Chiaroscuro: Final Project: Not Black and White and not final…

This was an outline of something I planned, didn’t actually do. That was an experiment: write it and it will come. It didn’t.

This final project tried to bring together practical experiments, personal experience and theoretical ideas about reality, truth and perception.

The following are notes on ideas. Increasingly, I found myself having my ideas in verbal form, rather than visual, sketched, experimented with, and I think this has been a major flaw in my work process.

The processes used were intaglio, using copper plates, and involing photopolymer and etching in ferric chloride and in sodium persulfate. The two techniques in themselves suggest different approaches to representation, one, the duplication of an image using light and and single or multiple exposures, the other, the more process-driven, physical, experiential. The first technique is described by the verb “capture”, and brings to mind the action of glancing, catching a glimpse, a momentary insight or point in time. The other, as is suggested in the metaphoric phrase, “etched by experience”, suggests something honed over time, handled, considered and reworked.

The idea behind the different pieces was intertextuality, or Baudrillard’s “hyper-realism”, the condition by which “reality ..founders in hyperrealism, the meticulous reduplication of the real, preferably through another, reproductive medium” – each element would make reference to a text or type of text in order to challenge the text’s claim to represent a truth.

I wanted to use printmaking as a subject, as well as a technique, therefore reference duplication, reproduction, separation.

The starting point for this piece was the painting of “David with the head of Goliath” by Caravaggio, in the Prado, Madrid. The links to modern day events involving beheadings by ISIS could not be avoided, and thus to an engagement with ideas of heroes/villains, right/wrong and the construction of reality through images.

Prints and Practice

Here are some of the images and plates produced along the way in thinking this through. The plates of David and Goliath  went through several stages.

Caravaggio’s painting

The painting has been x-rayed, reportedly showing that an earlier version stressed much more the physical pain of the victim, and suggesting that this may have been changed to please the patron, to avoid it being too graphic. This reminds us of the audience for images, for whom representations must be manipulated. As it is, the portrayal of the two characters seems to me to favour neither one over the other. David is shown as youthful, and his profile, in shadow, is that of a classically proportioned ideal, with his high bridged nose, graceful facial features and delicately curling hair. His muscular body and indications of physical strength and poise suggest athleticism, rather than a homely shepherd boy. Goliath, on the other hand, is not significantly larger- therefore not a mythical “giant” as the Bible version tells. He is clearly older though, and with a face in death that looks more sad than pained: his eyes are open, and strangely bright, and although they do not look back at the spectator, they come closer than David’s, which are focussed on the task at hand, and therefore Goliath’s might actually invite somewhat more empathy.The head has presumably now been severed from the body, although the process is clean and bloodless, and the positioning of the head seems to be for compositional value, creating a strong diagonal, rather than for an authenticity. David is unstained by the whole process.The light shines on his body in a way that stresses his physical form, and on Goliath in a way that stresses his life in death, and seems to play no symbolic role of highlighting good over evil. Of course, the principal technique to be noted here is the use of chiaroscuro, as a method of creating an illusion of solid forms and three dimensions as the darkness recedes and the highlights construct highly plausible contours of flesh.

As a painting in the “history”genre, Caravaggio’s work can be seen as a “dramatisation” of a traditional tale, an imaginative recasting of the plot, starring a young Greek hero and a middle aged man, his victim. By showing us a moment in time, one that is apocryphal, we are invited to see this as a naturalistic event rather than an allegory, and thus to give credence to the literal truth of the Bible. The role of the light is to reveal, to play on the forms, and to make us feel we could touch the cloth and the skin.

On the other hand, my reading of it would say it is the triumph of youth over age, rather than good over evil, and it is only the application of intertextuality, knowing the story, that would make it otherwise.

Context is all. How different would our reading be of such a scene today. Images of beheadings, meant to be as graphic as possible, to make us look at the face of victims, to hear their screams and feel their pain, and be told, this is what we want to do to you too, are diabolical. Video, as the chosen medium, is used to make us feel present, to leave us in no doubt that what we are watching is real, but becomes surreal, subject as it is to taboos on what we should be able to witness. We are confused by the deviant use of the media, which we expect to serve us up illusions.


