Q&A: Paul Coldwell
Paul Coldwell Lines and branches, 2012 screenprint
56 x 76cm. edition of 8
Paul Coldwell Sites of memory –suitcase 2006, screenprint
59 x 71cm. edition of 15
Paul Coldwell Still Life Bouquet 2012, inkjet and linocut
59 x 84cms. edition of 7
Paul Uhlmann speaks with British printmaker Paul Coldwell about his latest work.
PAUL UHLMANN: I have often thought that etching in particular is like making sculpture in miniature. Can you discuss the relationship between sculpture and printmaking in your practice.
PAUL COLDWELL: My work in sculpture and printmaking are closely related in terms of ideas although they look very different. I have always resisted the tendency to develop a distinctive style and so try to approach each piece of work with a high degree of risk and experimentation. I want to be surprised. For me both sculpture and printmaking are about the pleasure of making but some ideas seem naturally to need expression through objects, other than through a flat pictorial language.
There are many similarities between the processes I use in sculpture and print. Casting, for example transforms an object from one material to another as well as reversing it. This is similar to the transformation where an etched line in metal is transformed into a reverse image in ink on paper, as occurs in etching. In both instances there is a transformation through a matrix, unlike painting which is predicated on direct touch. I find these processes give me thinking time and allow me to progress an idea through stages. In terms of ideas, once I have decided on the material or process, these become part of the language to express that idea. If it works, then the idea, process and material become inseparable. I would add that play is an essential element in my working process whether in sculpture or print. I am driven by a curiosity to visualize my ideas and trial and error is a key aspect of that process. You mention the word miniature, and much of my work is about inviting the viewer to look in, particularly with the sculptures, so they have a sense of models or visual propositions rather than works which are concerned with occupying space.
PU: You outline that drawing is a private thinking process and that with your prints your ‘… inclination is to edit out any sense of there being a correlation between gesture and emotion’ – can you further elaborate.
PC: I am drawn to works which have a strong degree of restraint and for me, I want to make works where the emotion is compressed rather than allowed free rein. Its not that I think expressionism is wrong, its just it doesn’t work for me and when I have tried, I have felt that the emotion becomes more comic than tragic. So in keeping with this, I try to keep the gesture under control and to find other ways of exploring the emotion that sits behind the ideas. I also like to pair down work, to get rid of what I feel is non essential. I’m not trying to erase the hand its more that I want to keep a tight control.
PU: You mention that you are able to draw images by manipulating individual dots on halftone screens on the computer – can you please explain how this assists you in your work? Is there a moment when the tool of a computer is very close to the traditional tools of pencil and paper?
PC: When I first started using the computer back in the mid 1990’s my approach then, as it remains, was that digital technologies could be added to the tool box of technologies that printmakers can use. Like Richard Hamilton, I don’t think that you have to think of processes in isolation, so in many of my prints there is a combination of techniques and media. This also helps break the uniformity that a print surface can have as well as suggesting that the print has been made layer by layer.
I’ve been very interested for some time in the half tone dot. This is the means through which a photograph traditionally was prepared for print. In analogue darkroom techniques, the photograph would be projected through a fine dot screen and depending on the fineness of that screen, would be the size of the dots. Working on the computer, rather than having to accept the overall unified size and density, I can manipulate each individual dot if I so wish. This makes the photograph as fluid as a drawing and brings those two languages into close proximity.
PU: Morandi is an artist who has exerted a powerful influence on many artists including you. Indeed you curated a show whereby British artists were paired with a work by Morandi. Can you outline what it is that impresses you about Morandi? Is it something to do with the way he organises space around everyday objects; his tonal quality which is evident in his paintings as well as his prints or is it something more poetic and indefinable?
PC: Giorgio Morandi was an artist I discovered when I was first at college. He’s one of those, artist’s artists that seems to exert a wide influence over a surprisingly broad range of artists. As you said, I wrote a book and curated an exhibition in 2006 entitled Morandi’s Legacy: Influences on British Art which explored this idea through juxtaposing key works by Morandi with signature pieces by leading British artists such as Ben Nicholson, Tony Cragg and David Hockney.
I was first attracted to his prints by the restraint within their making. Basically he used hard ground etching and the language of cross hatching to render either his groupings of bric-a-brac (bottles, jugs, oil lamps etc.) or simple landscapes viewed through binoculars from his studio in Grizzana.
I’m drawn to the inward looking nature of his work, the small repoitroire of objects and landscapes and how he opened up the rigid mannerism of cross hatching into a varied and expressive language capable of intense emotion. I suppose he’s like Samuel Becket, making so much from so little and furthermore, like Becket, dealing with the spaces in-between, the shadows as well as the objects, the silences as well as the words. For me there is something intense about the way Morandi gives value to all parts of a picture irrespective of whether it can be identified with a name. If I were to project this as a model for society, each person would be valued and their contribution understood.
PU: Printmaking especially Intaglio is often understood as being an alchemical form of expression driven by process. Can you outline if experimentation is part of your process?
