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;; 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.

Flashback Friday: René Block – The European Approach

Imprint Volume 25 Number 2, 1990
cover image: Mike Parr, Optic Iland, printed by John Loane, 1990, drypoint, 108 x 78 cm

‘In previous visits to Australia I had rediscovered a very strong participation in an international dialogue by a number of Australian artists. These artists have developed their own language.’

This article was published anonymously in the autumn issue of Imprint, Vol 25 No. 2, 1990 (eds. Ashley Crawford, Ray Edgar and Charles Green)

René Block, artistic director of the recent Sydney Biennale, The Readymade Boomerang, is a significant figure in contemporary art. Both Galerie René Block and then DAADgalerie in Berlin have been closely associated with the key figures of the European avant-garde of the sixties and seventies. His experience and contacts resulted in one of the most stimulating Biennales seen in Australia and a major print portfolio of historical significance.

Block’s involvement with prints grew out of his experience with the Fluxus group and their concerns with the production of artwork in unlimited editions at very low prices. Both Fluxus and the creation of multiples have in common the intention of denying a work of art’s status as a unique and precious item. ‘I was not especially involved as a classic editor of prints in the Parisian way,’ says Block. ‘When I established my Edition the artists and I were more interested in the industrial production possibilities of producing multiples. I was interested in the industrial production of artwork in larger editions for low prices. Unfortunately the realities were different. It was almost impossible to use the facilities of industrial production. And in terms of distribution there was no need, no interest for large editions. The market was not ready.’

Block’s Edition Block has overseen the conceptualisation and production of multiples by numerous major international artists. Works by Richard Hamilton, based on consumer products such as electric toothbrushes (The Critic Laughs), and Joseph Beuys’ Felt Suit and sledges, and the first video multiple, Nam June Paik’s The Thinker, are a few examples of the fifty or so editions he has so far completed.

Artists like Brehmer, Vostell, Polke and Richter who have shown with Galerie René Block in Berlin were influenced by American pop art in its early stages; however, their concerns were more directed towards illustrating the confrontations between the experiences of East and West Berlin. Their vision of consumer culture, which they referred to as Capitalistic Realism, resulted in Block’s Graphic Capitalism portfolio in 1967 and his book about the complete prints of these artists in which images of a similar nature from East and West were juxtaposed.

In another portfolio, Weekend from 1972, artists were encouraged to decide between one and five prints, allowing development of new ideas rather than one typical image, an approach which remains one of the earmarks of Edition Block. ‘Generally artists are obliged to choose one image to represent their work, but as some of them were not printmakers, I thought it would be helpful to them to develop a new idea in a new medium which is easier with a suite of some prints. Beuys at that time was not interested in prints at all so his contribution to Weekend is an object. All prints and the object were published in a suitcase.’

Like all Block’s projects since 1964, when he opened his first gallery at the age of 22, the shows and the portfolios are marked by a distinctly blockbuster status. The Sydney Biennale portfolio is similar to Block’s Hamburg folio of 1985, but on a larger scale. Titled Art of Peace, the Hamburg portfolio was published during the Biennale des Frenders and helped provide Block with both the finance for that show in Hamburg and the experience to plan the Sydney exhibition on a larger scale.

‘I proposed to the City of Hamburg that we do a print portfolio and they gave us a loan. The portfolio acted as security. The edition of forty with a price of 5000 marks gave us a loan of 200,000 marks.’ Whilst this didn’t sell immediately, the Hamburg government has been suitably impressed with its consistent sales and inflation value making it a worthwhile exercise.

Over the next year he planned a selection of prints by Australian artists coinciding with Australia’s bicentennial. The ‘Aus Australian’ project, as it came to be known, was printed largely by John Loane.

‘In previous visits to Australia I had rediscovered a very strong participation in an international dialogue by a number of Australian artists. These artists have developed their own language. It was not necessarily planned as a bicentennial portfolio. That status occurred by chance closer to the 1988 celebrations but the portfolio was planned in 1986 following the very impressive and successful exhibition Five from the Fifth in Berlin’s DAADgalerie.’

