Brent Harris on making The Problem (2015)

In 2015 the Print Council of Australia commissioned Brent Harris to make a special fundraiser print to help raise money to pay Imprint contributor fees. The result was The Problem, an edition of thirty photopolymer gravure and multi-layer screenprints.

The article that follows is based on the short talk Harris gave at the Fitzroy Town Hall on 26 November 2015, along with collaborating printmaker Trent Walter of Negative Press, about the way this print was worked into reality.

Printmaking has been an important part of my working life as an artist, and an integral component in the development of my imagery over the past twenty-seven years. Since 1988, I have generally worked with master printers including John Loane of Viridian Press (intaglio), Larry Rawling (screenprint), Kim Westcott (woodblock), Peter Lancaster (lithography), Martin King (lithography), Adrian Kellett (monotype) and
Trent Walter (photopolymer gravure and screenprint).

I have also participated in two international printmaking residencies: a three-month residency learning the Japanese watercolour woodblock technique at Nagasawa Art Park in 1999; and a five-week residency working on large scale paper pulp works with master papermaker Richard Hungerford, and woodcut prints with the printers at Singapore Tyler Print Institute in 2004.

Brent Harris
The Problem 2015
photopolymer gravure
with multiple screenprint layers
76 x 56 cm
edition of 30.

Getting to The Problem (2015):

In 2012 I worked on a series of one hundred monotypes. These works became a series titled the fall (2012), which was shown at Tolarno Galleries in November–December 2012, and was presented in nine groups of seven, two triptychs and twenty-one single prints.

Brent Harris’s studio, 2012
Below: Tolarno install of the fall, 2012

Even while this body of monotypes was being made, I was thinking: there is so much imagery here. I have to be able to use this across different media in future works.

the fall #83 was my first attempt at this. Obviously the two challenges here are scale and bringing colour to a black and white image. An element from the fall #70 has been flipped and also used down the left hand side of the painting below.

Top left: the fall #83 2012
collection: Art Gallery of Western Australia
Left: the fall #70 2012
Above: The Prophet 2012
oil on linen 240 x 160cm
collection: Shepparton Art Museum

It may seem that I am digressing, but this relates to what I am seeing as my imagery bank, which formed in the monotypes, and to how the imagery was developed for The Problem.

In 2013 I made another smaller series of monotypes titled embark. There are twenty prints in this new group and they were shown, along with nine small board paintings, in an exhibition of the same name at Lister Gallery in Perth (below).

Three of the nine paintings exhibited in Perth contain imagery that first appeared in one of the monotypes: this figure at the lower right of the monotype below.

embark #15, 2013, private collection Perth

This character has been cropped from the monotype, flipped horizontally, and then redrawn into the painting.

embark no.9, 2013, 52 x 38.2cm, private collection Perth

I’m not sure what the figure is about. At times I have thought of him as a stand-in for the artist.

In the monotype he seems to be a witness. He seems to be supported by a hand belonging to some larger being. In the paintings he appears as though he’s being delivered to some kind of portal, as though his past is delivering him into his future.

This character appears in several paintings including the large painting below.

Embark, 2014, 220 x 160cm, private collection Melbourne, shown at Tolarno Galleries in February 2015.

I should explain the monotype technique that I am using.

In December 2011, I went to Boston to see the Edgar Degas exhibition Degas and the Nude. He is an artist I love. I knew there was going to be a good selection of his monotypes and in particular the ones where he uses the ‘dark field technique’.

With this technique a substrate is rolled up with printing ink so as to achieve a totally black inky surface (in Degas’s case I think he most often used a copper plate). I use a piece of Perspex cut to the size I can comfortably print on the small press in my studio. Then you start wiping into the ink. The image forms as light, where the ink has been removed.

I think Degas would have known the image he was aiming for, either as an idea or from a drawing. For myself, I start with no preconceived idea. I just start smudging and watch for whatever imagery might surface.

It is possible to push ink back onto the plate into areas you might want to change while trying to retain areas worth holding onto (I use my fingers). If nothing of interest comes to the surface you can just re-roll the whole surface with ink and start afresh. Most often the monotype is printed on the same day it is made. Otherwise the ink will dry on the plate and print poorly. Many times at the end of the day, with no strong image having surfaced, I end up wiping down the plate.

the fall # 7, 2012, private collection Melbourne

the fall # 7 was so nearly not printed. I had worked on it all day and there had been many figurative elements trying to surface on the right hand side of the plate, but I could get nothing to stick. I liked the figure on the left, he reminded me of a figure in the painting The Flagellation of Christ (1455 -1460) by Piero della Francesca.

