Interview with Michael Goro: Master Printmaker

Voyage de Nuit
Voyage de Nuit, Etching, Engraving, Photogravure, 24″ x 13″
Courtesy of the artist

Michael Goro, a prominent intaglio printmaker, has lived and worked in Russia, Europe, Israel, and the U.S. His work has received a number of prestigious international awards including Special Prize at the 1998 International Print Triennial in Kanagawa, Japan and Excellent Prize at the 2006 14th Seoul Space International Print Biennial at the Seoul Museum of Art (Korea). He describes his art as a “continuous creative search for raw authenticity in urban environments and human forms that are constantly changing.” Utilizing the full spectrum of printmaking techniques, ranging from Renaissance engraving to digital photogravure, he shares his unique personal experiences through imaginative imagery.

Lady With Ermine
Lady with Ermine, Etching, Engraving, Photogravure, 34″ x 24″
Courtesy of the artist

ArtStyle: What have you been working on recently?

Michael Goro (MG): I started a new series with two prints Voyage de Nuit and Lady with Ermine. Both prints were created during my artist's residencies in Luxembourg (Atelier Empreinte Luxembourg-city) and Paris (Atelier Bo Halbirk Paris) in May and June of 2007. Both compositions examine a contrast between modernity and history within one scene. I juxtapose Chicago and New York urban themes with Renaissance paintings. The “paintings” (manipulated photo plates) depict Piero di Cosimo's Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci and Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine. For me they are not just art history references — they represent a romantic touch, something nostalgic, in the urban jungle. Technically, I used photogravure to introduce the Renaissance pieces, and for the rest of the compositions, I used a combination of etching, engraving, aquatint, and mezzotint. Conceptually, it is a new direction for me, and I am excited to go further in developing new pieces.

Tea Time
Tea Time, Etching/Engraving, 24” x 36”
Courtesy of the artist

ArtStyle: Could you talk about Tea Time and what you were trying to accomplish?

MG: For me, it's a very personal piece. Tea Time is a surreal composition with a portrait of my parents. My parents live in St. Petersburg, and they come here sometimes. In that composition, I bridge the gap between them being here and being back home. As a starting point for the piece, I used a photo of them that I took in a French bakery/café while they were visiting me here in Chicago. The photo was essential for me for that specific print. I used the photo as a document presenting their facts. My intention was to show my parents for who they are and what they look like. Without using the actual photo, consciously or subconsciously, I would try to beautify my mother and make my dad look more thoughtful. That's a reality. Eventually, however, I moved away from the photo. I ended up erasing most of the photo image on the plate and used etching and engraving to re-create their faces. The table where they sit gradually transforms itself into a St. Petersburg / European imaginary landscape. Russians like to sit at the kitchen table and drink tea, and this is the way I always picture my mom and dad.

Maxim, Etching/Engraving, 18″ x 24″
Courtesy of the artist

ArtStyle: How would you compare Tea Time with your portrait of Maxim?

MG: In this case, I took more liberty in interpreting what Maxim, my cousin, looks like. Besides, I don't think I would be comfortable drawing my parents in the nude. At the time that I was working on my cousin's portrait, I was influenced by the Russian Constructivists. I was experimenting with line and structure.

Material Culture
Material Culture, Etching, 24” x 36”
Courtesy of the artist

ArtStyle: Could you comment on Material Culture? Is it autobiographical?

MG: Yes, all of my pieces are. I believe that everything that I create is very personal. If not, I'm not too interested in it. Material Culture is more conceptual. This is about rural Estonia. My parents have owned this country house since 1980 in Estonia's countryside. There's nobody around for miles. I always wanted to make a print depicting that area because I spent a lot of time there. It was a challenge to come up with an image about such a beautiful place and avoiding the typical “cheesy” landscape. Instead, I decided to tell a story about the house through the objects that my folks and I discovered around the property. The house itself was built in the 1800s, and everywhere you dig, you find something -– horseshoes, forks, irons, keys and so on. I see the objects as symbols of that specific environment telling the history of the place and people who lived there.

Urban Serenity
Urban Serenity, Etching, 32″ x 24″
Courtesy of the artist

ArtStyle: Urban Serenity looks like a typical Chicago ‘L' landscape. What meaning does it have for you?

MG: It's the ‘L' train on Damen. I live in the area and that's what I see every day. I wait for the train on the platform, and as I stand underneath the heated lamps for warmth, I watch the trains passing in the opposite direction. The trains move through the snow, and it has a certain dynamic feel to it. Urban Serenity is about contrast between the aggressive movement of the train and the soft movement of the falling snow. It is also about the contrast of the controlled, built environment and untamed nature. I was very fortunate to find a wide audience for this image. This print won a significant award in an art show in Korea. It meant that people half way around the globe could relate to a scene so specific to Chicago. I like it when these kinds of connections take place.

ArtStyle: When you do something like this, do you think about how it feels to be part of the landscape or are you an observer?

MG: I'm basically a storyteller, but I want to withdraw myself from the equation. I want to depict things in the most accurate way I can. If an artist tries to put too much of his own philosophy into the work, it's like wearing too much perfume. Energy, however, is a different story. Without energy there is no point to working on the plate; you might as well just take a photo. The gesture and intensity that I put into the metal makes the process worthwhile. Metal can take a good beating. That’s one of the reasons why I chose etching as a medium.

