Seven Reflections on Uses for Printmaking

Earlier today Trent Walter, director of Negative Press, and artist John Nixon discussed Nixon’s print works as part of the special forum Australian Printmaking: Past and Present at the National Gallery of Victoria. In celebration of the PCA’s fiftieth anniversary, the forum involved a range of curators, practitioners and printers discussing printmaking both in terms of its history and contemporary practice. The following text is the transcript from Trent Walter‘s recent keynote speech delivered at Orogeny Print Symposium, hosted by the Tasmanian College of the Arts and the Henry Jones Art Hotel, 9–11 September, and expands nicely upon this idea of uses for printmaking in the present. 

I’d like to begin by thanking Jan Hogan for inviting me to talk with you all this morning. I would also like to thank Christine Scott for hosting me at the Henry Jones Art Hotel during my brief stay in Hobart. And finally, a hearty congratulations to all the artists exhibited at the Plimsoll Gallery as part of the symposium.

 

Sister Corita’s workshop

In searching my hard drive for images in preparation for this address, I came across Sister Corita Kent’s Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules. It was something I reprinted for an exhibition at Monash University Museum of Art in 2014, and Corita’s attitude has remained with me. For those unaware of her work, Sister Corita was a pioneering, politically motivated artist and educator who made over 800 screenprint editions during her working life, after she entered the religious order Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Her ‘rules’, which include an emphasis on the line ‘The Only Rule is Work’ have inspired me to record these seven reflections on uses for printmaking. My reflections are by no means exhaustive, but they mirror my own experiences and preoccupations as an artist, printer and publisher working with printed matter. The theme of this symposium, Orogeny, also suggests a palimpsest: literally a series of stories written on top of each other, or old grounds rising to the surface. The stories I will now relate aim to peel back some of these layers and reveal substance to the traces, in this case artworks, that are what visibly remain.

Sister Corita Kent’s Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules.

Reflection number 1: Why make a print?

I ask this question to my students at Monash University. Predominantly students of communication design, they are well versed in creating content digitally. In this environment, print is a method of output. Colours are tested on screen and content is added and deleted. Why make a print? I should say from the outset that I love the flexibility that digital technology has given to artists and I use it myself constantly. Though I am skeptical of the often thoughtless output of digital artwork. Actually, if I’m being honest, I have reservations about the thoughtless making of analogue prints too. Does their materiality make them relevant? Occasionally. Though I believe printmaking in general has more feeling when its content relates to its form.

Trent Walter, Untitled, 2016, installation view.

This work, Untitled, 2016, is currently on display in a lightbox at RMIT University. The lightbox is an excellent technical solution for the artwork as it mirrors the backlight of the computer screen that the image was made on. I’ll admit that this happened fortuitously, though I am pleased by the result.

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An artist I admire greatly is Christopher Day, whose book New Reading Order was published by Negative Press earlier this year and launched at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Art Book Fair.

Day’s practice is photo-based, though he is weary of pigeonholing himself by the medium he works mostly within. He shoots analogue and digital images. The digital ones are manipulated, making multi-layered, fantastical imagery that he prints digitally. We spent a week in Honk Kong and China, proofing his book in Shenzen and photographing Honk Kong island on night walks. In our various meetings we tend to discuss the nature of photography and a subject that recurs is the anachronism of printing digital images in the darkroom. In this respect, does the same anachronism apply to photo-mechanical printmaking processes? I would argue that it does and that these processes cannot pretend to be photography, but that photographic imagery can be the basis for incredible printmaking.

To my students and at my studio, Negative Press, I would suggest that a good reason for making a print is that there is no other way to execute the work: that it is the most practical and simplest way to achieve the artist’s intention.

I have worked on two projects with the Melbourne based artist Rosie Isaac. Both works are based around the performance of a script. Speaking in the Abstract required Isaac to construct an oversize concertina-type ‘book’ that was large enough for her actors to read while performing its content.

Here are some other views of the performance:

Rosie Isaac, Speaking in the Abstract, 2014.

For Through flooding: A silent choral reading performed as part of Brainlina at Next Wave, Isaac produced another script that was screenprinted, again in a concertina, on folded sheets of roll paper. Her requirement was for the scripts to be the same length as the audience rows that were approximately 4 metres long.

Rosie Isaac, Through flooding: A silent choral reading, 2016.