Part 1:

Contesting historical narrative

The image was to have been printed multiple times onto pages of a. The Bible and b. The Trial, by Kafka. Here’s the thinking behind it. (The trouble with me is if I write it down and justify it, I’ve already as good as made it.)

Repetition was to be used as a reference to how historical narratives are created, as well as a self-conscious use of the printing process as a commentary on two printed texts.

The pages were to be roughly printed and perforated at the corner, and hung on a hook which might remind people of how newspaper is torn and used for toilet paper. This links to the idea of “yesterday’s news” being no longer of interest, to the speed at which we digest news and move on, and our low level consumption of repeated “human interest” narratives.

The choice of the Bible was partly because of the transparency of the paper, its fitness of purpose (either its intended one or the one suggested above) and its ability to confer “authorised version” status on a story, which then becomes reified and contested in equal measure, depending on the audience.

The Trial was selected as a piece of modernist literature which in itself challenges ideas of historical narrative and literary convention, with its lack of narrative structure, absence of heroism, or of cathartic conclusion. The order of the text is one that was constructed by a friend of the author, as the original manuscript was simply a collection of unconnected chapters.

Both texts deal with the concept of justice, the first constructing a moral universe of sin and redemption, the second a world in which crime is arbitrarily defined and punishment administered with no seeming relation to laws.

In the biblical context, the authorised version of the story tells us that right defeats might, that the meek will prevail. A new “reading” of the image could be of the son killing the father, the death of God, the ending of authority.

The work then, would attempt to appropriate the well-known image, and the well-known story, and problematise their politics of representation, their values, their use of signifying practices of composition and narrative.

But how to actually print? These pages could not be soaked, and the print would likely hide the image.

I like some of the ideas here, and will keep thinking of how to make them work visually.

Part 2

The Relic

A copper plate, burnished and framed

This was to be a “relic” of the process of making the images, and as such could be perceived to have higher value, as possessing the cache of originality. The frame would reference this idea, making an allusion to an icon, and also calling to mind the reverence the church  hold for relics, and even the magical powers it attributes to them, despite their being rather mundane objects in themselves. The copper plate has an intrinsic “value” as a mined metal, and one for which workers suffer a great deal, so it has both a material and human cost. The way the multiple etchings have eaten away at this particular plate gives it the look of a worn copper coin.


This one can be achieved by making a pastiche icon, a painted frame, contrasting the real and the unreal.

I haven’t done the framing, and am now less sure of the quality of this idea. It seems like something that would look lazy.

Part 3 The Gaze

This one I have followed through, but only partially.

The grid as non-narrative, silent.

This section references newspapers, and how we bear witness to and report events. The gaze here is a constructed, shallow thing, made up of dots, so that light and shade are merely a pattern. The text is disjointed, making a play on words “is” “Isn’t” and IS. There is a further text, in capitals, “Chop off their rotten heads” which references the central image of the beheading.

I originally intended to create something that looked much more like a newspaper, including pictures and columns. The text element was to be in broken columns, in my own writing, using words taken from diaries from the time of making these images.

On the other hand, there was still a right/ left top/bottom orientation involved in a grid. It still tends towards Narrative. So I wondered about making it a more sculptural object. Following the ideas explored in work by Fionnuala MacGowan  (In Printmaking Today, Summer 2015- sculptural forms made with print) I could explore the idea of making 3-d shapes, “facets” to reflect the multi-faceted nature of truth- our distorted perspectives on it. There is no sense or single view.

Here’s some thinking about how this might be presented:

And here is a small model of what it could look like. These are prints on Fabriano paper- I did more as multiples, intending a bigger piece but the registration went wrong in the press, so I ended up cutting it down. It could maybe work, scaled up.

The diagonal grid folds are good because they can be twisted to fit several shapes, which reflects the nature of reported “truth”.

This isn’t there yet, but is an idea with potential. I’m seeing discarded newspapers in this shape- yesterday’s news. The way the eyes are sitting almost makes a distorted face, with no mouth. How cool it would be to take a movable shape and recast it as a fixed one like Marc Quinn’s Frozen Wave.

Is isnt
Photopolymer multiples








Author: chrisocaprintingblog

Studying visual arts part-time with the Open College of the Arts

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