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.

PCA Member Q&A: David Frazer

Lost Man, 2012, wood engraving, 11.3 x 7.5cm.
The making of David Frazer’s The Deal, 2015.
David Frazer lives in
Castlemaine, Victoria

Why do you make art? 

Good question. I couldn’t bear to get a proper job. I had the need to connect with people and communicate with them, probably because I’m insecure, neurotic and possibly a little bit mental.

What’s your relationship to printmaking?

I started off as a painter, I did well at art at school but we didn’t do any printmaking so I didn’t even consider it when I went to art school. I majored in painting and sub majored in sculpture. After giving up trying to paint, several years after art school I discovered printmaking and really took to it. I printed linocuts with a spoon on my kitchen table and also did a weekend etching course at the CAE. I loved the graphicness of it and it’s restrictions. It seemed more suited than painting to storytelling.

How did you get interested in printmaking?

After quitting art all together following art school and pursuing a career in showbiz, which was a substitute for my failure to write songs and equally as pathetic, I decided I couldn’t do anymore crappy karaoke gigs and extra work on Neighbours so I got back into art and focused on printmaking. I found that I could use narrative better with printmaking: I had a subject and doing a print in my mind was a bit like writing a song. I went back to uni at Monash and did an honours year in printmaking where I learnt heaps from my lecturers, who were also really good printmakers like Geoff Ricardo, John Neeson, Tim Jones, Dean Bowen and Ros Atkins. I never looked back.

Who is your favourite artist? 

Tom Waits

What is your favourite artwork? 

I really can’t choose just one, but I love the tail-piece vignette wood engravings of Thomas Bewick in his books A History of British Birds and A General History of Quadrupeds.

Where do you go for inspiration?

The fridge.

What are you working on now?

Just more prints for my solo shows next year. A book of engravings illustrating one of Don Walker’s (Cold Chisel) solo songs that I plan to launch in 2017, along with a series of work inspired by his music, and some in–your–face cartoon-like prints – stuff I started out doing and always wish I still did.

The Force of Commitment: An Article/Interview with Noel Counihan

Imprint 1976 Number Three
Cover image: Noel Counihan, The Miner (from The Miners, a folio of six linocuts, edition of 50, 1947) 23 x 17 cm

I was becoming more and more concerned with the idea of a democratic art, of making things available to people who couldn’t afford paintings. This was a result I suppose of the state of mind at the end of the war. 

This article was written by Charles Merewether and published in Imprint 1976, number three.

Throughout Noel Counihan’s artistic career he has been known as a social realist artist. However, this categorisation has in some way prevented any clear understanding of his work, not only in the medium of paint but [also] in drawing and printmaking, to be reached. The only publication worth considering for its wealth of information is Max Dimmack’s monograph on Counihan. Yet one of the downfalls of this book is its fairly sketchy appraisal of the work under the headings: Cartoons and Caricatures, Prints, Paintings, Portraits, Drawings.

This article attempts to describe Counihan primarily as a graphic artist particularly through the medium of printmaking, and the relationship between the medium used and the subject matter of the work.

In 1930, when Counihan was seventeen, he produced his first print, having become friendly with James Flett and Eric Thake, both of whom taught and assisted him greatly in acquiring the techniques of printmaking. Prior to this he had spent some time at the National Gallery Art School in night classes with Charles Wheeler teaching him to draw in charcoal from the antique.

In 1930 Counihan used Flett’s presses to produce his first prints. In 1931 he made another couple of prints, again linocuts of the human face, and the following year a front cover for the University of Melbourne Labour Club magazine, Proletariat. The linocut was in two colours and cubistic in design depicting a protest figure of a worker. However the greater part of the thirties was taken up with drawing from life either human faces or figures such as miners and the unemployed. Thus his first and subsequent exhibitions in those Depression years were drawings and caricatures, and not prints or paintings. Further, at this time Counihan was earning some kind of wage from his art, and cartoons and caricatures were easier and cheaper to produce. During this time Counihan saw a number of overseas artists’ work particularly through magazines such as New Masses and other left-wing publications.

Amongst these were Hugh Gellert and his set of lithographic illustrations for Karl Marx’s Capital, Louis Lozowitz and William Gropper, all left-wing artists concerned with the urban environment and in depicting the social conditions about them, or satirising and caricaturing the oppressive forces as they saw them.

Equally, the woodcut of the Belgian artist Frans Masereel from the period of the First World War was to have a strong influence over his work. It was not until the mid-thirties that Counihan saw the work of Kirschner and the German Expressionists.

