jc heywood

CARL HEYWOOD:  an interview

Interviewed by Walter Jule

Tell me how you got involved in printmaking in the first place.  Was it in art school?

Yes, at the Ontario College of Art.  I chose it as an option in my senior years.  The major concentration at that time was on drawing and painting from the model. 

You studied with Fred Hagan?

Yes.  I owe Hagan a lot.  He was the first person to make me really see how mysterious and stimulating art could be.  I couldn’t usually figure out what he was talking about, but I knew that it must be something important and enormously exciting.  As a matter of fact, I did mostly woodcuts up until a few months before the end of my fourth year. 

Why did you stop?

I was working next to Michael Stewart.  He’d been doing silkscreen, and I said, “Well maybe you can show me how to do this.  It looks kind of interesting.”  So I did my first silkscreen around February of my final year, and it was love at first sight!  At the time, it was the only print medium that gave any flexibility with colour.  I realized then that I had just wasted all that time doing woodcut.  I didn’t really like it at all.

You didn’t?  Yet you were taking courses?

Well, the reason was that I could do woodcut at home.  We didn’t have access to the presses in the evenings because of evening classes.  But I could cut my blocks at home. 

Then when did you come to feel printmaking had specific appropriateness to your ideas?

When I went to Paris – to Hayter’s place.  That was in 1967, about four years out of art school.  I was going to Paris, first, as a way of breaking out of the life I could see shaping up for me in Canada.  I’d spent three or four years trying to work out the usual problems of doing art in a vacuum, which was what Ontario was at that time.  I was living alone in the country doing landscape painting, looking within myself, and trying to figure out what life was actually for.  How to deal with art in middle-class society.  The usual things.  I was teaching art in a high school by then and was doing just enough art to ease my conscience and no more.  I was bored out of my wits and could see that everything was going wrong, and I couldn’t figure out what to do about it, except break out and get away.  Why not Paris?  That seemed about as far away as I could imagine at the time. 
     So I took the money I’d saved, hitch-hiked to Montreal, and stayed with my old roommate from OCA days, Bob Browning, while trying to find a ship to France.  He had been reading Hayter’s book about etching.  He said if you’re going to Paris I guess it’s to work at Hayter’s.  And I said what’s that?  (Laughter)

You’d never heard of Atelier 17?

No!  Just to show what a hick I was.  So he gave me the address and said I’d never get in because it’s very restricted.  I sat down at his kitchen table right then and there and wrote Hayter and said, “you don’t know me and I haven’t sent the required documents, but I’ve done this and this is my experience and I’ll just come.”  So when I got to Paris I went to his studio and met him, and he said, “So you’re the cheeky one from Canada who said he was just going to come anyway?  Well, my boy, I guess we’ll find a place for you somehow.”  It was a big day in my life. 

Who was working there at the time?

Irene Whittome was the only Canadian, and the Japanese artist, Takesada Matsutani; Hwang, the Korean guy; Katrine van Houten; Togashi, the sculptor; Hector Saunier; Gudrun Fuchs.  Jennifer Dickson had been there before me.  There were many others, of course, but those are the ones that seem to have gone on to achieve some kind of recognition. 

What was it that turned out to be the most influential in your development – the people, Hayter himself?

It was more a question of changing the standards I could set for myself and of being among like-minded people.  There were print artists there from all over the world attracted by Hayter’s books.  Some were good and some not, but they had all had enough initiative to get themselves out of their own backyards of Australia, Germany, England, Japan, the United States.  They had all got themselves as far as Paris, and they were excited about art and life and Paris.  It was the excitement above all, and being with people doing prints all day every day and loving it.  I said I had been bored silly before?  Well this was the exact opposite, thrilling all day long.  Exhilarating.  And it still works, by the way.  One of my students was working at Atelier 17 a while ago, and he talked about the same kind of magic. 

Was Hayter a direct creative influence on many people there?

