Regional printmaking in Australia.
Regional printmaking in Australia.
SourceAustralian Print Symposium
Country of context
Regional Places: Women working with prints in regional Australia
by Dimity Phillips
Printmaking in Australia is a pragmatic art form. It encourages printmakers to take liberated approaches to the plate or matrix – exploring new ways of making marks, and of marking the cultural environment around them. The challenges associated with printmaking practice in regional areas are many: many printmakers have difficulty obtaining their own equipment, have limited access to workshops, feel disconnected from the broader arts community, are confronted with the significant costs of the purchase and freight of material from distant places and often have a limited capacity to develop a market for their work. However, regional environments have a great capacity to inspire alternative approaches to the creation of a print. Cupboards under the sink are raided for caustic acids, home-made equipment is built, collaborative relationships are formed with printmakers who own presses or, failing that, houses are raised, tractors and cars utilised or the backs of spoons applied with gusto in order to achieve the required pressure for the creation of the print. Local formal and informal communities of artists and printmakers can be established, working in back sheds and old garage workshops. Alternatively, local and state governments can assist in establishing art workshops with printmaking facilities. Collaborative projects can be participated in or organised throughout Australia and internationally, stimulating discourse and support.
These are a few examples of the many ways printmakers have overcome the some of the disadvantages associated with regional practice. While these issues affect men as well as women, it is in the practice of women printmakers in regional areas that concepts of isolation and exclusion often come into play. Women printmakers are particularly evident in regional printmaking communities, such as the Southern Highlands Printmakers Association in Mittagong or the Newcastle Printmakers workshop. However, while women participating in these group environments are able to exhibit to a wide range of audiences, and benefit from the education and equipment the community provides, it is the identity of the group that they become most publicly evident. This identity is strongly marked by their regional position. An individual printmaker within a regional printmaking group runs the risk of finding that their public profile represents the cultural identity of the region before it represents their work.
Women printmakers who cannot (or choose not to) participate in a printmaking community environment run the risk of not having a public profile at all. These printmakers often work predominantly within the home, and in regional environments this can present significant problems. Their practice is faced with universal issues regarding access to equipment and materials, access to market and equitable representation in contemporary art discourse. More confronting for many, however, are the decisions that must be made in order to balance their printmaking practice with their personal lives. Certain printmaking techniques may have to cease due to the toxic risks, particularly to those with young children. Many women report that the time they spend on their printmaking is conceived as time stolen from their families, and it is on the domestic front that they fight their first battle to establish the legitimacy of their practice. Although the improvement of transport and the increase in the number of presses available for purchase (either new or second hand) in regional areas has enabled more printmakers than ever to have adequate equipment, women must first negotiate a space of their own to practice in. Verandas, sheds and spare rooms all act as sites of practice, but these sites often remain silent due to their domestic position.
For many regional women printmakers, the issues affecting regional practice are not, in fact, derived from their geographic position. The expansion of cultural governance strategies into regional Australia has resulted in a vast increase in the number of avenues from which a printmaker may gain support. Grants, prizes, touring exhibitions and printmaking workshops reach many printmakers whose regional position would once have meant practising in isolation. Internet listserv groups enable printmakers, both male and female, to form networks and associations regardless of geography. Exchanges of print folios between individuals, art schools and communities allow a transfer of ideas and techniques across state and national boundaries. Contemporary printmaking in regional and urban areas of Australia is increasingly an art practice for which geographic region has little relevance. The issues confronting many regional women printmakers derive instead from a cultural perception of place informed by gender politics and centralised artistic traditions.
What, then, are the concepts of place that come into play when we think about regional printmaking, and particularly regional women printmakers? When the regional site of practice is mentioned in relation to a woman printmaker’s practice, a range of evocative narratives are accessed—narratives of the isolated women, of struggle for access and equity, of a struggle for voice? These struggles resonate with two major narratives that inform the identity of contemporary Australian printmaking. The first is the struggle for social and cultural equity that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, which employed printmaking’s democratic character with great force. The public imagination was caught, and a narrative was presented of the right of inclusion for those with a history of cultural and economic exclusion. This narrative was augmented by an increased public awareness of the practice of women printmakers in the 1920s and 1930s. The second narrative is that of a fear of fragmented cultural place, particularly enhanced by the reduction of printmaking courses within art schools, sites that many Australian printmakers have traditionally used as centres for printmaking activity. The challenges faced by contemporary regional women printmakers reflect these larger anxieties. The ability of regional women printmakers to come from obscurity to national attention provides hope for an art practice often perceived as under threat.
