Gfeller+Hellsgård have dedicated a significant part of their artistic career to the deconstruction of silk screening. The duo’s mastery of this analog printing technique has allowed them to experiment with the medium and embrace its inconsistencies. We dropped by their Berlin studio to chat with them about their D.I.Y roots, their penchant for neon pigments and their fearless approach to self-reinvention.
When did you decide to center your artistic practice on silk screening?
Christian Gfeller: I studied at the École supérieure des arts décoratifs in Strasbourg where I got a Masters in Graphic Design. There was a print shop on campus where I would always spend my free time. That’s where I learned how to silkscreen. I started producing zines and record covers for my friends. One thing led to another and I eventually opened my own publishing and silk screening studio. At the time, everything I was creating was very punk and D.I.Y. I was mainly making graphic zines with images. When I met Anna and we started working together, we began developing the technical aspect of silk screening. Once we felt we mastered the medium, we pushed ourselves to work on more complicated ideas. We also started making our own book editions.
Anna Hellsgård: We were using the books for artistic research. Because we were printing many graphic design projects where everything was quite traditional, making experimental books gave us the chance to relax and break the rules. This slowly became the most interesting aspect for us to develop. The more we experimented with the silk screening process, the more we became attracted to abstraction and expressing ourselves in a non-figurative way.
C.G.: We decided to do the exact opposite of what you should do when you silkscreen. Normally, when you decide to work with silk screening, you run an edition and do your best to make sure all the prints look the same. The ultimate goal is to reproduce. But our current practice focuses more on unique works. We play with misprinting, bad registration, and all the things that shouldn’t normally happen when you screen print. We’ve moved from zines, to big artists’ books, to wood panels and canvas.
What is the difference between making a book and a work on wood or canvas? Do you have a different approach for each support?
C.G.: When we make a book we feel way freer, it’s easier. Our books are almost like sketchbooks. Because the format is smaller and you can make more, it’s easier to experiment. Unique works on canvas or wood are more time consuming, costly and require more energy.
A.H.: Because we come from the book scene we feel really comfortable making books. So we always go back and make books to experiment and come up with new ideas.
Do you keep the same experimental approach when making editions of prints considering that editions are usually about replication and uniformity? Are you open to the same “mistakes” that happen when you make unique works?
A.H.: Even when making editions, we do feel like each print should look different.
C.H.: Each print has some degree of uniqueness within the edition. We don’t want our prints to look like a computer made them. We want them to look painterly.
Your work is very bright, very lively. What attracts you to neon tones?
A.H.: I think it’s because silk screening allows you to use such pigments.
C.G.: We like playing with the fine line between “good” and “bad” taste. There is a certain ironic approach to our use of bright pigments. But using neon tones can easily look tacky, so we like to cut them with “dirty” colors. When I started publishing zines back in the 90s, they were released under the label “Bongoût” (French for “good taste”) which was obviously not about good taste, but bad taste. Our current practice still plays with this limit.
You consider yourselves on the frontier of “good” and “bad” taste. Do you also position yourselves on the frontier of D.I.Y and Fine Art?
C.G.: We always try really hard not to put ourselves in a single box, but avoiding labels can be quite hard. We just do our best to not play by the rules.
A.H.: We’re always changing styles. We don’t like staying in the same place and doing the same thing over and over again. But we still try to bring back some of the older stuff we’ve done. Recently, we’ve been making some figurative pieces again, which may surprise some people. But if you look at our older works you can spot these figurative elements.
C.G.: We like challenging ourselves, but we also like challenging our audience.
Do you see silk screening becoming more popular outside the underground D.I.Y scene?
A.H.: There are a lot of artists working with the medium but they don’t make it the focal point of their practice. They just use silk screening as a tool.
C.G.: Contemporary artists have been working with silk screening for quite some time: R.H Quatman, Christopher Wool, Philip Taaffe, Ruprecht Geiger, and Andy Warhol, just to name some of our favorites. But so far, everyone has been using the screen-printing process in a very “academic” way. We question the very core of the process.
Do you consider yourselves printmakers? Painters?
C.G.: We don’t really consider ourselves as printmakers. We’re probably a printmaker’s worst nightmare. What we’re doing is painting. But instead of using brushes, we use screens.
All photos by Heryte T. Tequame.