I think that Hayter’s biggest contribution over the years has been to provide a setting in which a lot of excitement can develop.  It is absolutely amazing the number of printmakers around the world, including Canada, who date their beginnings as serious artists to their time at Hayter’s.  He gives every novice a set problem to execute.  And it is a very good problem to introduce people to all the processes of etching and to an attitude about printmaking.  He used to say that if your print works out as well as you thought it would, it’s a failure.  I like that. 

What about his development of the so-called viscosity printing technique?

I think it was a very big breakthrough in that it liberated etching from its reliance on Rembrandt-Goya-Picasso-type virtuoso draftsmanship and allowed the medium to deal with issues of colour on the same levels as lithography and silkscreen were doing.  It made etching available to many more artists and approaches. 

Yet it seems to me a technique that’s particularly susceptible to misuse as a kind of cosmetic option for prettying up intaglio plates.  In fact, printing always involves the viscosity of ink if one understands the ways in which ink can be bodied or reduced in various ways to achieve specific results. 

Well, it was such an important development that it got over-used during a certain period. There has been a rebound effect. It had become extremely popular when etchers first found out about it, but now we are in the trough period where it is very seldom used. Ed Bartram probably uses it more effectively than anyone else,
because he relates it so beautifully to his imagery 

How did etching satisfy you, since I assume you were still doing silkscreen?

Doing Etching was great, but Atelier 17 closed at dark and I had all kinds of energy left over.  I had a big beautiful studio in Paris, so I set up a silkscreen area and did that in the evenings. 

No Paris night life.

Oh, absolutely.  But that didn’t take much energy. 

Maybe you weren’t doing it right.

Very possibly, but one part of it was right.  It was at that time that I met my wife and, many years later, we’re still very happy together.

How long did you stay at Hayter’s?

Two years.  But I was four years altogether in Paris, then I ran out of money and came back to Canada.  In 1970, I got a job teaching printmaking at Sheridan College. 

Do you find it difficult to reconcile the demands of two separate careers that go on concurrently?  Does that cause problems?

Let’s see.  The first teaching I did was in 1965, just after the big why-do-art crisis. I taught high school art for two years, Community College for two years, the rest was in university, ten years full time. The last 22 years was a 50/50 split with Otis Tamasauskas.   At the time of my why-do-art soul searching at Sheffield, a couple of things became very clear.  One was that it was a life-and-death matter for me to do art.  The other was that I must never rely on art for money.  To try to earn money, even the little I needed, with art was economically impractical and deadly dangerous.  So that was ruled out from the beginning. 
     I worked as a chef for a few years, in the summers, then fortunately I found how much I enjoyed teaching art.  It is an art-related activity, calls for similar abilities of imagination, sense of form, and inventiveness without using up the core of the vision you need for art.  I get a lot of pleasure, in human terms, working with the student – half serious, half humorous.  They are so clean and idealistic that it keeps you fresh.  It is a great deal of work if you are trying to do an outstanding job both in your own art and in teaching.  The hardest part is to keep switching your mind back and forth between the solitary, one-track sensitive, introspective, visual art part and the verbal, rapid, gregarious, teaching part, with its pulls in many directions at the same time.  You have to be sensitive on a human level to the different personality needs of the students, and very patient.  Worst is the large component of administration thrown in.  You need a high level of energy to keep it all going.  It’s not easy but, in many ways, fun.  It’s worth keeping physically fit. 

You must have started using photo imagery in your work about the time you started teaching?

Yes, as a matter of fact.  I had to learn how to do it in order to teach it. 

How did you respond to photography and photoprint techniques at first?  How did that approach to seeing mesh with what you already knew?

At OCA everything was based on life drawing, which I realized later I had never found particularly congenial.  But I had acquired a great fund of skills.  I wanted to reject all of that – erase it from my aesthetic.  In Paris, I tried to figure out how to use all that manual dexterity without applying it to life drawing.  So I guess I was mentally ripe for photography.  I was fooling around with it by 1969-70, doing photo silkscreens in my bathtub. 