The sense of place associated with regional women’s printmaking, therefore, is one that emphasises the democratic potential of printmaking. It is, however, a perspective that often positions women’s practice firmly within their regional environment, and can subtly present their work as being the sum of their domestic surroundings, representing stories of exclusion and isolation. The reality is that the sense of place experienced by regional women printmakers is best represented by their work, not their practice. A brief look at the works of two regional printmakers reveals that their work addresses universal themes of cultural place. The prints of Marion Manifold and Victoria Cooper serve as examples of how many regional women printmakers negotiate the difficulties and advantages of regional practice in order to create prints that evoke different senses of place. The regional position of their practice has influenced the decisions they have made to support their practice, but ultimately the content of the work remains distinct from it. This sense of place develops within a landscape that is informed by culture, society, interpersonal relationships, life stages, conceptions of self and childhood memories.
Marion Manifold, a printmaker working in Camperdown, near Warrnambool, Victoria, uses well-known cultural referents of beauty and social order in prints that question the use of the female body as a referent to the ideal woman. She focuses on the layering of old and new images of the female body that emerge from a culture saturated with images from the past and present. Manifold’s particular twist to a conceptual project that has been explored by many contemporary women artists is to represent the body as a psychological entity, representing women in many times and places. She uses digital printmaking to do this—the melding of visual codes within a digital matrix suspends her work from physical geography.
In a finely boned, beautiful face Botticelli would want to paint … (boxed set of digital prints, 2001, dimensions variable) Manifold explores the iconic and mythologic beauty represented by Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c1485, tempera on canvas, 172.5 x 278.5cm), relating it to broader issues surrounding the representation of women’s bodies within Western culture, her own sense of her body in space, and her sense of personal identity in relation to this. The Venus is fragmented in these prints, exploring beyond Botticelli’s painting to the darker side of beauty, the relationship between beauty and desire, and between transcendence and death. In presenting a boxed set of digital images of a manipulated body broken into segments that are recognisably referents to Venus, Manifold creates images of a sublime awareness of the fragility of beauty and of our understanding of it. The process of digital printmaking has dissolved the body of the woman, the paint and the concept of Venus into binary code, reconstructing them into a print that will forever be in transition: the archival quality ink used will only last for a certain number of years before fading, after which time if the image is reprinted it will be remade yet again in a different process of transference, possibly with different ink, into a different context. The cultural place deconstructed in these prints subvert the authority of allocating a ‘place’ for women just as surely as it denies the affects of geography on her practice.
Manifold continued this process in a series of works created in 2003. These prints question values of beauty and art informed by cultural structures established in a patriarchal past and often enacted on the body of women. Rosa (soft-ground etching with aquatint, beads and net, 2003, 32.5 x 24.5 (printed image)) is part of a series of works that explore the sense of place found in these items of clothing reflects the kinds of antique objects Manifold finds preserved in drawers in the historic homestead passed down through generations of her husband’s family, stored by generations of Manifold women. Anne (soft-ground etching with beads, 2003, 32.5 x 24.5 (printed image)) shows the sly wit with which these prints reveal more that they conceal: the decorative beadwork and veiled netting extend beyond and penetrate the paper.
The position of Manifold’s practice within her home has significant influence on the production of this series of prints. Manifold was able to print them at home on the press bought with the prize money from the Shell Fremantle Print Award’s Major Acquisitive Prize in 2001. Without having to fragment her time by shifting it from studio to home, she was able to work in the same environment as the women who made the lace and beaded motifs she has integrated into the hats. This style of practice allowed her to control the circumstances of her art making, working on her prints at any time, without having to lose time in transit between studios or having to compromise other responsibilities in her life. Nor does Manifold’s domestic practice exclude her from printmaking networks: soon after completion, these works took part in an exchange of prints between women printmakers from throughout Victoria, and since then have been exhibited in Melbourne and Fremantle. Manifold’s printmaking is physically situated on farmland in a regional area, yet the sense of place that she highlights in her prints is one of public and private positioning of the body. This is an interpretation of place that women can experience regardless of era or geography.
