A Two-Way Thing: An Interview with Rick Amor

A page from the original interview in Imprint (Spring 1996 Volume 31 Number 3) featuring Rick Amor‘s Self-Portrait, 1995, drypoint, etching, 41.2 x 28.5 cm, ed. of 10.

‘I always had a vague suspicion of printmakers who made images that were satisfying technical exercises but had no heart in them.’

Imprint Spring 1996 Volume 31 Number 3.
Cover image: Hertha Kluge-Pott, Portrait of a Silent Personage, 1996, drypoint and chine collé, 64 x 89.5 cm, ed. of 6.

This interview was conducted by Gary Catalano in April 1996 and published in Imprint Spring 1996, Volume 31 Number 3.

Rick Amor was born at Frankston in 1948 and studied at both Caulfield Technical and the National Gallery schools between 1964 and 1968. He staged his first exhibition in 1974 and is represented by Niagara in Melbourne.

Amor’s prints, which form a significant part of his oeuvre, were surveyed in Selected Prints 1968–1991, a show which toured a number of Victorian and Tasmanian regional galleries in 1993 and 1994. The following text is an edited version of an interview recorded at the artist’s house in Alphington on April 23, 1996.

GC: Whenever we’ve talked about your printmaking in the past you’ve always insisted that you want to be regarded as a painter–printmaker. Can I ask you once again what you mean by this term?

RA: Well, I think the painter–printmaker uses printmaking as a way into paintings and his painting as a way into prints. Fred Williams used to base paintings on prints and prints on paintings. It’s a two-way thing. An idea developed in a print will, because of the nature of the medium, force an image in a certain way which maybe a painting wouldn’t have. Printmaking helps you to find another way into painting. And vice versa, the tonal range of painting can force you to be more subtle with your marks on the plate.

GC: Do you also mean by that term that you don’t want your prints to be seen in isolation from your paintings?

RA: Not generally. I mean, they are physically, but generally they should be seen as a follow-on, a starting point, or an end point.

GC: How common is it for a print to precede a painting of the same subject?

RA: It’s about fifty-fifty. Often I’ll base a print on a painting and then base a painting on that print.

GC: What kinds of print are best for this preparatory work?

RA: Etchings, I think. You can develop a tonal range and detail in etching …

GC: That’s comparable to those in a painting?

RA: In a way, yes … and mezzotints, too, because of their tonal range. Tones are important, I think. With woodcuts you haven’t got a lot of tonal range; you’ve just got black and white, so it’s a different problem.

GC: Okay. But if that’s the case, wouldn’t a detailed drawing be just as adequate as an etching?

RA: No, it’s not the same, because the mixture of metals and acid and ink seems to have its own qualities.

GC: So etching helps you to distil your conception of a painting?

RA: Yes. It renders it differently to a drawing, even to a pen and ink drawing, which superficially looks like an etching because of its hatching. The intervention of the materials makes all the difference.

GC: Can you think of a painting whose conception you had to alter in a significant way after you had produced a preparatory print?

RA: There’s a painting called The Telephones. I did a drawing first, then a print. Then I based a painting on the print, but because there were some areas in the painting I didn’t like I changed it and did another print based on that print. In the initial print there were certain things that were wrong with the perspective and the placement, which I only noticed when I made the first painting from it.

GC: So printmaking often serves to clarify your ideas for a painting?

RA: Yes. The reduced scale helps. It distils an image and forces you to be a bit broader and change your approach to an image.

GC: How thorough was your introduction to printmaking at the National Gallery School?

RA: Pretty thorough. Prior to that we did a bit at Caulfield Tech, but it was so basic that I hardly remember it. At the National Gallery School we did most forms of etching, except mezzotint. Murray Walker taught us. I’ve subsequently discovered that his method was the same that [Graham] Sutherland used; it comes from Samuel Palmer and involves a lot of scraping back and re-biting, so that you have a really rich look on the plate with a lot of cross-hatching and little white dots amongst all the darkness. Murray taught us that and I didn’t like it much at the time, but when I began to etch again in the late ‘80s I found it was more to my taste.

GC: What kind of printmaking did you enjoy most then?

RA: Oh, etching. I remember I fiddled about with silkscreen at home. I picked it up myself.

GC: Have you kept any of those silkscreens?

RA: No, but there’s some floating around the place. I used to draw on the silk, with glue or something. But silkscreens are pretty awful. They lack the artist’s touch and are so anonymous.

GC: I asked that question about what you enjoyed because when we look at your print oeuvre we find that until as recently as 1988 almost all of the prints you produced were relief prints. There’s a handful of etchings from your student years – and apparently no lithographs at all.

RA: Well, I couldn’t afford to do any etchings when I was young, because I didn’t have a press. Woodcuts and linocuts are easy to produce; I could do them at home and print them myself. When I began to etch again I could afford a press, so I bought one.

GC: How do you go about producing an etching? Do you make a separate drawing beforehand, or do you draw directly on the plate?

RA: Sometimes I do, if I’m feeling bold and daring. (Smiles) But normally I draw, with compressed charcoal, on a piece of paper with a rectangle the same size as the plate marked on it. Then I put that face down on a plate with the resin ground on it and put it through the press so that the charcoal is pressed on the plate. Then I start to draw over that.

GC: Can you think of some etchings in which you drew directly on the plate?

RA: There’s lots. Normally I do my self-portraits straight on a plate. The prints that are meant to be rougher and a bit lighter … I just scribble them on a plate, because that’s the look I want. But I’m a bit more careful with the ones I intend to use as ideas for paintings, because I want to develop the idea with a bit more caution and care.

GC: There were a lot of very good relief prints produced in Melbourne in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Did you find yourself being influenced by any of that work when you were producing your linocuts and woodcuts, or were you always more interested in the woodcuts of Munch and some of the German Expressionists?

RA: Oh no. I was a big fan of Counihan, of course. He would have been the only one locally that I had much knowledge of. I didn’t know anything about the ‘20s and ‘30s until more recently; I mean, I’d seen them reproduced, but they weren’t an influence.

It was Counihan’s way of drawing with the lino that I found interesting, the way he cut shapes out. I’ve lost a lot of interest in his work, but when I was younger I thought it was terrific – especially those early linocuts of the miners. They’re very direct and daring in their cut.

GC: Which one of your woodcuts satisfies you the most?

RA: (Long pause) None of them really. The one of Andrew Southall isn’t bad … and I suppose the one of the runner [Runner, 1984][1] is pretty good. But there isn’t a lot that I really like all that much. I always think of doing them again and doing them better.

GC: You haven’t done any recently, have you?

RA: No, I sort of lost interest. But just recently I thought I’d like to do some more. I was thinking, too, about New York. I’m just speculating, but it could be good to do a series of woodcuts based on the drawings I’ll make there, because it would force me to be economical with the image. That’s one option I’ve thought of.

GC: Won’t you be painting in New York?

RA: Just gouaches and watercolours, that sort of thing.

GC: You produced a lot of posters and cartoons for the labour movement in the ‘70s. Do you think that work has influenced your printmaking in any way?

RA: At the time I saw things in that social realist manner. I’ve got woodcuts about the police and being on the dole and that sort of thing, but they were the ‘70s and I grew away from that in the end. I’ve kept examples of those things because they reflect the time, but I wouldn’t do that sort of thing anymore. It just seems a bit overstated.

GC: Were those woodcuts you referred to conceived as works of art or as illustrations?

RA: Both. They were meant to illustrate the iniquities of society and to be aesthetically pleasing, but I tend to think the message got in the way of the aesthetics.

GC: Your 1986 exhibition at Niagara was composed exclusively of woodcuts. Was that your idea, or did your dealer suggest it?

RA: I think it was my idea. I’d had a burst of activity doing woodcuts, so I was probably thinking it would be a nice show to have. It was a good show, too; I was pleased with it.

GC: What sort of response did it get?

RA: Pretty good. Sold well. It had some prints in it that I’m quite proud of. I’ve always thought the one of John Perceval was pretty good … and the one of Manning Clark is all right.[2]

It might be good to do a show of woodcuts again at some stage. I’ve done about half a dozen based on a series of drawings I did in England in 1985 which are in a folio, and it might be good to show them one day.