In 1969, we had already seen the use of photographic imagery by a large number of print artists, Richard Hamilton, Robert Rauschenberg – the American pop artists.  Photography was firmly established in the vocabulary of printmaking.  It was being taught widely in university art departments in the United States and to a lesser degree in Canada.  Were you influenced by what had been taking place and how did you identify with what you understood were the purposes behind the use of photographic quotation?

Above all, I guess at the time photography gave me a way of dealing with the visual world without involving all the hocus-pocus of drawing.  That was the way I felt then.  There is a certain amount of magicianship involved with drawing, like sleight-of-hand, and I couldn’t bear it.  Photography seemed a very straightforward and honest way of assimilating visual forms of all origins, including quotations from art, images from newspapers and television, a direct perception of landscape or still life, and found forms and textures.  They were all on the same level, available. 
     Picasso and Braque and others invented collage early in the 20th century as a way of forcing together visual experiences that didn’t belong together, just as our lives are filled with experiences that don’t really fit. 

You mean things that don’t fit in life can be made to fit in art?

Exactly!  Since photography and printmaking have gotten together in the last twenty or thirty years, artists at last have a perfect means of expression that can assimilate all other modes of expression, including painting, collage, virtuoso drawing, photography, printed matter, and so forth.  Add to that the total freedom and control of colour that you have in printmaking, and the traditional means of visual expression like painting and sculpture seem a bit restricting. 

You have said on various occasions that you consider printmaking a colourist’s medium.  Given that fact that for almost the entire history of printmaking in the West it has been used as a black and white form of expression, I think you would have to clarify what you mean. 

Well, once again I am speaking as a practitioner of printmaking speaking about the possibilities it can open up for the artist. 
     The fragmented nature of the process of making a print is what makes it possible to adjust and develop any of the components individually, without having to deal with every element simultaneously.  When a painter makes his stroke on the canvas, he is dealing at the same instant with gesture, composition, colour, emphasis, and drawing – all the ingredients and results together.  Things happen very fast, and it is sometimes over before you know it.  When a printmaker makes a stroke on the stone or screen, the chances are he or she is dealing only with the nature of the stroke itself.  It certainly is made without colour, often without a final composition placement, and its emphasis can be decided later.   As Richard Sewell might say, it is an ingredient.  All the other decisions about where it should occur in the composition, its colour, and so forth can be decided later.  A perfect case of emotion recollected in tranquility. 
     So colour can be dealt with as a separate issue.  No need to paint it green while wondering how it would be as blue.  You do it in green and in blue.  And in bluey green and grayish rose… in other words, you can finally select a colour on the basis of how it actually looks in the composition, not how you imagine it would look.  And you can do this over a period of time, in different kinds of light and in a number of frames of mind.  Impulsive, passionate decisions are not excluded.  But you can also decide more deliberately after having proven for yourself that one colour is better than another. 
     Then, too, the nature of printing inks is very adaptable.   They can have the delicate transparency of watercolour, the solid opacity of gouache, the buttery richness of oil paint, the intensity of sign paint, the purity of coloured light filters.  And the combinations of these qualities can sit comfortably side by side. 
     A colour quality unique to printmaking that we see used more and more is the degrade or bokashi or graduated colour, where the qualities of the ink change across the image, perhaps fading out or blending from one colour to another.  This quality is to printmaking what brush texture is to painting.  It arises naturally out of the medium and is a quality we have to take into account. 
     This graduation of colour operates to open up the image spatially.  When colours are printed flat, they have a certain aggressive sameness about them, the identical blue, for example, occurring in every part of the composition.  That doesn’t happen in nature, doesn’t happen in painting, not even house painting, because the colour on the house is affected by uneven lighting according to location.  So when that sameness occurs in a print, the flatness is very striking.  This quality can be used to great effect, but, as I tell my students, you should only print a flat colour when you specifically want a flat effect.  Otherwise, every colour should be graduated in some way, visibly or unnoticeable.  If you do not do this, it will be noticeably flat.  So that is another set of colour options that we have to think about. 

