- Sasha Grishin on printmaking & artists' books in Melbourne
[Text on a white screen: The anxious image: Printmaking and artists books in Melbourne 1999–2010. Sasha Grishin]
Professor Sasha Grishin: I am honoured to be invited to speak and ... What I’ve been thinking is that most of you did attend this afternoon the excellent presentation that Des Cowley and Robert Heather did in the gallery, where they addressed the actual artists’ books and spoke individually, book by book. So I decided I won’t repeat any of that because there’s not much point in saying it twice.
Secondly, I noticed that a lot of you ... eight or nine, are actually artists involved in this exhibition, so I’ll be very, very careful not to say too much about your work. But there is about a 20-minute session for answers and questions at the end of this presentation where I hope some of you feel free not only to actually ask questions or disagree – and I’ll be saying things that you may wish to disagree with, I always do – but also for the artists involved to perhaps speak a little bit about their own practice.
I love printmaking and I love artists’ books. And one of the reasons why I love that is because the whole art form is so incredibly fluent, is so immensely changeable. It’s an art form which constantly, if you like, reinvents itself. Right in the early days, in the 15th century, it embraced the invention of the printing press. In the late 18th century, it embraced the invention of lithography. In the 19th century, it embraced the invention of photography. And in the last century, in the 20th century, it embraced digital technologies. In each instance, this enriched the tradition and continued to make it contemporary: new, vibrant and socially relevant. This is not to suggest even for a nanosecond that the best artist printmakers are those who employ the newest technologies. And some of the finest and most innovative prints and artists’ books made today are in the form of relief prints and intaglio prints, as is evident from the exhibition upstairs. But I make this opening comment on the nature of the medium.
[A brown picture of the Sydney Harbour Bridge is captioned: Jessie Traill, The red light, Harbour Bridge, June 1931, 1932 etching and aquatint, 32.8 x 24.7cm, AGNSW]
Sasha: It’s fluid, it’s receptive to change and constantly in a state of flux and reinvention. This is the first bit where I’m very, very subtly introducing the theme of anxiety of the medium.
In the Australian context in general, and in Melbourne in particular, major transformations have occurred in the culture of printmaking over the past few decades. These, I feel, have included the advent of Indigenous printmaking, the new multicultural reality of Australia, the impact of new technologies, an awareness of Asian art and Asian culture, as well as the impact of zines, stencils and all forms of street art. The past decade has witnessed a new and distinctive flowering in prints and artists’ books which have emerged from Melbourne. And some of these developments I wish to address today.
However – and this is an important however – a brief excursion into the history of Australian 20th-century printmaking is mandatory to create a framework in which to locate these contemporary developments. When we examine the best of pre-Second World War printmaking in Australia – for example, Jessie Trail’s Red light, Harbour Bridge, June 1931, it’s an etching with aquatint made the following year, in 1932, we find to some extent that it reflects the ideas and the boldness of the English printmaker Frank Brangwyn. But this is now coupled with the local subject matter.
Dorrit Black’s gorgeous five-block colour linocut Music, of 1927, was made under the inspiration of the English printmaker Claude Flight, with a possible reference to jazz music and even to the work of Henri Matisse.
[A colourful picture of people dancing is captioned: Dorrit Black, Music,(1927), colour linocut, 24.1 x 21.3cm image, ACNSW]
Sasha: We can draw a very broad conclusion that Australian printmaking was formed within the conscious framework of the British tradition. At its best, taking its point of departure in the maverick artists like Brangwyn and Flight, and in its more mediocre products following the more conservative British-based societies such as the Royal Society of Painters-Etchers, the Senefelder Club and the Society of Wood Engravers. Not that they in themselves didn’t have great masters, but with time, this tradition atrophied. Artist printmakers such as Lionel Lindsay made very competent, even if slightly dull prints, including this immaculately worked and executed woodcut, Morning Glory, of 1932, which would and did look totally in place in any British printmaking exhibition.
