Aida Tomescu

Printmaking has coincided with defined points of change in Aida Tomescu’s practice. Whether responding to the vastness of Australia with her arrival in 1980 or exploring unresolved questions at the end of a painting series, the etching plate distilled her thought process. Working into the surface she felt the metal’s resistance, it was something more essential, more felt, a new type of creative intensity and possibility was opened up.

You grew up in Bucharest, Romania – Tell me about the decision to move to Australia.
The people. I left Bucharest at 23 and spent a year travelling in Europe. Every time I sat on the deck of a boat to some Greek island, the conversations I enjoyed were oddly almost always with Australians. There was the openness and warmth – it made me want to come here.

What did this change of city and country have on you?
The first thing that struck me was the light and I loved the trees – there was purity in the light and it took a while to find its way into the painting.

What did this bring about for your work?
My beginnings were figurative; I trained academically and never thought I was going to be an abstract painter. I went to uni at 17 in Bucharest and the course was studio-based with a whole range of theoretical subjects. My first exhibition in 1979 was based on still-life. However when I first set foot in Sydney in 1980, I felt everything had to change, to be rethought, as a result of what I was experiencing here. I was standing on different ground and it made no sense to continue as if I weren’t. How could I translate this new position – the great space, the isolation, the vast distances – all of which was profoundly affecting! It meant that almost all the work I’d made up until 1984 was destroyed.

One of the first things that happened here is that I bought bigger canvases, I increased the scale. Though I was continuing as a painter, I needed a whole new vocabulary, and this would only develop gradually.

How do you build an image?
Slowly. My paintings might appear to be the result of addition and spontaneity but for a painting to achieve the unity I want, there is a lot of erasure – every work is ultimately born more of disruption and erasure.

The paintings, the prints and drawings all share one thing – they are an attempt for content. When working an etching plate or drawing, I can oversee the entire image while also concentrating on the mark I’m making that very moment. The proximity allows for a different engagement with the work. Painting, because of its scale and complexity of materials, becomes a progressive construction that evolves incrementally. The measure of fullness, the cohesion I’m after, always comes about unexpectedly, yet often not until I’ve committed a lot of time to building the painting.

What tools do you use?
Until 1994 I used mainly brushes, and scrapers when removing an image, which was often. Once an image reached a clear direction, brushes and scrapers were often used simultaneously. Since 1994 I relied a great deal on scrapers – excavating and editing an image repeatedly so that this process became an active part of the layering and constructing of the painting. The notion of etching – pressing into a ground to make a line would become an active component of my painting and came directly from the approach to the etching plates.

When did you begin printmaking?
Drawing has always been the backbone of my creative work, so drawing onto etching plates felt inevitable and natural. In 1986 I was invited to work for three weeks at the Victorian Print Workshop – now the Australian Print Workshop. An hour and a half flying to Melbourne, followed by three weeks covering even greater distances of learning. I had no idea how to find my way around drawing on a plate.

How did you respond to it?
I immediately had to curb any craving for precision and for controlling an image. It set me on a course I am still on today – working to discover a new image, and with it, content. In 1986 I felt I was in a no man’s land when it came to the subjects of my work. I had abandoned my still-life subjects and was still resisting the move towards abstraction. I knew that I needed to give the materials, the surface, the image I was working with, complete freedom in order for a clear direction to become available to me.

What was the appeal of working on a plate?
The resistance the hard ground of a plate offers my drawing, the way it interrupts the facility of my line. The tension in the palm of your hand when you mark deep into the plate – it makes you want to take drawing to the edge of ability, away from flourish towards something more essential, more felt. The process generates associative thinking, reduces the distance between the “thinking” and the “doing”. And I am working to fix or locate an image … and then unfix it, let it breathe.

In your Ithaca prints series you worked dark, bold and intense lines into the surface.
The first of the Ithaca etchings were really heavily worked and I felt so connected to the drawing that was going to come out of the plate. I was completely underwhelmed by the first proofs – they were nowhere near what I anticipated. The image was still hovering ahead of me, at arm’s length, yet the softness of that first proof was open and full of possibilities.

In comparison to your vibrant paintings, what was the absence of colour like?
Freeing. When you don’t have to attend to the complications of colour you can tune into the image in a different way and at a different pace. It is a compressed, concentrated process and gives rise to images in a different way.

In Seria Unu you painted on etching plates. What did this entail?
I was working on steel. Six plates were nailed to the wall and I worked using a brush dipped in red oxide. Once the red oxide begins to dry, tonally it nearly becomes one with the plate, and you can’t interfere anymore. I began the plates by using a drypoint needle, scraping and scoring some of the areas as a way of connecting to that ground. It was also a way of not having the red oxide glide off the surface, a way of finding my content gradually.

What speaks to you about the process of etching?
I loved its transformative powers over my drawing, the way in which it liberated my drawing in the acid tray. Materiality was removed entirely by the acid, so I was left with an image that is really vulnerable, open.

Ultimately nothing is fixed in painting, etching or collage. Even though you break through with a line deeply into an etching ground, the aim is for the image to lift off that surface, have a pulse. With painting, I want air between the layers. These are not qualities I could, or want to, control, measure or calculate in advance.

There is openness to how you approach your works, a slowing down.
What I found over time is that the more open an image is the more clarity it carries in its relationships. All of the elements in the work remain active, even once a work is complete – the surface becomes a living thing.

It’s been a while since you printed, would you do it again?
I wouldn’t want to rule it out. I find working etching plates is the best thing to do at the end of a painting cycle. After I complete a series of paintings, it can be that altering the ground on which I work, much like changing the place you inhabit, leads to new possibilities.

Courtesy the artist and Jensen Gallery, Sydney.

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