It’s interesting that in the midst of all these colour possibilities there seems to be a resurgence of interest in black and white. 

First of all, print is a superb black and white medium, especially etching and stone lithography.  A good litho black will bring a tear to any normal eye, so artists who prefer to work that way would naturally gravitate to print.  Then, too, drawing rather than painting was always the sister medium of printmaking.  Prints were like better drawings.  Better because of the inherent worth of a print; the repeatability, the authority that print gives to the marks; and the relative permanence and stability of print compared with the fragile and throw-away quality of drawings.  But the considerations are the same in drawing and traditional print – the importance of the paper as a positive factor in the composition, the restraint of means, the textures, the delicate tonal nuances… so the best draftspeople would naturally gravitate to print, and the whole thing was self perpetuating.  It was a truism even into the 1950s that if you couldn’t handle painting and colour, you would be better off in printmaking.  Nowadays, I see it in my students, it’s the other way around.  If you can’t handle printmaking, you can always paint. 
     So a big change-over took place in the 1950s and 1960s with the influx of colour.  The natural sister medium of print became painting (and colour collage).  I would put a lot of the credit for the change down to the development of screenprinting at that period.  With both stone litho and etching there are very good technical reasons to do your trial proofs in black ink.  So our thinking develops in black and white, and it is a real effort, and very foreign, to substitute colour for black at a later stage.  As you think in black, there is a tendency to make your image complete in itself, finished with one passage through the press. 
     With screen and collagraph, on the other hand, there is no incentive to print in black.  In fact, silkscreen blacks are downright unpleasant, as we found out in the fifties when we tried to apply litho thinking to screen prints.  So you think of your image right from the first proofs as colour.  And silkscreen, with its characteristic flatness, requires a number of different printings to have the kind of richness you can get in one go from etching or litho.  So you have to deal with multiple relationships of colour, overlays, veils, comparisons, oppositions, and so forth.  Silkscreen changed our whole approach to printmaking.  And because it is easy to learn, untechnical, direct, and non-reversed, you can learn to do silkscreen in a couple of hours.  This made an entrance into printmaking for a lot of good artists who wouldn’t have bothered otherwise. 

And these things are equally true of collagraph, when one sees beyond the limitation of the key plate with colours under or over it.

Lithography was next.  As the possibilities of screen opened doors, litho was quick to see the possibilities.  There was rapid expansion into colour during the 1960s as artists asked more of printmaking and found within the medium far more possibilities than anyone had suspected. By the 1980s, it seemed that the most flexible medium for printmakers was the combination of lithography and screenprinting. They supplement each other so perfectly. Then in the 1990s of course UV screenprinting came along and opened up a whole spectrum of new options.

So where printmaking used to be a lovely solo instrument, specialized and limited and beautiful like a violin, it has exploded in a period of twenty-five years into the full orchestra of vision.  Perhaps – alliteratively speaking – that is what the “print boom” really meant to the artist. 

By the way, that analogy of solo instrument versus orchestra relates to what I was saying earlier about the hocus-pocus of drawing.  To my mind, there is always a bit of virtuosity to drawing, a certain touch of flourish, like Paganini on the violin.  The hand is so much in evidence that it reminds me of magicianship.  “How does he do it?”  (Picasso exploited that aspect of drawing in his later years.)  Whereas, in a full orchestration, that touch is immersed in the total effect.  Not so obtrusive.  It seems to me that there must be a balance between hand and mind in visual work.  In drawing, the hand can easily get the place of prominence.  You get an adverse reaction to many drawings, “Oogh.  All that skill… “ It puts you off. 
     Of course, I admit that I love drawing, but I don’t really trust it in the larger context of art. 

Woodcut seems to have had both traditions – as black-and-white drawing medium in Europe and a full-colour medium in Japan.  In fact, it is interesting how close the Japanese woodcut approach is to the silkscreen approach you were talking about. 