GC: In some of your woodcuts it looks as though you’ve tried to down play the kind of dramatic impact to which the medium lends itself by introducing a bit of tonal variety. I’m thinking of the shallow cutting in parts of Runner and the sandpapered area in Gardens (1988)[3].

RA: I didn’t want to be Käthe Kollwitz all my life with heavy black and white; I wanted to be Gauguin for a while. (Laughs) In the prints he made in Tahiti he used sandpaper and all sorts of things and hand-printed them, so you have much lighter pressure in some parts and get a much more subtle print. I’d never really liked the fact that lino was just black and white. The sandpaper and files are another way of varying the surface and making it subtle enough to hold the viewer’s attention.

GC: They also make the image slightly more mysterious.

RA: Yes. The accidental aspect of it is important, too. You make marks that you can’t always control.

GC: Even if you take into account the economic considerations you mentioned earlier, don’t you find it strange that you waited until 1988 before you took up etching again?

RA: I doubt I would have done it if I hadn’t been asked to contribute to the Murray-Smith portfolio [Port Jackson Press, 1988] and probably would have gone on making woodcuts. I had this feeling that I didn’t really like etching, which in my mind was this rather laborious method I’d been taught at art school. And I always had a vague suspicion of printmakers who made images that were satisfying technical exercises but had no heart in them.

I like things with a bit of heart. Often prints will be technically wonderful, but you think: why did he bother doing it? I determined to etch the simplest way I could – no aquatint, none of that business – and just draw on the plate. It’s the drawing that’s important to me … not the fancy biting but the mark-making.

GC: How long did it take you before you began to feel comfortable with the medium?

RA: I still don’t. I have periods when I don’t etch for a long time, and when I take it up again I more or less have got to start again. I rack my brains: How do I do this? How do I do that? So it’s a thing that you accumulate knowledge about, but it’s pretty slow … or it is with me anyway.

GC: Do you prefer to work on copper or zinc plates?

RA: Oh copper, just because it looks nice. I like its rich colour, and I like to see the plates lying around the studio.

GC: Do you go in for retroussage?

RA: Yes. Sometimes I wipe the plate with scrim and then put chalk or whiting on the heel of my hand and clean up all the excess ink, but at other times I stop at the stage of the scrim and leave a bit of plate tone on the plate.

GC: So you do manipulate the plate as much as you can?

RA: Well, sometimes I do … and at other times I don’t. I remember Hopper saying to use the blackest ink and the whitest paper and just wipe it clean and print it. Maybe I should be a bit more like him … less effete. (Laughs) But it depends on what’s happening on the plate.

I don’t do editions that are exactly the same. I’ll have some plates hand-wiped and some left a bit dirty with the plate tone. It’s never going to be exactly the same, so it may as well be a little different.

GC: Have you ever thought of producing some sort of ground etchings?

RA: I have actually. I should do more with it, because it’s a nice way to do things. Often I’ve sketched ideas in a soft ground and then worked over the top with normal etching.

GC: What works were they?

RA: Oh, there’s quite a large self-portrait in which I’m drawing myself drawing myself. That started off as a drypoint, then I worked over it with a soft ground, then with etching, and then with drypoint again.

GC: You love Whistler’s work, but you’ve never tried to emulate his way of making a print.

RA: Well, these days I’ve thought of doing so, because everyone does these enormous prints with sugar lift and tons of ink. It’d be nice to do a little silvery plate which is just touched with a line, just breathed on the plate, as an antidote to all that seriousness.

GC: I think it’s strange you haven’t used aquatint more often, considering how well Gardens (1988) works.[4] What exactly are your reservations about it?

RA: It’s just that it’s an easy way to get a bit of tone. Often you’ll see a print with aquatint, and if you take the aquatint off it just falls apart a bit. The drawing won’t sustain it. To me the drawing is very important. I feel a little bit reserved about technical help. It’s ridiculous and illogical, but it’s the way I feel about it. I just like the line. (Smiles)

GC: Perhaps you haven’t found the subject matter which makes it really necessary.

RA: Well, I seem to be able to do okay without it. If I need to have a tonal picture I’ll do a mezzotint, which is really tonal and much more subtle than aquatint in its gradations.

GC: What led you to take up mezzotint in 1990? Surely that wasn’t accidental also.

RA: Well, it seemed to suit the sort of work I was doing. I mean, you associate mezzotints with romantic imagery and landscape. Both Turner and Constable had their works editioned in mezzotint prints.

GC: It seems the right medium for you in so many ways. Having to work from dark to light is a perfect metaphor of the way in which you recover incidents and experiences from the darkness of time.

RA: That’s one way of reading it. The black is so black and mysterious that it’s irresistible as a method of working.

GC: Are you also attracted by the arduousness of it all, the fact that you have to spend so much time on them?

RA: Oh no, I hate all that.

GC: But you don’t like art to be made easy, do you?

RA: Well no, but I’m not going to grind my own paint or weave my own canvas, am I? (General laughter) The aesthetic decisions should be hard, not the practical ones. They should be made easy.

GC: Mezzotints also lend themselves to that slightly ominous or menacing quality that you like your works to have.

RA: Yes, it’s perfect. There’s a tendency in modern mezzotint for it to be a demonstration of technical finesse, so people do bunches of artichokes and asparagus and all sorts of weird and unusual things, but I rather like to do what I do with it. You know, nocturnal scenes.

GC: So which of your mezzotints particularly pleases you?

RA: There’s two – The Sighting[5] and Tokyo at Night. If I could get the plates prepared for me I’d do more mezzotints. I’m working on a plate at the moment and I do a pass with the rocker every couple of days or once a week or whatever.

GC: You’ve produced a few limited edition books and folios over the years. Have you plans to do any more in the future?

RA: I like to do those sorts of things, but the market for the artist’s book in Australia is pretty small. It’s a real shame, because they’re great things and wonderful to have. I’ve seen computer generated things and whatnot in books, but you want to see beautiful drawings and typography. You want an aesthetic experience. I always think about doing them, but the opportunities are so small that, you know, you do them for love.

 

Rick Amor has been exhibiting regularly since 1974. He is also founder of The Rick Amor Print Prize – ‘a celebration of excellence and diversity in the field of Printmaking’. The 2015 finalists exhibition is currently on display at Montsalvat.

 

[1] For an illustration of Runner, see Selected Prints 1968–1991 (exhibition catalogue, 1993), cat. No. 8.

[2] Amor’s woodcut of John Perceval is reproduced on the cover of Overland, no. 103, 1986.

[3] See Selected Prints 1968–1991, cat no. 13.

[4] See Selected Prints 1968–1991, cat no. 16.

[5] See Selected Prints 1968–1991, cat no. 42.

PCA Member Q&A: Peter Ward

Purple Lost, 2015, linocut, 50 x 50 cm (image size) 75 x 57 cm (paper size). This print was selected for the 2015 PCA Print Commission. It is available to purchase through the PCA store.

‘When I returned to Australia I began making relief prints because the technology is simple, economical and clean, and could be done in the small converted bathroom of my home in Sydney.’ 

Peter Ward lives in New South Wales

Why do you make art?

The simple answer is that it’s the thing I’m best at. And I make linocuts because after many years of creating works in lots of different media I decided to select just one medium and concentrate on it, to try and be really good at one thing rather than fairly good at many things. I’ve received some critical success over this last year, so I guess I’m making progress.

What’s your relationship to printmaking?

I enjoy the physicality of printmaking. And there’s the challenge of thinking the process through, grappling with the limitations of the medium and my own limitations as an artist to arrive at an aesthetic result I’m happy with. The best part is when I manage to transcend these limitations and produce something magical. It happens just often enough to get me back into the studio for another go.

How did you get interested in printmaking?

My interest in printmaking was stimulated by the screenprinting part of the graphic art course at Swinburne when it was a college. Later when I was living and working in Queensland in the eighties I took to screenprinting in a serious way. My approach was simple and direct. I drew on the screen with wax crayons, blocked out with water soluble filler and washed out the crayon with turps to create the stencil. I used lots of bright transparent colour. Colour has been a constant in my work. A couple of my prints from this time won the Suncorp and the Gold Coast Prizes. When I went to live in Italy, small graphic screenprints were the bread and butter in the private gallery my wife and I ran in Volterra. When I returned to Australia I began making relief prints because the technology is simple, economical and clean, and could be done in the small converted bathroom of my home in Sydney. Now I live in the New South Wales Southern Highlands and have graduated to a considerably larger studio where I create very limited editions along with unique woven and quilted works.

