Custom or collaborative printing.
Custom or collaborative printing.
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Custom or collaborative printing
by John Loane
A great deal has been said and written in recent years, especially in the United States, about the practice of custom or collaborative printing, and about the relationship of artist and printer that occurs. The recent publication Lasting impressions: Lithography as art, edited by Pat Gilmour of the Australian National Gallery, is a volume that contributes valuably to that writing and contains a wealth of historical and anecdotal information.
In the chapter on lithographic collaboration, Gilmour refers to a Tamarind Papers catalogue essay ‘A printer must be able to translate an artist’s individual requirements into ink, densities, etch strengths and rolling patterns, being careful never to cross the fine line that separates technical advice from aesthetic interference.’
The same, of course, could be said of all the other printmaking mediums. Gilmour also quotes Garo Antreasian, one of the founding master printers at Tamarind [Lithographic Workshop] who, as she observes, has since written with considerable knowledge of the psychological factors, not to mention the group dynamics, affecting collaborative activity, and recognising that it entails creative input from both participants, for even when the artist appears to make the judgments. Antreasian: ‘It is the printer’s vision, knowledge and technical skill that brings the work to the state where the artist can make such crucial decisions. In so doing a printer has tremendous creative leeway.’
In the first place it is the printer’s job, when introducing an artist to printmaking, to identify the technical direction that would seem most appropriate to pursue. Naturally, this involves discussions with the artist and, once a course is plotted, some test plates or stones are worked on before the real work begins. Sometimes those tests are the best work.
The business of making the image together with the artist is the stimulating part. Subsequent editioning can be either pleasantly meditative or somewhat of a grind, depending on the level of difficulty, one’s mood at the time, or what one finds is playing on the FM radio.
In the best circumstances, the printer will have a genuine empathy for an artist’s work, in which case the collaboration can be mutually satisfying. The scale of custom printing and publishing in the United States during the last two decades, as we’ve seen, has reached extraordinary levels.
On a recent visit there I went to pay my respects to Crown Point Press, the renowned etching studio in San Francisco. On approaching I noticed on the roadway out in front of the studio, what I perceived to be large, lumps of bituminous hard ground. I thought that indeed they must be making gigantic etchings these days, and I wondered at the stature of those robust American printers who, I imagine, would be required to heft these lumps and apply them to the plates. On close inspection, however, I realised that the object of my printer’s fantasy was in fact road building material.
The scale of the work I did see there was large and technically complex, as only American prints can be, so this momentary heroic vision was not entirely aberrant, however I saw nothing quite so compelling as I had on a previous visit to Crown Point, namely several series of prints by avant garde composer John Cage.
This one, Changes and disappearances Number 35, 17 drawings by Thoreau, and Derro Number One.
I think it is interesting that an artist from quite a different discipline can produce such an original body of prints, based upon the same principles of chance, and the throw of the I Ching dice, which he applies to his musical compositions. Working with printers he has been able to subvert etching procedures, to a large extent, to suit his purposes. This has involved swinging bottles of acid above plates and other complex procedures for measuring and cutting shaped plates that come together as multi–layered and coloured prints.
However, the economical, political and cultural constructs that operate in the United States are, I think, somewhat different from what prevails here, though I do not intend to make elaborate comparisons here between American and Australian prints. I would say, however, that some of the best work in this country, in my view, is characterised by a certain raw energy and an avoidance of excess and exaggeration. Indeed, in identifying and responding to an artist’s impulses, one may work with a very particular and limited technique. If this is found by the artist to be appropriate then he or she will respond with great sensitivity to that technique.
I've got half a dozen slides here of some recent prints I’ve been doing with Geoffrey Harris, a New Zealand artist now living and working in Melbourne. There are six here out of a set of 12, and they are lithogrammed aquatints. The first one was Head with birds, (then) A poet, Autumn, In darkness, Male figure and Conversation.
They’re wiped up in a very vigorous sort of way, with a lot of plate tone, and a lot of ink really left in the left ground aquatint. I think they had a great deal more feeling printed this way. I think Geoffrey is an excellent example of somebody who is working with a very limited technique, for this particular series of prints.