Aside from work by one of pop art’s originators, Richard Hamilton, the recent biennale portfolio of twenty-one artists includes many Fluxus names such as Nam June Paik, Emmett Williams, John Cage and Ben Vautier along with many first time printmakers. The long list of big name artists contains regular collaborators with Block and demonstrates his professional ongoing working relationship with a number of artists.

Having secured the likes of Rosalie Gascoigne, Ilya Kabakov and Rosemary Trockel to produce their first ever prints, Block says, ‘some were hesitant at the beginning because there was no immediate solution for their ideas. But by offering the whole range of printmaking styles, it was a matter of utilising the right technique for each particular artist. I convinced Ken Unsworth to try woodblocks. This was interesting for him too because it was his first woodcut. I tried to influence the use of different styles where I could but of course did not influence the artistic decision. Though I did persuade John Cage it would be wonderful if he could contribute a “Methostic” with the portfolios title The Readymade Boomerang. Hamilton experimented with the paint box of a computer for the first time and for him this print is a very important work. Also we cooperated with some of the best printmakers worldwide, including printshops in Vienna, Paris, Rome, London and Berlin.’

The range of mediums used by the printmakers borders on startling: Janet Burchill silkscreened on sheets of tin, Julian Schnabel used montage of the different print techniques of lithography and etching, Barbara Bloom used photographic offset lithography, Peter Tyndall incorporated silkscreen: the list of variations goes on.

The Readymade Boomerang print portfolio is testimony to two things: the first is René Block’s love for multiple edition prints, the second is the artists’ respect for this maverick European print ‘editor’.

Flashback Friday: Curating Prints – A Field of Expanding Interpretation

Imprint Volume 26 Number 2, 1991 (cover).

‘Now the question of what constitutes an ‘original print’ is rarely ever raised as it is generally accepted that printmaking need not be limited by narrow guild-based premises.’

This essay was written by Anne Kirker and published in the winter issue of Imprint, Volume 26 No 2, 1991.

In recent years, changes in the methodology of art history, the vagaries of the marketplace and advanced technological development have disrupted the often still waters of print scholarship. Exhibitions and collection policies of public institutions have shifted emphasis accordingly. We had in our complacency begun to type-cast print shows, with their attendant publications being monographic in nature, their contents being confined to traditional media, and their focus too narrowly engaging with issues of connoisseurship and technique. Now, there are just as likely to be thematic exhibitions which throw the field wide open or hone in on specific concerns. One such example is the unofficial Bicentenary project Right Here Right Now – Australia 1988. Comprising screenprints developed from within this country’s strong poster tradition, this exhibition raised critical questions regarding national identity. In addition, there are exhibitions which concentrate on particular collection strengths. For example, Looking Eastwards, held at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1989, attempted to make readily accessible, its comparatively large ukiyo-e print holdings, and was not reliant upon extensive loan material. Certainly this was in part a contingency measure. Through necessity the Gallery was obliged to fall back on its own resources. In part, what the exhibition could have been was tempered by the phenomenal insurance valuations currently placed on many international prints, and the costs involved in processing such loans.

There is also a tendency among art museums to place works on paper in a larger context as part of permanent collection rotations, allowing prints to have equal visibility to paintings, aspects of sculpture and the so-called decorative arts. This situation has assisted in breaking down traditional hierarchies within the visual arts and has decreased the chance of marginalising prints to a separate, easily overlooked exhibition space. Importantly, the integration of images from different media categories within a general display encourages audiences to make connections with respect to the content of these images, and to realise the interdependency which has occurred for centuries between the multiple and the ‘unique’ art object. In this area of expanding interpretation, the average viewer is more likely to respond to the subject and iconography of prints, to question why they were made in a certain way and for whom, and to feel less obliged to evaluate the intricacies of production through various states and proofs. While not wishing to dismiss this aspect of print appreciation as irrelevant; it is a matter of trying to temper an overt emphasis on the peculiarities of media and technique, and those elements which engender rarity status, that has mesmerised this field for so long. Aspects of connoisseurship obviously remain important for the professional development of a curator; one can make expensive blunders through ignorance by acquiring restrikes instead of impressions from original editions, prints from reworked plates, forgeries, and so forth.