Who is your favourite artist?

I don’t really have a favourite artist but there’s a whole heap of printmakers that when I see their work I wish I could make prints like them. Rew Hanks and Roman Klonek spring immediately to mind. Jose Guadalupe Posada’s work is hard to beat and his social/political commentary adds greatly to the appeal for me. And I’m drawn to graphic ‘pop’ artists like Tadanori Yokoo.

What is your favourite artwork?

Ken Unsworth’s Suspended Stone Circle II at the Art Gallery of New South Wales is a knockout and the gallery’s collection of small Mughal paintings is fantastic too.

Where do you go for inspiration?

I find visual stimulation anywhere and everywhere. Around where I live in the Southern Highlands I find the incongruity of electricity pylons in sublime landscape fascinating. The pylons make such a strong industrial statement against the manicured dairy farmland. And you can’t beat the internet and social media to see what everyone is up to, how they approach ideas and solve aesthetic problems.

What are you working on now?  

I’ve just finished a woven linocut entitled The Apocalypse Tattoo Parlour Does The Christian Democrat. The idea of political tattoos was inspired by some of the work I saw recently at the Quai Branly’s Tattoo exhibition. Next up is a self portrait, which I hope to deconstruct over three prints. That’s the plan, but at a certain stage the work always takes on a life of its own and begins dictating outcomes.

Unique Copies

Imprint Winter 1993 Volume 28 Number 2.
Cover image: Graham Fransella, Two Heads, 1992, multi-plate etching, 160 x 178 cm. Printed by Martin King at Australian Print Workshop.

‘Hybrid as it is, the book is a spatial object. It narrates time by slicing up space into bits and stacking them. A book is frozen time. Using the book releases that time by fanning it out into space.’

This article was written by Melbourne architect and poet Alex Selenitsch, and published in Imprint Winter 1993, Volume 28 Number 2.

Alex Selenitsch‘s exhibition Life/Text is currently on display at the Heide Museum of Modern Art until 17 April 2016.

Last century, the French poet Stephane Mallarmé proclaimed a literary apocalypse: ‘All earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book’. This aphorism is the lead statement in the catalogue which accompanied a recent travelling exhibition of work done by the Graphic Investigation Workshop at the Canberra School of Art. It is also an apt banner to wave over the works recently seen in Das Buch, another travelling exhibition to Australia east coast venues, initiated by the Institute for Foreign Cultureal Relations, Germany. Both exhibitions were installed in Melbourne during September, 1992, and offered a singular opportunity for a comparison of different approaches to the problems of making artists’ books.

These problems are numerous, although it would be more accurate to say that they are matters of creative opportunity. Books are commonplace yet enigmatic and undefinable when examined in detail. These extremes – mundanity and fuzziness – ensure a vast field of experiment and expression. Mallarmé’s aphorism heralds a modern materialist approach which runs through just about every book stream of this century (dada, futurism, surrealism and beyond); he also wrote of folded pages, binding, and the newspaper sheet as an innovative model for future book design, pre-dating McLuhan’s summaries by more than seventy years. Being a Symbolist Mallarmé saw all of these aspects of the book as metaphoric, to be tacitly accepted, understood and then manipulated.

It is this metaphoric aspect of the book as thing that formed the basis for many of the works collected in Das Buch. The book object was shown to be a vehicle for the presentation of ideas, as an instrument of social critique. Generally, in keeping with the public and political tone of the work, the compositional strategies were direct – and, interestingly for work aimed at a mass public audience, derived from surrealism. One of that movement’s precursors, Lautréamont, set out the idea at the end of song six of Les Chants de Maldoror through a subsequently famous image … ‘the fortuitous encounter upon a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella’. Applied to books, this (surreal) formula becomes: ‘book plus something else, in a gallery’ (or, sign of book plus sign of something else in a sign of discourse).

So, in Das Buch, one saw work such as Victor Bonato’s sheets of glass clamped together; Hubert Gojowczyk’s Scherzo, an open folio of music with the quavers pinned down by nails; Oskar Holweck’s books with their disembowelled pages fanned out into delicate layers; Kubach-Wilman Team’s striated marble rock entitled Beethoven, Score of the Pastoral Symphony; Timm Ulrichs‘ fluttering bird-shaped books that were pegged to music stands and Paul Wunderlich’s bronze Pistol, carved out of a book with the title M-A-R-X incised into its spine/barrel. The over-riding impression(!) of the works was one of adaptation, alteration, subversion and clarification.

Despite such manipulations – possibly because of them – one keenly felt the persistence of a geometry, suggesting a kind of analogous or generic book, perhaps an UR-Buch. It is an easy geometry to describe. Firstly, there is the pile, a stack of similarly sized sheets. There is the hinge, which orients the pile and keeps it in order. Finally, there is the symmetry, the most elusive of all ‘book’ properties. It is present in the bi-lateral nature of the codex double-page spread, in the rotational symmetry of the hinge. There is the mirror symmetry of two hands holding the book, the book mirroring the imagination of the reader. Then there is the matter of ‘print’ itself: the plate or roller from which the book is printed (unless it is a stencilled one) is a mirror of its print, with the platemaker working in reverse so that it will all come out right (to left).

Yet the UR-Buch need not be geometric. It would seem to ‘not be’ a lot of other things. Because most literature arrives in book form, we tend to assume that the book is a literary object. There is no natural reason for this to be so. Writers work with words either as babble or scribble, and it is this stuff that comes from or tends towards the imagination. The book need not be there.

Nor is the book the invention of print. The relationship probably is the other way round. The tediousness of hand-copying must surely have suggested a repeatable process and one can only wonder why it took so many centuries to materialise in Europe. In any case, the hand-made book flourishes outside of the publishing industry in albums, recipe books and other functions associated with records.

Even regarded as a database, the book is only partially defined. The only accurate thing that can be said of the book is that for record-keeping, accessibility, storage, portability, attractiveness, etc., it is the best device we have so far. It does nothing perfectly, but does many things very well, to the extent that some of its properties have hybridised into separate genres such as book-binding.

This over-determined totality of the book’s possibilities means that in practice, artists have to restrict their focus. Under Petr Herel’s influence, the Canberran work showed a different approach to the simplified visual semiotics that characterised the German work. Time and again, in the local work, a chosen text or theme was extruded through the actuality of the ‘book’, not just its image. A text or idea was thus enhanced by being translated, more accurately, transformed by being given another materiality, with the text or idea functioning as the book’s genetic code.

Faced with such objects – often very unbooklike – the reader’s task seemed to be to discover the book’s materialisation. Not surprisingly, the objects/books were various: sheets of images in a box, (Body Simulation, a collaborative project), a series of handmade paper reliefs with a human form gradually emerging (Mark Arnott’s Ghost Dance) or a drawer with a display of autumnal fragments of barely-bound paper (Robyn Clegg’s Four Found Books).

Or Gary Poulton’s Correspondences. This was a simple pile of sheets, bound at the left hand edge with muslin. All of the sheets had the same poem printed on them. Each sheet was cut through the poem, each successive sheet cut with a wobbly line vertically through the text. One opened the book by removing the right hand piece … this revealed the poem again. Each removed page revealed the poem anew until at the end one was left with a contoured cliff-face of paper at the left and a pile of discards on the right. The poem – the book DNA – was Baudelaire’s celebrated sonnet Correspondences. This is a poem that fuses the archaic and modern through a pagan/pastoral image. Its sestet poins to the extremes of stimuli – ‘perfumes’ as Baudelaire would have them – which set off associations. These are the ‘correspondences’ that all poets strive for. It is an appeal to that which is hidden, essential, underneath (the poem suggests that the senses have this purity of access) and Poulton’s book emphasised this through the action of removal, the slight difference of each reading, the process of uncovering a text by taking of it away – literally.

Looking at this kind of work, one could imagine turning a folio, only to find the word ‘craft’ embossed on the left hand side and ‘art’ photocopied on the right side. It’s an issue that was palpable in the Canberran work at a detailed level, and there at a symbolic on in the German work.

