Material Manifestations

1296 words

Louisa Elderton

As a phrase, ‘surface noise’ seems to speak to the physicality and materiality of printmaking, to an artist’s exploration of the medium’s potential, and to the epidermis of a print which exists in dialogue with the accumulated layers of activity that rest beneath. Jerwood Encounters: Surface Noise is a medium specific exhibition which highlights the sheer diversity of artworks that contemporary printmakers are creating; works which cannot be reduced or contained by a single word, but encompass the sculptural, painterly, ephemeral, tangible, illustrative, drawn and photographic — at times simultaneously.  Indeed, printmaking is not a peripheral artistic practice hovering at the edges of fine art, but an embedded medium within this paradigm that deserves focused analysis. It allows for a material process of play, experimentation and exploration, often resulting in both a finite and contained object but also a multifaceted work that leads the viewer down a number of different interpretative paths.

The way in which print materially manifests in the works of Michael Fullerton, Carolyn Bunt, Claire Bayliss, Claire Barclay, Scott Myles, Janne Malmros, and Dorothy Cross are intriguingly varied, resulting in a textural and energised exhibition, foregrounding the hubbub of activity in contemporary printmaking. At the opening of the exhibition, a visitor turned to curator Gill Saunders and said: ‘this doesn’t look like a prints show’, [1] which begs the question, what does one normally expect from a prints show, and how does Surface Noise depart from this? The strength of this exhibition derives not only from the range of works displayed and the artists’ ability to push at the boundaries of conventional printmaking, but also from the potential of the works to move beyond their physical materiality to stimulate the material imagination of the viewer.

The Sculptural

The notion of flatness can be endlessly associated with printmaking; the flat surface, of the 2D object, hung upon the flat wall. Yet, many of the works in Surface Noise dispel this pejorative assumption, as the prints venture into the territory of sculpture, playing with form, space, depth and the physical relationship of the viewer to object.

Janne Malmros’ artworks are particularly pertinent when thinking about printmaking as a process that can lead to the construction of sculptural objects. In the Truncated Element series, complex patterns of repeated 2D geometric forms have been delicately interrupted, as the artists constructs tiny gold-leaf cubes, folding the patterned squares back into themselves. The works play with positive and negative spaces, with some areas seeming both flat an impenetrable and others fluid and open; it is almost as if they assume anthropomorphic qualities, quietly building themselves from their flat pack state, whilst no one is looking. Truncated Element I interacts with the structural framework of the exhibition space itself. The large-scale hand screen print is hung like wallpaper, from ceiling to floor, with incidentally constructed cubes seemingly propelling from the walls themselves, forcing a reconsideration of the static architectural space. The wallpaper is not severed as it reaches the floor, but coils back in on itself, forming a gentle circular curve that contrasts to the fiercely-geometric grid. Thus, it seems that the initial 2D printing process that Malmros undertakes ultimately becomes the point of departure for a more sculptural exploration, playing with the latent mass of the flat forms she creates.

 

Janne Malmros, Truncated Element III, 2010. Close up. Image: an

 

The scale of Scott Myles’ The Past From Above (ELBA Blue, Black) catches the viewer off guard; your mind searches through its memory archives for the object that these colour-field screen prints are reminiscent of. They are in fact giant facsimiles of the manilla wallets which can be found displayed on the shelves of any stationers. There is a certain absurdity to the works, and a wittiness that conjures the language of the readymades but inverts this through the labour-intensive process of printmaking; these are beautifully precise creations which have been printed by hand, cut, folded and then overlaid.

Manilla wallets are used by Myles in his studio to file and organise his ideas, but here, studio ephemera is carefully recreated to be symbolically presented as the artist’s theoretical containers. We encounter an amplification of the framework within which the artist realises his ideas, removed from its functioning environment. The common-place materiality of these manilla wallets is transformed into high art; severed from any practical purpose, the sculptures are contained by a giant Perspex case and are mounted high on the wall to meet the viewer’s gaze. Transferred into the gallery/museum context, Myles seems to playfully question notions of value, functionality, and purpose by magnifying the pure aesthetics of a common object.

Scott Myles, The Past From Above (ELBA Blue, Black), 2011. Image: Art Fund

 

The Ephemeral

The material history of print is referenced in the works of Michael Fullerton. Repetition is employed in the artist’s screen prints and methods of mass production are recalled. Fullerton is interested in the protest posters of the 1960s, in their ephemeral qualities and their relationship to craft. He is ‘looking at how people communicated visually’, [2] finding it necessary to reinvent the language of print to talk about the possibilities of transmitting information to an mass audience, and to explore the continuum of information that has been visually communicated from the historical paintings of Gainsborough to the mass produced print of the present day.

In Peel Session, Maida Vale Studios, February 4, 2004, an enlarged image of disk jockey John Peel is repeatedly screen printed onto newsprint, the image becoming progressively obscured and abstracted. Casually pasted onto the walls, the newsprint is wrinkled in places, the corners peeling away. Fullerton emphasises the lack of skill that he initially had when it came to printmaking, essentially blagging his way into a print studio: ‘it’s getting a life of its own eventually’. [3] The works aren’t about the physical skill of printmaking, but rather explore the concepts associated with print: the ability to disseminate knowledge cheaply to a mass audience using a single colour pigment on newsprint, and the political implications of this.

 

In many of the works displayed in Surface Noise, the material surface of the works becomes a springboard into the viewer’s own imagination. In the words of Roland Barthes, a work’s ‘unity lies not in its origin but in its destination’. [4]

Carolyn Bunt’s prints, And when I looked up it had gone 1, and, And when I looked up it had gone 2, present the viewer with what seems to be an obscured or imagined science-fiction setting, as the pulsating neon framework of a Soviet fuelling station is surrounded by the white-washed landscape of infinity. It is intangible; an interior world. The photographs assume a performative quality as the viewer is invited into the work, ushered to complete it within the confines of their own imagination. The ethereal and intriguing Polymer Gravure works, Dangerous Shadows 3, and, Dangerous Shadows 4 are almost completely abstracted configurations of dark shadows, which in a sense cast us into Plato’s cave as we try to ascribe forms to these hazy-reflections of reality. There is beautiful depth to these prints and the dark surfaces draw you in to explore their various layers, weaving through the graduations of light and dark.

Ultimately, the printmaking in Surface Noise inverts the conventional artistic boundaries that bind art forms within fixed categories. Print is propelled into an arena where anything is possible, where the historical associations that can limit our perceptions of print are dispelled, and where the layered materiality of printmaking becomes a playground within which our imaginations can run wild.

 


[1] Gill Saunders discussed this conversation at the curators-artists talk, Jerwood Arts, 14th Feb 2011.

[2] Michael Fullerton quote from the curators-artists talk, Jerwood Arts, 14th Feb 2011.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, Claire Bishop (Ed.), Particiation: Documents of Contemporary Art (London: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2006), p. 45.