[A black and white picture of a bird in a tree is captioned: Lionel Lindsay, Morning glory, 1932, woodcut, 25.0 x 14cm]
Sasha: You would have noticed that all of my artists were of Anglomorph extraction, and worked in traditions which were thoroughly in keeping with British printmaking conventions of the time. Of course, there were a few printmakers like Hans Heysen, who was German and came out to Australia as a seven-year-old child, but most were of good British stock. Incidentally, now that you’ve brought up Hans Heysen, even he – the quintessential nationalist gum tree painter, who was supported by the most conservative factions of Australian society – suffered racial vilification during the wars with Germany.
Also, if there was a centre for printmaking in the pre-war period, then that centre was in Sydney and the organisation was the Australian Painter-Etchers’ Society. And although Melbourne did have printmakers, including people like Noel Counihan, Eric Thake and Murray Griffin, the main shop was in Sydney where establishment printmakers from throughout Australia exhibited and sold their wares.
[A black and yellow abstract picture is captioned: Henry Salkauskas, Behind is always the sun, 1962, linocut, 51.4 x 76.6cm, NGA]
Sasha: The Great Depression and the Second World War caused a huge disruption to art production in Continental Europe, with artists fleeing in search of a safe and secure place to live and work. The wartime trickle changed into a postwar flood, with the general Anglomorph nature of the Australian population changing markedly.
It’s worth noting that none of the really big-name modernists came to Australia. This is not in any way to criticise those who settled in Australia and their achievements, including artists like Danila Vassilieff, Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, Bruno Simon, Klaus Friedeberger, Erwin Fabian, Dusan Marek, Inge King, Sali Herman, Yosl Bergner, Michael Kmit, Judy Cassab, Henry Salkauskas, Vaclovas Ratas, Eva Kubbos, Ann Graham and Karl Duldig, just to name a few obvious examples, but they were simply not in the same league as Léger, Duchamp, Ozenfant, Moholy-Nagy, Josef Albers and Hans Hoffman, all of whom settled in the United States.
In some ways, thinking about it, this was also a blessing. Established artists generally continue with their careers where they left off in Europe, while fledgling and emerging artists, on the other hand, take into account their new surroundings and, if you like, establish their new careers in their new homelands, and it was frequently in the role of teachers and facilitators rather than exclusively as practitioners.
Henry Salkauskas, for example, arrived in Australia in 1949 from his native Lithuania, and brought with him a knowledge and practice of European Expressionism. After spending two years working as a labourer in Canberra – many people seem to go to Canberra to do hard labour – he settled in Sydney where, together with two fellow Lithuanian migrant artists, Eva Kubbos and Vaclovas Ratas, in 1960 formed the core of the Sydney Printmakers. This society pioneered the introduction of the modern tradition of printmaking in Sydney. Henry Salkauskas’ highly expressive relief prints, including this quite sizeable linocut Behind is always the sun of 1962, drew on the heritage of northern European graphic traditions and on the contemporary forms of gestural abstract expressionism. And in fact, Salkauskas was awarded some of the main prizes in Australia.
By the 1960s, printmaking in the Australian art world moved to centre stage. Printmaking was no longer thought of as a marginalised activity, the prerogative of a select number of skilled artisans who made technically sophisticated works which could be appreciated only by a small number of cognoscenti.
[A black and white abstract picture is captioned: George Baldessin, Bather, 1964, etching and aquatint, 39.4 x 30.4cm, platemark]
Sasha: It became one of the major creative art forms of the age, and one which attracted many of the leading youthful artists. This transition in printmaking from an art form bound by its own largely British conventions and shown within an enclosed space – a sheltered workshop formed by like-minded individuals – to that of an international art form which existed in the open arena of the art world, is reflected in its broader social acceptance.
Continental artists broke with the British mould, and as teachers, set up multimedia workshops which catered for all forms of printmaking technologies all under the one roof into which returning, overseas-trained Australian artists entered, and into which the new generation of art school students enrolled. By the 1960s, Melbourne had become the national capital for Australian printmaking, with RMIT and the Gallery School, slightly later – the VCA as it was later known – as two of the main centres.
