S T U D I O
“The Studio” resides in a restored 19th century Barn converted into duplex printmaking and painting studio near the beautiful stone town of Stamford, UK. Although there is no gallery in the barn, visitors are welcome by appointment (please contact us first) and we hold regular Open Studio events too.
“…a printmaker’s laboratory, a factory and a refuge. It can be as small as a kitchen corner or a huge workshop to allow dozens of artists to work together. But an art studio is never a dull place to be. It is an Aladdin’s cave of paper scraps, metals and plastics, scattered pens, tacky inks, frames, smelly solvents, strange tools, problems, alchemy, frustrations and dreams. A printmaker’s studio is an orchestra that comes alive with an intention to just create and indulge curiosity. It is where we choose to take our experiences, intelligence, tensions and hopes and work them together (with occasional turps and sweat) into something original. No matter big or small, a printmaker’s studio is where the magic happens.”
A RAW TRANSCRIPT FOR “PRESSING MATTERS” ISSUE 12 FEATURE. MAY 2020
When did you first try printmaking?
April 2002, London. This is very specific. The first day of the summer term. I walked into the Morley College Print Room having moved to London one week prior. I was 28 and by that point an art academy graduate and publishing and advertising graphic designer and art director. But the truth is that I had never seen neither intaglio nor litho presses at work before. All these years later, I can admit to having an epiphany moment there and then. I went along because I had the time and was curious, but by the end of the first day my head was exploding with joy and an eyeful of possibilities of original printmaking before me. I think I felt like this was something I might be good at mastering and control. Turned out it would “control” my life from then on instead.
I think within a year I tried almost all printmaking techniques. There were a few tears – making prints turned out to be trying. But also some good fortune. Funnily enough, a few months later, my first soft ground etching got into the National Printmaking Exhibition and won a prize. On top of my genuine fascination and curiosity, I thought to myself: “there must be a career in there somewhere”.
I also met a community of printmakers thriving in South East London at the time. I think I would not have taken life in printmaking seriously had it not been for meeting a bunch of very different but really cool people doing real cool things.
The idea of surviving and living outside the constraints and pressures of the commercial industry felt a tad intoxicating.
I was lucky enough to learn by seeing how “real artists” worked, how they set up their spaces, and by scrutinizing and ‘unpicking’ their techniques during long days manning either the Greenwich Printmakers shop or Printspace at Bear Gardens during my first years in the profession.
What techniques do you prefer to work in?
Whichever suits my purpose. I am not a purist and would happily switch, swap and mix, and if not – would consider inventing. There is an infinite variety in printmaking and all-in-all I strive never to be bound by a dogma neither in my technical approach nor my wider choices.
Rather a lot of my life happened in time and environments that were in transition and highly exposed to variation and melting of cultures and I love that printmaking mirrors that and has an amazing toolbox to translate that variation visually. I am personally not taking stylistic boundaries seriously. Additionally, the print willingly incorporates aspects of technology. Which I think is critical to how I would personally “communicate” to and about the contemporary world.
If I had to choose, though, I would have to go with 1) straight-forward no-thrills freehand hard-ground needle etching and 2) plate lithography. I see and use those techniques as complementary opposites, let me illustrate what this duality means to me.
As humans we find ourselves stuck between natural and artificial these days. The two aforementioned techniques resolve this juxtaposition for me personally. I turn to etching when my preoccupation and a purpose of the work is the overriding necessity to capture the raw gesture and energy and that very specific kind of thinking when an artist builds a space, a story and a drama through the network of simple lines and rhythms; it comes straight out of biology and tends to veer on emotional and spontaneous. This is working inside out.
Plate lithography, on the other hand, has the opposite direction of travel. It is great for thinking around multi-layered constructed compositions and often in my case assimilates artificial and mechanical. It helps me to “resolve” problems that might be influenced by environments and collective structures.