In the early forties Counihan turned his attention fully to painting, realising as he has put it that he was a ‘frustrated painter afraid to begin’. It was the close friendship with Josl Bergner that helped him in those early days, both of them teaching and assisting one another in their efforts:

We had a lot of kinship in spirit and we helped each other. It wasn’t any of the older, heads of art schools, professional painters that taught me anything at all. I battled along with Yosl breathing over my shoulder and showing me what he was doing. The fact that we were working – we were confronted with similar problems around the same time, and had somewhat similar philosophy – I think at that stage I probably influenced his thinking whereas I think that he helped me in a practical way in just starting to paint. So we helped each other.

It was not until after the war that Counihan resumed printmaking again. He had just painted a series of pictures on the Wonthaggi miners who had been involved in strike action for better conditions. Why did Counihan decide to take up printmaking again and did he view it as a more democratic art than painting?

I had been drawing all those years and involved in graphic imagery. Printmaking, I felt, could provide me with another outlet in which I could develop imagery which I couldn’t in either painting or cartooning. I was becoming more and more concerned with the idea of a democratic art, of making things available to people who couldn’t afford paintings. This was a result I suppose of the state of mind at the end of the war. I had close associations through that period with trade unions, factories and the industrial working class and I was under pressure from the idea of making the work available on a wider scale.

Why didn’t this happen in the years of the Depression?

I suppose because I went for the more direct means of expression that is straight drawing, whereas printmaking needs a press. It was indirect, there was something that stood between me and the final image – there had to be a stage of cutting and then a stage of printing secondary relief blocks.

In the work of the forties the two dominant themes are looking back at the Depression and the miners.

Yes, I was looking back in the first place to the experiences of the dole because they were very vivid flesh and blood experiences, and the experiences I had had in the mining industry both at Broken Hill with the silver lead mines where I spent four months in 1937, and during the war at the State Coal Mine underground with the miners. In both places I was drawing all the time. With this I wanted to make not just a print but a series of six to sell for the price of five not six guineas, and Flett fortunately agreed to print them for me cheaply.

Have you always worked with a printer and what kind of differences do you think this has made?

For a start I have never owned my own press and this makes it very difficult to become a master printer. Nevertheless I enjoy working with an experienced printer and I believe this collaboration to be a good and valuable experience. Over the years I’ve learnt a great deal from people I have worked with such as Alexander McClintock, Jimmy Flett, Eric Thake, Arthur Boyd and Fred Williams. In one case a print that I took an edition from, three times were quite dissimilar, produced a totally different feeling with the methods of wiping the plate and the aesthetic values of each printer. On another occasion when working with Fred Williams on the Laughing Christ series, I would have thrown the plate away if it had not been for Fred who had the experience to be able to draw the best out of a plate.

Do you always work from preparatory drawings or are the designs sometimes worked out directly on the plates?

In most cases I draw from sketches. For example the set of prints, from lino, The Miners (1947) was drawn largely from my sketchbooks. These were notes I had made underground which were purely documentary. But when I got to the lino I started working the image out very much in terms of cutting the material, then pulling a stage proof and seeing what happens, then maybe work on it further. This was also the case with a folio of lithographs the following year in 1948, The Foundary Worker. I had spent a period at that time making studies and sketches on the spot and some of the lithographs were a direct result of those studies. Others were worked out directly on the plate.

What is it about the medium of lino that is attractive to you, for it seems to have been the material that you have worked with consistently from the thirties.

 I like its dramatic possibilities in particular. It is also a form that demands a discipline: the forms must be laid down in their basic essentials and unnecessary and trivial details cut away. For example, in 1969 I set out in a set of prints to exploit, in a supposedly simple medium such as lino, its possibilities. There were six prints in the folio, each with a different basic conception. In some of the prints the concept is a white line on a black background, in others it would be a black silhouette on a white ground and so on. In each case the print is treated differently but in all of them the feeling of the block is strongly maintained, as would be the case if I were cutting in wood or another material. Although it is said that the lino is a very limited medium I think the possibilities are very much greater than is popularly conceived. Picasso for one has proved this very well.

You have spoken of the demands of working in lino as the discipline of laying down forms in their basic essentials. Has your long experience as a cartoonist, as in the days when you drew regularly for The Guardian, been of value in this area?

I suppose it has helped to get through to the core of the theme more quickly. One of the positive aspects of the cartoon experience is that it does help you to simplify complicated issues and deal with them in a direct simple manner. It strengthens your ability to communicate with ordinary everyday people on a level they can grasp.