I can use George Baldessin as an example of the product of this new generation of artist printmakers. Born in Italy in 1939, he came out to Australia with his father in 1949 as part of the early postwar migration to rejoin his mother with whom he’d been separated for the first decade of his life. He commenced his studies at RMIT in 1958, and moved from painting under Charles Reddington to sculpture, but soon came under the supportive guidance of Tate Adams and continued to study printmaking until 1966. Later, he went on to study at the Chelsea School of Art in London and the Brera Academy in Milano. He also spent time travelling and studying in Japan and Paris. In 1964, he started to teach part-time in printmaking at RMIT. In ‘65, he taught full-time but relinquished the post the following year. Baldessin continued to teach there intermittently until his tragic and untimely death in August of 1978.
Baldessin was a printmaker, sculptor and painter, although mercifully he never in his lifetime exhibited his paintings. His work was provocative, innovative in its use of materials and full of unexpected nuances. It received immediate recognition, with the first solo exhibition at the Argus Gallery in Melbourne in 1964. Although it’s possible to discern the technical devices of Fred Williams’ etchings, and later there’s the impact of the work of Francis Bacon, Marino Marini, Alik Cavaliere and the woodcuts of the Japanese printmaker Munakata, Baldessin very early in the piece arrived at his own imagery. He created a world where strange, dislocated human torsos appear to follow their own internal logic. He combined, what I’ve argued, a humanist preoccupation with the formal properties of abstract art. His displaced, dispossessed and alien figures are flattened against the picture plane. There’s a common repertoire of images, such as the highly abstracted and dismembered female figure who’s later metamorphosed into the hairy Mary Magdalene, who plays the role of both the biblical sinner and of MM, the prostitute of the Parisian streets. These strange, self-conscious, tragic figures emerge as known actors who inhabit a familiar stage, a theatrical, surrealist stage where factory chimneys appear like smokestacks of a gas chamber, where the odd, non-functional tables and chairs and strange fruit, like huge unlikely pears, inhabit the space. Perhaps more than anybody else at the time, George Baldessin epitomised in his work the new-found freedom of printmaking. The old debate whether print was an original work of art or a reproduction was deemed irrelevant. The new prints were exploring the various visual codes by which we represent reality to ourselves.
[A picture of a woman in a swimsuit is captioned: George Baldessin, The bather, 1978, lithograph, 60 x 56 cm]
Sasha: He noted in an interview at the time, ‘People say that my work is ugly. It appears to them as bulbous and ugly. I can’t really understand that. I think beauty has a certain degree of order, and one of the things about my work is they’re very ordered. They’re not chaotic. They may appear to be chaotic at first glance, but if you look into them, you’ll find that they have an order, a different order, a new order, I hope. And this is my order, and not anybody else’s. People are accustomed to this order, and when they become accustomed to it, they may find that these things aren’t really ugly, they’re rather attractive. At least droll, if not attractive.’
Now, in the 1960s and 1970s, in Melbourne printmaking there appeared a whole galaxy of talents, including Bea Maddock, Murray Walker, Les Kossatz, Jan Senbergs, Fred Williams, John Brack, Danny Moynihan, Robert Grieve, Grahame King, Kevin Lincoln, Graeme Peebles, Janet Dawson, Tate Adams, Jock Clutterbuck, Alun Leach-Jones, Roger Kemp, Allan Mitelman, Greg Moncrieff, John Neeson, Alan Sumner, Barbara Brash, Mary Macqueen, Robin Wallace-Crabbe, John Dent, Hertha Kluge-Pott, Neil Malone, Noela Hjorth, John Robinson, all the people I’ve left out and many, many others. Many of these artists continued to make prints, interesting prints, in future decades, some through to the present. But my feeling is that by the 1980s, some of the excitement had gone out of the art form. And by the 1990s, a new wave of interest appeared in printmaking, one which is still with us today. And in a sense, the whole tradition of printmaking, particularly in Australia, but also in Japan, China, Korea and possibly other parts of Asia, had to relocate itself within the art paradigm in all of its manifestations.