But ultimately, I love the physical side of printing my plates by hand and messing about with oil inks. On a good day printing is a joyful experience that makes me happy, so I would choose the method and design the plates in a way that there remains a sense of pleasure for me when it comes to the pressing time. I am careful to not allow the process to turn into a chore. Or worse a hazard. I am lucky to control the process from beginning to end now in my own studio and try design to suit my strengths and to ultimately enjoy the process. Having a variation in the process also saves me from stagnation and boredom.
Tell us a little about your studio and where you are based?
After living and working in London for over a decade we moved in 2014, having found a property to the side of A1 North with an empty derelict barn at the bottom of its garden. It was a spontaneous decision, but the barn was too good an opportunity and I needed a bigger space to work. Little did I know when we were packing up our belongings that it would be way over a year later before I would unpack my studio boxes and move the presses out of storage. We did a lot of work on the barn ourselves and hard work aside I enjoyed planning my working space and building it up from nothing.
The best advice I was given when I was setting up was from Mike Taylor of Paupers Press:
“put everything on wheels”.
I think what it implied is attention to both structure and flexibility of printmaking space. A studio is an exoskeleton, mine may not be perfect, but it works for me. I now have a studio where I move between etching, silkscreen, lithography, various mixed media experiments with a drawing/painting nook on a mezzanine level above the printing floor. I count myself very lucky to have this space right now. I may have lost some of the community buzz around me by leaving London, but I think I have grown to be self-reliant and independent.
Additionally being outside of London made me more appreciative and curious about artists and communities working outside the capital. More and more artists are affected by high rents and lack of security and I have witnessed how the small printmaking world grew wider geographically with a lot of friends and colleagues scattered across the UK and beyond. But thank god it manages to stay close creatively.
How does your background in digital image-making inform your current work?
Well, I probably belong to the first generation of humans who grew up with domestically available technology, in fact, the first one “brought up” by technology.
No denial “growing up” was different in 1984 when I got my first ZXSpectrum+ and learned a basic code. Having access to both computers and outdoors shaped a specific mentality in parts of my generation, I think. A simultaneous awareness and a sense of agitation between natural and technological.
I guess I do not see a contradiction between art and technology. Art is what you do, technology is a tool to do it, an etching needle is a tool, and so is a computer. I think it is a measure of intent and control, it is a fine balance. Ultimately, art alerts a viewer to new patterns of our joint perceived “reality”. Digital is everywhere, it is the language we learn and know without knowing, and it gets interesting to pick up on that paradox and invent new “untrodden” visual patterns. There is certainly a value of recognition and interaction with the digital that artists as storytellers do add here and now.
I must say that for quite a few years though I was avoiding using technology in my work. It did not call for or fulfill my needs. But as an instrument – technology is developing rapidly and becoming more sophisticated and interesting to work with. The catch is that a computer is a way more autonomously “creative” tool than, say, a brush or a piano. It is, in respect, powered by electricity and algorithm – and not solely human will and kinetics. Hence it gets confusing what controls what in the creative process. Running on algorithms the output may have a lot of cheer but little personality and purpose. Computers do not ask “why”, humans do.
I think once I felt I can properly connect my brain and my hand directly through instant and quite possibly slower control over work (needle to plate, pencil to paper) I reached the point of confidence to bring technology back into my toolbox.
At that point, I also needed to find a way to communicate specific contemporary preoccupations and stresses: like societal structures, suffocating mechanical precision, automation, alienation, and detachment. I am interested in a human condition and the timeline it travels, and as such I can’t possibly avoid mentioning interaction with artificial and mechanical right now.
Please tell us more about how the “Out Brief Candle” project came about?
On the grand scale of things – by accident. To begin with there was a brief to submit a couple of pieces for a group exhibition dedicated to Shakespeare’s 400 anniversary in 2016.
I had just finished unpacking my new studio and I think at the time I was looking for something meaty to sink my teeth in.