True.  And etching, of course, for various reasons has to develop its own colour approaches.   There is not the same kind of immediate interchange of colour techniques as there is between litho and screen. 

Most printmakers I know find some small aspect out of the whole spectrum of printmaking possibilities that seems congenial to them in terms of image possibilities and technical suitability.  They take that slice and deepen it through repetition and expand it by adding their own inventions to what they have learned from other people.  Your special area certainly seems to be photoprintmaking. 

Yes, and mylar processes.  Since the early 1970s, I have been working on various aspects of these techniques, either how to get the transparent image on the mylar or how to get it from the transparency to the plate or screen.  And this is the way I teach printmaking as well.  Mostly because the mylar methods allow all the assimilative eclectic freedom we have talked about but also because you can then bridge across the print media of screen, litho and etching. 

Does that mean you work on the mylars without having decided on your eventual printing medium? 

Never, anymore.  I find as I get older and accumulate more experience it is possible to feel the whole process much better at the various stages, backward and forward, so that an image grows in my mind, or on the ground-glass screen, or on the mylar as an etching image or a litho image, even though it may not get to the plate itself for some weeks.  You think within a medium in the way that you might think within a culture, like French or Japanese. 

So you would not take a photo negative you had in your files and say “I’ll bet that would make a nice print.”

In fact, my very worst prints came from just that situation.  Some of those ones I couldn’t work out, where the spark was lost.  A great photograph usually makes a rotten print.  For me, anyway. 

So would you say you have invented any special methods that would contribute to the development of this part of printmaking?

Oh, yes.  Quite a few.  The trouble with a lot of the things I have invented, is that everybody already knew about them,  I just hadn't got to hear about it!  I re-invent the wheel all the time.
     Anyway, right from the beginning I had an antipathy to halftoning with dotscreens for printmaking, so a lot of my efforts went into avoiding that.  That’s why I began using the micro-film enlarger and fine-line developer to break the tonalities into the film grain particles that give the image its form.  Enhancing the inner character rather than superimposing a character from outside with the mechanical looking dot screens.  At least that’s how I saw it.  So that’s the point-source enlarger.  Then I do a lot of work on the film with etching reducers and masks to adjust the tones in relation to one anther.  It’s the same idea as an etcher using acid, creep bites included, but this is on the film.  And airbrush work, both positive and negative, still on the film.  This is exactly the thinking of aquatint, and it’s a lot of fun. 
     Then there is the posterization stuff and all the different kinds of contrast and controls you need for a litho, or an etching, or a vectograph positive.  I am an expert at that but don’t think I’ve really invented anything.  In fact, almost all these things had more to do with putting two and two together than actually inventing things.  Like using highlight separation film for my setups rather than regular picture-taking film.  All the little refinements. 
     The best part of getting older is that you accumulate all kinds of experience in different areas that you can bring to bear on things that are apparently unrelated.  It gives you a kind of strength and insight and makes it really worthwhile to move along through life. 

Tell me about your fascination with photo illusion. 

Well, the whole question of illusion is central to two-dimensional art, with all its references to and equivalences of visual experiences that are naturally three-dimensional. 

Does that explain your experiments with stereoscopy and vectography?

Yes.  I remember standing as an eight year old in a photography shop in Hanover, Ontario, looking into a Viewmaster at a perfect little three-dimensional picture of Interlaken, Switzerland.  I was transported.  It seemed so perfect.  So much more precious than the world I was standing in. 
     So twenty-five years later, when I was working with photo and print, I realized that no conventional photograph could have the emotional magic of a three-dimensional photograph.  And yet where were they?  So I spent two or three years researching stereoscopy and vectography, doing a lot of work with it.  That’s why there is a period in the mid-seventies where it appears that I did very few prints.  I was doing stereoscopy, which was invaluable as experience and made me a much better artist but was never published. 

How did that investigation change your approach to printmaking?

