Q&A: Damon Kowarsky
Top: Paul, etching and aquatint from two copper plates, 22 x 25 cm, 2012.
Above: Jeffrey, etching and aquatint from two copper plates, 13 x 19 cm, 2010
Above, right: Michael, etching and aquatint from two copper plates, 13 x 19 cm, 2010
Damon Kowarsky won the Grand Prize for the Midsumma Men on Men art competition (alongside Scott Thomas, who won People’s Choice). Kowarsky’s etchings are showing at the Laird Hotel. Megan Hanrahan finds out about his process.
Q: What were some of the foundation ideas for your work in your new exhibition, Exposed?
The exhibition was a result of a competition earlier in the year, the Men on Men art competition, which involved work about masculinity, and the winner got an exhibition at the Laird, a men-only pub. I picked a selection of work from the last five years that were all portraits of men as I felt that was the most appropriate response. It is the only male-only pub in Australia, and one of a few in the world. Now, it may not seem so important, however if you look back to the early ’80s when there was a huge amount of stigma against gay men, and the rising problem with HIV, it retains its role as a special space where men who are perhaps still uncomfortable with their sexuality can go. The bulk of my work is architectural and landscape, so this was a chance to have 10 or 11 portraits that fitted together in this exhibition but hadn’t [been] seen before.
Q: The prints have a lot of strong texture – can you explain some of the technical processes at work?
I nearly always work with two-colour or two-plate etchings, so a dark black or brown and then a blue or red as a second plate. I was shown a technique where you lay down an aquatint and then draw into it with chinagraphic pencil, or a waxy pencil, and that wax resists the acid. Etching can be an indirect drawing, but in this way you get the soft crayon marks you perhaps might associate more with lithography, but you get them on an etching plate. That, plus the combination of the two plates, is what picks up the textures. I am always pushing the boundaries of what that particular technique will give. Two-plate etching is reasonably difficult enough if you’re interested in coherent registration, but there is still a lot of scope for exploration.
Q: Do you have a conscious preference for waist-up portraits? Can you elaborate on what prompts this or what you like about it?
I am much more interested in portraiture than drawing the full body. A part of that is how it fits onto the page. There is a long tradition of a head-and-shoulders bust portrait going back to the Renaissance and long before that as well. It gives some clues about the body and the person, while still remaining strongly a portrait, which is much more my interest than drawing nudes. I am interested in who the person is and my relationship to them.
Q: Do you work from life with the people in your portraits? What is the process?
Yes, absolutely. I typically will make a pencil drawing of the subject, and then if I am satisfied with that I will transfer that drawing onto the etching plate. To me that’s really the only way it will work. It’s always a challenge to draw a portrait, and that’s a good way to learn and develop skills. We live in an age where photographic portraiture is everywhere… it can be done so easily, so taking the time to do something that requires practice and skill has a value. There is also a political element – I don’t think the world should only be viewed through the lens. Our eyes were the primary way we looked at the world for a long time, and understood the world, and I think there is also value in that.
Q: What are the sorts of feelings or emotions you would hope to prompt with these works?
I want them to enjoy looking at it. It has got to be interesting to them, and visually rich, and then they are free to develop any ideas they want from it afterwards.
Q: What drew you to art and printmaking? Was the process of creating fostered in you as a child, or did you discover it later in life?
It was certainly always there when I was young, my mum did drawing when I was a child, and we had a close family friend who was a designer back in the day when that meant a room full of pencils and watercolours, cutting knives, ink, paper and all the kind of things that don’t exist in the design world anymore. I loved the sense of craft that he had. And then I started making art when I as a 19-year-old, and fell in love with printmaking. Printmaking felt the most natural. I liked the combination of craft, and the ability to be artistic and experimental. With printmaking, you need to rely on techniques, but you can push them as far as you want. – Megan Hanrahan