Surely there are restrictive qualities about the style of the cartoon – for instance, the manner in which the artist distances himself from the subject often by taking an ironic stance.

I agree. Nevertheless, it is all bound up with communication. There is no point in doing cartoons or any art for that matter unless you are concerned with your audience. I don’t think the artist just spends his time talking to himself. It is a matter of communication which is rational, but charged with feelings and emotions.

To survey the work of Counihan this concern is quite apparent, and it is revealing to trace the formative stages of one of his prints to appreciate the capacity he has to withhold and yet refine the initial artistic response. First and foremost it is drawing that plays the dominant role shown in the strength of the preparatory drawings and most clearly in the fundamentally graphic quality of his art. In a folio of linocuts simply called Linocuts 1959, it was some drawings based on experiences in Italy in 1956 that were the main inspirational force. The drawings are fairly free with broadly applied washes. Then with the idea of producing a print the image takes on a stronger graphic quality. The image undergoes a rapid change becoming more austere and simple in form. The tones and gradations of the washes are lost to be replaced by a strength and sparseness of line. The print Hunger from the series highlights this process. For Counihan:

This image of a desperate, starving woman in Naples was one I grappled with for quite a while in drawings before I felt I was getting to the stage where I could go the lino and cut a version of it.

Similarly the Boy in the Helmet (1967) demonstrates the transitions that occur with the change from one medium to another, in this case from pen and wash to linocut. The nature of the material influences the work with the need of deliberation in cutting the resistant material and as a consequence, the images become stronger. In this print the image becomes more iconic, its added forcefulness more threatening.

And of course if the design had been cut in wood then it would again be different with its own type of edging and the appearance of a grain. Further, whilst one is working on the plate or material you have time to work things out and refine or alter the image. Another point with printing from relief blocks is the aesthetic result. It is quite different from when you run your print. A print is made by placing the paper on the inked block and rubbing it from the back as compared to sending the inked block and the paper through the press.

The relationship of your drawing to your printmaking has been discussed but not the relationship of painting to printmaking. Has each medium affected the other or do you see them as mutually exclusive?

In some cases a series of prints have stimulated a number of paintings and sometimes it has been the reverse process as in the paintings The Good Life (1968). Some silkscreen prints and deep relief etchings for a broadsheet arose out of that theme. With the Laughing Christ (1970) theme the first images were painted. And then I was working towards simplified graphic versions of it, with the object of reducing the image to its very barest essentials, and with the idea of an edition. And knowing the particular qualities of the medium I was using, I was also presenting the image in a new light, in a way quite unlike that of the paintings.

Why did you decide to do an etching of The Good Life (1968) – or had you been working on the technique of etching well before that?

I had had some tentative essays in etching of no consequence, but when I was in England Arthur Boyd saw a drawing of that theme and thought that etching was most suitable to the design. He gave me some copper and offered to proof them. So I did four plates in drypoint and the most important of them was an image of The Good Life directly related to the painting in the South Australian Art Gallery.

The significance of the series The Good Life is to be found in the theme that Counihan has found. For as with all his work it demonstrates a very direct response to the society in which he is involved. In the forties it was the depression and the hardships of the industrial working-class and with this work it is the dominance of a consumer-oriented society. Counihan speaks of that society as:

Spreading themselves out over the beaches – they were all done under the shadow of the Vietnam War because I, somehow or other, was contrasting this life with the fact that Australia was involved in an aggressive war in an Asian country and that young Australians were losing their lives as well as killing the Vietnamese while here the consumer society was sweltering away on the beaches and so on.

Another characteristic of Counihan’s art has been the constant experimentation with different mediums. Early last year he started work with terracotta making mostly figurines. Do you turn to other mediums as both a respite from the prior medium that you have been using and as a way of re-stimulating your work?

Yes, I think so. I’ve commenced a whole number of drawings, which are tentative essays developing certain themes. I think the next few months will be pretty much devoted to drawing and printmaking. I’ll probably cut some relief blocks in lino and in wood which is a material I would like to explore. I shall also do some more work in etching and lithography and in all cases will work with an experienced printer on the basis of collaboration.

Why are you thinking of working with wood as a printing material?

Because I want to try the feel of wood and some of the ideas I have in mind I think would be suitable for wood or lino. Further, I would like to exploit the grain of the wood.

Shall the work you do in etching and lithography taken up the same themes and see how each medium influences the form and quality of the image?

I shall be doing just this, exploring the relationship between various materials and forms. You have to be open when you approach the medium so that one is responsive to the particular dictates of that medium. But this is not to say one is the slave of that medium at all.

