The art of multiplication | Jesmond Vassallo

Painter and print-maker Jesmond Vassallo speaks to us about iMprint, a collective exhibition of local up-and-coming printmakers at Spazju Kreattiv, and lets us in on just what makes this particular strand of visual art stand out from the rest

Left to right: Robert Zahra and Jesmond Vassallo
Left to right: Robert Zahra and Jesmond Vassallo

What was the main motivation behind iMprint? How did it come about, and what were some of the initial ideas behind it?

iMprint is the third print exhibition that I am organising together with fellow printmakers. The first exhibition, Printcycle i, was held at Palazzo De Piro in 2014, and was followed by a second edition titled Printcycle ii, held last year inside the Wignacourt Museum in Rabat. 

The main motivation behind these exhibitions is to present entire exhibitions dedicated exclusively to original printmaking oeuvres. In addition to fulfilling the aim of gathering funds for the Lifecycle Foundation in Malta, the first two exhibitions succeeded in establishing the print show setup, which was lacking locally. iMprint, however, is the first exhibition we have collaborated on that focuses entirely on giving dignity to the work of the printmaker. 

By exhibiting a number of varied prints, and thus showing how artists work differently by deploying various printmaking techniques, we could present to the public some prime examples of the richness of the language of printmaking. Behind this initiative is the awareness that there are a lot of misconceptions about printmaking and a lack of knowledge about its basic skills and techniques.

This is owing to very few artists adopting and practising this craft on a professional level, and also partly due to a dearth of exhibitions and print fairs in Malta.

Artists Pawl Carbonaro, Luciano Micallef, Richard Saliba, Robert Zahra and myself acquired our printmaking skills in their private studios, while Lino Borg and Justin Falzon teach the technique at the Government Schools of Art in Malta and Gozo respectively.

What would you say printmaking has that other forms of visual art don't?

The fundamental characteristic of printmaking is that it gives artists the possibilities to produce multiples, that is, to print more than one copy of the negative that has been executed. Printmaking requires almost literally almost a factory! In order to be able to use this language one has to invest heavily in very specialised materials. These are hardly found on the island, and must therefore be often bought from overseas.

Etching differs from painting first and foremost, because it necessitates working in the mirror image. The various forms of the technique also differ from one another, for example in the very material they are hewn from, such as the metal plates used for the negative in intaglio, the lithographic screen in silk screen printing, or the lithographic stone in lithography.

Countless other specialised materials are needed for each individual method. Lino printing requires a set of tools that are not the same as those used in lithography, and so on and so forth.

How did the Fine Art Printmakers Association come about, and what are its aims?

The idea came about as a result of my participation in a workshop in Lithuania. I was invited there in 2013 for an artist-in-residence period – a project which was conducted by a very influential association. It was from this experience that the idea of working on setting up a similar organisation here in Malta came about.

Such a setup would help us work and collaborate more professionally. Moreover, it could also help us participate in international print fairs as a collective, in this way strengthening the position of the handful of locally-based professional printmakers who are wholly dedicated to their work.

What do you make of the local arts scene? What would you change about it?

I think we have talented individuals in various genres, ranging from film and music to painting, sculpture and printmaking. However I think that the local art scene needs more than one museum to show what happened before us.

I would like to see some good exhibitions not only of local artists, but also of masters, old and modern. As long as it is good, valid art, it does not really matter. We lack exhibitions which showcase modern masters.

Let us take the Impressionists as an example, specifically their prints. I have never seen an exhibition of Impressionist prints locally, but I have just visited a beautiful one by Toulouse Lautrec at the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome, featuring just his lithographs! It was an impressive vernissage.

Together with my colleagues, we are committed to exhibiting our work, and this we feel is our first step towards making a change by contributing valid work to the local visual art scene, thus helping instil a proper visual education in our society.

What’s next for you?

In November-December I have a personal exhibition in Kaunas, Lithuania, which will consist of prints, drawings and other works on paper. Another exciting project in the pipeline is to visit British etcher Norman Ackroyd at his printing studio in London.

Establishing contact and staying in touch with professional printmakers worldwide is something I find particularly enriching. Ackroyd also happens to have been a student of another fascinating British artist, Julian Trevelyan (1910 – 1988), whose work I happen to admire and love.

iMprint will remain on display at Spazju Kreattiv (St James Cavalier), Valletta until February 14