Non- rational abstraction: trusting to intuition could give rise to several processes and outcomes. You could let the materials work, and be the amanuensis. You could maybe succeed in not having to think in words. But could it be a purely automatic process? Unlikely. You make choices at all stages. You just might not acknowledge the reasons for those choices. You might be channeling memories, maybe referencing other people’s work without trying or being aware. You might produce work that provides insight into unconscious motivations and concerns, like dreams. You might just do what’s easiest. Or maybe bits of all of these.
Science has given us ways of thinking and knowing that are held to be superior to mere intuition, or to faith or emotion. Since the Enlightenment, reason has been the highest level of thought, the way of thinking and arguing that defeats all others. On the other hand, in recent years, the practice of mindfulness and the influence of Buddhism among educated Westerners has posed some credible alternatives to the mere superstition and credulity still evident in certain parts, all of them challenging the supremacy of reason.
The title above was one I read – it’s the title of a book, I don’t remember by whom, and I haven’t read it- but I liked the title. It was one that leapt out because it suggested itself as a title that fit this series of images. The images came first and the title came afterwards, but clearly it echoed the thoughts I had been having along the way. This is a kind of interplay between reason and intuition, between the objective and subjective, the things that can be explained and the things that are harder to understand, that are personal, deeply emotional, and which you obsess about even when there seems no point, because you think there is an explanation for them, or a solution to them, or a cure for them or an escape from them. In the past religion would have provided all of these.
The instruction to work in abstract, to eschew representation, to avoid the limitations of one object = real/ iconic significance, opens the doors to multiple suggestion, interpretation, and ambiguity. It also creates problems of finding a stimulus, and working with observation or concepts, or emotions, or whatever. What it seems to suggest first to me is the exploration of formal properties of things, the lines, the shapes, and therefore techniques of whatever medium we are going to be using. In this assignment I have been struggling with the tensions of mastering craft- in this case also science- of photopolymer, of chemicals- all things which are quite new to me- and making meaning. I have not sketched, or barely at all. The work has all been in my head, and has been jumbling around with a lot of powerful emotions just lately.
The main focus of this assignment for me has been to experiment with new techniques. At times, that has meant that the work has been about process and it has lacked any emotional heft. But out of that has emerged some pieces that reflect themes and emotions that have been dominating this time, and these pieces make sense to me. The theme of the moon, and the idea of influence, gravitational pull, and the feminine principle, links for me with the strong emotional issues I have had to deal with recently about my mother and about myself as a mother whose only child just recently got married. The themes that emerge here are of orbits, splitting, floating away, loss and the emptiness of space. I think these are the feelings that have subconsciously shaped the images I have made.
This has taken a long time, and I was tempted several times to stop and submit things that were mere exercises. But I’m now glad that I persisted until I made something with meaning.
- Copper plate etching: Two moons
This started as a photopolymer plate. It had been given a digital aquatint layer then a handpainted negative was exposed. It was quite successful but I wanted to refine it, so decided to turn it into an actual etching.
This involved removing the grey tone areas of the plate and leaving only bare copper, with the rest left as a mask. The image below shows the plate with the grey tones made with photopolymer still on the plate.
Now with the grey tones removed, what remains will function as a mask.
Then, I sprayed on an aquatint layer of acrylic ink using an air brush.
At this point it seemed that the ferric chloride was becoming slow, so I changed it for a fresh batch, and assumed that the fast times that had been the case last time would be the same again. Using different stop-outs; Lascaux ink, litho pencil, diluted Lascaux, acrylic pen, I did exposures of 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes, 5 minutes and 20 minutes.
This is the plate in a bath of caustic soda, removing the layers. The photopolymer floats off easily. The aquatint and Lascaux needed an application of Mystrol to remove them.
The final plate looks promising as it seems to have a range of tones. I hope I didn’t stop out to drastically. I won’t know until I get to the press.
This plate reflects the theme of separation, of splitting, and references the two moons of Murakami’s 1Q84, which signal a split which has taken place between two worlds.
Technically I was after reproducing the darks, lights and greys of the original negative. Although the photopolymer plate earlier had printed something I liked, the blacks and whites were inverted due to open biting, probably due in turn to the digital aquatint screen not being accurately exposed.
These were the components of the negative:
This was the first black and white print:
It is a little broken up, but that may be due to my first dip in ferric chloride not being long enough- 30 second. Or the aquatint screen was too thick. But the blacks, whites and greys are correct, so it’s a technical achievement of a sort. The balcks are velvety. I had brought along some carborundum in case they weren’t, but that’s not a problem. It’s the light greys I need to work on.
I experimented with colour, viscosity printing, and selective wiping:
This is the final version. It’s inked with Charbonnel water-based oils, sepia + red, sepia + blue, thinned with wash oil and transparent laker, and wiped selectively. The two colours, warm and cool, highlight the theme of separation.
2. Cyanotype: Moonflowers
Well, that one was done, I thought: I had a nice image I liked. But shit happens. It faded. I tried to re-expose it and add more vinegar, but it got messed up. So I tried to re-create it. Of course it wasn’t possible to get it the same- that particular angle of the sun the strength of UV, maybe even the water- our heavily chlorinated water may make this whole enterprise dodgy.