In dimensionality becoming a very important part of my work – how to construct space through the articulation of planes and volumes. 
     My work since that period has involved a lot of thinking and elaborate construction and preparation before the image ever goes near the printing plate.  This approach is very different, for example, from that of my favourite printmaker.  Otis Tamasauskas, who begins a print by moving quite spontaneously on a litho stone with a vigorous, warm mark, then building his image layer by layer out of that initial impetus.  In fact, that is very close to the Hayter approach of causing the medium to develop the image out of its inner characteristics… I spend weeks of preparation of the imagery before getting to the press.

Do you ever worry that something may be lost in the translation? 

Ah, not lost.  Changed.  Everything keeps changing as you work through the various stages and ramifications of the developing event.  You drop some things and gain others. 

What do you gain?

Adjustment of all the parts to the whole, most of all.  And the decisions about the scale of the image.  And colour keeps coming in and out of the process at the various stages as you move from construction to film to plate to ink. So the print is not really a translation of the construction.  The construction is the excuse for starting the print – my equivalent to Otis’s initial gesture.   The dimensional arrangement I’ve spent days or weeks making has no value in itself.  The picture of a thing is more precious to me than the thing. 

It sounds like a joke: “My you have a beautiful baby there.”
     “That’s nothing, you should see her picture.”

Well it is like that to a degree.

You would never exhibit your three-dimensional setup along with the prints?

I suppose it would be interesting in the way that exhibiting Monet’s palette is interesting.

Would you be worried about introducing the notion of process as content if you exhibited the construction and the print together?

Well, process is certainly interesting.  An exhibition like that would be unwieldy but interesting.  I would have to make the constructions differently, with that in mind.  As it is they are like stage sets or environments with things strung all over the room to cast shadows here or blur the image there.

How do the photos influence the constructions?  For instance, do you use the camera to proof the construction and then change the construction because of what you find out?

Yes, exactly.  I use a four-by-five camera and construct for the image on the ground-glass screen.  In a way, the construction only exists there.  I use a Polaroid back to proof the image as I go, to bring all the elements back to a drawing form I can understand.  As the image begins to fit together in the flat, I make stereoscopic Polaroids and examine them in the 3-D viewer.  All kinds of compositional weaknesses strike me that were not apparent in the flat proofs.  So I work out the composition in depth at the same time, and what I find startling is that the composition is always stronger two dimensionally when it also works in depth.  As you do this stereoscopic stuff, you develop an acute sense of the positions of things in space.  This struck me when I found myself backing up my van using the rear-view mirrors, which is like a stereoscopic picture, and stopping within an inch of my fence every time. 

I find your use of three-dimensional setup very interesting.  Of course, I’m reminded of history painting and groups like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who painted in England around the middle of the 19th century.  Their work, like yours, contains both obsessive observation of detail and complex symbols. 

Photographic observation of detail goes together with the kind of story-telling elements of art.  Somehow you treat all that information as reading matter and end up with very literary images.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti often created elaborate photographic tableaux as studies for his paintings.  And from tableaux in painting it’s only a short step to the use of tableaux in photography. 
     Have you been influenced by the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, for instance, or J.E. Mayall’s photo-tableaux illustrations for the Lord’s Prayer (circa 1845).  Certainly, in all these works the photographer’s job was to articulate detail so that its inner, even spiritual, content could be revealed.  How about Lewis Carroll’s tableaux.  Isn’t it interesting in relation to the Alice books and your idea of illusion within illusion.  I’m thinking in particular of your litho-screenprint Carpe Diem.

Very.  I love the work of those people.  It is so sincere and foolish too, and they tried to come to grips with the relationship of reality and painting and photography, storytelling and illusion. Carpe Diem is really about their thinking on those matters. One of the books that appears in that composition is 'Notes on the Science of Picture Making'. I just followed the author's instructions to make that image. The print is so earnest and serious, and yet so ridiculously contrary to today's aesthetic principles. (Laughter). 