Most of the German work was conceived as a sculpture, as an object which could be seen by many people at the same time. Making such a work would confront the artist with problems of construction, stability and image. This is a generalisation: works such as Antje Mobius’ Ishtar’s Journey Through the Nether World, an accordion-fold work was meant to be handled, while the minimalist steel Klangbuch was intended to be played. But in the Canberran work this was the case with just about every book. Frustratingly, in the Monash Studios, most of it was behind glass, denying the haptic qualities of the work. At the same time, the Canberran work also made it clear that with the addition of the problems of handling, book art becomes an extremely difficult undertaking. The pile, the hinge, and the symmetry have to withstand dynamic loading, grubby fingers, accidents and ad hoc storage. It means that more attention has to be paid to construction, to materials, yes, to craft. These problems are often avoided by ‘art’ artist’s book-makers, but always surface with a vengeance. If the artist won’t supply the ‘construction’, the curator must. The artist’s pure statement will be covered in tissue, stored in a solander and exhibited in a Perspex air-conditioned case.

Such is the hinge between art and craft at a pragmatic level. But there is a further level to this issue in the case of books. Hybrid as it is, the book is a spatial object. It narrates time by slicing up space into bits and stacking them. A book is frozen time. Using the book releases that time by fanning it out into space. In this way, the book artist is a sculptor and the effortless making of sculpture in the German work was a confirmation of this. So was the undercurrent of frozen time and the images of unfolded narrative which ran through both exhibitions.

The book has also, since Gutenberg, been associated with reproduction: the multiplication of the identical object. In this way the book is a fellow conspirator of the photograph, the cast of sculpture and – finally – the print. This condition of identicality was handled differently in the German work and the Canberran work. Whilst the German works were conspicuously one-off, with the multiple identity of books present as an unstated given (but there as a sign of the work’s relevance to everyone, to society at large, because ‘print run’ denotes ‘people’), in the Canberran work this issue was subsumed by the use of ‘print’ as a syntax, as a language offering some resistance to expression. The Canberran work showed how print processes could be used as tools in the same manner as one might use a crayon or a chisel. Under these conditions, the book offers a creative way out of the dilemma of identicality and reproduction while still being anchored to ‘print’. Gary Poulton’s Correspondences need only exist as ‘one copy’ but that one copy requires a print run of the poem to build up its pile of sheets.

PCA Member Q&A: Chris Ingham

Up Against It All, 2015, etching, 33.5 x 26 cm (image size) 63 x 59 cm (paper size). This print was selected for the 2015 PCA Print Commission. It is available to purchase through the PCA store.

‘I discovered Goya’s Los Caprichos in a bookstore and it astonished me. After that, I began searching for places offering printmaking classes, and I continued on from there.’ 

Chris Ingham lives in Victoria

Why do you make art?

Because I can’t imagine myself doing anything else in my spare time.

What’s your relationship to printmaking?

Well, it’s my job four days a week, as I work at the Australian Printmaking Workshop as a technician. The other three days are spent thinking about and making my own prints, with domestic duties in between. I also have a partner who’s a printmaker … So you might say it’s a pretty big part of my life.

How did you get interested in printmaking?

I tried painting initially, but it didn’t really suit my interests. Then I discovered Goya’s Los Caprichos in a bookstore and it astonished me. After that, I began searching for places offering printmaking classes, and I continued on from there.

Who is your favourite artist?

I suppose I go back to Francisco Goya a lot, but that said I have lots of favourite artists, and many types of art interest me, from El Greco to Tàpies and many others in between and beyond.

What is your favourite artwork?

I don’t really have one favourite. Different artists’ artworks have impressed me in different ways over the years. It keeps evolving.

Where do you go for inspiration?

Travelling abroad has been a huge source of inspiration for me. I always bring a sketchbook, to note down impressions, which later often get developed into print ideas.

What are you working on now?  

I’m working on sketches for a lithography project that I will work on in a printmaking residency in Dresden, Germany, over Christmas.

Euan Heng and the Archaeology of the Modern: A Case Study in the Poles of Paint and Print

Imprint Winter 1995 Volume 30 Number 2.
Cover image: Euan Heng, Patriot, 1994, linocut, 67 x 48 cm.

‘The great virtue of the art, for Heng, does not really confirm its autonomous status. He is not interested in mark-making per se; he is not dedicated to the ‘look’ of a print, and does not covert the formalist mannerisms which the printed image harbours almost by default. He is more interested in printmaking as an investigatory tool.’

This article was written by Robert Nelson, and published in Imprint Winter 1995, Volume 30 Number 2.

Euan Heng is the subject of ‘In Conversation’ in the upcoming issue of Imprint (Summer 2015, Volume 50 Number 4).

Printmaking is Euan Heng’s laboratory for critical images. Perhaps better known for monumental figures in oil paint, Heng assays his imagery through works on paper, especially watercolour and print. On account of certain chromatic and graphic limits inherent in printmaking, an image can be conceptually weighed, scanned, divided, combined and adapted, all in sympathy with the medium.

Painting does not offer Heng the same privileges. Painting may have a greater synthesising charm, an ability to ‘bring things together’ in its infinite illusionistic potential and its power of atmospheric evocation. But for Heng, that use of oil paint is appropriate for the final stages of a vision, precisely the moment when the multifaceted aspects of an image need to be resolved toward a monumental outcome. The processes leading up to that synthesis in oil paint are necessarily more ‘isolating’, more niggardly of means, less profligate of chromatic and textural variation.

Hence the discipline of printmaking. The great virtue of the art, for Heng, does not really confirm its autonomous status. He is not interested in mark-making per se; he is not dedicated to the ‘look’ of a print, and does not covert the formalist mannerisms which the printed image harbours almost by default. He is more interested in printmaking as an investigatory tool. It allows him to pick up an image in a more essential form than is encouraged by any other medium.

Drawing would certainly be the closest analogy. But drawing in the normal sense does not suit Heng quite so well (though, of course, Heng draws). A drawing is conceived as a ‘study’ or a pictorial preamble. Heng is not inclined to create preliminary drawings for his paintings. What he wants is something which can indeed aspire to the condition of a complete artwork, something which tests the calibre of an image to stand alone in a final form. A drawing, for that purpose, may be too provisional; furthermore, the fulfilment of the drawing as a complete work – like a Renaissance presentation drawing – would in any case aspire to the illusionistic condition of a painting, without necessarily inducing an emphasis on the essential force of the image. Printmaking ‘naturally’ does this, and especially linocut.

The subtlety of this choice of medium entirely matches the sensitive balance in Heng’s iconography. Heng’s art always seems poised to become a direct narrative. But it never is a narrative in the classical sense of showing a protagonist in some action whose causes we know and whose outcome we conjecture. Heng’s work is not quite narrative; but nor does it simply turn out symbols.

The reason Hen needs to test his figures so much is that they have a lot of allegorical work to do. They have to embody the psychological history of a whole generation, the generation which we now look back upon ­– with a mixture of awe and scorn – as the modernists. Those guys are in big trouble these days. Heng has to work out exactly what they represent.

Heng’s figures are monumentalised and iconically static but always seem to have paused in some action. They often hold toy attributes of work, a veritable kit of diminutive technology, ranging from instruments for making things (such as a hammer) to the thing made by industrial assembly (such as the electric power pole or aeroplane). These objects used to inspire men with great enthusiasm. In the heroic age of modernism, they were potent symbols of progress. Today, they seem sad tokens of a former ideal of progress. To their loss of credibility as symbols of industrial vigour, Heng attaches the melancholy of lost childhood; for as children we loved such toys but now they no longer belong to us, in the same way that youth is no longer ours.

What a mood overtakes the single figures in Heng’s pictures! Their dreamy suspension of personal thoughts contests the severity of their institutional dress, their trim professionality of yesteryear and rather rigid adherence to social codes. Why are these geometricised people so motionless, so short of outlook? The bleak terrain projects the figures in a hiatus of vigour; there is an unnatural tranquillity in which the men fondle their hats with a literally ‘touching’ awkwardness, some indisposition of the prehensile faculty which will disqualify them from any concerted action.

The meaning of Heng’s abstracted professionals is suggested by the purposeful historicism of his works. The wardrobe of the figures dates from between the World Wars and includes gangsters’ hats. Furthermore, the style of the painting recollects the lyrical and metaphysical English masters of the thirties, such as Stanley Spencer; in recent times, the linear succinctness of Léger has asserted itself more powerfully, both in the prints and the paintings. Both the conventions of printmaking and the schematisations of Léger seem to explain the greater use of greys – especially in the very dark shading of geometric volumes – which has infiltrated the recent paintings. Against this, the outrageous totemic colour of Rivera enters the skin tone of Topple Tumble. In all events, the sources of the imagery are now old.