Certainly if one looks at work you did around the theme of The Good Life or work from the forties, the qualities you have brought out with the use of the different mediums demonstrates this point. On the one had the paintings of The Good Life seem almost to revel in the texture and colour of the paint that are used to reveal the torpid spread of bodies under a hot Australian sun, and, on the other, the prints in drypoint that render the image in a harsh and severe manner. It is these areas in which the Print Council can play an important educative role. For they can not only inform and show through comparative exhibitions these differences and particular characteristics of a medium, but demonstrate forcibly that printmaking as an art form is as creative as painting or sculpture.

And as much as that to develop the idea that printmaking is potentially a democratic art in comparison to painting. From plate lithography and relief blocks very big editions can be run. And there is no reason why they shouldn’t be run, so long as the machinery existed for marketing them at a price commensurate with the size of the edition. In our society, because artists are placed on a competitive footing, whether they like or not, and because they are in the hands of the dealers to a great extent, of course the elitist principle of a small edition is promoted at the expense of the big edition. Hogarth engravings for example were sold for a few pence each in large numbers in England. I am very much in sympathy with the idea of the low priced original work, but we are in the grip of a marketing system which makes it very difficult to do it.

What is striking about Counihan’s artistic career is its breadth of involvement not only in the wide variety of mediums he has used and explored, but in the use to which he has put his art. Over the past forty-six years Counihan has produced work for May Day march banners, political posters, left-wing publications, murals as well as the involvement in exhibitions such as the Anti-Fascist show (1943) and an exhibition in the U.S.S.R. Equally, Counihan as an artist has been continually committed to the left and specifically to communism that has involved him in the anti-fascist and -war movement of the thirties and as an Australian delegate at peace conferences. One cannot separate his art from this commitment. It is clear that this commitment has played a vital part in informing his work with a deeply responsive articulation of human society. Nevertheless, as an artist he has demonstrated a capacity to seek out the inherent qualities of various mediums and explore the most powerful way of depicting his subject. Above all else it is as a printmaker that this quality, and the sensitivity and immediacy with which the subject is conveyed, particularly of suffering and hardship, which should be give him a distinguished and central place in the history of Australian art.

Charles Merewether, August 1976.

 

Charles Merewether is an art historian and writer on contemporary and postwar art who has taught at universities in the United States, Central and South America, and Australia.

PCA Member Q&A: Clinton Barker

Caterpillar Morning, 2015, 58 x 56 cm, screenprint. This print was selected for the 2015 PCA Print Commission.

‘My initial interest in printmaking came through my Grandmother who had a screenprinting studio setup at home.’ 

Clinton Barker lives in Queensland

Why do you make art?

I make art primarily because it makes me feel good, the creative process allows me to drop all my thoughts for a while and just focus on the moment … it becomes an active meditation.

What’s your relationship to printmaking?

I have a commercial/textile screenprinting background and have incorporated those skills into my career as an edition printer for other artists as well as for the production of my own artwork.

How did you get interested in printmaking?

My initial interest came through my Grandmother who had a screenprinting studio setup at home. Later on I had a desire to be involved with indigenous art, so I approached Basil Hall and have been involved in a number of projects with BHE since then.

Who is your favourite artist?

David Larwill is high up on my list of favourite artists, his work has been influential in the progress and development of my own practice.

What is your favourite artwork?

Epiphany by Ian Fairweather. Standing in front of that large artwork at the Queensland Art Gallery changed my life forever … it made me want to become an artist.

Where do you go for inspiration?

I find inspiration everywhere and in all sorts of situations but going to the beach seems to recharge my creative batteries the best.

What are you working on now?  

I am working towards a solo exhibition (Momentum) to be held at the Logan Art Gallery in December this year and another Solo exhibition (Simultaneous) that will be held at the Stanthorpe Region Art Gallery in April 2016. There is also a large private painting commission on the go.

Tall Tales and Antipodean Adventures: Narratives in Contemporary Australian Printmaking

Imprint Volume 41 Number 2, 2006

‘In a country for which history (at least the ‘white’ version) is in relatively short supply, and in which cultural cringe has only recently undergone withdrawal, storytelling plays an integral part in determining the evolution of a national identity.’

This article was written by Jazmina Cininas and published in the winter issue of Imprint Volume 41 No. 2, 2006.