You have to remember that when making these prints you are working in the reverse, so on the plate this figure was coming in from the right, as is the flagellator in the Francesca painting.

As worked on the plate.
Piero della Francesca, The Flagellation of Christ (detail), 1455–60.

So at the end of the day and with no firm imagery appearing on the left, I was about to wipe the whole thing off when the finger marks where I had been pushing ink back onto the surface reminded me of another work by an artist I admire, Savarin 3 (red) by Jasper Johns. With Johns’s lithograph in the back of my mind I decided to print this plate.

When printed, it reminded me even more of the Johns lithograph. I was pleased I hadn’t wiped off my day’s work.

Jasper Johns, Savarin 3 (red), 1978, lithograph.

For the purposes of extending this monotype and using it for this new print idea, I inverted and coloured it similarly to the Johns.

I printed out a couple of these at A4 size in the studio and started mucking around on them with coloured pencil and gouache.

Quite quickly I saw the three figures/heads up at the right and presented them with eyes, and one with a beard. Also this figure with his hand behind his back arrives from another work of mine. He moves around within the image but doesn’t hold on, and gets dumped – it was starting to look too religious.

Now this other character arrives from the bottom right.

The bearded figure drops out of the group in the upper right. I am starting to feel this could be the print, but try one last stab at the new figure introducing more colour, which doesn’t work. So I have the print.

These two images are gouache on cheap reproductions; the right hand one will become the print. Trent and I now had to talk about how to realise this.

We had originally spoken of a screenprint; Trent did a test screen to see how this could work with the subtle tonal changes in the monotype. We found that the possible screen dot breakdown from a screenprint screen could not be made fine enough (see below). I don’t think it necessarily looked so bad, but it had a different feel, and was not achieving the richness of tone found in the monotype.

We decided to try photopolymer gravure for the ground image and multiple screenprint layers for the eyes and the character coming in from the lower right. Firstly, where the screenprinted image lands on the ground image, we stripped out the underlying surface from the photopolymer plate. This is shown below from a proof of the photopolymer gravure plate.

The proof here showing the stripped out ground plate where the screenprinting will hit.

I made a line drawing for the lower figure. This drawing was used to indicate where to strip out the photopolymer plate and also for the black line screen layer.

An early charcoal drawing above and then another finer black pencil drawing used for the screen.

I made a drawing for the eyes, at a much larger size. These two drawings were used for the one screen carrying the black. There were two other screens: one for the pink and one for the white.

So that was it: the printing from the photopolymer plate, followed by the printings from the three screens. Problem almost solved, apart from registration of all the elements by Trent Walter.

The title for this print refers to the problem of titling the work as much as anything. I am unable to impose a definition or meaning on this image.

To purchase The Problem view the PCA online store here. Brent Harris’s upcoming exhibition A Backroom Project opens at Tolarno Galleries on 5 March 2016.

Reader Correspondence


Dear editor,

I have read Trent Walter’s story re Northern Editions with great interest. I was overall manager of Northern Editions – which encompassed the CDU art collection (Anita Angel as curator) and the workshop (Dian Darmansjah as manager) as well as the retail operations – from 2002–2004 arriving direct from being managing director of Port Jackson Press in Melbourne. The fate of niche print workshops such as Northern Editions (and indeed PJP which has gone from Australia’s largest print publisher to small retailer) has always been precarious.

The issues I faced on arrival in Darwin (extreme heat, isolation and parochial mentality) were common to many talented artists, academics and arts administrators who often left after a year or so. Staff retention was a major issue for the university in particular and the Northern Territory in general. The complexities of dealing (in practical terms) with often dysfunctional remote communities who were our major ‘clients’ as well as the very limited audience of galleries, institutions and individuals interested in collecting prints meant balancing the books would always be a constant challenge. In the bigger picture of the university’s multi-million dollar budget the internal problems of Northern Editions were far exceeded by the political goodwill in supporting Indigenous and local artists. The publicity successful print projects generated at both a local and international level earned the title for Northern Editions as ‘jewel in the crown’ of Charles Darwin University.

The inevitable bust after an unprecedented boom in the Australian art market compounded by the Global Financial Crisis ensured the Indigenous arts industry in particular suffered a fatal blow on both domestic and international markets starting in 2006–07. I am not surprised therefore that the future of Northern Editions is under threat but a key factor will be whether senior university staff and politicians see the value of the arts as integral to the contribution CDU makes to the cultural life of the Northern Territory.