Isaac also needed the scripts to be perforated, as the script directed the audience to follow its silent direction of tearing them down at said perforation. We used printmaking, specifically screenprinting, to make these books because it was the most practical way to print repeated text on light weight paper. Unsurprisingly, it also made them a beautiful object, though they were effectively torn into pieces by their reading and performance.

Reflection number 2: The matrix is all around you.

Simryn Gill is an artist whose work revolves around collection. For decades she has combed the beaches around her family’s home of Port Dickson, Malaysia. Simryn has made relief and screenprint works at different stages of her career, though is most well known for her photographic series, her sculptural assemblages (often involving found objects and printed pages)

Simryn Gill, Pearls, 1999. courtesy of the artist and Utopia Art, Sydney.

and for representing Australia at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Around 3 years ago, Simryn and I began discussing a woodblock printing project that would use as its matrices a series of found pieces of timber from the beaches of Port Dickson washed up from the Malacca Straight.

Simryn Gill, Pressing In, 2016, work in progress. Courtesy of the artist and Utopia Art, Sydney.

Often derived from boats, these degraded pieces of wood were water-blasted to rid them of rot and to stabilise their surface for printing. After various conversations about shipping them to Melbourne to put through the press, we decided their surfaces were too gnarly, and the rigmarole around bringing a container of untreated timber from Malaysia to Australia, too onerous. The solution was for me to travel to Port Dickson and work with Simryn at her home/studio and print everything by hand.

Simryn Gill, Pressing In, 2016, work in progress. Courtesy of the artist and Utopia Art, Sydney.

Early tests proved that the baren was too wide to pick up the traces of grain and sea smoothed and animal interventions in the wood. The solution was found in the humble bone folder, and over the course of two weeks we printed scores of recovered objects of various sizes: some smaller than a smartphone, and others requiring several sheets of printed, A3 notebook paper to contain their form. The results, Simryn feels, are like texts and the process of our rubbings closer to handwriting than printing. The paper holds our touch and it is as though the paper receiving the crisp ink from our rubbing has revived the worn, wooden objects.

Simryn is not an artist who will speak directly about the meaning of her work. Like many artists, she wants the audience to engage with it, its materiality and content, to draw their own conclusions. Though in this series of works it is difficult to avoid the reference to what is cast or discarded into the sea, only to return battered and worn to the mass refugee crisis occurring globally, and its effects and ramifications locally, in Australia.

I had a call from Simryn yesterday saying that we had printed 160 small individual works, among the scores of larger pieces and composite ‘stacks’ we made. Despite the large volume of work produced, Simryn thinks that it is the beginning of a larger project, that will include an artist book and texts interspersed within the printed pages.

The first showing of this project, which is titled Pressing In, opens next Friday [16 September] at Griffith University Gallery.

Reflection number 3: The aim of the workshop is to meet and work together. Any tangible outcome is of secondary importance.

Workshop: If People Powered Radio, 2016. Photograph by Christian Capurro.

Late last year I was invited by Helen Hughes to work on a remaking project of posters from the archive of 3CR community radio to be presented at Gertrude Contemporary. In 2016, 3CR celebrates forty years of broadcasting. In their own words, ‘The radio station was established in 1976 to provide a voice for those denied access to the mass media, particularly the working class, women, Indigenous people and the many community groups and community issues discriminated against in and by the mass media.’

Despite the incredible depth of the 3CR archive of posters, handbills and ephemera, my conversations with Helen moved away from a strictly remaking project to something involving public space. The work already exists, I thought, why make a print? Over time my thoughts coalesced around the idea of conducting a ‘workshop’ in the exhibition space. This is, by no means, an original idea.

The Narrows, Printworkshop, 2008, (top) Bianca Hester & Oscar Yanez, (centre) Launch, Marco Fusinato,
(bottom) Parsing by Susuan Jacobs and Scott Miles. Photograph by Warren Taylor.

The Narrows, a well-loved Melbourne gallery that was interested in the overlap of art and design while preferencing neither, held an exhibition/project called Printworkshop in 2008. As part of this project artists were invited to work in the gallery to make a book in a day using a laptop and photocopier, on paper designed by the artist Matt Hinkley.

Ciara Phillips was nominated for the 2014 Turner Prize for her project Workshop at The Showroom in London, in which she exhibited multiple screenprints and a large-scale print on cotton. She also used the gallery as a site for making work, and exploring the idea of ‘making together’.