This one, with its wonderful reference to the poem by Keats about the newly discovered planet, and to William Herschel, is now no more.
So, these came out nice and dark, but lack the interest of the original. I was noticing that I hadn’t got a real white, so hadn’t maintained the blocking out in a single place or long enough, in my fascination with moving the shapes around to get different tones. But the accident with the first picture had inadvertently shown me that a separate image could be made with the vinegar, by pouring and running it. I was also interested in movement, but wondered if I could pour/ sprinkle sand/ salt as well, while moving some of the fixed shapes, but leaving some of them long enough to get a clean white.
I stil wanted to use circles, interspersed with lines, but left out the framed negative this time. Instead I prepared a container of salt, a tin of loose tea, and a bottle of vinegar. I gathered a collection of circles of different sizes and opacity.
The juxtaposition of geometric and gestural (from the vinegar) the solid and the shadowy, and the fine grains works well, I think. The blue and the moon shapes make them contrast with the original sunflowers, and they are like a sad version. Turning towards the moon will not result in growth as it provides no nourishment. That is also ironically referenced in the medium used here, the sun exposure.
Finally this plate is degraded and lace-like. It has taken days of soaking in Ferric Chloride, etching with a needle, cutting with a Dremel, sandpapering.
The similarity between the shape and the texture and a brain makes me think of my mother, suffering from dementia, and sadly aware of the fact that she is forgetting things and people. The process here seems to have mirrored that process of loss, of erosion of the identity. The thing that is left is now quite fragile. I will print it on its own, rather than juxtapose it with a contrast- the actual contrast is with how it was, and that is now irretrievably lost.
This was difficult to ink- I used the thinner Akua inks at first for a black and white version. The first one came out quite delicate but lacking a focal point.
So, for the next one, I decided to wipe the ink with actual sandpaper on the smoother areas where there should be highlights.
This was better.
I decided to put this on a scroll, with the shape at the bottom, and to add a little bit of warmth, with a slight rubbing of Sanguine in the highlighted area.
I then used more colour- blue/ grey and sanguine, this time just rubbed on a la poupee, to avoid too much build up of ink in the crevices.. This gave a much softer image. The downward etches of the ferric chloride are visible (etched in a vertical tank) .
For the final print, I used a scroll, and decided to colour the plate with colours that suggested the original copper, when it’s shiny and when it’s tarnished, warm and cool colours. I might even add the original plate to the printed image, as a comment on image and reality, something that will link to the theme.
I have named it “Forgetting”, which is an allusion to my mother’s condition, but also an echo of Wordsworth, “Sleep is but a dream and a forgetting” which creates a gentle and reassuring image of sleep, and by extension death. It is particularly poignant in the case of dementia, which in so many ways is the early death of self. The blank space is necessary here. It is empty on the one hand, but also provides space to breathe, a space for sleep and calm, which is a reassuring counterpoint to harsher image of destruction.
Close up of the printed area:
I started by considering the meaning of abstraction, looking back to historical developments and identifying rational and intuitive approaches: the former I then pursued as abstraction by distance, the latter I broke down into gestural, and process approaches. In exploring process approaches I experimented with different materials and the processes that naturally go with them, exploring how to degrade, damage or decompose the materials. My chosen artist for the parallel project, Xu Bing, is undoubtedly an influence here, as his series of woodcuts “5 series of repetitions” is an inspirational use of process in reduction printing. I was interested in making process match meaning, as he has done.
At the same time, my personal reading and practical research were talking me into the realms of science- with new processes involving chemicals, metals, photopolymers and light sources. This was all very new and presented a number of practical problems of access to resources, as well as opportunities to practice. It has meant that this assignment has been a long time on the go, very fragmented and interrupted by life events. These life events have fed into the emotional meanings that I’ve made though- by going for an intuitive approach, I believe that themes and understandings have emerged that reflect key events of my life recently. A powerful theme has emerged, linking me, my mother and my son, and these have metamorphosed into topical images of the moon, which at the time I first designed these plates, was both full and being eclipsed. The final image, of degeneration, is very poignant for me, and I am considering combining the print with the plate itself- a beautiful thing when it starts to tarnish and grow verdigris- but as a reminder of both the deception of images, and the process of irretrievable loss. The blank space on my final scroll may be inspired by Xu Bing, but anyway, emptiness is a factor to be included here.
Technically, two new processes in particular have inspired me in this assignment. The first is cyanotype printing- which is simple but beautiful, and I love the irony whereby the light of the sun creates such cold moon-like blues. An added irony is their sometimes impermanence. Something I need to research a bit more. Outside this assignment, I have experimented with large scale printing on cloth, and am interested in developing something more along these lines- a mixed media approach perhaps.
The second is copperplate etching using ferric chloride. (I have another chemical in the house which also might be a non-toxic etchant, and still need to try it out). I have focussed on the aquatint process, as I like the depth and granulation, and multiple shades of grey. Obviously, I am very much a novice at this, and have not explored the creative potential very far, as I’m still very focussed on the “how”. But I feel that I have taken an important step forward. When I started I was playing with monoprints, printing at home, and nothing much more. I now have the ability to work in many more ways, have a press (albeit in the wrong country) and feel fired up to move on to more professional ways of working.