything else. In 1995, I moved to Muncie, Indiana, to teach at Ball State University.  While in Indiana, I had no access to a print studio and found myself frustrated by my inability to operate outside the established norms of the medium, which relies on printmaking equipment.  Despite many years of formal training, I suddenly realized I didn’t know how to make prints without adequate printing equipment. On the recommendation of an artist friend who suggested simple hand-cut and hand-printed relief, I began to make woodblock prints.  By the time I moved to Los Angeles two years later, I was completely immersed in reinventing this populist print medium in the context of my work.  As someone who had previously produced large, photo-based intaglio prints for in-situ presentations as well as wall-size plate-lithography combines, this was a radical shift.  The idea that prints could be made without a press, or even a studio, was invigorating and the knowledge that block printing could be as “cutting edge” as any new technology-supported print media was enormously stimulating. The medium of block printing, frequently dismissed as archaic and irrelevant in the contemporary context, provided an epiphany of unlimited possibilities. Once I realized I could make prints without a press, I decided to make them as big as the largest single sheet of paper available on the market, Okawara washi, 39 by 72 inches, would allow. Over the course of years, I began to employ classic woodcut ukiyo-e tradition with visual strategies of European travel and political propaganda posters.

What kinds of narratives and experiences—personal, historical, or otherwise—have most strongly informed your identity as an artist?

I am interested in the range of eventualities, from hybridized narratives to unexpected scenarios suggested through the representation of recognizable imagery. For example, the depictions of icebergs, rocks, clouds, rain, and water in my current work are at once recognizable and abstract.  Such images can evoke a sense of place and time, but also suggest, for example, ideas about memory and displacement, themes which have recurred throughout my work.

The concept of the United States, and in particular the American West (where I lived for many years), a place of promise, sublime fulfillment, and possible, even probable disappointment, has further influenced my notions of memory and displacement.

I was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia (Former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia).  Two years before the violent break up of Yugoslavia in 1990, I moved to Norway and then to the United States to study art. The decision to both move, and then to stay, has naturally impacted a great many things in my personal and creative life.  Whether subconsciously or otherwise, my graphic imagery has, over the course of years, evolved into an amalgam of hybridized narratives and treacherous scenarios, the dichotomies that exist in life, as in, for example, the adventure of migration and its risks, or the magnificence of nature and its dangers.

My partly circumstantial and partly self-imposed exile has created a personal history, which is fractured by both time and place. Now, I am a naturalized American citizen, but in my 20s, I transitioned through three citizenships and was for a time considered a stateless person. I remember having to obtain multiple visas to visit different countries, even for transitioning through an airport layover. This and other related experiences made me realize that I do not work within the comforting boundaries of the culture in which I first learned to observe, connect, and interpret the world. This aggregate, polyphonic experience of being neither here nor there, an immigrant and outsider for whom constant adaptation to change is the norm, fascinates me and deepens my interest in the dichotomy and elusiveness of presence.

Your prints incorporate text in a very interesting way, often with a phrase in another language (such as Sueño con aventuras artísticas or King Kong ist tot) appearing below an image in your work.  How do you select the phrases and languages for the text you use?  How do you see the text interacting with the images in your prints?

A critical element in many of my relief prints is the placement of invented phrases and words that are cut in wood, placed and printed below the images.  Created in actual and/or faux Romance and Germanic languages, the captions contribute to interpretations that may simultaneously appear to be real and fictitious, rational and absurd. The two woodcut prints you mention, for example, are especially strong examples of how the dichotomy of reading the text and “reading” the image, far from limiting the possibilities of interpretation, actually expands them. The first work, titled Dream of My Own Country in Deep Blue with Red (with the caption in Spanish Sueño con aventuras artísticas), loosely quotes the 1859 painting Iceberg Flotante by the American artist Frederic Edwin Church.  The other, Under All Flags in Gray and Light Pink with Bright Red (with the caption in German King Kong ist tot), “borrows” the representation from The Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich, which the German painter made in 1824. The purely descriptive titles, which I may inscribe in pencil below the image, further blur the distinctions. The resulting conceptual line between the act of reading the text and imagining the place (based on the pictorial space) becomes ambiguous and serves to prod the viewer to construct meaning, or even a storyline. Coherence and disconnection between the text and the images of icebergs is intended to engage the viewer. The connection between the two, however, could be anything.

In essence, I desire to guide rather than manipulate through my graphic work, and allow the images and the text to open a window into the everyday reality of a different world.

You’ve traveled all over in the past year, beginning with time spent in Eastern and Western Europe (and specifically in Bosnia and Herzegovina) to do research for your Guggenheim project.  Can you tell me a bit about the experience? How has the trip shaped the work you have undertaken during your Fellowship term?