That’s fine.  But why are we laughing?  I get the feeling you don’t think there is anything more funny about this than anything else.  Was foolishness a part of your decision to start using other people’s styles?

Yes, absolutely.  I did a series of prints in 1973 – working in defunct styles, demonstrating to myself that I couldn’t work in those styles. 

You mean you couldn’t pull them off? 

 Oh no!  Some of them were good, they were just unacceptable, like the op art one.  There was a lot of op art when I was in Paris the first time, but after a couple of years I came back to Paris and op art had vanished.

That’s a good one.

I looked around and said, “Where’s op art?” and they said, “It’s gone, nobody does it anymore.  It’s over.”

So you ran right out and did one,

Right.  With a big X through the middle to say 'You are no longer allowed do this!'.
There were seventeen prints in that series to explore various ways of making art that had become unacceptable. 

The unavoidable question, of course, is would you have done it if it had not been presented as unacceptable.  In other words, was that the fascination?

Probably the fact that they were so clearly inappropriate made me sad – like cubism or sentimental English watercolours of Durer-type analysis.  David Andrew said he found that series destructive.  Probably because they were making fun of serious things, but really, I loved those ways of working and was only sorry they were gone and not available as forms for me to work within.
     Of course, about five years after that series of prints I got over all that and did begin to use those forms quite positively.

I see you shifting and changing styles as the years go by, and I can’t get rid of the picture of the naughty little boy trying on behaviour like a costume but never using one disguise long enough to get pinned down or typecast. 

Well, I guess it is true that I can’t bear to be defined or to accept my own limitations.  Once I feel I am getting hold of a way of working, it seems to be time to work with another set of norms.  One critic said that my work is a continuing apostasy.  Good way of putting it. 

Are you playing a game of hide and seek with your identity, watching to discover how Carl Heywood shows up through a kaleidoscope of disguises?

I know that you can’t eliminate your personality even if you try.   But by insisting on it too strongly, I think you can muffle some aspects of it.  I suspect that by forsaking personal style you may discover what the personal really is.

Or what transcends it?

Yes, I think that’s possible.  Like the Chinese painter who learns the traditional way to paint bamboo, if it takes ten years of hard discipline.  Yet the Chinese believed the personality of the artist would come through anyway.  In our culture, personality doesn’t subjugate itself to tradition in that way. 

Exactly, so there is no need to try to be original: we cannot prevent it.

And we forbid ourselves many ways of working because someone else invented them.  But why not use imagery and ideas that have been added to our visual language by anyone at all?

Do you think you’re putting yourself above artists by taking their styles, trivializing their accomplishments by treating them as public domain?

Well, it’s just possible that there was a bit of that in spite of myself in that first negative series of 1973 (Pages from My Notebook).  It would not have been intentional, but I was young at the time and could have been prone to youthful over-confidence.  In the later positive works, thought, I hope that what comes through is respect for the styles, even if they are done with a smile.

Well, it seems to me certain questions have to be asked about the visual structures you use: 
Is the work a representation of a particular style, or an explanation of it;
a glorification of the source, or a parody;
an expression of its language, or a possession of its form;
a substitution for experience (both as creator and observer,) or the experience itself?  Especially since you re-create these images with photography – which could be said to amount to a kind of technological imitation or reproduction.

Hmmm.  That’s interesting.  I guess you’d have to say that fundamentally I am a formalist working with visual forms, trying to understand how they operate both internally and externally.  Internally, in the sense of pure structure within the work, balances, proportions, weights, spaces, and so forth.  The nuts and bolts of putting together a visual composition.  Externally, in the sense of how and why these visual stimuli cause responses of feeling in the viewer, excitement, melancholy, exhilaration, satisfaction, and all those other feelings that are so hard to name. 
     So you could say that I am still trying to understand how visual things work.  Like a mechanic or a physicist.  And to speak negatively about it, you could say that I have taken forms that once expressed genuine emotion and used them as elements in a mechanical construction devoid of true feeling.

