This essay by Jan Davis was written for In the Shade II at The Glasshouse Regional Gallery, Port Macquarie.
As shadows lengthen…
Shade is a nuanced word, shadow, a nuanced phenomenon. Shade can refer to subtle shifts in colour, tone, or meaning; shade from sunlight can bring welcome relief or unwelcome chill. Shadows are insubstantial, simply a lack of light, without physical form and fleeting in nature. Shadow can also infer a threat or a place of refuge. How does this assist us to approach this exhibition, In the Shade II? Somewhat lyrically, part of the answer springs from a residency that Janet Parker-Smith undertook at Umbrella Studios in Townsville. It was there, in conversation with Umbrella Studio artists that the idea of an exhibition with Sydney Printmakers was conceived. And it was there that In the Shade was first exhibited.
The exhibition was initially assembled in response to the concept of living in a hot climate. From this kernel, forty-one artists developed their ideas around the social, architectural, environmental or poetic dimensions of dwelling in the heat. Some artists depict figures responding to blinding heat, people seeking shade as respite from the sun, others react to a built environment that provides shelter (adequate or otherwise) from searing heat, while others reflect on the impact of steadily rising global temperatures on the natural environment.
Artists also explore the aesthetics of shadow as a play of light and dark, sometimes subtly, sometimes with great starkness. One artist observes the phenomenon of passing clouds as the instrument of shadow, while others experience the temporal aspect of light changing across the passage of a day, in their studio or in the world beyond. There are hints too of the metaphysical implications of lightness and darkness. Printmaking, historically a black and white medium, is particularly suited to this theme. The moody aquatints of intaglio, the dark tusche washes of lithography and the broad inked areas of relief prints, (all of which are in evidence in this exhibition) provide the darks against which soft greys and warm whites can radiate. Contemporary printmaking extends these traditional techniques and this exhibition evidences the full breadth of contemporary practice: digitally derived images, prints on ceramic forms, prints as objects, prints on fabric, sewn prints, hand-coloured prints, mixed media prints.
Sasha Grishin, writing in support of their fiftieth birthday in 2011, describes Sydney Printmakers as ‘a unique phenomenon in Australian art with few parallels anywhere in the world’.1 He analyses the particular circumstances in Sydney at the time that led a group of artists to make a commitment to band together in support of their beloved discipline of printmaking. Sydney Printmakers’ webpage outlines the history of the organisation and the many distinguished artists who have contributed to its reputation. Since 1960, Sydney Printmakers have regularly exhibited together in venues across Australia and internationally, including in Canada, Chile, China, Japan, New Zealand, and Norway. A formidable achievement.
Currently consisting of sixty ‘paid-up-meeting-attending’ members, this incorporated organisation counts among its number recent graduates and artists new to printmaking alongside many of Sydney’s best-known and long established printmakers. The group continues to cohere because it delivers for all: exhibition opportunities, supportive colleagues, friendships, and professional development opportunities. This is a community with a shared love of printmaking, speaking a language in common, but with sufficient maturity to accommodate difference.
In the Shade began its life in Townsville in 2018. In the intervening period before its arrival in June this year as In the Shade II at Gallery Lane Cove, Sydney, and now at Glasshouse Regional Gallery, Port Macquarie, significant changes have occurred globally. The shadow cast by our global climate emergency lengthens and the world is convulsing under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of artists have added new work in response to the incineration of vast tracts of the Australian landscape, the destruction of wildlife, and the loss of human life and livelihoods that occurred in the catastrophic bushfires of last summer. Few in Australia were unaffected, whether we found ourselves directly threatened by fire, whether we endured weeks of smoke-filled air across the country, or whether we simply read and watched the horrors and the destruction that saturated our daily media.
As an audience we are changed. We perhaps recognise more easily the urgency in these works, we certainly see the predominance of environmental concerns that underpin the exhibition. How do we now read a work that is perforated by hundreds of tiny burnt holes, a delicate, fragile object unable to sustain further damage, and that introduces a fractured shadow into the exhibition space? A remnant of the fires? A harbinger of our impermanent presence here, our uncertain future? I wonder too if we can draw a parallel between the strength of community that has emerged in the face of recent calamity, and the sense of community that has sustained Sydney Printmakers for almost sixty years. In the Shade now appears an unwittingly prescient title.
Jan Davis was head of the Printmaking Department at Southern Cross Uni for many years, was a NSW committee member of the Print Council and has won many awards latest being 2018 Swan Hill Drawing Award. Jan is also known for her artist books and has exhibited with Graham Galleries+ Editions in Brisbane for many years.