A picture speaks a thousand words. Long before the invention of writing or alphabets, stories and histories were recorded in pictures, from Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux to early Egyptian hieroglyphs. Church authorities understood the power of the image, employing stained glass windows and didactic paintings to illustrate their teachings and as learning aids for their predominantly illiterate parishioners. Rulers and military leaders had their conquests and exploits immortalised in grand history paintings while explorers recorded their discoveries as much with pictures as with words. When Pfister devised a system for printing illustrations alongside typographic texts in 1461,1 an inextricable link was forged between printmakers and storytellers. Illustrations, as well as revolutionising the dissemination of knowledge for the life sciences,2 brought words to life, luring the mediaeval peasant into literacy, and continuing to do the same for novice readers today. Artists such as Dürer and Goya understood the power of the visual narrative, creating images that transcended their source texts and which, centuries later, continue to unfold new chapters and offer new scenarios.

It is perhaps understandable that narrative image making enjoys such a high profile in contemporary Australian printmaking. In a country for which history (at least the ‘white’ version) is in relatively short supply, and in which cultural cringe has only recently undergone withdrawal, storytelling plays an integral part in determining the evolution of a national identity. The adventures of Waltzing Matilda, The Man from Snowy River and Ned Kelly are embraced as quintessentially Australian (indeed more so than the national anthem). Australians pride their ability to spin a yarn, to tell a joke, to create a legend: the taller the tale the better. There are many superb Australian printmakers currently working in the narrative tradition who deserve considerably more attention than this article is able to give them. Dean Bowen’s suburban vignettes, Euan Heng’s iconic friezes, Danny Moynihan’s tortured thylacine men. Geoffrey Ricardo’s dark visions and Hertha Kluge-Pott’s intricately populated towers of land have woven a foundation of interconnecting storylines that have become local legends. Articulate new chapters are being added by Sophia Szilagyi’s gothic intrigues, Kati Thamo’s anthropomorphic fables and the masculine eco-sagas of Michael Schlitz and Damon Kowarsky. But other adventures beckon. The following artists share a whimsical approach to their storytelling, blending historical and contemporary narratives to produce ironic commentaries and fantastical journeys that offer insights into Australian culture.

Heather Shimmen’s Waltzing Matildas ‘expand the sanctioned histories of our colonial past and question the meaning of our national identity.’3 The jolly swagman is reinvented as a Victorian heroine, a Matilda more at home in the drawing room than in the outback. Composed of historically overlooked domestic dramas and feminine fancies, Shimmen’s montages fabricate new narratives that expose the distortions inherent in ‘privileging’ information. Sailing boats, botanical studies and crocodile skin travelling bags speak of long journeys through dangerous waters to distant lands. Unfamiliar flora and fauna are recorded with the decorum (and perhaps even naivety) of the Old World wood engraver, and exquisitely reinterpreted in linoleum by Shimmen. Corseted and petticoated, with a penchant for colleting stars and skipping ropes, Shimmen’s Matilda is clearly ill equipped for her new life, her romantic melancholy and social preoccupations at odds with the physical realities of a land in which one is more likely to die of snake bite than consumption. Where small pox is the likely culprit for facial blemishes on her English counterpart, gun shot wounds take the credit in Suicide Sister.

The kangaroo is the latest hero of the artist’s colonial ruminations. First recorded by George Parkinson, the image of the kangaroo was to gain iconic status after George Stubbs made a painting of the stuffed marsupial, presented to the English scientific community courtesy of Joseph Banks. Shimmen’s Kanguru is likewise pieced together from various observations and gathered scraps of information.4 Shimmen, who has many opportunities to see the animal in the wild, invests her first-hand observations and fondness for the animal into Kanguru, capturing its elegant poise and the flickers of movement that interrupt its contemplative gaze.

The same colonial icon is reincarnated in Julia Silvester’s panoramas of pre-settlement Melbourne, where it teams up with the emu to form the Australian coat of arms.5 Silvester’s Antipodean View, which measures over three metres in length, is a veritable epic recording the history of Melbourne’s exploration, documentation and ultimate conquest. Despite ‘immigrating’ from Perth in 1996, Silvester still feels the newcomer’s lack of familiarity with Melbourne geography. She presented mock-ups of her constructed panorama to ‘locals’ for advice on the positioning of natural landmarks, adjusting them accordingly. As such, Silvester operates as the direct descendant of early mapmakers and illustrators, who relied upon second-hand reports from witnesses, falling easy prey to exaggerations and inaccuracies. Parallels can be found in the (mis)translations imposed on the Australian landscape by colonial illustrators who took liberties with the unruly bushland, tidying it up with oak leaves for a European sensibility.