The other thing was that I hurt¬ my back and was stuck in bed for a while forced to re-think how and why I make my work. This enforced physical pause turned out to be an opportunity to try something different, so I wiped the dust off my laptop and started “mixing” images digitally. I did not have much of a plan to begin with.
I soon came to realize that what interests me the most are stories and how they interact with our mind and senses. Shakespeare is where a lot of fun can be had if you are into those things.
I tend to be drawn to both appreciating and making work that would revel in thought exchanges and different, sometimes opposing viewpoints; an ambiguous and open-ended kind. So I found a lot of it in the poetry, especially at the base level of word-play.
And naturally, with Shakespeare, I stumbled upon an incredible sparring partner. The more I read and listened – the more I wanted to think about it, argue, and contend.
I am not a scholar, nor did I study Shakespeare at school. I do not hold a single dogmatic view and neither intimidated by one. I admit I am not an expert on all and everything, but neither was Shakespeare. It is enough for me to think that Shakespeare (being a fellow human being and a poet) “knew” something about me as a human and I too want to know more about me. So, this is personal. Beyond sciences – poetry is a good place to look for answers. I have a lot of questions; it transpired that Shakespeare had a lot of questions. And the hook is – it seems no matter how many answers humans amass, there are still more questions than the answers.
You describe Shakespeare as an ideal ‘sparring partner’ – could you elaborate and tell us how his words help push your practice?
I think the central concept here is “words”. I locked my attention on words from the start. Neither plots nor characters bothered me, these are merely mechanisms for delivering ideas, fascinating as they might be, I am more interested in an ultimate epicenter, The Mind.
Naturally, printmaking has a long relationship with “a title” via book publishing and illustration. But illustration was not the aim with me. I decided what “the words” must do is focus the mind on a particular idea. This is closer to meditation than following a prescribed course of (mental) exercise. The mind, albeit alert and engaged, is still free to roam whichever way it pleases. By working out some definition and clarity for myself I’d like to think I create a link for a viewer to join in and extend the chain. As an artist, I started to see a great deal of purpose in being part of a team effort called “culture”. I might have had a simple but profound epiphany working on this project: that the culture really does belong to everybody, time and space – all inclusive. Everything changes and yet nothing has changed.
And I think I am just following one kind of poetry with another, with an open invitation for you to join in. A different language, the same search for the truth. As relevant as ever. The words twist the reality and they have the power to uncoil it too. And I am aware, even more so now, that what art does is linking, expanding, nurturing, and dare I say protecting human chains. The longer the better for the maximum effect and bang.
Can you describe your process of working on these prints?
I read. I “collect” the words that produce an “echo” in my mind on the front few pages of my notebooks. This is for safekeeping; it might be a while before I would know what to do with some of them. I also like working on as many as I can safely cram in my head, right now I have three pages of “unused words”.
As the ideas tend to include a wide range of human variation, I have decided early on to not limit myself too much neither technically nor aesthetically. There are a couple of rules though. I stay in the same square format and the images remain monochrome. Super rigid – super flexible, the series was literally “put on wheels”.
This was my first attempt to work exclusively in the tonal halftone range and I use lithographic photo-plates to bring together my images from a combination of drawing, photography and digital manipulation. But I do think about how the print will be executed on my press from the very start and have worked out a system that produces more or less consistent, and, I hope, vibrant results. I care about digital pixels like one would care about the density of aquatint grain, a great deal.
I print everything by hand, this was always critical for me – to create a physical human-made artefact, the print itself. In the end there must be something not just to see, but to interact with on a corporeal level: something that reflects the light in a certain way, something to touch, something immediate to connect with, something unmissably unique.
It amuses me still that prints originate in a lifeless volume of black oily dirt like emerging from a primordial soup. To be a part of this is akin to alchemical magic.
Could you give more detail about ‘Rolling Restless Stone’ for instance?
