Memory and Meaning: the Graphic Works of Michael Goro
Naomi Margolis, Printmaking Today, London 2018

The prints of artist Michael Goro display a fascinating synthesis of traditional and original techniques, stylistic qualities, and imagery. The son of an architect, Misha was introduced to great works of art during his childhood in St. Petersburg, where weekly visits to the Hermitage Art Museum were augmented by his perusal in his parents’ library of reproductions of prints and paintings by such Renaissance masters as Cranach, Holbein, Rembrandt, Leonardo, Dürer, Brueghel, and Bosch. From these early influences, and from the related graphic works of Piranesi and such ephemera as illustrations of medieval medical practices and torture scenes, Misha developed a predilection for black and white imagery and for explorations of the dark side of human experience. This taste was reinforced during the early 1980s when he became familiar with the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, whose contemporary scenes were influenced by the dark, dense detail and moody ambiance of those same Renaissance works of art. 

A printmaker now for 20 years, Goro did not set out to become an artist. In college he majored in architecture, but during this time he also began to make street portraits as a sideline and eventually developed a clientele who posed at his studio. While he continued to do studio portraits after he graduated, his interests and efforts soon expanded to executing cityscapes which were sold in a gallery. Goro’s gradual recognition that he wanted to make art professionally instead of becoming an architect came in part from his realization that he is “not a team player,” [interview with author 11/5/17] and it was his fierce independence and desire for artistic freedom that also made Soviet art anathema to him. Craving political liberty and believing that art’s role in the modern world is to convey complex human experience and not to be a vehicle for limited social or political ideologies, Goro decided to leave Russia in 1990. Although at the time he emigrated Russia was no longer as restrictive as it had been while he was growing up, he had never felt at home there and he wanted to experience the world. He also recognized that there was no certainty that the new democratic changes would last and the iron curtain wouldn’t come crashing down again, and the thought of being stuck there for the rest of his life was unbearable.

He went first to Israel for several years, where he took a class in printmaking at the Jerusalem Print Shop and started to develop techniques in etching and engraving that were influenced in particular by the prints of Rembrandt and Dürer that he’d loved since childhood. During his travels around the country over the next two years he stayed for a while in the monastery of Lavra Netofa, where the lack of electricity and running water put him in a Renaissance frame of mind that conduced even more to the emulation of Old Master imagery. In making engravings for the monks of their bell tower he found a way of combining his love of architecture with his love of graphic art, and, unsurprisingly, architecture eventually became a major focus of his work in both prints and paintings. 

In 1994 Goro moved to Salt Lake City, Utah and spent the next four years designing theatre postersand expanding his printmaking skills. For Misha, the first requirement for a good print is “technical impeccability,” but he defines this with the avant-garde artist’s respect for unconventionality. “I’m not talking about technical perfection in terms of the 18th century definition,” he said in a 2007 interview. “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.” [“Interview with Michael Goro: Master Printmaker (Andrew Patner) Chicago ArtStyle, October 28, 2007] During these years Goro continued to travel and visit not only many of the world’s great art museums, but also the print collections of great libraries where he studied the works with a magnifying glass. Then, on a trip to see his cousin Maxim at the University of Illinois in Champagne, Urbana, he went to the printmaking department to ask for permission to print a plate that he was working on, and was offered a graduate teaching assistantship by the chairman of the department.  

While he was in the graduate program in Urbana from 1997 to 2000, Misha came under the influence of Dennis Rowan, a professor who encouraged him to scale up the size of his work and to add more contemporary techniques to his repertoire of traditional printmaking. During this period his art turned a corner, becoming less illustrative and more expressive and symbolic. “Venice” (fig.1), an etching of 1998, displays many of the themes and stylistic characteristics that inform his subsequent work. Representing a Venetian canal with a childhood photo of himself in the foreground, this print conveys “the idea of memory being a kaleidoscope of images and situations from the past that are projected into the present. It is the kind of memory that reaches far before childhood.” [email 9/10/09] 

