Motif Repeats Itself
Illustration by Tom Maryniak
Tom Maryniak is an artist whose work is destined to embellish walls, literally. He is doing wallpaper design and he is doing it using woodblock printing — a technique quite as interesting as Tom’s concepts themselves. Here he is proving that artwork can easily be both utilitarian and worthy of gallery space.
Tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Tom Maryniak, I’m an artist, I’m 28 years old, and I live and work in London. I’ve been here for three years, before that I was in New York, and before that I was in university at Bath doing Fine Art. I’m a printmaker, and I specialize in woodblock printing and wallpaper.
How did you come about discovering woodblock print as a craft?
When I was at university, I think like most people going to art school, I was looking for a medium that would suit me. I tried painting, I was doing some video work, lots of life drawing. But I kept walking past the print room every day and it was always empty. One day, I sort of went in there, and I started off doing etching. It was fun, but etching’s quite time consuming, and I wanted something really quick and immediate. There were some woodblock prints on the wall, so I started asking the print technicians what they were, and they explained the technique. And I went straight away home that day with a block of wood and some chisels that I’d borrowed. I asked what sort of wood you would use and they said, “You can use whatever wood you want”. I actually just went up to the skip behind College and picked out a plank that basically had a grain on it, and took it home. I did a self-portrait and that was my first woodblock print. I was hooked from that point on: it was the process, and the physicality of it and the dramatic nature of how the print comes out. That’s what got me into it.
Take us through the process of making a print.
The process of making a woodblock print starts with getting a piece of wood. It’s often lovely to have wood with a grain, because it picks up the natural grain as well when you cut into it. And then you draw your image on, and you take a chisel and you cut out your image. What you cut away is what’s going to come out white on the paper, so it’s sort of opposite to drawing. So when you draw a line with a pencil, if you were going to translate that into a woodblock print, you’d cut on either side of the line, so that when you rub the ink on it would print onto the paper. You ink it up and put a piece of paper on and run it through a press, and you’ve got a mirror image of what you’ve carved.
That’s woodblock printing. With wallpaper, I do two things in my practice: I make single images of prints for albums or book covers and all that, but I also make wallpaper. And the way I got into wallpaper was because printing as a technique is something where you can print the same image over and over again, and it comes out pretty much one and the same. It originated by means of allowing people to have access to images. With a painting, you can only have one. With printing, you can replicate the same image over and over again so the distribution of that image goes a lot farther. Over time the block will wear down and once you’ve done a series of prints, you start looking at it and think, well, what if they all went together in some way? It lends itself to making patterns and repeating the image.
What would you say inspires your designs?
At university I wasn’t making wallpaper, I was experimenting a lot with woodblock printing. And woodblock printing is such a strong image, often very black and white, so you get a lot of light and dark. When I moved to London, and especially being in Soho and working nighttime in a bar-bookshop called The Society Club, after work, I’d often wander around Soho. And Soho lends itself to that sort of black and white imagery. I’d say for the last few years my inspiration has been Soho, but also lots of black and white photography.
I did a series recently using a lot of images from a photographer called Harold Chapman, who photographed the Beats in 1950s in Paris. And looking at photographs that he did, especially with this very contrasting use of light and dark, it really lends itself when you translate it into woodblock printing. It’s that dramatic nature of it. So they inspire me as well. Certainly the sort of underground subculture, and things that are happening behind closed doors.
Is there a motif that repeats itself in a lot of your pieces, either figuratively or physically?
I’d say sex comes up a lot. And I’d say that directly links to Soho insomuch as it’s historically been that place where people go for sex, and people go for things they supposedly shouldn’t be doing in the eyes of polite society. Working in a bar, you get to hear people’s secrets. Especially when you mix that with alcohol, you get people’s confidences. And so, by default, you see the darker side of the human psyche, and it’s so interesting. That’s sort of what I want to do with my work.
So it can be elegant, but also there’s something going on too.
If there’s a common motif, it’s the animal side of us. But I’m trying to conceal it within some kind of a facade. There was a series I did recently which was all about domesticity: but within these still-life images of domestic living, there was subtle hints of other things, other narratives that you might not immediately see: a grenade hidden amongst the food at a table or a condom in a bathroom sink. I’m always trying to create images that people can look at and say, “I love that,” or, “I like that,” but there might be something beneath all of that – some dot-joining for them to do, whether they choose to or not.
What would you say people look for when they buy art?
I think it depends who you are and what your budget is. If I was going to speak cynically, I was at Frieze Art Fair recently, and that was just an IKEA for the rich. It’s a case of where the sort of people who might go to these collectors or these dealers, a lot of them are buying art to hang in vaults and accrue value. Or they’re buying something that’s going to go really well in their interior. The people who have bought work from me, for instance, it’s something that’s resonated with them, within the imagery of what I’ve constructed. That’s not so much the wallpaper, but the printwork. I’ve often have people say “Oh that reminds me of me”, or “Oh that reminds me of my husband” – something that’s connected in that way that’s on a much more sentimental and personal level.