Silvester employs digital technology to impart a uniform surface to her collaged scans of historical illustrations, fascinated with the vagaries that occur in successive generations of reproduction. Her Gardens of Desire (both an artist’s book and exhibition title) stems from a similar principle, harking back to early herbals and scientific texts whose images were so corrupted by generations of sloppy copyists as to be ultimately unrecognisable.6

Silvester is equally intrigued by the imperatives for politeness in early writings on sexuality, which often resulted in the use of plant metaphors, euphemisms and remedies for ‘inappropriate’ longings and sexual urges, and extolled and emasculating virtues of dill and warm lettuce. Silvester distils the saucier passages of Hildegard of Bingen’s twelfth-century treatise, On Natural Philosophy and Medicine, using scandalous illustrations of flower parts and dissected plants to lead the viewer towards climactic conclusions holding very different resonances for the Viagra generation. The artist’s shenanigans with science and history share Simon Schama’s conviction that the boundary between fact and fiction is always in flux, and that history’s ‘best prospects lie in the forthright admission of … imagination’.7

Milan Milojevic is equally open with his fakeries, creating imaginary worlds and impossible creatures from a repertoire of collected marks and woodcut illustrations. Milojevic’s landscapes and bestiaries return the viewer to a time when much of the earth’s terrain was still unknown, when imagined possibilities had not yet been refuted by ‘facts’ and every voyage was one of discovery – the great irony, of course, being that he does so with the aid of the latest digital technologies. The repeated and mirrored motifs within his friezes exploit the inherent properties of traditional print mediums, while the wood engravings that serve as source material also remind one of the integral role of printmakers once played in recording and disseminating knowledge through compendiums and visual encyclopaedias.

Such nostalgic musings are born of his Yugoslav/German parents’ experience as misinformed ‘innocents’, lured halfway around the world by sunny promises and idealised panoramas that were strikingly at odds with the harsh, xenophobic landscape that greeted migrants in 1940s Australia. The hybridity that pervades Milojevic’s work – in grafted European and Australian foliage, in patchwork chimeras and in the merging of traditional and contemporary print mediums – is bred of a desire to come to terms with the multiple cultures and ethnicities that make up his own identity.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) is Milojevic’s primary muse, and it is perhaps significant that the poet’s birthplace, Argentina, also has a history of old and new worlds colliding. His Book of Imaginary Beings, an alphabetical index of the bizarre, directly informs the ‘zoological displacements and dislocations’8 that make up Milojevic’s catalogue of fantastic beasts. Sometimes magical, sometimes grotesque, sometimes pitifully dysfunctional, these creatures nevertheless invoke a wistful suspension of disbelief, a longing for an age when these might have been truths, a desire to return to earlier possibilities.

A similar nostalgia operates in the work of Rew Hanks, for whom the Tasmanian Tiger embodies that which has been lost, that which can never again be known first-hand. Like Shimmen and Silvester, Hanks offers an alternative vision for this antipodean colony, conjuring up parallel histories that cast the thylacine in the leading role. He ponders the ethical implications of attempting to clone the extinct species by relocating Dürer’s Eden considerably further south. Queen Victoria, in the guise of Eve, tempts Michael Archer (Director of the Australian Museum) with a thylacine pup preserved in a Pandora’s jar of moral conundrums. The title We Don’t Have To9 sums up the delicacy of the dilemma. The other native animals that populate the garden hint at broader environmental ramifications, and also question the wisdom of investing enormous sums into resurrecting the dead when current endangered species could do with protective funding.

Hanks returns to earlier artistic styles and past narratives, such as The Fall of Man, Noah’s Ark and The Iliad, to suggest potential futures that might once again become possible if the promises (or threats) of genetic engineering and cloning are fulfilled. Hanks also draws attention to the connection that existed between the indigenous Palawa people and the thylacine prior to colonisation, and the parallel fates that befell them both as a consequence of white settlement. The royal corgi, sporting a woolly jacket that alludes to the sheep industry, functions as a symbol for imperial power and privilege, and guards a thylacine skin handbag – the final slap in the face for the annihilated carnivore. Inspired by the $1.25 million reward offered by the Bulletin magazine for conclusive evidence that the Tasmanian Tigre has escaped extinction, Hanks’ most recent magnum opus portrays a polo-playing Kerry Packer masquerading as an Indian Raja, leading the hunt for the elusive marsupial.10

The collaborative team of Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison,11 who have made the artist’s book their signature medium, also reserve their leading roles for extinct species. Their heroes’ adventures have a decidedly Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn flavour, even if the rumours of their deaths have not been exaggerated. Pink-headed ducks, giant rice rats and Bavarian pine voles sport prison stripes and plan jail breaks in order to go fishing amongst desert cacti, while robust white-eyes play cards and passenger pigeons, drunk on alcohol soaked grain,12 attempt to hatch European sea urchins.