Venice, Etching, Engraving, Photogravure, 36″ x 24″

The influence of Tarkovsky’s dark, gritty imagery and Dürer’s densely detailed surfaces is apparent here, but the subject is an ordinary one—as Goro has put it, “looking for subject matter I find simple things that we see every day, things that become symbolic once they are taken out of context. I experiment with the juxtaposition of places, faces, and architectural designs that reflect my diverse personal experiences.” [9/25/17 presentation at American Academy of Art] By superimposing his own childhood image onto a representation of a city seen later in life and through eyes influenced by memories of works of art that he first experienced when very young, the artist has merged times and places to create a symbolic expression of his own unique past and perceptions. We find the same idea and process in “New York” of 1998, where the dense crush of buildings and vehicles is overlooked incongruously by a portrait of his father from the past contemplating the urban scene from a billboard. (fig.2) 

NY, Etching, Engraving, Photogravure, 24″ x 36″

Goro’s desire to convey subjective experience rather than just represent an uninflected visual reality stems from his belief that, in addition to being technically “impeccable,” a great work of art must convey “some idea…that is intelligent and sincere,” and, most importantly, “it needs to have passion and energy. Artists have to put themselves into their work.” [Artstyle interview] This could be achieved not only through odd juxtapositions and manipulations of fragments from his own past and present realities, but also from his newly liberated technique. The passion in his work, he claimed, can be seen mainly “through textures and gestural elements… I believe there is a certain intensity and energy I have to get out of myself and put into the metal…” He continued: “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, or 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 interview]

For Goro, the authenticity and aesthetic power of his imagery come in part from the unique subjectivity of his technique. “I see a print as a three-dimensional object because it is an impression of the plate on paper,” he said. “It reflects the depth of embossment. I am not talking just about the edges of the plate itself. I am talking about the depth of textures within the plate.” In addition to attacking the plate forcefully with objects to create a multiplicity of textural effects, Misha uses chemicals with the same unconventionality. “I apply resist (that could be the hard ground or spray paint mixed with solvents, markers and so on) to the surface. I leave the plate in acid for a very long time. Acid deepens the open sections of the surface. I repeat this process multiple times. As a result I have another dimension. Besides just light and dark, I get deep and shallow.” (email to Michael Hampton, 5/4/10) 

These technical and stylistic innovations were the natural outgrowth of Goro’s philosophical commitment to creating personal narratives that convey deep truths about the modern world. “I’m a story teller in my art,” he said recently. “I develop emotional narratives about human experiences, stories that are often implied through texture and form rather than an illustration of an event. I’m interested in traces of humanity rather than humans—environments that show layers of human experience, change, decay, entanglement.” [Interview 11/5/17] “My story,” he claimed, “is a vivid illustration of the end of the last century—a time of deconstruction, discontinuity, and dislocation. My artistic practice is a continuous creative search for raw authenticity in urban environments…that are constantly changing…. People and places have history and experience. Cities are weathered by time and through use, taking on a personality of their own from the people and the elements that have interacted with them. It is a combination of all of these factors that creates authenticity.” [Lecture 9/25/17] 

Inserting images of the past into representations of contemporary environments continued to be a favorite way in which Goro achieved a sensation of the complexity of the human psyche as well as of urban realities. “The Birth of Venus” from 2006, (fig. 3) executed after moving to Chicago, is another moody street scene of dark, dirty, deteriorating urban architecture, its scarred and stained surfaces criss-crossed with power lines and utility poles in a tangle of forms reminiscent of Piranesi’s Prison engravings. Conspicuous in the foreground, a textured sewer cover streaked with filth sits atop an indeterminate mass of mud and detritus in a street filled with puddles whose reflections create a band of light penetrating its narrow confines. On the right, a shapeless dark figure seen from the rear trudges down the scumbled sidewalk, barely discernible in the ambient gloom; on the left, the exquisite figure of Venus from Sandro Botticelli’s 1486 representation of her birth peers out at us from around an open doorway. Goro’s aesthetic vision expresses itself through a multiplicity of dramatic contrasts—in this example, between sooty blackness and radiance, solid architectural bulk and the delicate surface details that enliven it, Renaissance imagery and a contemporary context, and a symbol of pure, innocent beauty set in an environment fouled by the ravages of time and weather. In its seamless synthesis of references to the past and present, this print demonstrates the ambiguous relationship between perceptual experiences and aesthetic memories that characterize Goro’s transformative vision. 

