Making Marks by Hand: Exhibition Review
Words by Patrick Kirk-Smith.
Editions Ltd’s new exhibitions, featuring the work of Fred Jones and Gwilym Hughes, address an interesting issue that I have been mulling on for a while. It is an issue around printing, and saleability. When you enter a sales gallery you expect some digital reproductions of work to be on sale amongst large original paintings – more often than not in full colour. It’s surprisingly rare to come across work that is entirely monochrome and manually printed using relatively old fashioned techniques.
It might sound fair enough. Who wants black images on their wall? But these printing techniques of etchings, engravings and woodblock printing are very much coming back into fashion within arts education. So why are they not common place on gallery walls?
Well the simple fact is, they’re very often mistaken for working drawings and don’t feel like finished work. Hughes and Jones’ prints and etchings displayed in the intimate gallery on Cook Street are brilliantly accomplished pieces of print work that stand out as very finished indeed, and more worthy than the vast majority of painting to adorn a gallery wall.
Gwilym Hughes’ prints focus on people, whether famous or not, with a lens on how they are seen by those around them. Drawing on memories and histories that need recording in unconventional ways. Whether that is because of how they are perceived or, in Flamenco Faces, the entirely practical reason that sound and photography recordings weren’t all that great once upon a time. What really intrigued me though, was the method in which these prints have been produced. Woodcuts are woodcuts, it might seem, but to Gwilym Hughes woodcuts tell their own story as a process, not just an outcome – and that story is highly visible in the quality of the final prints.
Using reclaimed wood, he follows standard wood cutting techniques, and maybe intentionally, maybe unintentionally, creates a new level to the work that compliments his primary interest in human character; a statement I should probably expand on a little. If you and look at the history of the technique, it was a way of producing unlimited edition prints. You carve out your pattern in hardwood, sand it, treat it, sand it again, and create a solid, weatherproof printing block that will give you a perfect print every time.
When you follow that process with old wood, it leaves marks, and those marks build up more ink, and change the print – so even in a limited edition run, there will be subtle but noticeable differences. It’s hard to follow, but that’s what makes these prints special. Tiny but critical differences, which mirror their human subjects in all their difference.
Fred Jones is a well-travelled printer, having exhibited across the globe, making it apparent that etching and engraving of all kinds still have their place in a contemporary world, where printing is becoming more experimental, and more digital by the day. Even against the work on the opposite wall, Jones’ work creates parallels and contradictions that provide a talking point for the gallery. I think the biggest shame here, is that all this work is going to get separated at some point, and might never share a space again.
What’s your background and how did you get into printmaking?
I’m a printmaker, graphic designer and sometime musician living in Manchester. As a designer I’ve spent years working on computers, and as a reaction have the need to make my own marks doing something very hands-on, low-tech and time consuming.
What inspires your work?
Human character and how real people can become symbols of something else in other people’s minds. ‘Lost Voices’ is a collection of work that reflects my interest in music and words that were never recorded and are beyond living memory – a creative life now lost forever. The ‘Chance Meetings’ series deals with how real or imaginary characters can become players in our own internal dramas. We have a view of people from history that may have very little to do with their actual lives. They can become like the cast of a film played out in our own inner life. Therefore, there has to be an underlying element of autobiography in much of what I do. This shouldn’t be important to the viewer, but it does give me enough interest to invest the time it takes to make my prints.
Tell us more about your techniques.
I work mainly with woodcut and I like to use wood from dismantled pieces of old furniture (it comes with its own history), or pieces of plywood from the local builders yard – anything that’s tricky to work with, unpredictable and allows some kind of dialogue with the material. Some of my techniques are unconventional, I will steal any method I can make use of – from old copper engraving, Japanese woodblock etc. I tend not to use a press and burnish by hand, it’s time consuming but brings a hands-on control to every part of the process.
Who and what have been your influences?
I like looking at things, so most of what I see and experience is an influence of some kind. I love antique engravings – the time and skill it must have taken to reproduce an old master painting is staggering and we know very little, if anything, about the people who actually did this work. I admire Gustave Dore for his ability to create an intense and dramatic world with just lines, dots and ink. Rembrandt could create a world in a human face. I think my favourite recent printmaker is Leonard Baskin.