Future Reflections at University of Ulster

Dougal McKenzie, lecturer in painting at the Belfast School of Art, on its current print archive exhibition

I have stated somewhere before (I forget exactly the context) that in painting there are many opportunities to cover your tracks, to re-group if needs be, to continually re-establish your position in relation to what it was you thought you were setting out to do in the first place.

Conversely, I felt, in drawing there are fewer hiding places, less room for manoeuvre; a more exposed position is often felt and the pressure is on to produce something with greater clarity of vision, and with immediacy.

Printmaking I have found to have some elements of the former, but to be essentially closer to the latter in most regards. So forgive me, reader, if I reflect here, ontologically, on what printmaking is for me – how it differs essentially from painting as a process of coming-into-being.

 

As I sit here in my studio, I am looking at a painting of mine that had in its initial state a very close connection to a salt etching I was working on at the time (an etching which, I had hoped, would open up the secret of how I could progress the painting's composition further).

There was something about the (literally) incisive method required to etch the lines of the composition into the plate, before the salt solution bit in further still, which, although nerve wracking at first, gave me the reassurance that this was the way forward in making its painted counterpart 'work'.

I should tell you more about this composition, I guess, allow your mind to be yet another surface on which the image may be transferred.

The title may prove useful in this also: it was 'Knowledge Montage', after iconologist Abi Warburg's method of juxtaposing disparate images in order to reveal new interpretations and question the way in which pictures operate on us. (Why not try this yourself, as you look at the works in this exhibition?) My painting/print was of a medium-sized, office-type room.

On the far right a multi-coloured glass brick window threw light on a table in the foreground, and on a wall to the left (the table, in fact, more suggestive of a conference desk). Three partially visible chairs around the table. A door without a handle. A sculpture in the far corner and a painting on the wall (a painting within an image). No human presence, as such – a quiet room, a room that appeared impossible to enter or exit.

 

These compositional elements had already been established in the large painting and were now being set down on the etching plate, albeit monochromatically. Working on this much smaller scale led me to see, at the conclusion of the print's first state, that something was lacking.

On re-working the second state of the plate, an ambiguous group of figures – dancing, marching, rioting? –appeared silhouetted on the other side of the glass brick window. The etching process had decided this for me: history was happening outside of the room, was what I had in mind.

Back in the studio, these figures subsequently appeared at the window in the painting. The grouping helped, but I was still not entirely satisfied. The print edition was completed, and I still remain reassured by the sense of fixity that this brought; the image unchangeable now, the original plate crossed-out, or re-used even.

The painting became a different matter, however. It continued to bug me. I had to change my position to it: tracks were covered, almost obliterated. I have re-grouped, and not much of the original composition remains as I look at it now.

On reflection, both the print and painting have provided me with my own knowledge montage. However, the title of the painting has changed to 'Hotel du Lac', with 'Knowledge Montage' lying beneath. I'm probably disappointed that the original idea for the painting was lost along the way; pleased that the salt etching was seen through.

And so, this is the strong sense that I get when I consider the prints in this exhibition, Future Reflections: whether etched, screen-pulled or photo-processed, each artist has given us their indelible vision, with clear-sightedness. No tracks have been covered. No hiding places sought. Things have been seen through, for us to reflect on still.

Future Reflections runs in the University of Ulster's Belfast School of Art until November 22.