A kind of pop mannerism?

Yes.  But then dad bust it; that is not really true at all – at least for me.  Because I always do experience strong emotions in the process of making the work.  In fact, that’s what keeps me at it year after year.  The emotional highs and lows of the experience of making the work…  Maybe that’s just more mechanics, surges of adrenalin, internal chemical adjustments, but they sure feel like emotions.  And they provide the reward and justification for going on with a basically futile activity like making art.  Or living for that matter.  Maybe we’re just addicted to our own changing chemistry. 

I’m sure of it.  But then what relationship would you say you have with the contemporary art world?  Do you see yourself participating in any of the current movements?  How do you regard the mainstream today? 

You know I don’t really participate at all in any of the current movements unless accidentally.  Doing art is a bit of self-indulgence, fooling around to see how it functions and makes me function.  I’ve always loved fooling around, and when it dawned on me that you can fool around and do art, that it didn’t have to be earnest and high minded, it was like putting together two halves of myself.  So I am usually not aware of mainstream movements until they are over.

In your etchings from the 1980's you seemed to move away from the direct quotation of historical styles toward a use of the technical conventions of the medium as both style and content. 

Well that is part of learning the language of an unfamiliar medium. Probably part of why you change media at all. You become very conscious of the techniques and conventions of that form of expression as you try to get hold of them. This was especially true of etching as it has such a very particular personality, a definite look, and a long history to examine – crosshatch, aquatint, drypoint, the water, the paper, the embossing, and so forth. 

Did that change have anything to do with your working in Japan?

Absolutely! I did two work sessions at an etching atelier in Japan in 1982 and 1986 and they definitely made me more sensitive to materials. The papers for example, all those beautiful subtle gampis. It is like developing a palate for fine wine. Then there are those exquisite printed papers. I am still using and being inspired by them to this day. That is why I believe it is good to change our medium from time to time, and to live in other countries. It may be upsetting, but it questions our premises and makes us find new aspects of ourselves, as artists and as people.

Etching is more physical than offset litho or silkscreen which had been my main media up to then. Even when the etchings use photo, there is still that solid metal plate there, that has to be filed, scraped, gouged, mezzotinted, and so forth. You have to handle the paper and do more things with it, like moistening to just the right degree. So that real things come to have more place in the work, together with all our ideas about illusion. Offset litho is more cerebral and spiritual, not so real– especially working with master printers as I had been doing– not tactile.

And yet the surface is so perfect – in its unreality.  

It’s seductive all right!

How do you relate to that idea?


Yes.  It seems to me your work is among other things about seduction, yours of us through visual sleight-of-hand, your own by all those things that are not permitted but you end up doing anyway.  A seduction in the beginning, and a denial.

Hmmm.  It’s true.  The concept of sensuality certainly – it’s a very good point – especially working with photographic processes so much.  They definitely set up a certain withdrawal from things.  They are so cool and restrained.  Maybe you need the hot seductive stuff to breathe life into it.  Let me think about that some more.

We’re going to run out of tape pretty soon here, and I did want to ask you why you think it is that you’ve chosen to be an artist at all?

The way I explain that to myself is in terms of the magnetism demonstration we all did in high-school physics, where there are iron filings scattered in disorder on a sheet of cardboard.  When you pass a magnet under the sheet, the particles all form a sensible pattern, come into order.  Now it seems to me that most of life is a jumble of experiences, good and bad, without much point or sense, really.  And yet art operates for me like a magnet, to bring structure and order to those more or less random experiences. 
     For example, this coffee cup on the table here.  It is of no particular consequence in itself, and what does it matter if it is here or moved over there?  And yet, now that I am thinking about it as art it becomes very very important just how it is placed in relation to the spoon and where I place myself relative to them both. 
     Because of an art sensibility, experiences of all kinds can be located relative to one another and to myself in space and time.  Their proportions become very interesting and important.  All experience becomes useful.  Everything takes on worth. 




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