For the project Cutting Mirrors at c3 Contemporary Art Space, I was invited to relocate part of Negative Press into the gallery and collaborated with Renee Cosgrave and Elizabeth Newman on a series of monotypes and artist books. While the project transferred the workshop into a public space, the content that was created in the space did not reflect its environment in any way.

Workshop: If People Powered Radio, 2016. Photograph by Christian Capurro.

For Workshop: If People Powered Radio, I wanted to draw attention to the social aspects of the print studio, with particular reference to poster collectives that have a rich history in Australia. It was not about teaching the process of screenprinting (though that may be an unintended consequence of the project) or even finishing with a tangible result. The theme of this reflection ‘The aim of the workshop is to meet and work together. Any tangible outcome is of secondary importance,’ was a line I told the group of assembled participants before we started working. Our meeting together, in and of itself, defined the project’s success.

Workshop: If People Powered Radio, 2016. Photograph by Christian Capurro.

Large scale screenprinting by hand requires a collective effort, that mirrors the nature of activism and collectivism championed by 3CR and its community. The movement of passing the squeegee from one set of hands to another reinforces this. It is shared making, collective effort and responsibility and while I have convened the workshop, the author of the work is the group.

Workshop: If People Powered Radio was conducted over 2 days in the main gallery of Gertrude Contemporary. Spiros Panigirakis, artist and co-curator of the exhibition, remade the boardroom of 3CR in this room. It included a board table with printed ephemera under sheets of Perspex and posters and photographs from the archive from key moments in the organisation’s history on the wall. In preparation for our collective making, I put together a reader gleaned from research into 3CR’s organisational structure and history as a primer for our group to make poster’s that reflected this history. In many respects it was the ideal space to make this work, surrounded by the archive.

The results were interesting, and ultimately two days was too short for this kind of art making, however as I have said the aim of the workshop is to meet and work together. Any tangible outcome is of secondary importance.

Workshop: If People Powered Radio, 2016. Photograph by Christian Capurro.

To attract participants/collaborators for Workshop: If People Powered Radio I sent a callout to artists and their networks. I wanted to work with people without a broad knowledge of 3CR and its activities. I ended up with a group of people who I knew–Emily Floyd, Rosie Isaac, Saskia Doherty, Jaime Powell, Natalie Rambaldi and Olivia Koh. All are excellent artists in their own right and I appreciate their dedication and involvement in this project.

I am currently working on plans for an extended series of Workshop projects in regional towns, as a meeting place, a community space, a venue for people to express themselves: all of which align with the aims of 3CR. I believe to be successful in these new environments Workshop needs to be convened outside of the institution, and occupy a shop front or some other neutral, independent space.

As an aside, I think the thread of this reflection echoes my feelings about art school, that it is the interactions and collective experiences that are valuable, more so than what is physically produced. The record of these interactions is only our memory. In the streamlining of fine art courses across the country, disciplines are being neglected for a theoretically centred pedagogy. While I am in favour of theory, I don’t think it should be at the expense of disciple, or of the collective studio experience essential to the growth of early career artists.

Reflection number 4: It’s a thin line between remaking and reproduction.

Debates surrounding notions of the ‘original’ and the ‘copy’ abound in print related practice. It is impossible to avoid these ideas when remaking works. From an art market perspective, there are more and more art businesses coming up that sell so-called ‘contemporary editions’. Some are bone fide original works, output digital. Sadly, most are reproductions sold as limited art editions that command high prices. They ignore printmaking’s key tenets: the democratisation of artwork through low-cost editions; and the unique, craft based attributes of fine art printmaking. It is the cause of much negative press around print related processes. If the general public are confused about what constitutes an original artwork in the print medium, what luck do they have of understanding the true nature of ‘contemporary editions’ as proposed by these businesses?

Elizabeth Newman, Collateral Damage, 2013.
Courtesy of the artist and Neon Parc, Melbourne.

In 2013, Negative Press published two editions with Elizabeth Newman, Collateral Damage and Untitled. Both are approximately 110 x 80 cm and are a combination of digital printing and five screenprinted colours. The works were made specifically for a collage exhibition titled In the cut at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, curated by Hannah Mathews. In making these works, Newman and I discussed how we could collage processes rather than physically collage paper, with the artwork’s surface left intentionally flat.

These works derived from dozens of smaller collages Newman made over the course of 2013. In essence, we have remade the collage as a printed edition. There is a thin line between remaking and reproduction. Have I made with Newman the same type of work I have just rebuked?