Greg Mallyon

2016 Print Commission – final call for entries!


Artists are invited to submit digital images of recent work for selection to create a new print edition for the 2016 PCA Print Commission. All forms of printmaking, including digital, are welcome.

Invited judges for the 2016 Print Commission are Roger Butler, Senior Curator, Australian Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Australia, and John Loane, Master Printer and artist, Viridian Press.

Hurry, entries close Friday 5 February. Enter via the PCA website here.

Postcards: Mei Sheong Wong’s Greetings from Scotland

clockwise from top: Mei Sheong Wong, Achavandra Muir, 2015, etching; Mei Sheong WONG en route to the prehistoric site of the Bear Cave, Scotland, September 2015; Mei Sheong Wong and Ian Westacott at the opening of Ian’s exhibition of etchings at Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh, September 2015.

Printmaker and PCA member Mei Sheong Wong reports on her mentorship with Australian printmaker Ian Westacott in Scotland, UK, August–September 2015.

An Arts SA grant facilitated my recent mentorship with Ian Westacott in northern Scotland. En route, I visited numerous cultural sites, while billeted with the Brenner–Bauer family in Cap d’Ail, France. In Oxfordshire, as guest of the Kang–Fiennes family, I viewed historic Broughton Castle, and precious works on paper by Michelangelo, Raphael and Samuel Palmer in Ashmolean Museum’s Western Art Print Room, Oxford.

Invited by Australian printmaker Tony Linde and Leicester Print Workshop manager Lucy Phillips, I gave an artist talk at LPW on the theme of Revenants in the Scottish mediaeval ballad Clerk Saunders, explored through the materiality of print media (my honours research, 2014), and on my residency at the University of Hawaii in 2015 (facilitated by Helpmann Academy and Prof. Charlie Cohan).

Curator Simon Lake kindly showed me the renowned collection of German Expressionist prints in Leicester New Walk Museum. Nearby, King Richard III’s remains (buried by Grey Friars, after Battle of Bosworth, 1485) had recently been discovered, in an unprepossessing car park, before ceremonial entombment in Leicester Cathedral.

Other places of interest visited were: Leeds; Harrogate; York Minster; Yorkshire Sculpture Park; Glasgow Cathedral; Loch Lomond; Loch Ness; Fort William; Inverness; Dornoch Cathedral; Dunrobin Castle Museum; Embo Cairn; Edderton Churchyard; Orkney Islands – Kirkwall, Skara Brae and Stromness’ Ring of Brodgar.

It was delightful to attend Ian’s exhibition opening at Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh, and to admire his work at Browns Gallery, Tain. Also viewed were Edinburgh’s National Portrait Gallery and Joseph Beuys’ exhibition, Timespan Regional Gallery, Helmsdale. After trekking up to the prehistoric Bear Cave, we travelled across the Highlands – via Bonar Bridge, Rosehall and Oykel Bridge – to Lochinver on the rugged west coast.

En plein air, we drew onto copper plates until way too chilled to grip an etching needle. Respite from inclement weather usually took the form of steaming hot chocolate or single malt whisky. Several plates were etched and proofed, before a last-minute ‘chine collé demo’, at the end of my too-brief sojourn!

This enriching experience was enhanced by Ian’s familiarity with Pictish, Celtic and Neolithic sites; his profound knowledge of great ancient trees; his printmaking expertise; and his boundless generosity. His wife Sue and their son also made me feel most welcome. Still working on my copper plates, I plan to develop a body of work for exhibition, based on this marvelous journey.


PCA Member Q&A: Ying Huang

Sleep Well My Princess, 2015, etching and screenprint on steel, 20 x 28.5 cm. This print was selected for the 2015 PCA Print Commission. It is available to purchase through the PCA store.

‘I started learning calligraphy when I was about six years old, and then went on to learn traditional Chinese painting … I wasn’t exposed to printmaking before I left China.’ 

Ying Huang lives in Victoria

Why do you make art?

Art has always been part of my life since I was a child. I come from an artistic family and I grew up with art. I started learning calligraphy when I was about six years old, and then went on to learn traditional Chinese painting. After I left China I travelled around the world, living in various places, and stopped making art for some years. I started again when I came to Australia and haven’t stopped since.

What’s your relationship to printmaking?