Victoria Cooper’s digital prints present a different approach to narratives of experience – that found within the landscape. Cliff Story, Gorge Story and Hillside Story (2002, unprinted digital prints), are scrolled narratives that engage with place in an approach that marries cultural perception of landscape with the scientific approaches utilised in the study of the environment and geography. These prints are based in the narrative that occurs when walking through the landscape: kinetic and instinctive, mapped by memory as well as by technology. This personal construction of the individual’s place in the landscape is overlaid with other methods of establishing a mapping of the different categories of nature: the environmental landscape, highlighting issues of conservation, and the postcolonial landscape, with an acute awareness of a disjuncture between the landscape and Western techniques of understanding, classifying and naming that are projected upon it. In providing three different methods of transcribing the position of the individual in space, Cooper examines the role of cultural narratives in defining the place more effectively and evocatively than geography.
Coopers’ digital prints raise critical questions about the legitimacy of contemporary techniques of positioning the artist within the Australian landscape. Employing a combination of old and new technology, the prints attempt to overcome the limitations of physical perception, and to create an expanded sense of space within which the relationship between the individual and the landscape may be renegotiated. Through digital manipulation, Cooper aims to ‘grow’ the landscape, creating a personal construction of space that incorporates some of the major modes of seeing influencing contemporary perceptions of the landscape. In Five Gorge Stories From the Gorge, Cooper presents five different techniques used by art and science to transcribe the landscape. Her aim is the reveal that our understanding of the landscape is a combination of all these factors, that by isolating only one perception as valid our understanding of our place in the landscape is severely limited.
Cooper’s practice also impels this argument. She works in Toowoomba, teaching at the Southern Queensland Institute of TAFE, and has recently completed a Graduate Diploma of Fine Arts at Monash University, undertaking this course by correspondence. In 2002 Five Stories from the Gorge (5 digital prints on scrolled paper, 40cm x 250cm) was acquired the Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery in the Toowoomba Biennial Acquisitive Art Award. Her work was first introduced to me by Diane Baker, Director of the gallery, as an example of contemporary art that raised some key questions about the relevance of categorising art into different media. The issue of place that accompanied Cooper’s development of this series of works was one of definition. Although they are digital prints, they are created with digital photographs and scans that were informed by Cooper’s research into the optical processes of the camera obscura. Just as the work queries the authority of different methods of mapping the landscape, the processes that produced these works similarly question the relevance of distinctions between art practices, and the cultural environments they reference.
Like many printmakers in regional areas, in her desire to explore different perceptions of place Cooper has created new approaches to printmaking practice. Her work conveys a sense of layered space and of altered states that are integral to the aesthetics of printmaking. Most importantly, however, it is in the emphasis on the process of transition from a matrix to a receptive surface that most strongly marks the printmakerly aspect of her work. Cooper, however, does not wish to affiliate herself with any particular art practice, preferring to refer to herself as “a maker of images.” The authority of her work does not lie in her identity as a printmaker, a photographer, or a regional woman artist. It lies in the moment of interpretation that could be conceptualised as having an ability to act as a matrix. Cooper’s images exist in a digital environment, suspended from space and time. Once printed, a range of different factors comes into play—the characteristics of different printers, different papers, or, if projected onto a screen such as this one is here, the level of lighting in a room or the angle from which it is viewed. It could be argued that the chance involved in this process is part of what makes printmaking the enigmatic medium that it is. Yet the layering of perception, the chance encounters between different subjective experience that occur when the print is in a digital environment suspend it eternally in a process of transference—there is no final print, no different states, no editioning process. It is the ultimate democratic art form, exploring different cultural codes and orders and integrating them into a palimpsest process accessible to all. Cooper’s practice blurs the boundaries between printmaking and photography, presenting a perspective of place that is premised on a psychological orientation of space.
Manifold and Cooper have established their practice in environments where they draw on many avenues of support. They are largely independent of art institutions, and therefore do not practice with the risk of losing their practice due to changes in government funding. The effect of their regional environment on their practice does not affect its quality, and they face the same issues that printmakers in metropolitan environments experience: issues of display and market, of integrating domestic practice and family life, and the same technical challenges and innovations. The key difference is that the voices of women printmakers in regional Australia often remain unheard outside of their regional area, and thus the complexity of their practice largely remains unacknowledged by contemporary art discourse.
© Dimity Phillips 2004.
Paper presented at The Fifth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2004
The author would like to thank Victoria Cooper and Marion Manifold for discussing their works with me and for their kind permission to show their works at this symposium.