Graphic Australia: Prints by Ross Woodrow
(27 May – 17 June 2011) Curated by Gail Heidel. Thomas Hunter Project Space, Hunter College, The City University of New York, Lexington Avenue between 68th and 69th St.,.New York, NY 10065
On first glance at the work in this show it might appear that the exhibition title is misleading in its claims to represent “Australia”.
Apart from a few kangaroos, a North Australian or Queensland house, and a generically urban Australian city, there are no iconic Australian emblems or landscapes. This is where the “Graphic” part of my title becomes significant. None of these images are drawn from life nor, significantly, are they sourced from the internet; that global archive for the image economy today. Instead, my imagery is almost exclusively sourced from graphic representations in nineteenth-century popular texts and drawing manuals in my library. Such sources represent a comprehensive range of images that shaped Australian narratives and desires for a significant part of the nation’s history. All of these sources; the illustrated magazines, storybooks and drawing manuals, were printed in Europe or the United States.
Because the sources generally predate the 1960s, my images evoke an Anglo-American Australia, since it is only in very recent history that Australian visual culture has embraced Indigenous history, art and knowledge. My strategy is not a simple re-imagining of discarded or dead graphic images through changes in context, scale, composition or juxtaposition since I attempt to reinvigorate their potency through process. For each print, be it etching, woodcut, linoprint or lithograph, I match the expressive qualities of the process to the particular image. Although every printmaker does this, in my case I am not particularly concerned with making prints that express the unique properties of a particular medium or foreground their so called “print qualities”. For me the success and visual impact of a print will result from an inseparable enfolding or interlocking of process and image to create an implied narrative. Often the production processes are as multilayered as the sources for the images. For example, Special Friends is a compilation of eight nineteenth-century engravings, an image from a drawing manual and the Chinese characters for “Happiness” and “Harmony,” sourced from a rubber stamp kit purchased at the Saatchi Gallery during its large Contemporary Chinese Art exhibition in London in 2008. The lack of intervention in the source images is evident in the different fine or course engraving styles. The narrative integration of the various elements has been achieved through digital drawing or computer manipulation of the components. The final composition was printed on clear plastic for transfer to a photosensitized zinc plate which was then etched and printed in the conventional way on an etching press.
The same complex stratification of processes characterises the large etching Pretty Polly that brings together a tiny engraved colophon from a German edition of Lessing’s Laocoon and an absurd parrot from Sidney Nolan’s painting Pretty Polly Mine. The domestic drama in the large linoprint The Origin of Modernism is constructed using two banal figures from a drawing manual and the original engraved advertisement for the Morris Minor motor car.
To create something new from the long forgotten, the overlooked, or vernacular image is a fraught quest since sweetness, dread and sentiment have been the essence of the popular image since the nineteenth century at least. Now that the shelf life of postmodern irony has passed, the task of using materiality to surmount the numbing sincerity of a kitsch image is further complicated. As it also is by the dominance of screen and digital images which has confused any accepted pictorial hierarchies and erased the distinctions between private and public images.
In this exhibition I test the limits of the material image by taking the printmaking process a further step into the purely digital realm and creating an installation that facilitates the direct encounter between digital technological and material image production. This is not to suggest a defining polarity between computer and hand generated prints but to demonstrate the infinite mutability of a vital image to adapt to the processes that give it life.
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