For this reason, a scholarship such as that provided by the late Harold Wright, to spend an extended period in the British Museums’s print room, remains an invaluable opportunity for Australians and New Zealanders, to ‘train the eye’, so to speak. We can, however, no longer afford to linger – pleasurable though this may be – in that rarefied environment. In today’s world other curatorial imperatives loom large: revealing the mysteries of the solander box to broader public scrutiny, encouraging interpretation of an artist’s work with that of others; and being conscious of the ideological issues at play. Imaginative leaps need to be constantly made and re-made­ through exhibitions, publications and associated media – to connect and empower the imagery of successive generations. In hindsight, for instance, Looking Eastwards could well have coupled volume ten of Hokusai’s Manga (a book of random sketches reproduced as woodblock prints from 1819) with one of the comic books currently popular in Japan. The tenor of this post-modern age, with marriages of unlikely partners, the blurring of boundaries and alertness to the content and context of art, was heralded some twenty years ago by Arthur Hyatt Mayor. In his book Prints & People, A Social History of Printed Pictures (N.Y., Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971), he writes: ‘… familiar facts regroup into unexpected patterns, like the tiles on the bathroom floor, especially when you try to see recent prints as the outcome of old traditions, and old prints as though their ink still smelled’.

Ironically even with this change in curatorial thinking, the old debate polarising prints by non-printmakers and those by artist printmakers is still very much alive. Recall, for instance, the observations of Charles Green under the heading of ‘The State of Things – The Problem with Printmaking’, in the journal Tension (no.17, August 1989), where he states: ‘There’s a truism that the best prints are made by painters’. How can one go along with this simplistic value judgement? We do know that artists who normally specialise in other areas are often perceived as participating in a type of entrepreneurial activity when they produce multiple imagery. In contrast, are those trained printmakers who by and large are less visible in the art world of institutions, high profile dealers and glossy magazines. But with the plurality of endeavour we profess to endorse at the close of the 20th century, with our scepticism of originality, does this dichotomous situation really matter?

The Readymade Boomerang Print Portfolio serves to illustrate one strand of the debate. This collection of prints was in effect a satellite project to the Eighth Biennale of Sydney, and was published by its director, Rene Block. It followed similar initiatives by him which have realised the production of multiples by well-known artists associated with, for want of a better term, ‘vanguard movements’. In collaboration with master printers, most of the twenty-one artists connected with this portfolio extended their creative concerns, and at the same time provided a permanent visual document on the Biennale which could potentially be widely dispersed. For this 1990 event the likes of Richard Hamilton, John Cage, Julian Schnabel and Rosemary Trockel shared the same platform as Australian artists Rosalie Gascoigne and Janet Burchill.

Conceived in the spirit of the readymade, the portfolio illustrated the concept of bricolage, a method based on the deliberate collision of artists, imagery and materials. Exponents of pop art, experimental music, shameless appropriators of styles and images from the past, and collectors of humble detritus, were presented cheek by jowl. Block’s concept for the venture was recognised by Bernice Murphy in her essay published in the Biennale catalogue, where she stated: ‘In recent art the wider implications of the Duchampian discourse of the Readymade (serialisation and reproduction) have authorised a great deal of work revolving around the idea of the copy, duplicate of multiple replica’.

On the other hand, artists such as Graeme Peebles, Barbara Hanrahan and Milan Milojevic have consistently developed their art production through print media alone. They toe an individualistic line rather than tailoring their imagery to an internationalist discourse. None would profess to be at the centre of Australia’s artistic mainstream and yet their printmaking is hardly a backwater activity. Emphasising autobiographical, social and political concerns of relevance to their immediate contexts, these printmakers provide a necessary antidote to the more immediately seductive international viewpoint, drawing attention instead to the value of art from a regional perspective. Their concerns are local and specific, not responsive or answerable to the latest theoretical treatises or perceived art movements. We would do well to point out their idiosyncrasies, rather than attempt to conflate work by such figures into the mainstream.

