Exploring the relationship between flat prints and the mechanics used to create them, some sculptors have even ingeniously reversed the process as Duncan Macmillan discovers.
Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh
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Derek Roberts: Northern Paintings
Inverleith House, Edinburgh
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Songs of Innocence and Experience
Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh
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Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh
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ETCHING and engraving are almost sculpture. The image is cut into the plate and so, printed under pressure, the print itself actually has a relief texture, too. Woodcuts, as their name implies, also involve cutting a block of wood. It was only with the invention of lithography and much later of screenprinting that printmaking became truly two-dimensional, although even lithographs were originally printed from a heavy stone, a sculptural object in itself. Sculptors’ Prints at the RSA takes this relationship between prints and sculpture as its starting point.
Around a dozen sculptors are included. Mostly they are the home team, but with there are also one or two guests. The president of the RSA, Arthur Watson, is a living example of the symbiosis between sculpture and prints. As a printmaker, he took a leading role in setting up Peacock Printmakers in Aberdeen where his skills were employed on some of the most outstanding prints produced by the workshop. He is also a sculptor, however. Fittingly he is represented here by works in which the two modes become one. Nest Variations I and II and Nest Revisited: Ghost are prints in which the matrix is actually the sculpture itself. The Nest is a set of diminishing concentric squares each made from four wooden blocks. In the first two there are just three squares, one inside the other, in the third there are six. To create a print from his sculpture, Watson has treated each of the constituent pieces of wood as an individual woodblock. Printed separately, they are reassembled on paper exactly as in the original three dimensional work. It is a simple, eloquent and very satisfying demonstration of the essential relationship of sculpture and printmaking.
Doug Cocker is almost as direct in a series of monoprints inspired by the textures and colours of Lewis. A monoprint is simply an image on one surface impressed while still wet onto another. It is a print, but limited to no more than a couple of impressions. As we see it here, the pressure creates new textures and patterns and a particular kind of visual unity. Although quite flat, composed of solid rectangular blocks of variegated colour and texture Cocker’s monoprints have the quality of reliefs.
Marion Smith also makes explicit the analogy between print and sculpture by presenting a lime wood relief and an etching of exactly the same image of a formalised tree in leaf. Jake Harvey translates the memorial he designed for Hugh MacDiarmid into a bold and simple etching where the relief inherent in the etching process subtly invokes the three-dimensionality of the massive sculpture it records.
On a much smaller scale, Frances Pelly turns prints into three-dimensional miniature screens. One of the most striking works here by Frank Pottinger is a print that is actually a sculpture. Inspired perhaps by paper reliefs made by American artist Frank Stella, Pottinger has created a complex object out of prints, cut out and arranged in angled planes so that printed forms and three dimensional forms interchange in an intriguing way.
The show begins with two works by Eduardo Paolozzi. He was undoubtedly one of the outstanding sculptors of his generation, but he was also a pioneer of silkscreen printing as an artist’s medium. Paradoxically the least sculptural form of printmaking, it was a purely commercial process when in 1951 Paolozzi started to experiment with it. Its great advantage is the strength and simplicity of colour it can achieve, but also the fact that, unlike traditional techniques, there is really no limit to the number of prints that can be made from a single original. Paolozzi liked the way this undermined the pricey exclusivity of the limited edition.
Typically, one of the two screen prints included here is actually a poster for the SSA annual exhibition of 1969, designed to be mass-produced, and the second is also a variation on a poster, one that he made for the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1972. Ian Hamilton Finlay and Paolozzi did not see eye to eye, but Finlay did also exploit the way screen printing could liberate the print from the artificial value of the art market. Here one of his concrete poems is a kind of Valentine. An apple (Eve’s apple?) mutates into a heart in four stages alongside the one, two, three and then four letters of the word “love”. Kenny Hunter also follows Paolozzi’s example with screenprints that are in effect posters, boldly blocked compositions of letters whose forms are as declaratory as the texts they present: The Quick and the Dead, the words overlapping and shifting from grey to black, or A Shout In The Street, the words contiguous in a block of black letters on red. There is also a set of lithographs by Hunter of statues on their plinths in the New York streets. These reflect on a quite different aspect of sculpture, its durability and its capacity to take on a public role.
At Inverleith House, Derek Roberts is emphatically a painter, but his big paintings, boldly composed in blocks of colour and texture, if not actually sculptural, do have a strong physical presence. In a number of them this effect is also reinforced by his use of architectonic, rectangular blocks so the paintings look solid and self-contained. They are abstract, but the patterned marks within the blocks are sometimes organic in feeling. Elsewhere they reflect the movement of his hand in drawing. These qualities mitigate the austerity of pure abstraction and engage the eye.
The show is beautifully hung with only a couple of canvasses in each room. This elegant minimalism not only excludes any labels, however, but unfortunately even the numbers of the rooms, even though the printed guide identifies the paintings by the room numbers. When I was there nobody seemed to know which room was which and so it was impossible to identify the pictures by title. Nevertheless, although everything was perforce untitled, the overall effect is of an impressive body of work.
A group of three naïve artists at the Ingleby Gallery is something entirely different. Two, Alfred Wallis from Cornwall and Forrest Bess from Texas, are well-known. They were both taken up by their professional contemporaries, Wallis by Ben Nicholson and the St Ives painters, Bess by the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York where Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists found support. The third artist, Frank Walter from Antigua, is a new discovery. With Alfred Wallis, you can see why he was admired. It is not just the undoubted charm of his childlike drawing – mostly of boats, but also occasionally of landscapes seen like primitive maps. His bold sense of design and colour and feeling for texture are striking too, all achieved with the most elementary of means.
Forrest Bess’s background was not dissimilar to that of Wallis. There are however only two of his paintings here, although there is a film about him and there are also documents, including a letter to President Eisenhower. They illustrate his “thesis”, his obsessive theory that the key to immortality was hermaphroditism.
Frank Walter also had obsessive theories and they were likewise expressed in voluminous writings also represented here. One of his obsessions was his putative Scottish, and royal, ancestry. An intriguing byproduct of this was a group of miniature, imaginary Scottish landscapes that are quite delightful.
Finally I can recommend David Forster’s moody, atmospheric landscapes at the Open Eye. His pictures are mostly small and represent actual places, sites around Edinburgh and also in a new departure in Harris, but the light in them is strange, uncanny even. In one small picture this effect makes even a gasometer look memorable and some of his larger pictures are very striking.
BEST IN SHOW
One of the most satisfying works in Sculptors’ Prints is Arthur Watson’s Nest Revisited: Ghost. It is a print made directly from a sculpture, exploiting the fact that wood is both a material for sculpture and a medium for printmaking. The sculpture takes its name from its shape, six diminishing squares which leave a seventh, an empty space or nest in the middle. The work is a ghost because its colour is a soft and insubstantial grey. The squares are composed of blocks of wood, each punctuated by three holes. As the squares get smaller, the holes get closer, so at the centre they add a note of emphasis to the central space. The print is made by treating each element as a separate block and then printing it like a Japanese woodcut, one block at a time. The result is simple and very satisfying.
• Sculptors’ Prints until 31 March; Derek Roberts until 14 April; Songs of Innocence and Experience until 30 March; David Forster until 13 March