Heng’s protagonists are ‘yesterday’s men’. With their beloved mechanical lo-tech, they no longer seem spunky or even relevant in today’s world of computers. They should wield faxes rather than axes; their wires should aspire to satellites, not to turbines. Heng leaves us in no doubt that his virile men in bluish or reddish-grey suits are economic antiquities, just as the style of painting parades a proud but now defunct modernism, cool, detached, universal in its language of sheer volumes and totalising drawing.

On one level, the works are an allegory of the displaced industrial prowess of the Anglo-Saxon world, a culture nourished by heroic modernism. Just as England, Australia, America and Heng’s native Scotland can no longer rely on the industrial manufactures of the post-War years, so the art of the same countries must say melancholy goodbye to the bold modernism which symbolised their former progress. Now we think of enthusiasm for those same industrial manufactures of that period as boyish, immature, embarrassing.

Of course, we still have all those tools and industrial installations – albeit with great refinements – and so we paradoxically never say goodbye. As a culture with feminist aspirations, we can reject the boyish enthusiasm for lo-tech; we can transcend the enthusiasm but we still need the lo-tech. And as artists, we can reject modernism but we still live with modernity. Heng never lets us forget that modernity is haunting.

Printmaking lets Heng explore all of these allegories as an aside to painting. The images are not necessarily fragments which will be reconstituted in a painting but simply ideas which feel their way to meaning. The only part of the allegory which the print cannot investigate is the part which is proper to the medium of paint itself.

Consider the paint in one of the large oils: it is an allegory in its own right. Within the abstracted drawing of trouser or jacket, Heng expatiates in the celebration of the elements of painting. There are passages of a modernist liturgy, the apotheosis of purity, perhaps just in the heightened luminosity of a cadmium. Heng’s red seductively takes us to orange here and magenta there; his blue moves between green and purple.

Why would this chromatic habit be allegorical all of a sudden? Because it narrates history, a peculiar and identifiable moment belonging to the modernist tradition. The spectral transitions make me think of a subdued Delaunay. It is an optical strategy elaborated from the precepts of Chevreul: as in Orphic Cubism, the colour wheel goes busily spinning its systematic cycles over visual reality and the artist is empowered with a logical way of conditioning vision. The result is extremely beautiful. The resonance of the colours does not proceed from their transparency but by analogous colours bouncing off one another, as though singing higher and lower than a clear note and producing a headier chord through their combination.

These are effects proper to painting rather than print. The advantage of printmaking, for Heng, is to create an image in a complete form, which, however, lacks such painterly effects. The ‘effects’ are not the aim, neither in painting or printmaking. Heng is as little interested in mark making per se in painting as he is in printmaking. However, as he is going to elaborate his images in a painted form using the modernist language of painting, he first forges his ideas outside that medium which encourages the manipulation of a formalist language for its own sake.

By using printmaking, Heng can avoid conditioning his images solely by the painted language, a language full of gestural incumbencies. Heng’s method is a strategy to avoid that same mark-making formalism which, ironically, is often associated with the modernist print. Heng’s art comments on modernism; it does not subscribe to modernism. It uses modernist tropes; but the investigative paradigm – which uses printmaking so centrally – ultimately denies the autonomy of any visual language (either belonging to painting or printmaking) which was a central conceit of modernism.

Brent Harris’s The Fall

Brent Harris, VIII from The Fall series, 2012, monotype, image: 31.5 x 23.5 cm, sheet: 48.0 x 38.0 cm. Collection of the artist, © the artist. Photo: Brent Harris

‘Imagery emerges, is sometimes buried and then rediscovered by working in this way, as a composition takes shape through a gradual process of layering and accumulation.’

This article was written by Jane Devery, Curator of Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria, and published in Imprint 2012, volume 47 number 2.

Join us for the launch of Imprint‘s special commission print The Problem by Brent Harris, next Thursday at the Fitzroy Town Hall Chambers. 

Like much of his past work, Brent Harris’s latest series The Fall explores ideas that come from thinking about the peculiarities of life and death. It deals with, as Harris has put it, ‘the absurdities of the human condition’.[1] Currently numbering more than forty monotypes, The Fall has developed from the small colourful paintings that have dominated the artist’s output since late 2009, and has arisen in particular from his desire to find a way back to printmaking. Like his recent paintings, these complex images feature enigmatic imagery that suggests a number of possible narratives. Otherworldly figures and forms coalesce in inky pictorial spaces in these strange nocturnal visions. These are confounding images in which the magical and the disquieting coexist: heavenly skies appear alongside fields of skulls and scenes of deluge. In one image, an aging man sinks into a pool of water surrounded by a chorus of floating faces. In another, a feline creature and her shadowy companions engage in rites that remain unexplained.

Since producing his first prints in the late 1980s, Harris has generally pursued printmaking in parallel to his painting practice, often making sets of prints that directly correspond to his paintings. The idea to start working in monotype came to Harris when he saw a large number by Edgar Degas at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in late 2011[2], and his curiosity about some imperfections in Degas’s monotypes provided an unexpected starting point:

‘… when viewing the Degas monotypes I was taken in by miss-printing and strange registrations, so the ‘would-be’ flaws were actually the way into the works for me,’ he recently explained. ‘One work in particular that I saw in Boston was titled The Washbasin 1879–83, a reprinting from the print to make a second impression, a mirror image appears. The second image [was]… paler but it was this impression that Degas would then …work up with coloured pastel. The two impressions of this one mono[type] were hanging side by side in the exhibition, and the first printed showed markings where it appears that the plate had been laid over the back of the print to increase the pressure when printed… There was some miss registration where this plate sat on the back of the print and this small detail I found inspiring.’[3]

Back in Melbourne, Harris set up an old press that had been sitting unused in his studio for several years, and with the help of printmaker Adrian Kellett set about producing his first monotypes. Inspired by Degas, Harris used the dark-field or subtractive technique where the plate is completely covered in printing ink and then wiped back with a cloth so that imagery emerges in the light areas where ink has been removed. Harris soon realised that this process related closely to the way that he was working in gouache. Unlike the carefully executed works he produced between the early 1990s and 2009 — remarkable for their precisely delineated compositions and immaculate uninflected surfaces, Harris’s recent paintings result from a spontaneous working method and are arrived at intuitively. While in the past, Harris would produce numerous working drawings before developing them across a series of finished drawings, prints and paintings, he now resolves an image directly through the process of making the work itself. Imagery emerges, is sometimes buried and then rediscovered by working in this way, as a composition takes shape through a gradual process of layering and accumulation. Unlike the paintings, which are often developed over a number of days or weeks, the monotypes come about much more quickly — several are often printed in a day. Working in this way, without planning or premeditation, has presented a new set of challenges.

‘Clear images may come to the surface, but I find that if an image is too strong too early its presence starts to dominate the process, hindering other possibilities and so must be erased’, Harris recently commented. ‘As a result, many images are found and buried in this way, before the picture starts to declare itself as a whole. I would have to describe this approach as intuitive with many alternate figurations presenting themselves and many recognitions made along the way.’[4]

Biblical themes and religious subjects have often provided the starting point for Harris’s art, but his interest is not religious but psychological and often originates from his knowledge of art history. In 1989, as a young artist, Harris received critical acclaim for the series of minimalist paintings and aquatints The Stations of the Cross, a powerful representation of the fourteen stages of Christ’s journey towards death. In 2009, while artist in residence at the British School at Rome, he planned to revisit the subject and produce a set of drawings that he could later translate into a new set of intaglio prints[5], however he found that he couldn’t ‘hold onto’ the subject. Inspired by a number of frescoes he encountered in Italy, he instead began a series of colourful works in gouache — a transition that lead to the recent shift in his painting. It was not until early 2012 and his embrace of the monotype technique, that Harris found a way back to the subject. For Harris, The Fall connects closely to the 1989 series The Stations. Both deal with the psychology of death. ‘I am very drawn to the subject of “The Fall” in relation to the psychology of the three falls of Christ in the Stations of the Cross …,’ he recently stated, ‘…each time Christ falls his ego is reduced, so as he approaches death the fight against passing over becomes weaker. I am sure this applies to us mere mortals as well! A surrender has to be enacted.’ [6]

Brent Harris is an artist whose work often touches on the unspeakable, and in these latest works he appeals to our deepest anxieties and fears. Magical and terrifying, and utterly compelling, they provoke us to consider the mysteriousness of life and the uncertainty of what might lie beyond.