Nevertheless, the boundaries of one reality as opposed to another are blurring all the time. Take for instance the duality between printmaking and photography. Throughout this century we have seen the gradual admission of photographically mediated images into traditional modes of printmaking. Initially this gave rise to questions regarding originality and the relationship between art and the mechanical reproduction of visual imagery. During the mind 1960s the Print Council of America and, in turn, the Print Council of Australia agonised over the definition of what constitutes an ‘original print’. Now the question is rarely ever raised as it is generally accepted that printmaking need not be limited by narrow guild-based premises. Not only was William Ivin’s expansive definition of original prints as ‘exactly repeatable pictorial statements’, proclaimed in Prints and Visual Communication (1953), an audacious challenge to conservative thinking, but even earlier Walter Benjamin had prophetically described a major shift in perception. With his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), Benjamin claimed: ‘That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’. Artists who employed photography and photomechanical means in their prints acknowledged an all-embracing commitment to, and potent demonstration of, contemporary society.

When Eduardo Paolozzi produced his 1971 screenprint Bash in three thousand identical impressions he attempted to free the print medium from the elitism of the limited edition. Bash is an acronym of Baroque All Style High, a reference to a bygone style of art, validated in the context of 20th century life. Some of the ‘wonderful and extraordinary’ (to use the artist’s own words) references to our immediate past in Paolozzi’s print include Marilyn Monroe featured next to a World War II rocket; a TV with blue fluorescent screen from the 1950s; a John Kennedy poster; an ‘Action Buddy’ toy; a model plastic heart from a ‘Visible Man’ or ‘Visible Woman’ kit; Frank Stella’s Protractor Series (1967–70); and Apollo space photos.

In 1991, Malcolm Enright continues the process of ‘cultural recycling’ and the ‘aesthetic of simulation’ (to draw on Jean Baudrillard’s terms) with his installation of prints for Queensland Art Gallery’s exhibition Instant Imaging. With Another Inseparable: Person/Characteristics, a four-colour chromlin proof from photocopies, he collages such disparate images as an Indian Mohawk with hand painted on his face; a statue of Kali; the Hungarian filmstar Peter Lorre; the Ayatollah Khomeini; a 19th century pornographic postcard; and a palmist’s chart. Instant Imaging was initiated two years ago by the Print Council of Australia, as part of a series reflecting different State perspectives in current printmaking. The curatorial rationale behind the event was an aim to demonstrate those links which bind electronic media and the printed image. Seven artists residing in Brisbane – Mark Davies, Malcolm Enright, Pat Hoffie, Hiram To, Edite Vidins, John Waller and Adam Wolter – were chosen to participate. They are among those Australians who currently demonstrate a strong commitment to exploring the interface between aspects of the visual arts and advanced technology. Outside Queensland, Diane Mantzaris, with her lithographs based on computer-generated imagery, springs readily to mind, as does Bashir Baraki with his work derived from the Canon colour laser copier (CLC). Collectively, these artists acknowledge that our post-modern environment is subjected to a network of electronic devices, each of which as irreversibly changed the way people think, learn and communicate.

Although copiers appeared some forty years ago, it was not until the mid sixties (coinciding ironically with the heated debates among print associations on ‘originality’) that artists gravitated towards the ‘quick copy’ centre for economical print runs. No special training was required for replicating an image, and instantaneous results allowed for rapid development and realisation of their concepts. Although the practice of copy art has now been accepted in many art schools it is still not generally embraced by departments of printmaking! For the traditionalists, the process probably seems far too easy. When the CLC was introduced in 1987, colour was not only able to be recreated with astonishing verisimilitude, but this electronic system also offered the artist a means by which to dismantle and ‘recreate’ an image, so that it bore little relation to the original. Pat Hoffie has drawn attention to the fact that the more an image (often in the form of collage material) is manipulated in the machine, the more it appears ‘handcrafted’.

Some practitioners prefer to remain with a monochromatic effect and promote elusiveness and the principle of uncertainty. Hiram To developed his Printing Room Series in 1998, blurring the initial image through the photocopying process by sweeping it across the platen and printing it out on ringbinder paper with text. He has recently investigated private and public realms by incarcerating photocopiers in lead frames. Several of these are displayed as a unit in Instant Imaging. It is the precise relationship between interval and object, and the multiple cross references set up, which characterise the artist’s installation work. The print is but one component of his multi-media statements.

