I don’t know exactly why, but Sydney has a rather different print culture from that of any other major Australian city.
In its early glory days about a century ago, Sydney printmaking was dominated by the nearly all-male cast of the Australian Painters-Etchers Society that made prints, particularly etchings and wood engravings, that were accomplished and financially viable before they were all snuffed out by the Great Depression. This was followed followed by the almost all-female cast of the coloured woodblock printmakers of the 1930s, whose work was not particularly financially viable, but highly visible. By the time of the Second World War, fine art printmaking almost ceased to exists in Sydney. Leaving aside a few mavericks, there were very few art prints being made in Sydney in the 1940s and 1950s. True, Herb Gallop taught Betty Rooney etching in the 1940s, but little came of it for a decade or more. This is very much in contrast to a place like Melbourne, where the Great Depression and the war gave birth to a strong tradition of radical printmaking.
Printmaking in Sydney once more came into the limelight in the opening years of the 1960s, with the inaugural exhibition of Sydney Printmakers in 1961; the establishment of the Art Workshop at Willoughby in 1962, and subsequently by the introduction etching into the syllabus of East Sydney Tech by Earle Backen followed by screenprinting a few years later, when David Rose joined on the staff. The Print Circle sisterhood at Willoughby came into being in 1970 and has also continued into the present. Again, this is very different from the situation in Melbourne or Adelaide, where printmaking, in the modern, rather than trade sense of the word, was being taught in art schools since the early 1950s. The point that I am making is that printmaking in Sydney, unlike many of the other Australian metropolitan centres, did not grow out of an institutional foundation, but a community one. The Sydney Printmakers was integral to Sydney print culture since the earliest days of the post-war printmaking revival and remains so to the present, when once more dark clouds are gathering over the institutional printmaking scene in Sydney art schools. Throughout its 55 year history, most of Sydney’s finest printmakers have exhibited with the Sydney Printmakers.
What I find particularly attractive about Sydney Printmakers is their broad church approach to printmaking that is so apparent in this exhibition. There is no prevailing stylistic orthodoxy, as well as a refreshing freedom from fashionable art theory. However, this is not a rotary art show loaded with well-meaning amateurs and social butterflies, but a group of professional, dedicated artist printmakers, each with an established art practice and a good public gallery track record. This show is a cross-section of current trends in Australian printmaking practice and in many cases illustrated with some of the finest prints being made in Australia today. While I admit to being numerically challenged, according to material I’ve gleaned from the website, Sydney Printmakers presently has 56 members of whom 39 are exhibiting here today.
A few words about some of the prints themselves. When I see a print such as Picnic by Barbara Davidson, I am immediately reminded of the fact that she was taught etching by Betty Rooney and she belongs to that grand tradition of Sydney socially relevant etching. In the print, there are witty character studies that have been beautifully realised and immaculately presented. Edith Cowlishaw is another veteran etcher who works with a very high level of achievement with her bucolic images of pastoral Australia, where the print radiates with heat and the scent of the bush and the flowers on a hot summer’s day. Another great veteran is Ruth Faerber, who refuses to repeat herself and after her stunning three-dimensional papercast prints is making some striking digital prints, such as her Botanical Gardens. Laura Stark is less of a veteran and more of an elder in the printmaking community and creates her deeply moving recreations of the Australian bush, in both her Totems and Eucalypt Variations in this exhibition.
It is interesting how many artists in this exhibition continue to be inspired by the Australian environment. The German-born Bernhardine Mueller, in her Changing Horizon employs the collagraph as her basic template, but it is the rich areas of embossing, blind printing, that sets up a dialogue with the rust tones of the bush that gives life to the print. Anthea Boesenberg actually incorporates the rust of the land into the fabric of her Landfall prints that are folded, stitched and combined into fabulous and enigmatic creations. Tanya Crothers, another outstanding printmaker of the same generation as Bernhardine and Anthea, but born to Sydney art royalty, Gerald and Margo Lewers, in her lithographs in this exhibition, Beyond the Sticks and The Drying Centre, creates wonderful evocations of the Australian outback. The young and indefatigable Susan Baron, is an artist for whom the environment sweeps through her to set off an aesthetic response with her Mildura Spring, I assume a response to her recent residency at the Art Vault. These are some of her finest prints that I have seen to date. George Lo Grasso, possibly better known as a painter, deconstructs and then reconstructs the seascape to create complex, but memorable prints. Robyn Waghorn’s manipulated linoprints always affect me through their tragic dimension, it is like making prints about loss and absence about something that once was and is no longer there. The wonderful Wendy Stokes walks us through a seascape surrounded by light and presents her energy filled creations. Angela Hayson exhibits a number of very beautiful meditations on the olive tree in the form of long, narrow scroll-like woodcuts, sometimes enhanced with a lino-etching with the verse of Sappho quoted by Hermogenes. There are also Dinah Johanson’s slightly eerie landscapes, where the shape of time is distilled through memory.
I am always fascinated by artists who in their prints create their own world and then proceed to inhabit it. Christina Cordero has been doing this for years, with her strange Jungian travellers in boats moving in a primeval space that seems to possess the markings of the earliest cave dwellers as well as those of fellow travellers like you and I. There is also the aspect of travel through space and time in Nathalie Hartog-Gautier’s artists book, or box of prints on her handmade papers, presented like clues to a journey that you are destined to never undertake or to comprehend. The remarkable Seraphina Martin, working with photopolymer plates, creates a fabled world in which memory, the exotic and personal dreams and aspirations all have a place. The British-born artist, Anne Smith, also creates a fairy-tale-like world in which Alice in Wonderland can share a boat ride with the White Rabbit on a summer’s day boating excursion with imagery worthy of Sir John Tenniel. While Gary Shinfield creates an urban, imaginary space, abstracted, menacing, but very real.
Then there are the artists who feel that you can say very important things, but you can do this through humour as well as through a megaphone. I have always admired Michael Kempson’s work, where on his Longing and belonging, the lone Aussie koala battler sits tight against an army of stuffed Chinese pandas or Rew Hanks whose Rabbit Pie has more corny jokes than a month of Chinese crackers and, like Michael, he creates a brilliant and sophisticated print, whose form will remain memorable, long after the one-liners have faded. Marta Romer in her art has an acquired, if not very subtle sense of humour, where I tend to remember the imagery in her digital prints as if engraved into my memory; perhaps some would call it her Hungarian sense of humour.
Other printmakers in this exhibition have adopted a less figurative language as in the stunning woodblock prints of Roz Kean and the emblematic majesty of the intaglio prints of Salvatore Gerardi. Neil Clarke, like Roz, builds on the experience of Japan, but produces challenging, quite cerebral prints, very different from the supressed sensuality of Roz Kean’s work.
Conscious of time, I will resist the temptation of going through all 39 artists in this exhibition, but I think that I have said enough to make the general point that this is a remarkable exhibition by an exceptionally strong cohort of artist printmakers. If this was England, Sydney Printmakers, would be made into a an honorific suffix, SP, so that all artists who are members of Sydney Printmakers would be called SP, for example Madeleine Tuckfield-Carrano, SP and Mieke Cohen SP. Fortunately, of course, this is not England, but it gives me great pleasure to declare the 55th SP exhibition officially open – congratulations – well done on a superb exhibition of exciting contemporary printmaking.
Emeritus Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA
Australian National University