In making large woodblock prints with Helen Frankenthaler, Ken Tyler made sure that Frankenthaler worked up her image on a woodblock. They kind of look like paintings, the whole image is there, but they are not paintings: they were not valued and were treated like working images. Tyler, in this instance, was aware of the issues surrounding remaking and reproduction and avoided them via this process.

When making these works with Elizabeth Newman, I suggested we destroy the collages the prints were based on. Or that we should somehow reduce them to a mock-up or working image. It was not truthful, and can’t disguise the origin of these works. Newman has said that the prints are better than the collages. I feel like they are some of the best prints I’ve ever made with an artist. They are original works in so much as the colours have shifted, the surface of the elements changed, though I still think about them in the context of the conversations surrounding remaking and reproduction in the field of printmaking.

Reflection number 5: Where is the edition?

There are two works that I made recently that forgo the edition altogether: the matrix becomes the work. The first are a series of copper plates made for Nicholas Mangan based on his investigation of the conflict surrounding the copper mines in Bougainville.

Nicholas Mangan, Progress in Action, 2016, installation view Sutton Gallery at Spring 1883.
Courtesy of the artist and Sutton Gallery Melbourne. Photograph by Andrew Curtis.

In the artist’s own words:

Progress in Action reflects upon the 1989 civil war on the Pacific Island of Bougainville; a war that lasted over ten years and was ignited over disputed land use, ownership and compensation claims for land damage. This conflict was catalyzed by the imposing Panguna Copper Mine. As a result, conflict broke out between the indigenous landowners of Bougainville some of who formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and Rio Tinto Copper operating as (Bougainville Copper ltd) in collaboration with the PNG government and Army.

 … Progress in Action pays homage to the BRA’s use of coconuts as an alternative source of fuel through the construction of a provisional coconut oil refinery that is used to produce coconut bio-fuel that powers a modified diesel generator. The electricity produced by the generator supplies power to a projector, which in turn screens a film about the events. This film features imagery of the very material that is at the core of the project: the Bougainville crisis. It is a portrayal of energy in exchange; a series of actions and reactions, flows and interruptions.

 

These copper works continue this creative rationale, imaging the cover of the Bougainville Copper Limited’s prospectus and a topographic map of the disputed mine sites onto the very material at the centre of the conflict.

Tomorrow afternoon [11 September] is the launch of a public art project Standing by Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner by Brook Andrew and I. It will be a momentous occasion as it is the first time a government body (in this case City of Melbourne) has recognised the frontier wars and resistance against invasion by Indigenous people via a public monument. Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner were part of a group of Tasmanians that travelled to the colonies of Port Phillip (now Victoria) with the so-called ‘protector’ of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson. Along with Truganini, Planobeena and Pyterruner, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner absconded from Robinson’s watch and travelled to Western Port where they took up arms, raided settler huts, and eventually killed two whalers.

They were hunted, captured and tried for murder and received an unfair trial. And despite lesser sentences being proposed by the jury and prosecution, by order of the trial judge they were the first people to be publicly executed in Victoria close to the location where the monument now exists. They lived in a time when to be black meant you could be shot on site. Tunnerminnerwait’s people were massacred at Cape Grim. Travelling with Robinson in Victoria, the group were aware of the Convincing Ground massacre near Portland. One of the whalers, in his dying words said ‘it serves me right, for I have killed many blacks’. It highlights issues around colonial ‘justice’ and uncovers one of many stories that our nation is founded upon.

The monument we have made has many aspects, including medicinal plantings, a solid bluestone tomb that is attached to a metal swing. Behind the swing structure is a series of newspaper stands that contain lithographic and etched aluminium plates that are filled with texts relating to the story of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner.

Our original idea for the newsstands was to relate a more in-depth overview of this history in the form of a newspaper that could be accessed by the public. As this is a permanent artwork (which I believe means it will be maintained for fifty years), printing so many copies of a newspaper was deemed impractical. The second idea was to make a publication, and then use the litho printing plates to make newspaper-like sculptures. Though again, our timeline and budget meant that this was not possible. Ultimately, we settled on creating a series of signs, that relate the story of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner and the significance of the site, while still referencing the materials of printing and making something that should last fifty years at least. While it appears like it required a series of compromises to finalise this part of the work, formally it is more cohesive in the context of the site. The text panels also remind me of the various signs on properties along the north coast of Tasmania we visited in researching this work: those that directed us to the site, those of the Van Diemen’s Land Company who own the properties at Cape Grim and their signs that threatened us with prosecution for walking on Aborignal land.