Now, I’ll pause and try to explain what my main argument is. Reasons for shifts in artistic fashion and taste are always complex and multifaceted phenomena, and inevitably involve developments in patterns of social consumption and in the changing broad entertainment needs of society.
Now, for the purposes of this talk, I’ve isolated four factors which I feel contribute to these changes over the past decade and a half. One: the challenge of new technologies. Two: a new pluralism in artistic discourses, which has included the advent of indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander printmaking. Three: an increase in popularity in alternative art forms which include artists’ books, zines and monotypes. And fourthly: a new geographic regionalism, which to some extent displaced a phoney sense of national tradition or global cosmopolitanism. In other words, Australian printmakers neither sought to create so-called national tradition – the green-and-gold image of Australia with a few heroic shearers, bushrangers and pioneers tucked away in the background – nor the biennale-styled, New York-based global imagery. But they developed a form of printmaking which bore the stamp of being made in Australia within the Asia-Pacific region.
The Melbourne-based artist Petr Herel was born in Horice in Czechoslovakia and trained in Prague, absorbing the immensely rich cultural heritage of the Bohemian graphic tradition with this peculiar blend of northern Gothic naturalism of detail with surrealism, a tradition to which both Kupka and Kafka were heirs.
[An open book features an orange and black print on one page and the text: Pierre Albert-Birot Poems and days, etchings Petr Herel. It is captioned: Petr Herel, Poems and days, Melbourne, Uncollected Works Press, 2009, etchings by Petr Herel, text by Pierre Albert-Birot]
Sasha: Deeply disturbed by the events of the Prague Spring in 1968, he spent some time working in Paris where he met and married an Australian fabric designer, Dorothy Davis, with whom he came out to Australia. Herel’s prints and artists’ books exhibit a very refined sensibility, with plates being worked on over a period of time, and the chance encounters with forms and thoughts preserved as faint nuances caught within a captured passage of time. Although frequently there are literary illusions in his work, especially to such well-known authors as Georg Trakl, Vladimir Holan, Novalis, Rilke, Baudelaire, Borges, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Donne, Apollinaire and Henri Michaux, the illustrative aspect in Petr’s work is totally missing. The literary reference may serve as an initial point of departure for a very personal path of exploration. Herel’s prints explore ambiguous and less-explicit associations as fragile markings, traces of half-vanished trails, shadows from a tangible reality and echoes of a felt presence, all combine on the tissue of the surface. Many of his prints appear within artists’ books, an art form which is pioneered in Australia with many years establishing in the Graphic Investigation Workshop in Canberra.
Central to Petr Herel’s thinking is the idea that art is a meditative experience. The artist creates a visual parable which we as the beholder are invited to contemplate. The surface at first may appear strange, even impenetrable, but then through a gradual process of intuitive revelation, the viewer can enter the work and start to explore its different dimensions. This is not purely a cerebral process and you cannot resolve the imagery of the print on a purely rational plane of thinking. It’s a process more akin to magic where elements of the design spark off a host of unexpected associations. Many of his prints appear – and I like this word – as illuminated windows like this remarkable etching of 19, sorry, of 2009 from the Poems and days artists’ book. They are not as windows into the world, which is the mirror, if you like, of an observable reality, but rather as metaphysical mirrors of the spirit.
The majority of Australian printmakers and artists working on artists’ books do not employ computers, laser printers, ink jet printers in their creative practice. However, if in the 1980s the use of such then so-called high-tech equipment was the domain of the freakish few, in 2011 it has become such a widespread practice that arguments over its legitimacy as a printmaking technology have become increasingly obsolete. In fact, in many Australian art schools digital technologies have usurped the territory held by more traditional printmaking technologies. And in many places in Australia, the art of lithography within institutions is under threat. However, to dispute the legitimacy of computer-generated prints or artists’ books in contemporary practice is like trying to question the legitimacy of all photographic techniques employed in printmaking. In both cases, the horse has well and truly bolted. The ability to scan virtually any image and then to manipulate it in almost every conceivable manner has given printmaking an enormous potential to reinvent itself and to reassert itself in a modern technological world.