All works in the series interact with a square/cube form/shape. I play with the form as both a container and an active agent. This image is a perfect example of this framework and paradox. Would the title relate to a human form being a “Rolling Restless Stone”? Or is a human merely a part of a “rolling and restless” system? It will depend on how one looks at it, surely.
I also like how “material” the artwork itself turned out. The print made from some pigmented dust and oily grease works well as a representation of grease and dust making up one isolated laboured moment.
There is a lot of implied movement in these still prints – sort of like a snapshot from an experimental movie. I also really enjoyed your installation at the Woolwich Print Fair too. Is this immersive atmosphere to your work intentional? How do you play with formats and techniques in your practice?
Correct, the things and objects that interest me the most are all moving things. I think that movement is integral to the understanding of both ourselves and the environment.
We think through movement more often then we acknowledge. Movement relates to fundamental human concepts: near – far; hard – soft; weak – strong; open – closed etc. etc. Most of our material concepts are rooted in animate movements, both those observed and the ones we make ourselves. Exploring the world through our bodies and movement is what we naturally do.
I happen to work in 2D formats but I do not see that as a perceivable limitation. On the contrary, it could serve as a mental liberation from certain constraints and forces – like gravity for example. As an artist I have a power to suspend a motion in time or space, I think this is a massively seductive storytelling device.
I would like to think that I succeed at work when some movement is also triggered in a viewer’s mind. Art is about new ideas, and the freshest and most relevant ones are generated not in my head but at the point of contact with yours. As with the Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair installation I wanted to play on jarring between an art fair’s sensory overload and my installation’s fairly claustrophobic space with its own sensory overload and the sort of sensations and thoughts it might generate for a person entering it with a light torch for “navigation”. It was ultimately about the state of personal alienation and loneliness in the face of wider cacophony. That said, introverts probably found it peaceful. There was a bit of theatre about it too and was really good fun to put together and probably a rare endeavor for an art fair to support.
I think of my audience as one human mind at a time, the mind that moves, and the mind that plays. I like that you used the word “play” in your question. A happy interaction is often a play. We play when we learn too. We play when we create. And yes, I do “play” with formats and techniques in the studio.
Artwork can be “played out” as an artist book, for example. A magical object that has the power to equally manipulate time and engage with the senses. Or say, an animation would extend a movement in a specific direction and contort universal forces at will. I have always been fascinated by that power. When a small etching draws one’s eye as close in as possible it plays with scale and perception of intimacy. And, of course, drawing as the primal form of a mind expressing itself. An absolute top of the list for me.
It sounds like this series of works is ongoing – can you tell us about what is next with the project?
Yes, I have completed 40 plates but at the moment it will be difficult to stop. Not least because my “Out Brief Candle” show at the Eames Fine Art Print Room in spring was caught up in the lockdown and there are more audiences I would like to reach. And strangely, even after 4 years of working on it, it still feels exciting to start a new piece or ponder a new idea. As the series grows, I keep moving and growing myself.
The project started with an idea of an artist book in my mind and so I am hoping to steadily drive it there. I think it would work well as a book since the collection of ideas is naturally extended in time and variety.
How has the recent lockdown affected your working routine and what plans are you able to make for the future with your work?
I am immensely lucky to have an independent physical studio. It is not without hard work and uncertainty, but all creativity is uncertain at the best of times. So, I am taking one day at a time. There will be changes ahead but for now I am trying to focus on subjects and projects that are important for me personally. This may turn out to be a very precious period in life.
Having spent a great deal of recent time messing about with the human mind I feel like looking at the mechanics of a human body again. This time with more personal experience and awareness. I think our current circumstances created a bigger appreciation of just how capricious and extraordinary being a human truly is.
I am putting together a new series of works as “online show” in July, check my website in summer. Designs for the “Out Brief Candle” plates and a book production will hopefully keep me busy too. And I am also working on my solo show, which I still hope is going to go ahead later in the year at the Eames Fine Art Gallery.