The Agatha Christie inspired titles – The Case of the Lost Aviary, Trouble at Sea, The Dubious Clue, By the Pricking of My Claws – acknowledge Haby and Jennison’s penchant for amateur detective work. Unearthing incriminating evidence against commercial hunters, volcanoes and ship-jumping black rats,13 the artists conjure new, pseudo-scientific scenarios, their slippery approach to facts unfolding in whimsical narratives that operate according to their own logic. The artists take liberties with the argument that ‘narrative metaphors are an indispensible part of all ‘factual’ discourse, whether in history or in science’,14 and wink at the commonly acknowledged notion that the historian’s work is partly scientific, partly artistic.15

Haby and Jennison’s truth is, by necessity, a fabrication, the species themselves being lost for all time, at best leaving only fragmentary data from which to glean information. Their pig-footed bandicoots, deer mice and bulldog rats are as fanciful as their names suggest, precariously balancing sailing boats for headgear or fossils as body parts. As barely intact as the last remaining specimen of the St Lucy giant rice rat, they threaten to fall apart at the merest touch.16 Extinct cloud runners and white-footed rabbit rats croon their woes along with Memphis Slim, drawing on another vehicle rich in narrative history, the blues lyric.

David Frazer also sings his share of blues. A frustrated songwriter, he tells his stories instead through wood engravings, choosing a medium soaked in narrative tradition.17 His unrequited rock star ambitions are most evident in his series of dancing men, whose titles are directly derived from song lyrics. Well you can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a woman’s man no time for talk might hint at disco fantasies, but the flannelette shirt of and wheelbarrow reveal that Frazer’s leanings are closer to Jonathan Richman18 than the Brothers Gibb. One suspects the Richman inspired They’re all in my trance when I dance, in which a dead cool rocker commands the dance floor, is truer to Frazer’s secret yearnings, even in Blundstone boots and a weatherboard house in rural Victoria are the reality. His other unfulfilled dreams of sporting stardom are confessed in such titles as: Self portrait with home-made golf trophy; Despite blowing any chance of winning, The King, with his usual good grace acknowledges his imaginary fans; and Placing all hope in my son to fulfil my failed sporting ambition. Frazer shares Richman’s capacity to make the ordinary strangely endearing, while simultaneously longing for something more, something else.

Wanderlust is both a recurring theme and the title of his artists’ book collaboration with Martin Flanagan and George Matoulas, but unlike Shimmen’s and Milojevic’s epic voyages of discovery, Frazer’s journeys take place much closer to home, more concerned with ‘the common experience of humanity through the bittersweet journey of life’19 than uncharted continents. Travel occurs mostly in the daydreams of the solitary figure sitting atop his rooftop who gazes wistfully over endless expanses of wheat fields. But even modest ambitions end up thwarted by the responsibilities of life on the land. Frazer’s downwardly mobile caravans camp in paddocks and woodlands suspiciously like those visible from the front porch while rowboats suffer the absurd fate of running ‘aground’ in treetops. Mr Vertigo drifts over paddocks, suspended in the thick, buoyant air of dreams through which one must continually swim in order to stay aloft, but which never offers sufficient velocity for escape.

Rona Green is another champion for the underdog, employing the narrative devices of comic books and cartoons to showcase her underachievers and misfits. The success of the first Superman story in 1938 ‘heralded the birth of the superhero genre in which costumed people of extraordinary or superhuman powers fought evil and crime on a grand scale’20, but for Green the cape and mask are more likely to herald the inept geek and the clumsy nerd. One suspects that even the spandex proud pro wrestler Spastica Fantastica has to settle for sub-celebrity status; the lady friend alluded to in Spastica Fantastica Gets the Girl looks suspiciously like the blow-up variety.

Green’s outcasts reappear in sequential episodes, reinvented as linocuts, digital prints, lithographs and poppets. Gangs of ghouls, freaks, mad scientists and hooligan animals make up her cast of disreputable characters, teaming up for an ongoing series of misadventures. The pointy-toothed egghead who dreams of alien abduction in The Encounter reappears alongside fellow technophiles (and quite likely Trekkies) in Secret Robot Society, while his fanged and furry companions enjoy multiple roles as tattooed pets and S&M fetishists. In her exhibition at The Doll’s House in Preston ,Victoria, scientific nerds that first appeared in Cake Trail resurfaced alongside the criminally insane in The Bughouse, transforming the miniature gallery into a correctional facility, psychiatric ward and experimental operating theatre.