As is almost inevitable with any new technology, the first reaction is to demonstrate some of its possible effects attained by the new equipment, and there’s been no shortage of displays of tedious technical virtuosity. This has been superseded by a second wave of computer-manipulated prints where the equipment has been used simply as equipment for the artist to fulfil artistic goals. The new-found potential to totally deconstruct an image and then recontextualise it has given printmaking an ideal technology for a postmodern age. Peter Lyssiotis, a towering figure on the Melbourne artists’ books scene, employs his digital prints in a very creative manner, so they become a not-so-subtle comment on involving us as viewers, quite literally, in the war games where we play with the idea of transferring responsibility to us.
[An image of a hand pointing a remote control at a line of fighter planes on an airstrip appears beside the words ‘Us, Them’. It is captioned: Peter Lyssiotis and Noga Mizrahi, Homeland, 2003, Melbourne, Mastertheif, digital prints]
Sasha: The computer-generated imagery, to some extent, forms the nexus between poster art and its ability to communicate images to a mass audience and the fine art studio printmaking and the artists’ book tradition. It also, I think, reasserts printmaking’s traditional role of being the art form which employs the most recent technology, and in this instance, creates a haunting, anxious image. And as Des and Robert pointed out early in their talk – for those of you who attended – a number of the artists’ books in this exhibition are in fact ... arrived through digital means.
[Over a double page spread, images of men’s faces are covered in colourful text. It is captioned: Lyn Ashby, I decline myself, 2008, Cottles Bridge, Vic, thistoopress, digital prints on transparent paper, text, printing and binding by Lyn Ashby]
Sasha: Now, I’ve always been fascinated with Lyn Ashby’s work ever since I first encountered it in an exhibition in Mackay. An obsessive interrogation of self which leads to an image seen through a dark ... glass darkly reminds me of the fabulous images by Bea Maddock of her features eroded by etching. However now, four decades later, Lyn Ashby has reinterpreted digitally this whole idea on transparent layers of paper. The other thing which I want to just mention – which is very important – that, as with so much good art, even when you see it in detail, it reproduces poorly. And I suggest that you do go upstairs and see these artists’ books in the flesh in the Fine impressions exhibition brought together so brilliantly by Des Cowley and Robert Heather.
Ashby writes about his book, ‘Without language who am I? Without words, what would my thoughts be made of? What would comprise the inner life? When learning Latin, we learn the strict linguistic constructions of nouns, verbs and syntax. We see that nouns are organised in declensions, determining relationships in sentences. In the way that these rules build language, does language build the self? I decline myself is one of a series of books (Declensions and conjugations) concerning the underlying linguistic nature of selfhood. The compounding, translucent pages build an image – in the form of words – of self. As we peel away these pages and constructions, what are we left with?’ And, again, I’ve had the privilege of actually seeing this book and literally peeling it away, looking through the declension, if you like, of identity. It’s quite a moving experience. Because, remember, while I’m showing you stills from these books, most of these books do involve the passage of time built into them through which you actually travel through the work rather than simply observe it.
[Only the right hand image is shown. It is captioned: Lyn Ashby, I decline myself, 2008, Cottles Bridge, Vic, thistoopress, digital prints on transparent paper, text, printing and binding by Lyn Ashby]
Sasha: In Australia, the advent of Aboriginal printmakers served to revitalise the tradition, as they appeared less concerned with the refinements of technique and turned to the medium because they had something to communicate in visual terms to a broader audience. The continuing impact of Aboriginal printmaking on the broader tradition of printmaking in Australia is difficult to assess on any level. It’s even difficult to locate Aboriginal printmaking within this tradition. While the cultural roots of Aboriginal art go back to ancient and continuing tradition, which may be 40 or 50 millennia old, the tradition of printmaking in the Australian context is a peculiarly Western innovation which has been adopted by Aboriginal artists only about three decades ago. Aboriginal printmakers, including Judy Watson, Lin Onus, Kevin Gilbert, Karen Casey, Gordon Bennett, Treahna Hamm, amongst many, many others, have created a most distinctive body of prints and some artists’ books which are outstanding for freshness and vitality. In the work of all of these artists there is a high degree of technical accomplishment, however, the principal merit of their work lies not in the technique but in the power and the beauty through which they communicate their message. Whether it is an expression of the feeling of a spiritual quest in a search for ancestral roots, or the celebration of the spiritual in nature, ultimately all of these prints also contain a political imension.