What you do is both utilitarian and artistic. Do you feel that art that’s not made just for art’s sake can have as much merit as a piece in a gallery, for example?
I think it can, yeah. It’s a very personal thing. Partly, printmaking is fairly unfashionable. People like the idea of having objects and paintings that are unique in themselves. And I completely understand that,
Whether they admit that or not, that’s the thing. So the idea of a print, it’s not worth as much, because lots of people can have it. But I’m really trying to transcend that, because I love the medium of print so much, and I think it does have a lot of value аnd the ability to produce something unique.
And prints are unique. Especially when they’re hand printed, they’re so unique! Because inevitably something’s going to happen, whether the plate slip a little bit, or you’re putting a colour on that might not come off. So each one’s individual if you look for it in the marks. And I like the idea that
Speaking exclusively about woodblock print, would you say art school is a must to mastering the craft?
Тhe amazing thing about art school is that you don’t realize how precious your time there is. It’s quite a paradoxical thing to say, because I can only say it afterwards in hindsight, like most things. But what’s wonderful about art school is you have the time and you have the money to focus on the things that you want to do. And it’s so valuable for that. But you’re also in an environment where you’ve got contemporaries who are also working themselves out. I think what I found difficult after art school was not having such a community; to having people around me who are also making, who I can have an active discourse with.
In terms of the practice, certainly art school has been the most valuable thing, because I had access to so many things. In terms of printmaking, I had tutors who could explain to me the process of how it works, I had the printing presses there and the paper — so yes, incredibly valued to have that sort of access, and to really hone in and focus on my craft. I think everyone should go to art school, if they want to be serious about being an artist, and not necessarily worry about the debt.
What was your first big break?
So when I left art school, I moved back home and started working as a draughtsman for an artist who does a lot of architectural drawings. And then I went to New York to work in a gallery. I decided I didn’t want to work for an artist, I wanted to make my own work, but then I still wasn’t sure if that was quite the right thing. I wanted to get into the art world, and see how it operated. So I went and worked for this gallery: that’s when
From that, it started making me think about what I could do within the remit of printmaking – which I loved – that could be more commercially viable. And I thought about wallpaper and pattern design. It goes back to that idea of having
Afterwards, I came back to England, and came straight to London. I had a horrible job in a restaurant for two weeks. During those two weeks, I thought, “Right, now I’m going to have to start working.” I carried on working the restaurant, but I spent any time off that I had coming up with a series of designs for wallpapers. After that point, I had them all together in a folder I was carrying around, sort of just showing people. It was a bit odd. But the restaurant was in Soho and it was from that that I got a job in the bookshop where the proprietor, Babette, said, “These are amazing, put the wallpaper up.” That was the beginning of it happening really.
Then I got a commission from Mark Hix to do the wallpaper for his bathrooms in HIX Bankside. That was a big deal from me, mainly because Mark is a great restaurateur, but he’s also so involved in the art world, insomuch as he’s almost like the chef of the Young British Artists: he’s best friends with Tracey Emin and knows Damien Hirst, and Mat Collishaw.He knows all of these great spearheads in young British art that to be asked to have my work alongside these guys in a public space was quite an amazing thing for me, and has lead to a lot more stuff. A lot of people have been quite upset by the ‘Grecian Porn’ wallpaper at his restaurant, which to have any reaction is great. I think the best quote was from a woman who said, “This wallpaper is so weird, London is totally fucked.”
You work with a range of clients when making the wallpaper. What’s the process for coming up with the design?
I love collaboration. I think it’s a really important part of my practice.
So collaboration is a very valuable part of what I do. And the collaborations vary from book cover design to album design to posters to bespoke murals. The process of design for those sorts of things is interesting. If I’m doing an album, for example, I’ll work with the musician, listen to the music, get to know them and what sort of thing they’d like, and from that just start drawing. The drawing process will go on for a few weeks, backwards and forwards, and we’ll finally stumble upon something we both like where all the elements are there within the pictorial image, and then I’ll set about printing it basically.
On the wallpaper side of things, doing something bespoke is equally as interesting. People often want something that’s personal to them and their life. But there’s a battle there as well, because you want to construct images that are beautiful and elegant and sit well together, and often the sort of things a client may want might conflict with that, or it might look a bit crude. You have to negotiate around what makes the final cut, and what doesn’t.
Is there a public space you dream of having your work displayed on?
I would really love to see my work, in particular something like ‘Grecian Porn’, in the bathrooms of the British Museum. It’s perfectly in keeping with many of the Greek and Roman artefacts. I’ve seen many a furrowed brow regarding that particular design and I think it’d be an interesting place, as it inevitably throws up questions about what might be considered high art and low art. Is the contemporary more abrasive than the ancient? I’d like to see people react, because I think their reaction to that which is behind glass and that which is on the wall, though they deal with the same subject matter, could be very different.
I’m currently working with somebody on a series of designs of Soho-specific wallpapers. Now that I no longer work at a bar there, it’s sort of coming back to me. It’s been such a central place to my formative years that I really wanted to do a whole series that looks at that. And hopefully in early 2018, that will all be together, and ready to go.