 

[1] Brent Harris, artist statement provided to author, January 2012.

[2] The exhibition was Degas and the Nude, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 9 October 2011 – 5 February 2012.

[3] Brent Harris, ‘Viewing Works on Paper in the Flesh’, unpublished artist statement, provided to author April 2011.

[4] Brent Harris, artist statement, 2011.

[5] Harris had discussed this possibility with master printer John Loane before departing for Rome. Brent Harris, conversation with the author April 2011.

[6] Brent Harris, artist statement emailed to author, April 2012.

PCA Member Q&A: Prue MacDougall

Juno, 2015, etching and screenprint, 40.5 x 28.5 cm (image size) 69 x 49 cm (paper size). This print was selected for the 2015 PCA Print Commission.

‘My addiction to printmaking started at an early age. I have always enjoyed working with paper. As a child I collected things like stamps, bus tickets, cigar collars and Victorian swops, which I would then use to create surreal collages. ‘ 

Prue MacDougall lives in New Zealand

Why do you make art?

Creating for me is a form of meditation: it blocks out the world, it helps me express my personal thoughts and feelings. Through art I can tell stories, create illusion and perform magic.

What’s your relationship to printmaking?

I have studied, taught and practiced printmaking for the past thirty years.

How did you get interested in printmaking?

My addiction to printmaking started at an early age. I have always enjoyed working with paper. As a child I collected things like stamps, bus tickets, cigar collars and Victorian swops [or ‘Victorian scraps’ for scrapbooking], which I would then use to create surreal collages. At secondary school art was my favourite subject. I always drew and made things outside of class time. The collage process is still an integral part of my work practice. After completing my BFA in printmaking it seemed a natural extension to become an art teacher.

Who is your favourite artist?

Francisco de Goya and more recently Paula Rego and William Kentridge.

What is your favourite artwork?

At the Museo del Prado I saw a fantastic exhibition of Goya’s etchings. To list a few here: Bravissimo! (depicts a monkey playing a guitar), Hasta su Abuelo (a donkey dressed in a suit), Miren que Graves! (bestial characters – one with a bird head and human body) … all works conveying dark social commentary. Paula Rego’s Goosey-goosey Gander features female headed geese, Ladybird, Ladybird has women dancing with insects. Picasso’s The Vollard Suite prints consists of 100 wonderfully drawn etchings, which incorporate amazing experimentation with the print process. Recently I went to a Séraphine Pick painting exhibition and fell in love with the work on display. The intermediate step in the development of her work relies heavily on images garnered from social media sites, which are then repurposed for her final images.

Where do you go for inspiration?

When I travel I purposefully go to any Natural History Museums I can find. In London the Horniman Museum is a favourite. I love any display that has ‘cabinets of curiosities’ or ‘wonder rooms’, which house small collections of extraordinary objects. They are like small museums in their own right. Like Séraphine Pick, I find internet sites an invaluable resource.

What are you working on now?  

I have been one of the coordinators of Thinking of Place, a collaborative venture between Australian and New Zealand based printmakers. Most of the works incorporate traditional printmaking techniques such as woodblock and etching. The travelling exhibition has recently shown at Depot Artspace, Auckland, NZ, and next year will show at KickArts Contemporary Arts, Cairns, AU, 11 January – 20 February 2016 and the Post Office Gallery, Federation University, Ballarat, AU, 6 April – 21 May 2016.

I am part of the Aotearoa SGCI Themed Portfolio collaboration which I will be taking to the Southern Graphic Council International Conference Flux: The Edge of yesterday and Tomorrow in Portland, Oregon USA, 30 March – 2 April 2016.

I am also currently working towards a solo show in Wellington NZ and various selected group exhibitions in 2016. My website needs work!

Barbara Hanrahan: A Self Portrait

Imprint 1978 Number Three
Cover image:
Barbara Hanrahan
The Little Girls 1978
etching, 35 x 25 cm

‘Drawing my own imaginative world upon the litho stone or scratching at the etching plate with my needle, I felt as brave and free as I had as a child. When I raced from the class to catch the nine o’clock train I wore white cotton gloves to hide my fingers that were stained with printing ink.’

This article was written by Barbara Hanrahan (1939–1991) with an introduction by Alison Carroll and published in Imprint 1978, number three.

Barbara Hanrahan is an extraordinary woman. About herself and her art she is explicit, direct, penetrating and simple. She shirks nothing. No reviewer can match her in this and few artists have a self-view so devoid of inhibition as her, or her skill to present it.

Barbara Hanrahan’s art, as she says, at its worst can descend into decorative prettiness; at its best it is as forceful and perceptive as herself. The powerful images of sexual confrontation, the interest in ideas of heroes and heroines as pivots of civilisation, and the concern with the processes of generation – of both things and people – are all central to her and her art. The strong forces of Hanrahan’s art are momentarily diffused and subsequently enriched by both the intellectual wit of her images and the careful, loving craftsmanship of her technique. The admixture of all elements, including the basic questioning of human relations, result in complex, sometimes whimsical, sometimes biting, works of art.

Adam, made in 1964, has the strength and directness of image which is later evoked in Wedding Night, of 1977. The crude lines, stark compositional divisions and thick black inks reinforce the pain of the human condition, or rather situation, depicted. The Three Graces, Flying Mother, or even Dream People – with the wonderful line ‘The Girls in Our Town Go to Parties in Pairs’ – are easier meat.

A craftsperson intensely interested in the mechanics of printmaking, Hanrahan has made images in wood engravings, intaglio, and recently silkscreen. She fully exploits the intricacies possible with wood engraving as well as the rough tone and ‘bitten’ line of the etching to emphasise the implications of her images; subject and technique are mutually interdependent. While often working in black and white, Hanrahan is also a skilled colourist: Flying Mother, for example, is made up of pinks, scarlets, orange, lime green and purple, encased in a black border.

Hanrahan works in relative isolation, caring little for the trends and fashions of her peers. She stands as a strong individual in Australian printmaking.

* * *

I began making prints in 1960 at the South Australian School of Art. I had just finished three years of an art teaching course that was split between the art school, the teachers’ college, and the university. Though I knew a lot about general painting and life drawing, geometry and embroidery, hygiene and speech education, I knew little about art. I had never concentrated deeply on one particular discipline; I had always been cut up into tiny pieces as I fulfilled the requirements of the South Australian Education Department.

1960 was an important time for printmaking in Adelaide. In February a graphics studio was re-established at the art school (then housed in the Exhibition Building on North Terrace), under the direction of Udo Sellbach. It seems ironic that one of the most exciting events in the school’s history should have taken place in the last few years of the Exhibition Building’s existence (it was demolished after the school moved to North Adelaide in 1963).

When I think back to that period, the marvellous ritual of printmaking – the queer stinks of meths and turps, the mysteries of acid and resin – is linked with all the out-dated, inconvenient beauty of the old building: its fantastic creeper-swathed façade; Venus and David in the drawing room; the clay modelling room in the basement with its alarming assortment of outsize eyes and noses. It was 1960 – modern times, and Jackson Pollock was hero, but the last vestiges of an era of repoussé and artistic anatomy lingered on.

The studio really came to life in the evenings when a number of young artists – Alun Leach-Jones, Robert Boynes, Jennifer Marshall among them – made their first prints. Sellbach, whose imagination and enthusiasm were infectious, taught lithography; Karen Schepers was in charge of etching. Leach-Jones, the largest person in the class, was usually willing to carry your litho stone from workbench to press. It was a magic time for me as twice a week I went to school on the Terrace to work at my prints.

The first ones I made were woodcuts. They were very German Expressionist in character; I was particularly influenced by Kirchner. I hacked away at drawing-boards, the back of an old wardrobe – nothing was safe. Suddenly I had found a compatible medium. I had never felt any affinity with oil paint and canvas; paper and a more indirect technique suited me perfectly.