[Book pages feature two images of dark shapes on murky backgrounds. They are captioned: Martin King, Book of flight, 2008, Melbourne, Topfloor Press, etchings and wood engravings by Martin King, binding by George Matoulas]
Sasha: Martin King is one of the key figures in the Melbourne printmaking scene. And he’s spent a substantial part of his life working with Indigenous artists, frequently in remote locations and in a collaborative manner. I think he’s one of the few master printers – incidentally, ‘master printer’ is a euphemism for a printer who works to realise another artist’s vision in a print – but he’s one of the few who has actually sustained his own individual practice. When I examined his Book of flight in 2008, the markings are powerful and enigmatic. They seem to struggle for their existence while at the same time maintain an emblematic presence. Personally, I find these images to be deeply moving and totally impossible without the advent of Australian Indigenous printmaking. It’s not a question of influence or appropriation, but it’s a continuous, what I’ve termed, dialectic between Indigenous and non-Indigenous art, one which has continued over a prolonged period of time and has had an impact on how Australian artists view their environment.
In the case of Martin King, and so many other artists’ books in this exhibition, they’ve been created in collaboration with a master binder, George Matoulas.
At about the same time that Australian printmaking was absorbing the impact of Indigenous printmaking, there was a broad and gradual geographic realignment of Australia. No longer did Australian artists think of themselves as belonging to a European outpost or as an American colony, but identified themselves as belonging to an Australia which was firmly located in Asia. Australian artist printmakers had increasingly turned to the arts of Asia, and printmakers travelled and trained in Asia while Asian-born artist printmakers settled and exhibited in this country. I’m tempted to suggest from somewhat cursory impressions in China that the early isolationism of China had by the 1990s given way culturally to a broader internationalism. A parallel case can be validly made for other parts of Asia. In other words, what I’m suggesting is that in this period of the past, say, 20 years or so, both in Australia and in Asia there is a perceived regionalism, so that the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 2011 – in other words, earlier this year – or of the seventh Shanghai Biennale of 2010, instead of reflecting a cultural insularity, there is a growing regional pluralism, in a sense, a crossover of cultures where artists are combining numerous artistic traditions from a variety of countries.
While Australian printmakers have been aware of the Japanese woodblock tradition for at least a century, and there is a continuous history of Australian artist printmakers travelling to Japan to study, the widespread awareness of the broader context of Asian art is a much more recent phenomenon. In the past couple of decades, Asia has been largely redefined for the broader Australian art community as the Asia-Pacific region. Of course, Australia’s geographic proximity to Asia has not changed. What has altered is our perception of this proximity. In the context of the broader multicultural discourse, this followed the elimination of the White Australia policy and the victorious Mabo decision which partially recognises Aboriginal sovereignty to land, Australian attitudes to their neighbours have also begun to change. After more than 200 years of occupation, white Australians have become more aware of their Asian and Pacific neighbours, and have expressed preparedness to learn from Asian cultural traditions rather than rely exclusively on Europe or the United States. Perhaps in a postmodernist context where notions of centre and periphery have been eroded and the cultural hegemony of Western European modernism has been usurped by pluralism …
[In a book, a paragraph of text faces an abstract black and white image. It is captioned: Inge King, Book of cut-outs, 2000, Melbourne, Tate Adams’ Lyrebird Press and Zimmer Editions, text by Raymond Carver, screen-printed by Larry Rawlings]
Sasha: … the contemporary arts of Asia, including China, Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and India as well as Japan, have appeared at least as vital and as relevant as parts of Europe and the States. The opening up of Asian markets to Australian trade has brought closer communication links, with China, of course, being Australia’s first and most important trading partner and Japan being the second most important trading partner, also with the increasing number of Asian artists either visiting or settling in Australia, and an increasing number of Australian artists visiting and studying in Asia.
