Cutting Plates, Cutting Edge

A call for a museum of works on paper.

In March this year Manhattan’s Pier 36 hosted the third iteration of the Art on Paper art fair. It has become one of New York’s most anticipated art events, attracting galleries and viewers from around the globe. At the same time the city’s New Museum hosted a massive survey of the works of Raymond Pettibon, whose oeuvre is dominated by a proliferation of drawings and lithographs.

Lithographs, etchings and silkscreens have a remarkable history in the arts. It is believed that the first silkscreens hark back to China’s Song Dynasty (960-1279AD). Andy Warhol essentially built his empire on the back of a squeegee within the fortress of The Factory. All artists – even the most conceptually based – at one point or another, have executed works on paper, from Leonardo da Vinci to Matthew Barney. Most major metropolises play host to one or more museums devoted to works on paper.

And yet in Australia works on paper in any form seem to be relegated to the status of poor cousin. To be sure, the major government-funded institutions at least pay competent lip-service to the various media applied to papyrus and wood pulp, but the lion’s share of their budget is eaten by painting, sculpture and photography and even, with some institutions, video.

This does not stop certain artists from unleashing their inks and graphite with stunning results. Such senior and mid-career artists as Peter Booth, Bernhard Sachs and Lisa Roet, while known more for their drawings, also have contentedly drifted into the zone of printmaking while Mike Parr has made prints a centrepiece of his practice.

Parr was amongst the artists chosen by René Block, the artistic director of the 1990 Sydney Biennale, The Readymade Boomerang, the eighth Biennale at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, for inclusion in a remarkable suite of prints executed to accompany that show.

The range of mediums used by the printmakers bordered on startling: Janet Burchill silkscreened on sheets of tin; Julian Schnabel used a montage of the different print techniques of lithography and etching; Barbara Bloom used photographic offset lithography; while Peter Tyndall incorporated silkscreen – and the list of variations went on.

Parr had already taken to printmaking when he was invited to be part of The Bicentennial Folio in 1998, a project involving work by 20 artists and curated by Roger Butler at the National Gallery of Australia. Butler placed master printmaker and artist John Loane in charge of the printing formalities, forming a partnership with Parr that has endured for 30 years and continues to this day.

“I had previously sent him a copper plate in order to entice him into the print idea, as he had been making great large drawings for some years emanating from a radical performance-art practice,” Loane told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2014. “It took about one minute for him to be completely enmeshed in the process, and he has since attacked the medium with alarmingly incisive power.” Parr’s massive print series – Blind Self-Portraits – was exhibited at the ARNDT Gallery in 2013 in Berlin shortly after his successful survey show at the Edelweiß, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna the year before.

In 1989 Brent Harris and Loane produced a series of 14 intaglio prints titled The Stations. Influenced by Barnett Newman and Colin McCahon’s engagement with the subject of the 12 Stations of the Cross. “My interest in the story is less religious than being driven by its depiction of a young man’s passage from life to death. This subject resonated very strongly with me at the time as friends of mine were dying of AIDS,” he said. These intaglio prints were printed by Loane and had their precursor in the McCahon-inspired ‘Land’s End’ (1988), an exquisitely printed aquatint and etching on chine collé.

Since producing his first prints in the late 1980s, Harris has generally pursued printmaking in parallel to his painting practice, often making sets of prints that directly correspond to his paintings.

Loane tends to work as much as a collaborator as printmaker and there is a clear aesthetic linking the artists he chooses to work with, including Louise Forthun, Peter Walsh, Imants Tillers, Kristin Headlam, Jenny Watson, Vivienne Shark LeWitt, John Nixon and Gordon Bennett.

Established in 1981, the Australian Print Workshop holds a residency for printmakers along with a shop-front exhibition space. Overseen by master printmaker Martin King, the workshop has executed works by Lisa Roet, Peter Walsh, Gareth Sansom, Rick Amor, Brett Colquhoun, Jon Cattapan, Juan Ford, Brent Harris, Laith McGregor, Bernhard Sachs, Vivienne Shark LeWitt and Emily Floyd, amongst many others.

Established in 1975, in 2002 Port Jackson Press produced the William Creek & Beyond portfolio based on an epic journey through Australia undertaken by a strangely mixed group of artists. The resulting body of works included prints by Tim Storrier, David Larwill, Rodney Pople, John Olsen and Mark Schaller.

I am doing so much name-dropping to hammer home the contemporaneous relevance of all forms of printmaking. One could go on with the likes of Lloyd Rees, Fred Williams, Margaret Olley, George Baldessin, Martin Sharp, Brett Whiteley, the Angry Penguins and the earliest colonial painters. Indeed the history of Australian art is integrally entwined with printmaking in all its forms.

Printmaking in various forms has also developed into a rich conduit for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists with the assistance of such major figures as curator Wally Caruana, who has worked with extraordinary passion and knowledge with artists such as Melbourne’s Karen Casey through to more as traditional artists such as Banduk Marika from Yirrkala and Bede Tungutalum from Nguiu, Bathurst Island. Sydney’s Cicada Press, through programs organised by Tess Allas and Michael Kempson, has hosted residencies for such artists as Tony Albert, Fiona Foley, Vernon Ah Kee, Brenda Croft, Gordon Hookey and Reko Rennie.

Then there are numerous printmaking centres in even the most remote locations such as Injalak Arts in Gunbalanya who produced stunning prints with the late Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrek.

Given this ridiculously rich history isn’t it time for Australia to consider a stand-alone institution devoted to specific bodies of work involving the hands-on medium of prints? Or perhaps, more ambitiously, works on paper in general? It would not take much detective work to fill a new museum that all Australians and international visitors could appreciate.

Courtesy the artists; Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne; Pieces of Eight Gallery Melbourne; and Hugo Michell Gallery, Adelaide.