Green’s storylines are fed by a soft spot for daytime television and conspiracy theories, and a genuine fondness for the flawed and misshapen. Her awkward antiheroes are immaculately drawn and printed, and tenderly stitched into their poppet incarnations. Indeed the only hint of suspicion is reserved for the devastatingly glamorous immortals in Treacherous Boys with Charisma, and one suspects that the vampires’ aristocracy, rather than their bloodsucking ways, is what meets most with Green’s disapproval.

The printing process, as both a technical and artistic activity, has been linked not only to the memory of human thought, but also to the memorial process.21 Prints, in their various guises and mediums, have played a pivotal role in recording the stories of our past, and continue to document possibilities of what might yet become. The best narrative printmakers employ printmaking’s intrinsic properties and illustrative traditions to create new fictions and expose new truths about ourselves, celebrating the invention inherent in all knowledge, in all history.

 

Jazmina Cininas is a Melbourne-based artist, writer and curator who lectures in Printmaking at RMIT.

 

1 See A Hyatt Mayor, ‘Printing breaks away from manuscript’, Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1971.
2 Such as architecture, engineering, and biology. ‘By paying more attention to the duplication of pictorial statements, we might see more clearly why the life science no less the physical ones were placed on a new footing and how the authority of Pliny, no less than Galen and Ptolemy, was undermined.’ Elizabeth I. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Volume II, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979, p. 686.
3 Heather Shimmen: ‘Figment Fragment’, media release, Gallery 101, October 2005.
4 Heather Shimmen, Kanguru artist statement, Gallery 101, October. 2005.
5 Much of the following discussion of Silvester’s work is essentially a reworking of my earlier catalogue essay for Ex Libris at RMIT Project Space, 2005.
6 ‘… the copyists who redrew manuscripts inevitably degraded drawings of plants into unintelligibility, as lamented by old Pliny in his Natural History… For centuries … copyists copied copies, shirking the hard analysis of drawing from … nature.’ Hyatt Mayor, ‘Herbals and Scientific Illustration’.
7 Simon Schama, cited in G. Thomas Tanselle, ‘Printing History and Other History’, Studies in Bibliography, Volume 48, 1995, pp. 287–286.
8 Milan Milojevic, artist’s statement supplied to the author, April 2006.
9 See Carol Freeman, Rew Hanks: Tiger Tales, exhibition catalogue, Legge Gallery, Bette Gallery, 2003.
10 Rew Hanks, artist’s statement supplied to the author, April 2006.
11 Much of the following discussion of Silvester’s work is essentially a reworking of my earlier catalogue essay for Ex Libris at RMIT Project Space, 2005.
12 This was used by trappers to make the birds easier to catch. See below.
13 Information on the passenger pigeon and the rats was supplied to the author by the artists, October 2005, citing Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World, Penguin Books, 1992; www.ulala.org/P_Pigeon; and Tim Flannery and Peter Schouten, A Gap in Nature – Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals, Text Publishing Australia, 2001.
14 Donald N. McCloskey, cited in G. Thomas Tanselle, ‘Printing History and Other History’, Studies in Bibliography, Volume 48, 1995.
15 See G. M. Trevelyan, cited in ibid.
16 The specimen is housed under glass in the Natural History Museum, London, with a strict injunction not to touch. Information supplied by Haby and Jennison, citing Flannery and Schouten.
17 See Megan Backhouse, ‘The Traveller Tamed, The Wanderer Returns’, The Saturday Age, 24 July 2004.
18 Former lead singer for the Modern Lovers. He penned such classic lyrics as ‘Pablo Picasso was never called an arsehole’ and ‘I’m a little aeroplane’, before going on to write the soundtrack to There’s Something about Mary.
19 Jeff Faulkner, ‘Over the Hill’, catalogue essay, Pastoral Melancholia, Gippsland Art Gallery, 2004.
20 James Bettley, ed. ‘Comics’, The Art of the Book: From Medieval Manuscript to Graphic Novel, V&A Publications, London, 2001, p. 122.
21 ‘Printing as Memory’, two lectures delivered by Alvin Eisenman at Dartmouth in 1992 imply in their title ‘not only the idea of printed texts as the memory of human thought but also the role of printing, as a technical and artistic activity, in the memorial process.’ Tanselle, p.289.