With major technological advancements occurring regularly it is now possible, using the Canon bubble jet colour copier, to produce large-scale single images. John Waller now employs it for his ongoing project focussing on the Australian landscape, its histories and its mythologies. His images are first produced on a Commodore Amiga computer, using a variety of software (such as Deluxe Paint III), and are then printed out. Adam Wolter has been involved with computer-generated imagery for close to a decade. His output has kept pace with available hardware for domestic use. From a very elementary computer he acquired an Amiga 1000 in 1986 when it first came on to the market. The ramifications this had for Wolter’s imagery were extraordinary. With public domain software Wolter’s imagery were extraordinary. With public domain software Wolter no longer needed to write his own programs in order to produce an artwork; even Benoît Mandelbrot’s mathematical theories were made user-friendly!

A relative newcomer to computer-generated imager, Edite Vidins alludes to her Latvian roots in the digitised format. Although she produces ‘static’ printouts, the artist prefers to present her work directly on the computer screen. For this reason, Instant Imaging incorporates a number of monitors in the display space. It is in acknowledgement that those involved principally with manipulating computer software on the screen often regard this to be the final product, as the luminosity of the screen tends to be lost in the printed form. In curating this exhibition, the catalogue served an integral role in extending the artists’ concepts through individual statements and allied visual material. At many stages of its production, the seven participants were consulted. We decided to depart from a conventional publication format, adopting a computerised typeface and chose as illustrations, details of works in Instant Imaging which were distorted and re-interpreted especially for the catalogue.

What of the future of this area of art practice within the terrain of printmaking? Only time will tell. Public collections must weigh up the issue of acquiring works with a limited life (through decomposition of the printed image) while demonstrating an undiminished commitment to representing contemporary art practice. Many shy away from collecting, preferring to facilitate exhibitions and installations of electronic media. Personally, I believe our collections should judiciously acquire instances of photocopy work and computer printouts as a reflection of the vital activity in this area. They will broaden our perception of art practice generally and force it into direct relationship with culture at large.

PCA Member Q&A: Jill O’Sullivan

Y camau I, 2015, 74 x 62 cm, etching, spirit aquatint.

‘I pulled my first prints and realised this was to be my primary medium. I think it was printmaking’s relationship to drawing that first excited me.’ 

Jill O’Sullivan lives in
Townsville, Queensland

Why do you make art?

I guess the answer to this is: why not make art? In one way or another have been making art since I was a child so it is just part of my character really.

What’s your relationship to printmaking?

My main practice these days is centred on printmaking – relief, intaglio and lithography – so I guess I have a pretty strong relationship with printmaking.

How did you get interested in printmaking?

As part of the Flying Arts (Queensland) regional arts program at the time Judy Watson and Anne Lord came out to Mount Isa in the early 1990s teaching linocuts and wood engraving. I pulled my first prints and realised this was to be my primary medium. I think it was printmaking’s relationship to drawing that first excited me.

Who is your favourite artist?

No one particular artist but I have quite a few printmakers whose work I really enjoy – Martin Lewis, Jessie Traill, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Frank Brangwyn, Samuel Palmer, Paul Landacre to name but a few.

What is your favourite artwork?

Too hard to pick really. Nevertheless, I always go to see Jan Eyck’s Arnolfini double portrait and Holbein’s Ambassadors at the National Gallery when I’m in London.

Where do you go for inspiration?

Inspiration has come from many varied sources over the years. In more recent years my Master’s practical research was based on people from North West Queensland, while my PhD visual practice centred on the chorographic mapping of elements of place, again from locations in North West Queensland. Much of my latest work has been inspired by winter experiences of Wales during my recent residency at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished a series of works relating to Aberystwyth in Wales that form part of a group exhibition Godre’r Glais at Umbrella Studio in Townsville (on until 1 November). I have a few deadlines in the pipeline for small group exhibitions with Press North. The next larger project will be a series of prints that focus on aspects of the dry tropics of North West Queensland. I’m also interested in doing a series on domestic artefacts fairly soon.

Akky van Ogtrop on Organising Paper Contemporary

How did Paper Contemporary come about?