The Birth of Venus, Etching, Engraving, Photogravure, 36″ x 24″

Many of Misha’s works since 2000 plant similar images of women from Renaissance paintings into scenes of urban squalor, where they function not only as a symbol of the continuity of artistic influence, but also as an expression of the beauty that the artist’s eye perceives in even the humblest and seemingly ugliest settings. (Fig. 4) “For me,” he claimed, “they are not just art history references — they represent a romantic touch, something nostalgic, in the urban jungle.” [ArtStyle interview] He uses photogravure to insert these into prints that, with his penchant for unconventional techniques, combine etching, engraving, aquatint, and mezzotint. Many of his graphics also utilize reflections that serve multiple artistic purposes, both stylistic and philosophical. “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.”

October Rhapsody, Etching, Engraving, 32″ x 24″

Defiant Perspective, Etching, Engraving, 36″ x 63″

Along with strange juxtapositions, Goro’s use of unusual and often unsettling perspectives also lends dramatic force to ordinary imagery. Both “Defiant Perspective” (fig. 5), created in 2009 during an artist residency in China, and “La Seine,” (fig. 6) executed in Paris in 2012, employ a vertiginous viewpoint that gives the architecture an ominous, threatening quality—again reminiscent of the prison imagery by Piranesi that fascinated Misha in childhood. Seen from below, his gigantic chickens loom crazily beneath a tangle of dark, forbidding structures and wires. Seen from above, his top-heavy Parisian building with its bizarrely roped chimneys seems about to come crashing down. Both project a sense of instability and danger that conveys the menace inherent in urban environments.

La Seine, Etching, Engraving, 20″ x 24″

The threat posed by modern civilization is a significant theme in Goro’s work from the last decade. “A fish rots from the head down” from 2008 (fig. 7) depicts a prehistoric-looking fish floating in a black sea. Above its open mouth full of sharp teeth, the flesh and scales of its head are dissolving, revealing the bony structures below. From its empty eye socket and rotting head grow the industrial symbols of our technological culture that have poisoned the atmosphere and dehumanized our world—the smoking chimneys, towering structures, clanking machinery, and roaring airplanes that have supplanted nature and trapped humanity in polluted, noisy urban prisons. The implication of the title is that it is the values and decisions of the powerful who control society that have been responsible for its deterioration. 

A Fish Rots from the Head Down, Etching, Engraving, 36″ x 24″

Similar imagery evokes the same idea in “Knight’s Gambit” from 2017 (fig. 8), a powerful evocation of the forces of violence and destruction that roil human society in modern times. The title’s reference to the game of chess suggests the movement of a warrior, represented both in chess and in this print by a battle horse, in a ploy against an enemy. But this is no ordinary charger—it is a vast machine that seems to be stepping forth from the loading docks of an industrial city onto one of a fleet of little ships arrayed in the harbor. Riderless and dwarfing the adjacent buildings and boats, this giant mechanical steed is an emblem of the technological ingenuity humans have employed to devise elaborate means of waging war and spreading its dark fruits to the rest of the world. Armored in metal plates studded with rivets, reined with chains, its bony bared ribs bristling with protuberances suggesting guns or cannons, its underbelly concealing an array of sharp-nosed missiles, its tail dissolving in a spume of dark smoke and exploding fragments, this Trojan horse is being shipped out to carry its lethal freight to the world beyond, the world of nature and non-industrial society that lie outside the borders of the urban environment that spawned this deadly gift. 

Knight’s Gambit, Etching, 36″ x 24″

Influenced by the apocalyptic visionary landscapes of the 16th cen. Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch and the dark, densely detailed imagery of Dürer’s 1513 engraving “Knight, Death, and the Devil,” “Knight’s Gambit” can be seen as a larger metaphor for the dangerous impact of consumerism and globalization on the rest of the planet. As was also the case in “The fish rots from the head down,” the city on the right is reduced to a series of dark, indeterminate towers and scaffolding seen against a sky in which billows of black smoke and sharp shards and streaks of darkness vie with blazing light—a nightmarish urban world in dissolution. The source of manufactured goods, of technological devices, of the material advantages of “civilization,” the city exports its creations to the larger world, and by doing so, brings to it also the hidden “gifts” concealed within—the forces of destruction and the ever-expanding desire for more of these seemingly desirable advances that bear within themselves the seeds of violence and social collapse.

Naomi Margolis, CHICAGO 2018