Reflection number 6: Technique is not overrated/Agency shouldn’t be ignored.

Brent Harris‘s studio wall of works in progress.

Last Thursday I delivered a new edition to Brent Harris’ studio. Harris is an artist with a long history of making prints alongside his painting practice. Images are remade, recontextulised and reused between his works. In 2012, Harris made a series of 100 reductive monotypes called The Fall. The figures that populated those intimate works have become the basis of his print and painting practice over the past four years.

Brent Harris, The Problem, 2015, Print Council of Australia fundraiser edition.

As a fundraiser for the Print Council of Australia last year, Harris and I completed our first collaboration. The Problem uses an inverted image from a monotype that didn’t make it into The Fall series. It is produced with an intaglio photopolymer plate and three screenprinted colours. We attempted the work as four screenprinted layers, but the finished print lacked depth, specifically in the inverted monotype image. We were both thrilled with the final result, despite its technical challenges of shrinking paper and fine registration. Brent has chronicled the process of making the work on his website, and it was also published on the Imprint blog, so I won’t go into further detail here.

The Problem has now led us to embark on a series of five new works, the most recent of which is called The Other Side.

Brent Harris works in progress 2016.

Again it is made with a photopolymer plate and two screenprinted layers. What I find so alluring about Harris’s print is the image he has conjured from the characters he has wiped out of a rolled up plate. I am also partial to the craft aspects of the finished work; the integration of print processes to affect the viewer’s interpretation of the picture planes; and the dark intensity of the intaglio element versus the light intensity of the screenprinted layers. They are formal concerns that support his conceptual interests.

Perhaps the opposite finish of Harris’s prints is found in the student posters of the Atelier Populaire.

Atelier Populaire, Capital, 1968.

The Atelier Populaire, or popular workshop, was established when students and faculty staff took over the Ecole des Beaux Arts during the student protests in Paris in May 1968. Of the hundreds of posters created, no artists or designers are credited: all posters were attributed to the Atelier Populaire.

In the workshop’s own words, the posters were to be ‘weapons in the service of the struggle … an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place [was] in the centres of conflict, that is to say, in the streets and on the walls of the factories’. One famous poster translated as: ‘The police post themselves at the School of Fine Arts – the Fine Arts’ students poster the streets.’

These posters function as activism and eschew the aesthetics of fine art printing in the service of political agency, directly communicating their purpose through their formal qualities.

The seventh reflection requires no explanation and draws us back to Sister Corita’s proclamation that ‘The Only Rule is Work’!

John Nixon is a Melbourne based artist who is prolific in his practice as a painter and experimental musician. He fronts a band called ‘The Donkey’s Tail’ and exhibits nationally and internationally several times each year. I can also reveal that he has an extensive collection of Australian pottery bought in opportunity shops and a library of books and records that would be the envy of any bibliophile or vinyl junkie. Nixon is so prolific that he has filled to overflowing a massive studio and storage facility at the back of his house in Briar Hill. It got to the point where he was painting on an outdoor table because he had run out of room.

Along the way, Nixon has also dabbled in printmaking.

John Nixon print archive documentation.

He refers to it as a side project, though he has been characteristically prolific in this field also. Early this year I helped Nixon catalogue 180 separate images, some existing as editions and others unique, created over the past thirty years. These works comprise of small etchings, screenprints, commercially printed posters, potato prints, relief prints, lithographs and xerox works.

Alongside this cataloguing, we have also embarked on making some new screenprints and small etchings. The majority of Nixon’s etchings were made when he taught at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne in the early nineties, in his lunch break. We now meet each Tuesday in the print studio between 1 pm and 2 pm (also his lunch break between four-hour long morning and afternoon classes), grounding up plates, etching and printing. We’ve made five small plates in our last two short sessions.

Nixon’s prolificacy is a reflection of his enjoyment in making work: it’s the reason why so many of us make prints, though as artists, and particularly as artists who make prints, I believe we need to balance our enjoyment and interest in craft with well considered conceptual responses to the content we are working with.

Thank you.

Trent Walter is an artist, printer and publisher interested in the intersection of contemporary art and printed matter. In his artwork, Walter combines multiple readymade sources (textual, pictorial and/or sculptural) to explore narrative, history and intersecting time.

Through his studio, Negative Press, Walter commissions artists to create projects made through the lens of expanded print practices.