One could say the examples of prints and artists’ books made in Australia by Jonathan Tse, Guan Wei, Robert Grieve, Graham Kuo and Rosalyn Keane, amongst many others, as being profoundly influenced by Asian culture, but none is included in this exhibition. However, Inge King’s Book of cut-outs, of about a decade ago, is in the show, and certainly for me carries the undeniable Asian sensibility. And, again, I won’t go into a lecture on Inge King, an artist who I adore and work with, but if you know her background and her exposure to Asian art, a lot of this will make sense. It is interesting that this artist’s book came out published by Tate Adams, his Lyrebird Press and Zimmer Editions, as Tate, perhaps more than anybody else, championed the cause of Japanese printmaking in Melbourne, initially at his Crossley Gallery.
[Two large crosses decorated with black patterns appear over a background of yellow text. It is captioned: Angela Cavalieri, INRI, 2005, Melbourne, linocuts by Angela Cavalieri, binding by George Matoulas]
Sasha: You may have noticed that in my discussion of some of the artists in this exhibition that there have been relatively few Anglo-Saxon names. This is not an illusion. On my count, fewer than half the artists in the show come from Anglo-Celtic stock even if we include the imported Brits and the New Zealanders. However, few artists make their ethnicity such a major subject of their art as the Australian-Calabrese artist Angela Cavalieri. Employing the somewhat low-tech medium of the hand-rubbed linocut, for her, as an artist, size does matter as she explored fragments of the Italian language and the iconography of the crucifixion to create daunting, anxious images of enigmatic complexity. Sadly, I have neither the time nor available images to mention much less than examine each of the 18 artists’ books in this exhibition.
[In a book, a river of black slants across two pages. A man sails it in a crowded boat. A tree grows on the bank. Paragraphs of red text run down beside it. It is captioned: John Ryrie, A man who went to see the sea, 2009, Yarraville, Vic, linocut by John Ryrie, printed at the Australian Print Workshops Lynotype and set printed at the Melbourne Museum of printing. Binding by John Ryrie]
Sasha: However, I will pause very briefly on several of them. John Ryrie is a fantastic maverick artist who creates brilliant prints and artists’ books of deceptive simplicity, which touch on popular genres like zines of today and the chat books of yesteryear, but realised with quite an outstanding and touching sophistication.
[One corner of a book page is covered with a brown and black pattern. Paragraphs of text appear beneath and on the facing page. It is captioned: Bruno Leti and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, The Alignments (Two), 1999, Canberra, Edition and Artist Studio, Canberra School of Art, Australian National University, 1999, etchings and embossing by Bruno Leti, poetry by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, binding by Norbert Herold]
Sasha: Bruno Leti and Chris Wallace-Crabbe are serial collaborators who in their Alignments [Two] question the meaning of lines. No matter how professional the reproductions, most of the magic of the book is lost in these slides. For example, I’m not sure any of you can see beautiful lush areas of embossing here and here, which really make the book an absolute sort of sensuous delight to handle and look at. And that’s why I keep on imploring you, don’t listen to my prattle, go and have a good look at the exhibition itself. That’s the really important thing. The artists’ book, unlike most other art mediums, not only captures time but, unlike a video installation where you are dictated to on how long you can see the image, in an artists’ book you also control the shape of time.
Also in the exhibition, there’s a wonderful collaboration between Tommaso Durante and Chris Wallace-Crabbe; a magnificent collaboration between Max Gimlett and Alan Loney, actually enormously ... it’s a fishy affair, but quite funny and moving; Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison; Frances and Leonie Osowski; David Frazer and Martin Flanagan; Robert Colvin, Peter Lyssiotis and Theo Strasser; and Anthony Figallo and Danny Moynihan.