Printmaking soon became the most important thing in my life. Drawing my own imaginative world upon the litho stone or scratching at the etching plate with my needle, I felt as brave and free as I had as a child. When I raced from the class to catch the nine o’clock train I wore white cotton gloves to hide my fingers that were stained with printing ink.

From the first, all the work that I did was figurative. The images were always human – usually a female form. In those early days I was worried by two seemingly opposite styles, which reflected two contrasting aspects of my character. On the one hand I would work small and concentrate on detail; on the other I slashed away at my woodblocks – some very strong, tortured female figures evolved. But it was a problem I had to solve: the two styles rarely came together. I was making my tortured women and my delicate ladies by moonlight at the same time.

When I look at the work from these years now, it is the sheer quantity that is impressive. The most important thing was not the end result, but the fact that printmaking had such a hold on me. It was a wonderfully intense period, when I worked out my ideals and beliefs. I felt peculiar because at that time in Adelaide there was no one at a similar stage I could relate to. Abstract expressionism was the accepted mode; perversely, I began a series of linocut nursery rhyme animals – dappled ponies, spirited tab-cats – and accompanying texts.

My ignorant, stubborn belief in myself was strong enough to push me on to London in 1963 to work at the Central School of Art and Design. It was a good time to be there. The brittle witty ‘pop’ art of that time was exactly what I needed to give my rather saccharine images an edge, to push me on to prints that would blend the whimsy and strength that till then had always existed separately in my work. I was stimulated by the early, very fresh prints and paintings of Peter Blake and David Hockney. The Central School, before the introduction of national diploma or degree courses, was a wonderful place to work. It awarded its own Diploma of Etching, and the course attracted artists and students from all over the world. Some of the last few survivors of a vanishing race of master printers worked beside us. Old Bill Collins had pulled etchings for Lionel Lindsay; no one knew more about lithography than Ernie Devenish. Gertrude Hermes and Blair Hughes-Stanton, two of the foremost English wood engravers, were there, too.

The etchings I made at that time were different from the earlier work in that sex and social comment had crept into them. Their titles are telling: Virgin Pin-Up, Beauty and Wowsers … yet at the same time as these new images evolved, older ones kept coming. From 1960 to the present, a series of female forms constantly recur. They seem like old friends – these grotesquely patterned Earth Mothers, these sturdy floating girls with their shivery-grass hair; they have become part of a private mythology. They are saved from prettiness by a strength of outline, an odd sense of menace – detail stops being merely decorative when it becomes obsessive. Three Graces, a drypoint, belongs to the same period as Adam and Tart and Stars.

After a year back in Adelaide, I returned to London in 1965, where I spent the next eight years. I bought an etching press and set up a studio; I taught part-time at Falmouth School of Art, Cornwall (a very small art school, then, in a lush tropical garden setting) and Portsmouth College of Art. I felt a great affinity with London. I loved the stimulation of a huge city, the healthy sense of anonymity it afforded – the way I felt small and unimportant. I wasn’t pinned down and placed because I had an image to live up to; I was no one and because of this I was able to change.

In a big city it is easy to be alone. Through isolation I rediscovered myself. The Adelaide of my childhood still existed inside my head. Without conscious planning, I stopped making prints and began to write. In London, while snow flew at the pane, I recalled the quince tree by the fowl-house, the geranium by the lavatory … without meaning to, I found I’d become a writer. The Scent of Eucalyptus, a memoir of childhood, was published in 1973.

Three books later, I find that I usually spend a year drawing and making prints, then a year writing. It was through my novels that I recognised the depths of my feeling for Australia, and realised that it was necessary to return again in a physical as well as a mental sense.

Recently I have been making screenprints. It was a challenge working in the medium which, in the past, I disliked most because of the abuse it had suffered. I didn’t want to produce propaganda; I didn’t want some master technician to transform a painting into a print for me through photographic colour separation. I wanted to make prints that were sensitive, personal; I wanted to work as fine as I possibly could, and explore colour – which seems to me to be the screenprint’s greatest contribution to printmaking.

I am concerned in my work with the deep unchanging basics of life. Such prints as Flying Mother and Wedding Night hopefully confront the big things head on – yet gracefully, wittily. Many of the prints I have made express the eternal dichotomy of Life and Death, Reality and Dreams. The heroine of the etching Dream People muses on other worlds from the safeness of her womb-like room, while above her stalks the ‘real’ world – the proper Adelaide people, each part of a pair, who wait to pounce. This theme of dissociation, of this world and that, is treated again in the screenprint Heroes. Valentino and Jimmy and Jean, by dying, inhabit a world that is so much more vivid than that of everyday.

The formal device of dividing the print into two, representing two different areas of experience, is used also in Iris Pearl Dreams of a Wedding. Iris is my grandmother. She features in a series of etchings I am working on now. The most recent Iris and her Garden is made up of six small plates that, grouped together, symbolise Iris – or any woman – at various stages of her life. The garden – Iris’s and Eden’s – is another fundamental theme which I return to again and again. It is so rich in connotations, the image can be read on so many different levels. In the wood engraving Adam and Eve I have come back to beginnings in more ways than one. The woodblock, the medium I started with in 1960, is the most basic of all. Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor, my favourite printmakers, used it for most of their work.

PCA Member Q&A: Jenny Peterson

Merge, 2015, intaglio and relief, 70 x 56 cm. This print was selected for the 2015 PCA Print Commission.

‘I love the fact that working on a metal plate is NOT spontaneous. You have to push and pull with marks; there is trial and error, chemistry and physics.’ 

Jenny Peterson lives in Victoria

Why do you make art?

Making art exercises my brain and body while connecting my heart to the world around me, through the objects and ideas I work with. Making art is about problem solving the challenges you create yourself or those that present themselves to you. I grew up on a dairy farm in Gippsland. I’ve always felt that being a visual artist is like being a farmer: you work hard with what you’ve got, usually independently, working with natural or elemental factors. You set your own routines and ways and then at some stage you negotiate the market with your product. You need perseverance, resourcefulness and resilience to achieve. You do it because you enjoy the work and the lifestyle.

What’s your relationship to printmaking?

I love the fact that working on a metal plate is NOT spontaneous. You have to push and pull with marks; there is trial and error, chemistry and physics. Once you know that something will create the texture or tone you want, you have some control and it becomes yours. I have worked for many years as a studio technician so these processes have become second nature. On the other hand there is always a new way to do something or a way to adapt the rules for new work.

How did you get interested in printmaking?

At art school as a mature age student in the early 1980s I did ceramics and printmaking. Something about the need for process is fundamental for me. I set up a screenprinting studio in our rented house after graduating as a cheaper alternative to setting up a ceramics studio. Soon after that I worked full time as a printmaking and photography technician for several years and gained a lot of experience working with lecturers and students. Eventually I purchased my own etching press in 1994.

Who is your favourite artist?

I don’t really have one ‘favourite’ but I enjoy looking at skilful watercolours made by local artists; perhaps because I don’t paint myself, these types of paintings hold mystery and innocence at the same time. I’ve always enjoyed Rosalie Gascoigne’s assemblage work and in my recent writing I reference her ‘driving and looking’ in her local region. Her works with road signage and her collecting and assembling of objects are interesting.

What is your favourite artwork?

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus – since I saw it at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence in 2013. Such a famous and much referenced image I’d seen many times before – but to stand in the Botticelli room with this large work (and the Primavera nearby) and many other people gazing, it had quite an impact on me. Slightly grimy with a film of age, it had the impact of a real object at the same time it had an aura of a beautiful picture. It is a beautiful picture!

Where do you go for inspiration?

I get inspiration generally from things around me, my work is about my response to the environment – the natural landscape and objects within it. My recent Masters project and the exhibition at Latrobe Regional Gallery is a collection of intaglio prints and photographs which document road signs and a journey in the Gippsland landscape. It is about driving and looking. I’ve used broken signage, inked them like etching plates to create prints on paper. Mimicking signwriting techniques I’ve also collected and printed words that describe the activity of collecting objects and taking a road trip.

What are you working on now?  

Following this latest project I also have a collection of photographs of signage from an overseas trip. Rather than bringing home the actual metal I now want to investigate photo etching to recreate these images as ‘found objects’.

The Story of Australian Printmaking 1801–2005

Imprint winter 2007, volume 42 number two
Cover image: Monique Auricchio, The Embrace, 2007, two-plate colour etching (sugar lift, aquatint), 24.5 x 24.5 cm, edition of 40.