Another artist with whom I enjoy working is the Sydney painter Aida Tomescu. An authentic abstractionist of Eastern European discipline who excavates her metal plates, etching, scraping and digging around until she emerges with a strong set of images, and what was once a sharp three–sided scraper tool now perfectly rounded without her realising it, such is the vigour of her scraping, in the act of image–making.
This one is a lithograph that we did some time ago, at the Victorian Print Workshop.
Mike Parr is another artist who makes his own particular impact on a studio, devouring copper and plywood blocks with the same compelling energy that he applies to his large–scale drawings. We recently completed several suites of monotypes, which are printed off woodcut blocks with a bleed format. I have four slides of these out of several dozen. They are, in fact, treated as etchings, printed in intaglio manner, with colour added in some instances. Fairly familiar heads; they carry a lot of ink in the wood blocks; the plywood blocks.
His new suite of large drypoints Solar Winds, is currently showing at Solander Gallery. With Parr there are absolutely no gratuitous concessions to technique. The work is characterised by ferocious application to plate or block of drypoint tool or angle grinder. He seeks to exploit the medium in ways which best express the psychic content of the work.
There are two other artists with whom I work, from time to time, who I would lump together, if they don’t mind, as being exponents of a particularly gruesome and authentic, but often humorous kind of social commentary and rat-baggery, namely Tony Coleing and Nicholas Nedelkopoulos.
This one, which is upstairs I understand although I haven’t seen it, Battlefield. Civilisation/Asyphilisation, and Pearl Du Pacifique.
Coleing is a master of comic book style imagemaking. A catalogue raisonné with prints dating back to 1965, entitled Looking, has just been published by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Brisbane. Nicholas Netalkopoulos, who is best known for his extraordinary etchings, which he made earlier this decade, together with printer Bill Young, has made three lithographs so far, including one for the ‘Bicentennial Folio’.
This one is Dark lands. At the same time, he made these two other lithographs. Netalkopoulos draws heart–felt commentaries on social injustice and hypocrisy, leavened in most cases by his particular pervasive wit.
Brent Harris, a Melbourne artist is currently painting a version of The fourteen stations of the Cross, yet another version. We are making aquatints after the paintings, and the prints will follow closely the form of the paintings, though the scale of the prints is small and intimate. It will be interesting to read the two sets of images on completion. The reiteration of the forms as prints will, I think, add power and subtlety to the forms themselves.
That was one of them. These other two prints are two separate prints we’ve done together recently, Land’s end, and Lux, and as aquatints.
Lithography is an expansive medium, as Neil [Leveson] will no doubt tell you. One can do almost anything with it. While it can be dangerously seductive sometimes, particularly when displaying wash effects, it is traditionally a colour and drawing medium. Several artists who I feel used the medium particularly well for their Bicentennial Folio prints, which was commissioned by the Australian National Gallery, are Bonita Ely with this wonderful print the Warrior, Marie McMahon having great experience at Redback Graphix, Hossein Valamanesh, and Brian Blanchflower.
Most printmakers or print artists, to use the American term, who are wholly engaged in making their own prints are often, I think, their own best printers. They have an intimate relationship with their plates, stones and blocks, what have you, and print them accordingly. A case in point is Kate Lohse, with whom I worked on her ‘Bicentennial Folio’ print.
She typically wipes her plates a little differently each time, carefully constructing the image as if to emphasise her commitment to it. Initially, we each wiped a plate varying and whitening each time so, of course, the results were all a little different, and mainly in the construction of the face, there. However, it was a case of the artist knows and feels best, so Kate finished this superb edition herself.
Collaborative printmaking seems to be a fairly natural activity for me now at my relatively newly established Veridian Press in Melbourne, and I would hope to continue working with artists whose work I continue to be interested in.
Some of the artists I have begun to work with, and who are new to making prints, are becoming more and more involved as they carefully move into new technical ground. It is important at this stage for both artist and printer to be vigilant, so that new methods adopted, though part of the work, do not intrude.
© John Loane, 1989.
Transcript of paper presented at The First Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1989.