In 2013 I was approached by Barry Keldoulis, director of the Contemporary Art Fair, with the proposal to organise a works on paper section as a special project presented in association with the Print Council of Australia (PCA). This proposal was based on the blueprint of the Sydney Art on Paper Fair (SAPF), which I founded in 1989 and organised until its tenth anniversary in 2005. SAPF was the first art fair in Australia specialising in works of art on paper.

I was unable to go ahead with the project in 2013 (too short notice), but when Barry approached me again in 2015, I decided to take on the challenge. I presented Paper Contemporary as a project in association with the PCA, but planned it in such a way that the PCA was not involved in administration, or any other work in relation to this project. With the fair organisers, I developed a plan for a section focussing on works on paper, prints, and artists’ books – still based on the SAPF idea, but placed within the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair. And that’s how Paper Contemporary was born.

Hosted within Carriageworks, the city’s urban industrial arts precinct, I encouraged and invited a dynamic grouping of print studios, master printers and workshops to participate. Complimenting the main fair, the result was a special survey of the works on paper sector, curated to focus on original limited edition prints, multiples, artist’s books, and zines held at Bay 19.

Why do you think it’s important to have a space dedicated to works on paper within a fair like Sydney Contemporary?

To have the Paper Contemporary participants together as a group has more impact than if they had to compete with the big spaces/galleries.

Ours was an intimate, inviting space and the audience was not made to feel intimidated. It gave them the chance to talk to the exhibitors and see the works up close. Another important reason for me was that Paper Contemporary presents such a good opportunity and platform to show the best of the best, to better educate future collectors on the joy of buying and living with works of art on paper.

How did people respond to the exhibit?

I had terrific feedback, especially about the atmosphere of our space. Many told me it was the most vibrant section of the fair, which is a great compliment for all of the exhibitors. Most of them did very well, not only with sales but also with making new connections. I am sure a lot of follow-up business will occur.

Is there anything you would do differently?

I found this year’s fair better organised than the first one; however, many improvements can still be made. In regards to Paper Contemporary: there is always something I would do differently. With SAPF I tried to improve every fair. Same now, as this was the first year in a building I did not know. To mention a few things: I would do the talks, panel discussions and demonstrations differently. I would consider how to improve the configuration of the stands and the tables. Lighting can be improved, etc. I also hope to get feedback from the exhibitors: that is very important.

What was the highlight of the fair for you? Did a particular work stand out?

This is difficult to answer. Was there a particular work? No, not really. I saw some great works – too many to make one choice. I always enjoy seeing the German Expressionist prints in the Olsen Irwin Gallery. There were some great works in the Annandale Galleries stand. I enjoyed the works by Tan Vargas in Gallery Mutt, Santiago, and many other interesting works in the international galleries. It is really a pity the fair did not produce a catalogue. It always helps your memory…

Akky van Ogtrop is the Executive Director of Akky van Ogtrop Fine Arts. She is a curator, an art historian, an art valuer and the President of the Print Council of Australia.

Vox Pop: What do you think about separating Paper Contemporary from the rest of the fair?

Toby Chapman

‘One of the bonuses of separating Paper Contemporary from other parts of the fair is that it provides new collectors an entry point into works that are probably going to be more affordable and perhaps less intimidating in terms of making one of their first purchases.’

Hong Tong

‘I think the separation is good. People can be in one section and see all different printmaking. I think printmaking needs someone telling how you can do it and what is different so you can get to know different studios and different ideas.’

Karen Ball

‘I think it’s good and bad. I think it actually increases the profile of works on paper, which is an important thing, but then again to separate them can cause people to think that there is something less to be admired about works on paper. So it goes both ways.’

Graham Bell

‘Not everybody wants them mixed together. I personally don’t want them mixed together. I think a separate section for works of art on paper is ideal for this exhibition.’

Peter Lancaster


Melinda Schawel

‘I would strongly disagree with that. I’m a paper artist as well and I believe that if we’re going to break down the hierarchy of media, and because there’s so much interdisciplinary work going on, we need to break that barrier as well. And the galleries need to go along with that, not just the artists and the buyers. So if we actually present works on paper in the context of other media, I think that would help.’