The visual context for my project, Crossing, is the rugged topography of southeastern Herzegovina province in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where both my parents were born. I had never visited Herzegovina in my youth, but in 2010, my mother passed away and on that occasion I traveled there for the first time. I again visited the region last year and one immediate and lasting result of the journey was a deepened context for Crossing. In Herzegovina, I discovered a beautifully serene area with a dense web of mountains and valleys, and remote hamlets that predate the Ottoman colonization that began in 1463. These tiny villages appear to have been frozen in time, passed over by the modern world. And yet, despite their isolation, they too were victims of the regional conflicts of the 1990s. Even now, the evidence of the violence still visually dominates the landscape, and although areas of untouched beauty remain intact, the specter of man’s transgressions cannot be ignored. This setting was rich with possibilities for new drawings, and the lithographs that were a product of this trip appear as invented constructions of isolated, desolate forms and unsettling juxtapositions—they are contemplative and startling, commonplace and bizarre.

On one hand, Crossing is my attempt to examine, in an indirect manner, the recent dramatic demographic shifts in rural, war-ravaged Herzegovina, my motherland. On the other, the choice and use of classical drawing, as I was taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo, goes beyond this. It is the key to carry me through this very personal tale of discovery, a sort of roman à clef of displacement and faith.

You are currently working with stone lithography, and on turning your new prints into an animated film.  What have you found most challenging, and most exciting, about this process and about film as a medium?

Looking back, it is clear to me that Crossing has grown organically in three fairly distinct ways: technically, conceptually, and contextually. Each area has come along at its own pace, relatively independently from the others, yet they are all naturally coming together as I bring the project nearer to fruition.

On the technical level, Crossing is significant because it extends my work into the realm of serious film animation, with a series of achromatic lithographs as its foundation. The decision to make the new prints achromatic and animated film in black and white is a radical departure for me, but was necessary in order to avoid the symbolic reading commonly associated with color. The challenge then became one of controlling the multiple print runs necessary to achieve the tone I desired. Furthermore, each lithograph/film chapter begins as an analysis of images from a wide range of sources—sketchbook drawings, photographic collages, digital montage, and even various images altered by scanners and photocopiers. However, it is absolutely critical for me that draftsmanship remains the unifying force for all the multiple approaches. Drawing is an intense, perceptual, and physical activity that allows me to establish the sorts of new visual narratives that have the power to convey the themes in my work.

To date, some dozen lithographic prints have been produced in collaboration with master printer Jill Graham at the Open Studio Toronto in Canada. Once the lithographs are completed, the final technical hurdle has been morphing the images into a successful film.  I have been able to do this in collaboration with other artists, my former and current students at the University of Michigan.

In addition to traveling throughout Europe, you have also spent time in China in the past year, specifically as a visiting artist at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou.  What did you find most exciting about your visit? What part of the world would you most like to travel to next, given the opportunity?

La Cina è vicina! It was a trip of a lifetime. China is an amazing country, culture, society. The future seems to be there now, and it was incredible to see it unfolding firsthand. I traveled with a couple of Chinese artists visiting Shanghai and Hangzhou in the northeast, down to Shenzhen and Hong Kong in the southwest, and had the most extraordinary encounters with many other artists, teachers, and creative people. I was a guest of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, one of the most comprehensive art, architecture, and design schools in the country.  Hangzhou is the ancient Buddhist capital of China, and was home to Marco Polo when he lived in China and the reason why he went there. At CAA, I presented two public lectures on American printmaking and my work, and interacted with students.  The response was fantastic. The newly built Bauhaus museum on the CAA west campus, which houses an impressive collection of important original Bauhaus design/art works and archives, is brilliant.

I also visited Guanlan Original Printmaking Base (this is the actual name), an artist community, residency program, and exhibition center housed inside an abandoned, now gentrified, ancient walled village. I found this community especially memorable, with tiny decorated stucco houses converted into living/work spaces for artists situated around a large socialist-era style factory, i.e., a print studio in which artists are assisted by many talented printmakers, most of them recent graduates from art schools from all over China.  Guanlan is on the outskirts of the city of Shenzhen, reputedly the fastest-growing city on the planet, largely due to its proximity to Hong Kong, which is quite a place itself. Shenzhen wasn't much of anything when Chairman Mao was in the office some 40 years ago, just a fishing village. It is now a beautiful city of more than 11 million people, which reminded me very much of LA and southern California. I gave a talk at Shenzhen University.

As for the parts of the world where I would like to travel next, I am hoping to visit China again soon. I will be traveling back to the southeastern Balkans this summer to gather additional visual data after doing artist residencies in Belgium and Poland. 

This has been a great year in every respect and I am immensely grateful for the Guggenheim Foundation’s support and the opportunities that came with it.

Follow the links below to view images submitted by Endi Poskovic for this article:

China

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Open Studio Toronto

Ann Arbor Studio

New Work

Follow this link to view Endi Poskovic's Guggenheim profile