‘…in this case the size, scope and comprehensiveness of this exhibition are such that it cannot be mounted by any other institution and will not be attempted for at least another generation.’

This review of the National Gallery of Australia’s ground-breaking print exhibition was written by Professor Sasha Grishin and published in the winter 2007 issue of Imprint, volume 42 number 2.

This was the one exhibition that anyone interested in Australian printmaking could not afford to miss.

The National Gallery of Australia holds the nation’s largest collection of Australian prints, over 36,000 prints, posters and illustrated books, and has mounted a huge exhibition of some 760 works, largely drawn from its own collection and supplemented by a number of strategic loans. This is the National Gallery’s ‘definitive exhibition’ of Australian printmaking, mounted by its Senior Curator of Australian Prints and Drawings, Roger Butler, who has been in the job for 26 years. The show inevitably carries the imprimatur of the National Gallery as the official history of Australian printmaking. While anyone who has read more than a couple of art gallery press releases is cautious on encountering expressions such as ‘once in a lifetime’, ‘unique’ and ‘never to be repeated’, in this case the size, scope and comprehensiveness of this exhibition are such that it cannot be mounted by any other institution and will not be attempted for at least another generation.

So how are we to read, interpret and assess the National Gallery’s attempt at a comprehensive history of Australian printmaking? One way of thinking about the history of printmaking is to see it as an adjunct to a mainstream construct of a history of art, an account which is essentially written as a history of painting and sculpture and more recently through installation art and new media arts. Riva Castleman, who was the long serving Director of Prints and Illustrated Books at MoMA in New York, advocated such an interpretation when she wrote: ‘The surge in the popularity of prints during the last decade of the nineteenth century established conditions that have encouraged almost every major twentieth-century artist to create prints. This circumstance allows a more complete review of the history of art of this period through prints than is possible for any previous century.’1 In other words, this approach presents a survey history of art with its successive movements and developments as reflected in printmaking.

An alternative approach is to argue that printmaking has its own unique histories, which occasionally, although not invariably, correspond with developments in other art mediums. Printmaking frequently has a different cast of characters to those who dominate painting and sculpture, and prints meet quite different social, formal and artistic needs to that of other mediums. Internationally, apart from such mavericks as Rembrandt, Goya and Picasso, whose significance as printmakers was equal to their significance as painters, many artists, including Hercules Segers, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Jacques Callot, Seymour Haydon and scores of others who are central to any history of printmaking, are virtually unknown within a broader history of art and receive only a passing footnote in general histories of art.

A third approach to the history of printmaking is actually to look at printmaking as an effective form of visual communication, where the art content may play a relatively minor role. It is an approach popularised by William M Ivins2, Curator and founder of the Prints Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Here printmaking is caught in a schizophrenic bind between its function – communicating visual information to a mass audience – and pleasing aesthetics. Religious handbills, advertising and billboard posters, fall into this category.

All three approaches are, of course, perfectly valid, but they result in radically different exhibitions and potentially present different histories of printmaking. A strength, as well as a weakness, of the National Gallery’s exhibition is that it to some extent combines all three approaches. This leads to a huge exhibition where reasons for the inclusion and exclusion of individual prints are difficult to determine. We have a lovely display of early nineteenth century tradesmen’s cards and printed notices from our early colonial history, as well as view books and examples from the illustrated press. Later on in this chronologically arranged exhibition, we have a display of commercial travel posters and military recruitment posters and by the 1970s a plethora of political posters, prints and handbills addressing the conflict in Vietnam, Aboriginal Land Rights and civil rights issues. There is a curiosity value in such exhibits, a number of which have been rarely shown before. It is also amongst these prints, as historical artefacts, that questions of museum display become a significant issue. As virtually none of these prints were intended for display in an art gallery, their inclusion in this exhibition transfers them from either the commercial sector or the pubic battleground of hoardings, walls and streets into the rarefied atmosphere of the gallery space. The political posters particularly appear somewhat subdued and impotent in their new setting. All of these works certainly do demonstrate the numerous non-purely artistic functions that printmaking technologies have played throughout Australian history.

For me the strength of the exhibition lies with the exhibits by artists who were first and foremost printmakers and who have used their chosen medium to make a comment which could not have been made through any other art form. Take for example the absolutely stunning wall of Jessie Traill intaglio prints. While her art has a legendary reputation amongst printmakers, her prints are largely unknown to the broader art community. Her use of industrial iconography, her modernist aesthetics and her mastery of bold etching techniques make her work significant in any national or international survey of printmaking.

Another highlight lies with the women relief printmakers of the 1920s and 1930s, both those who were inspired by Claude Flight and those who arrived at their own form of decorative modernism from Japanese sources. Dorrit Black, Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor and about a dozen others form a strong core to the exhibition. While many of the names may be well known, the choice of exhibits in many instances is unusual, exciting and engaging.

From the more recent period, Bea Maddock’s magnum opus, Terra Spiritus … with darker shade of pale is another of those show-stopping masterpieces of printmaking which reinvent the tradition and challenge us on a number of different levels. Its display in a showcase may not be ideal, but is certainly better than representation through a single image. It is a work which gains power through its seriality with the constant revisiting of a set number of artistic and conceptual concerns.

Then there is the question of the inclusion of the work of prominent artists who have a very high standing in Australian art, for example, William Robinson, Tim Maguire, Savanhdary Vongpoothorn and Fiona Hall, but whose prints play a relatively minor role in these artists’ oeuvres. In any major exhibition where pressure on space is at a premium, should they be included almost as signifiers of the broader role which they occupy in Australian art, while dedicated artist printmakers, for example, Hertha Kluge-Pott, Sally Smart, Neil Emerson and Murray Walker, are not represented at all? By combining all three philosophies of the history of printmaking, the impression exists that, despites its huge size, one would need about twice the wall space to realistically fulfil the full scope of the project if we consider the more recent period.

Personally, I find Australian printmaking over the past 50 years considerably more interesting than that of the preceding 150 years. I suspect that there was not a single printmaker who worked in colonial Australia whom one could describe as a printmaker of international standing. As much as one loves S.T. Gill, Ellis Rowan and Nicholas Chevalier, they are only of a local historical significance. In the same breath, I must confess that there are many rare gems in this section of the exhibition, which I have now revisited on a number of occasions.

In contrast, in twentieth and twenty-first century Australian printmaking, there are a number of artists who are of international standing and whose prints stand up in any international company. When one looks at the final room of the exhibition, which includes the work of Ray Arnold, Azlan McLennan, Gordon Bennett, G W Bot, Butcher Cherel Janangoo, Tony Coleing, Brent Harris, Kitty Kantilla, Roy Kennedy, Bea Maddock, Dennis Nona, Laurie Nona, Heather Shimmen, Alick Tipoti, Aida Tomescu, Judy Watson, Kim Westcott, Helen Wright and John Wolsely plus the artist’s books by Milan Miljevic, Patsy Payne and Robin White, it makes an exceptionally authoritative statement on the richness, vibrancy and diversity of contemporary Australian printmaking.

As wall space in an exhibition is always a finite resource, even when, as in this exhibition, prints crawl up walls, appear over doorways and occupy display cases, an argument could be advanced for privileging the more recent period over the less artistically adventurous, but historically interesting colonial material. Even though the exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive account of printmaking in a three-volume catalogue, with the colonial volume already published and the other two optimistically scheduled for May and August of this year, many artist printmakers will inevitably feel unhappy at their exclusion from the show. Subsequent exhibitions focussing on more recent work will not alter the arguments over inclusions and exclusions in this particular exhibition.

If one ceases to lament about that which has been excluded and praises that which is up on the walls, one can only say that this is indeed a most spectacular exhibition. While Australian art history, the art market and the art industry have always promoted painting as the supreme art form in the hierarchy of visual arts, this exhibition makes the convincing claim for printmaking as a distinctive art form in which some of the most artistically innovatory and socially relevant art has been created, particularly in recent decades.

Professor Sasha Grishin AM FAHA, art historian, critic and curator will be chairing a number of sessions at the first Mildura BMW Australian Print Triennial this weekend.

 

1 Riva Castleman, Prints of the 20th Century: A History, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976, p. 11.
2 William M Ivins Jr, Prints and Visual Communication, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1953.