Reflections, Etching, 24″ x 36″
Courtesy of the artist

ArtStyle: Why do you do use reflections in your art?

MG: First of all, it provides a good compositional structure because it doubles the amount of information you could put into a piece. At the same time, it could be a reflection of visual images in my imagination. Other reflections are historical, such as childhood memories, or reflections of time in material objects created by people and weathered by elements and use. If you take printmaking as a medium, it is reflection just by itself. The ink applied to the copper plate is reflected like a mirror image on the paper during the printing process.

Mirror, Etching, 18” x 24”
Courtesy of the artist

MG: Mirror is an image about New York. You see a European street reflected in a bathroom mirror in Manhattan. I sketched it out while staying at an apartment of a friend of mine who was an artist. He was going through a divorce. He had an apartment in Washington Heights, and he turned it into a pigsty. The bathtub was filthy. You couldn't take a shower because there were bugs all over the place. I found the interior of that bathroom to be symbolic of New York at the time. It was before Giuliani's “Disneyization.” It was run down and yet poetic. I tried to reinforce the feeling by using Vermeer's lighting. To my surprise, I practically sold out the whole edition from this plate. I had no idea anyone would be interested in that image.

ArtStyle: How would you compare your older work and your newer work? Are there differences?

MG: I think I'm getting better at what I do. At the same time, I hit the point about 10 years ago when I started to accept my older work. At this point, I feel that they all have something to contribute. I don't necessarily feel that my new prints compete with my older ones. Maybe it has to do with certain technical proficiencies or a perception that my imagery doesn't change as radically any more.

I think I'm becoming freer in my expression. I think in order to make a good print, you need three things. First, you have to be technically impeccable. I'm not talking about technical perfection in terms of the 18th century definition. There's outsider art where people create their own rules and follow those rules. The set of rules really depends on the artist. So it's not like this is good technique because the proportions are right. If the proportions are not right but it's working within the system consistently, then technically it's proficient.

Second, there should be some idea behind it that is intelligent and sincere. It could be an intuitive idea. Unfortunately, I see a lot of conceptual art with nothing behind it. It's completely shallow, and made-up, based on recycled, superficial ideas from the time of the French Enlightenment.

Third, and the most important element, it needs to have passion and energy. Artists have to put themselves into their work. For me, this is something I developed over the years. A piece like Urban Serenity doesn't have a lot of ideas behind it; it's more intuitive, and people relate to it at the emotional level. I think I'm becoming more open in terms of bringing my passion to my work. Mainly you can see it through textures and gestural elements. This is something that photography, for example, cannot provide. I have nothing against photography. In fact I do use photos sometimes as part of my compositions in order to provide authentic elements. At the same time, I believe there is a certain intensity and energy I have to get out of myself and put into the metal to make my work what it is.

New York
New York, Etching, Engraving, Photogravure, 24″ x 36″
Courtesy of the artist

ArtStyle: Speaking of intensity and energy, how do you make your marks when you work on your pieces?

MG: I'm very aggressive with metal. That's why I use metal when I do my artwork because canvas can't take the punishment. With metal, I can hit it, throw it, file it, and scratch it. Sometimes I use a hammer, needle, keys, and just run a truck over the back of the plate so I have the concrete marks. Once I shot a plate with an Uzi. For me, it's the physical impact that stays there, and that's how I'm putting myself into it.

ArtStyle: How long does it take you complete a piece?

MG: Generally, it takes me about 2 to 3 weeks to complete the plate. Printing takes extra time. Sometimes I go back and forth between pieces. If I have a continuous chunk of time to work on a piece, it goes fast. If my time is divided between teaching and exhibiting, a plate might take longer. Most importantly, however, if I generate an image that's meaningful to me, then I am inspired and technical execution doesn't take me very long. There are times when I'm struggling with a piece, and it takes me longer, but in the end it might turn out better because there's history of the process reflected in the metal. For example, when I was working on the portrait of my parents (Tea Time), it took me forever. I was scraping the background out and completely re-drawing their faces. I ended up using completely different processes for different parts. As a result, I was glad that I spent more time on my mother's portrait, for example. This was my way of connecting to my mother's image.

ArtStyle: What are your plans for the future?

MG: I usually don't look too far ahead into the future. At this point I am happy with my general artistic direction. I feel very fortunate that I can make my living by doing something that I like the most: creating and teaching art. I have a couple of plates which I'm working on and a good group of students. For the past few years I was working in isolation. I would work on a print, pack it up and mail it out to some competition in Europe or Asia. With an exception of a few local shows, it all seemed pretty impersonal. After my trip to Seoul, I broke out of my shell to discover a vibrant and welcoming international community of printmakers. I did some work in Europe over the summer and plan to go back there in the future. I took my time there working on Chicago and New York inspired prints. When I’m in Chicago, I also find inspiration working on imagery related to Europe. Separating myself from the environment provides me with the capacity for a more distant, analytical look. It also adds a certain degree of nostalgia.

For more of Michael Goro's artwork, click here ArtStyle Blog Gallery.

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