I used to see myself as a painter and drawer – I wasn’t exposed to printmaking before I left China. The first time I drew onto a copper plate and etched it at school I knew I’d found my medium! I now identify as a printmaker first rather than a painter.

How did you get interested in printmaking?

My interest in printmaking was sparked during my study. I used to love etching but during my last couple of years at RMIT I started to explore blending different mediums and I began screenprinting onto steel plates as my main medium.

Who is your favourite artist?

I love a lot of artists and my ‘favourite’ keeps changing. It depends on what medium I am working in at the time, but Rembrandt and Alberto Giacometti are two favourites.

What is your favourite artwork?

I have so many favourite artworks. I love Ruth Johnstone’s etchings and Jazmina Cininas’s linocuts. They were both my lecturers at RMIT. They inspired and guided me throughout my study. I also love Hertha Kluge-Pott’s drypoint works and Alice Neel’s paintings.

Where do you go for inspiration?

I get inspiration from a wide range of sources, such as film, song titles and lyrics, pop art, other artists’ work, mass media and iconic photography, other cultural media and major events around the world … I basically find everyday life and personal experiences very inspiring.

What are you working on now?  

I am continuing a body of work that I started this year for my solo show. These works are exploratory and will continue my hybrid practice which I call ‘Polipanda’. I am using aluminium, raw steel and etched steel. I manipulate my digital images and sometimes blend screenprinted and digitally printed imagery on aluminium and steel plates. The subject matter of these works is playful, rebellious and humorous. My next solo show is at Tacit Contemporary Art gallery in March 2016.

PCA Member Q&A: Annette Cook

Striated Pardalote Net, 2015, etching, aquatint, linocut and stencil, 55 x 50 cm (image size) 62 x 56 cm (paper size). This print was selected for the 2015 PCA Print Commission. It is available to purchase through the PCA store.

‘The potential to create pattern and emphasise or dilute an idea through repeating and repositioning a print interests me.’ 

Annette Cook lives in Victoria

Why do you make art?

Making art is about having a visual conversation with myself. I enjoy this form of communication and investigating ways to interpret the connections I see between natural and social environments. I make art in starts, often driven to continue when I see other artists’ work that challenges and incites me, and other times when I want to play.

What’s your relationship to printmaking?

Printmaking for me is a place of random success and failure on both a small and massive scale. I like this risky business and enjoy pitting myself against the odds. The process demands that I articulate with skill, restraint and constant revision. Part of printmaking’s appeal is the finite plate and hence the forced conclusion of the image. I appreciate this and enjoy working within those limits. Paradoxically, printmaking is about the multiple and the endless variations possible when reprinting the matrix. The potential to create pattern and emphasise or dilute an idea through repeating and repositioning a print interests me.

How did you get interested in printmaking?

In art school I was exposed to a wide range of print techniques and was drawn to the chemical and material processes that intervene in the image making. The transformational moment of printing plate to paper and pulling a print was, and still is, captivating. Drawing is a strong component of my practice and has common sympathies with printmaking. I was given a press and printmaking has dominated my practice ever since. I have also taught printmaking for many years.

Who is your favourite artist?

I have many including Fiona Hall, G.W.Bot, Yayoi Kusama, Kiki Smith, Gabriel Orozco, Dorothy Napangardi.

What is your favourite artwork?

One favourite is El Perro (The dog) Francisco Goya. The painting is particularly enigmatic.

Where do you go for inspiration?

Museum collections, Tasmania, nature, a farm in Central Victoria, books, galleries, online, conversation with other practitioners.

What are you working on now?  

A portfolio print for Eventide curated by Rona Green to be shown at the Mornington Peninsula Art Gallery. I am also preparing for a curated exhibition called Graphic Nature for 2017.

A Two-Way Thing: An Interview with Rick Amor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GC: Have you kept any of those silkscreens?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GC: What sort of response did it get?

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

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

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

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

GC: They also make the image slightly more mysterious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GC: Do you go in for retroussage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

GC: What works were they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RA: Oh no, I hate all that.

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

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

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

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

GC: So which of your mezzotints particularly pleases you?

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

PCA Member Q&A: Peter Ward

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

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

Peter Ward lives in New South Wales

Why do you make art?

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

What’s your relationship to printmaking?

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

How did you get interested in printmaking?

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

Who is your favourite artist?

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

What is your favourite artwork?

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

Where do you go for inspiration?

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

What are you working on now?  

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

Unique Copies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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