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Sasha Grishin on printmaking & artists’ books in Melbourne

Sasha Grishin on printmaking & artists’ books in Melbourne

Sasha Grishin. [APPLAUSE] SASHA GRISHIN: G’day,
and thank you very much. I always feel better not to be
on the same stage as Robert. He sort of does tower
over you a little bit. You may have noticed. 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 artist’s 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
will 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 artist’s books. And one of the reasons
why I love that is because the whole art
form is so incredibly fluid. It’s 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 artist’s 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 – 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, many
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, and 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
artist’s books which have emerged from Melbourne,
and some of these developments I wish to address today. However – and this is
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 Traill’s
‘Red Light, Sydney 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 a local subject matter. Dorrit Black’s gorgeous five
block colour liner cut, ‘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. 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 wood cut, ‘Morning Glory’ of 1932,
which would and did look totally in place
in any British print- making exhibition. 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 print makers, 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
brought up Hans Heysen, even he, the quintessential
nationalist gumtree 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 Gryphon, the main shop was in Sydney
where establishment print- makers from throughout Australia
exhibited and sold their wares. 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 post-war 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, Anne Graham and Karl Duldig, just to name a
few obvious examples. But they were simply not in the
same league as Leger, Duchamp, Ozenfant, Moholy-Nagy, Josef
Elbaz 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 the 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 sizable
liner cut, ‘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 cognoscente. 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 schools slightly later, the VCA,
as it’s 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
post-war 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, and soon came
under the supportive guidance of Tate Adams, and
he 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 is 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
nonfunctional 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. 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 that they are 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 print making – 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 artist’s books,
zines and monotypes. And fourthly, a new
geographic regionalism, which to some extent
displaced a phony 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 its peculiar blend of
northern Gothic naturalism of detail with surrealism, a
tradition to which both Kopka and Kafka were heirs. 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 artist
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 allusions in his work, especially to such well-known
authors as George 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 combined on the
tissue of the surface. Many of his prints appear within
artist books, an art form which is pioneered in Australia,
with many years establishing in the Graphic Investigation
Workshop in Camberra. 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 2009, from the ‘Poems
and Days’ artist 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 artist books do not employ
computers, laser printers, inkjet 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 art
institutions is under threat. However, to dispute
the legitimacy of computer-generated prints
or artist 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. It 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 newfound potential to
totally deconstruct an image and then re-contextualise
it has given printmaking an ideal technology
for a postmodern age. Peter Lyssiotis, a towering
figure on the Melbourne artist 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. 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 artist book tradition. It also, I think, re-asserts
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 earlier 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. Now, I’ve always been fascinated
with Lyn Ashby’s work, ever since I first encountered
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, Lynn 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 artist 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 and 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. In Australia, the advent
of Aboriginal printmakers served to revitalise
the tradition, ss 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 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 or
four 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 the work lies not in the technique, but
in the power and the beauty through which they communicate
the message. Whether it is an expression of the
feeling of a spiritual quest and the search for
ancestral roots, or the celebration of
the spiritual in nature, ultimately, all of
these prints also contain a political dimension. Martin King is one of the
key figures in the Melbourne printmaking scene, and he
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’s
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 artist 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 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 post-modernist
context, where notions of centre and periphery have been eroded
and the cultural hegemony of Western European modernism
has been usurped by pluralism, 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 cite the examples of
prints and artist 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
Cutouts’ of about a decade ago is in the show, and
certainly for me it 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 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. You may have noticed that
in my discussion of some of the artists in
this exhibition, there have been relatively
few Anglo-Saxon names. This is not an illusion. On my count, fewer than half
of 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 explores 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. However, I will pause very
briefly on several of them. John Ryrie is a fantastic
maverick artist who creates brilliant prints and artist
books of deceptive simplicity, which touch on popular
genres like zines of today and the chapbooks of yesteryear,
but realised with quite an outstanding and
touching sophistication. 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, much of the magic of the
book is lost in the slides. For example, I’m not
sure that 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 artist book, unlike
most other art mediums, not only captures time, but
unlike a video installation where you are dictated
onto how long you can see the image,
in an artist 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. Francis and Leonie
Osowski, David Frazer and Martin Flanagan, Robert
Colvin, Peter Lyssiotis and Theo Strasser, and Anthony
Figallo and Danny Moynihan. 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. Carolyn Fraser
may appear to some as a mild-mannered conservator
working at the State Library of Victoria,
but just wait until she finds a 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, we can also note a
certain strangeness and anxiety in the naming of these
private artist book presses. Carolyn Fraser’s Idlewild
and Tate’s Lyrebird seem fairly mainstream, but
what about other private presses in this exhibition? Master Thief, Messofa, thistoopress
– all in lowercase
and in one word – and Uncollected Works Press
and the Blue Moon Press. There’s scope for deep and
profound psychoanalysis. 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 artist 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 artist 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 artist books. It’s an old essay by Betsy
Davids and Jim Petrillo, and it’s called, simply,
‘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 artist 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. [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]

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