[A small black and white print of a man flying over a landscape appears in the centre of a blank page. The facing page is also blank. It is captioned: David Frazer and Martin Flanagan, Wanderlust, 2004, Brunswick, Vic. Wood engravings printed by David Frazer, text by David Frazer and Martin Flanagan, letterpress and binding by George Matoulas]
Sasha: If some of my examples have something of the anxious image about them, David Frazer’s Wanderlust is like a paranoid obsession, where in his 15 exquisite, immaculate wood engravings accompanied by text written by himself and Martin Flanagan, we explore the journey of an Australian rural misfit and a German one. Composed in Berlin, there’s a very effective sense of displacement where the floating figure seeks out his private Vitebsk in an Australian rural reality. And I know I’m not allowed to do this but I will mention that at the Counihan Gallery in Sydney Road, which is next door to the Brunswick Town Hall, there’s a wonderful exhibition of Castlemaine printmakers that opened a couple of days ago which has quite a number of John Ryrie’s works together with the work of a number of other wonderful artists. While most book artists are involved in collaborative ventures, a few largely obsessive individuals do it alone.
[A business-size envelope with one end torn off covers a book page. The blue patterned interior shows through the window in the front. The facing page bears a paragraph. It is captioned: Carolyn Fraser, Envelope, 2009, Melbourne, Idlewild Press, written, hand-set, printed and bound by Carolyn Fraser, images sourced from the artist’s collection of personal mail received 1994–2009]
Sasha: Carolyn Fraser may appear to some as a mild-mannered conservator working at the State Library of Victoria but just wait until she finds her telephone booth, and then she immediately is transformed into a very fine, even outstanding, letterpress artist who apparently takes about five years to produce one of her exquisitely crafted artist books. The cool restraint of the ornamental design and the absolute wackiness of the accompanying texts, apparently sourced from personal correspondence, leaves one in a state of considerable apprehension.
In passing, one could also note a certain strangeness and anxiety in the naming of these private artists’ book presses. Carolyn Fraser’s Idlewild and Tate’s Lyrebird seem fairly mainstream, but what about other private presses in this exhibition? Masterthief, Messofa, thistoopress (all in lower case and in one word) and Uncollected Works Press. And the Blue Moon Press. There’s scope for deep and profound psychoanalysis.
[A page features two black rectangles bearing traces of white leaves. The facing page features blue and white images of cherry blossoms in a tall vase against a black rectangular backdrop. It is captioned: Susan Purdy, New branches on an old tree, 2006, Melbourne, Blue Moon Press, photograms by Susan Purdy]
Sasha: Finally, a last word on another virtuoso solo effort, this one by Susan Purdy. She’s a photographic artist whose images I first encountered in an exhibition in TarraWarra, and whose work is most effective on a monumental scale as it is within the intimacy of an artists’ book with its own sense of sequence, boldness and anxiety.
Now, in a talk of this nature, it would be foolhardy to attempt some sort of conclusion beyond asserting that the past decade has witnessed a new and a distinctive flowering in the prints and artists’ books which have emerged from Melbourne. My purpose here has been to attempt to arrive at some sort of understanding for this flowering, and to comment on its healthy longevity. I will conclude with a quote from one of my favourite essays on artists’ books. It’s an old essay by Betsy Davids and Jim Petrillo and it’s called simply ‘The artist as book printer’. The scene I’ll quote is a slightly farcical opera where the book artist leaps off a tall citadel, and as she falls she sings, ‘There are more producers of artists’ books than there are consumers. It’s true democracy and bad business.’ Stage left, one can make out the shadowy figure of the Muse, who points an enigmatic finger at the words projected on the scrim of a badly painted sunrise: ‘The book as it will be is yet to be discovered.’ Thank you.
[The logos of the State Library of Victoria and the State Government of Victoria appear on a black screen.]
'...the whole art form is so incredibly fluent, is so immensely changeable. It’s an art form which constantly reinvents itself.'
- Sasha Grishin
About this video
In this video slideshow, Professor Sasha Grishin discusses how printmaking and artists' books have flourished in the past decade – with Melbourne emerging as the major Australian centre of these activities.
Professor Sasha Grishin works internationally as an art historian, art critic and curator.
In 1977 he founded the Fine Art Program at the Australian National University, and is currently Head of Art History.
He has published extensively on contemporary and medieval art, and is completing his third volume on Australian contemporary printmaking.