PC: Experimentation is very much a part of my practice but its essential for me to keep control so that the experiments take me in the direction I want to go. Printmaking, as you rightly say can be seen as an alchemical process and the danger can be that so many unexpected things can happen and can overwhelm the intention you had at the beginning. You might end up with a fascinating print in terms of wonderful ingredients but if you’ve lost ownership of the idea in the process, then for me it’s a failure. Of course experimentation starts at the drawing stage, those first attempts to turn an idea into a visual proposition. Most of my ideas are worked through in sketchbooks and notes, but these are essentially ways of getting ready to start. Once in progress, as the print develops there are things that can happen, particularly in etching which were not anticipated and then I have to make those hard decisions about whether to live with those changes or edit them out.
PU: Gaston Bachelard writes that many people think of an image as something which is in formation however for him it is a process of deformation. We will use this quote as the basis for a one-day forum while you are in Australia however can you respond to this quote? How do you understand such an idea of the deforming image from Bachelard?
PC: I think that we so often think of the imagination as something fully formed and simply waiting to be realized. I prefer to think of imagination as deforming in as much as enabling us to project onto things, meanings and associations. Often, when I am drawn to something, I have little idea of why and its only through working with it that it acquires meaning for me. It develops as an idea and often very practical questions have a profound impact, i.e. how will a sculpture stand up? What happens at the edge?
In the process of making, whether a sculpture or a print, scale becomes of great importance and changes the meaning of an object. Something that suggests it can be held in the hand for example, is radically different from the same image made large. So the physical size of the work engenders a very particular set of associations, which further contribute to what we might understand as the meaning of a work.
I do see a danger in so much art being known primarily through reproduction. There is a paradox that as artists we spend endless time making specific decisions about size, material, texture, colour, and if one goes deeper, for example the decision to screenprint as apposed to using lithography, the subtle difference between dry point and etching, and yet predominantly our images are not experienced directly in the flesh, but translated through lithographic or digital reproduction in publications, or transformed into images on phones or other digital devices. It is important to understand what is lost and what is gained through this process and as a professor, engaged in research, insist that the artworks are seen as prime sources and experienced directly whenever possible.
PU: You have made many artists’ books and at times these books have been collaborations such as the book with poet Anthony Rudolf. Can you outline how you went about this collaboration. Was it active or were you both working separately and bringing the images and text together?
PC: I have made a number of artists books, each a collaboration and each very different. For example, With the melting of the Snows was a response to Martin Bell radio broadcast when he stood down as the BBC War Correspondent. My lasts book, Temporarily accessioned is a documentary record of the action in which I arranged for the coat that Sigmund Freud wore for his exile to England from Vienna in 1938, to be x-rayed at the National Gallery in London as if it were a relic or masterpiece. With Kafka’s Doll, I had wanted to collaborate with the poet Anthony Rudolf for some time and eventually he gave me this short story to work with. It’s very minimal and pithy and the story is based on a real life occurrence in Kafka’s life where he comes across a child crying that she had lost her Doll. The story then unfolds and I wanted to match the simple direct prose of Rudolf with a set of images worked on within the computer. The overriding visual theme is the idea of the constellation and the way we try to make sense of the world through projecting images. I designed the layout for the book including the endpapers and tried to suggest the dark layers that are below what a first glace is a simple story.
PU: I was interested in what you said about anxiety and how it is something which is always with you. You channel this into your art. Your recent work in particular belies any outward sense of anxiety. Can you discuss this apparent paradox?
PC: This is a very interesting question and observation. I think there is often a gap between how someone is perceived and the lived reality and most of us are contradictions, the number of sad clowns is an example that comes readily to mind. But as I said earlier, I’ve resisted the safety net of a clearly identifiable style, preferring to try to resolve ideas in a more open ended way. This by its nature involves working closely with failure and risk and most of my work goes through a long gestation process. But I always feel that there seems to be a lot riding on each new piece of work and that previous successes don’t alleviate the pressure and I try to keep challenging myself to stop things being too comfortable. But I’m glad you feel that the work belies this sense of anxiety since it’s the ideas that I would rather have the focus on.
Paul Coldwell’s Small Traces is at Gallery 25 at Edith Cowan University until 18 April. He will participate in a symposium titled Forming and Deforming Images: The creative process in flux on 27 March at 9am.
Paul Coldwell is an artist and Professor in Fine Art at University of the Arts London with a broad practice which includes printmaking, sculpture and book works. He has curated a number of exhibitions, has lectured throughout the world and writes regularly on printmaking for Print Quarterly and Art in Print. He was ECU Visiting Fellow to Edith Cowan University in March 2017. He held his first major solo show in Australia at ECU in Gallery 25 on ECU Mt Lawley Campus.
Paul Uhlmann is an artist, Lecturer and coordinator of Visual Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth. His work will be in the forthcoming exhibition Batavia! Open your Eyes at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at UWA in October.