“The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan’s phrase from over 50 years ago seems hackneyed now and we too often skate over its fundamental meaning. Over time the phrase has been most related to mass media, especially television. But in looking at good old-fashioned artworks, the link between medium and meaning is crucial. Painters can make paint important in itself, and there is a difference in meaning between a sculpture in plaster and one in bronze.
With many of the Portland galleries showing printmaking this month, in preparation for the SGCI (Southern Graphics Council International) Conference at the end of March, there is an opportunity to examine the relationship of the variety of print media to the meanings effectively carried by them. One of the important medium/message aspects of printmaking is that the results tend to be on paper, and we understand them differently from works on canvas. The paper is often beautiful in itself, and we don’t say that of canvas. Also, since most prints have traveled through a press, the artist’s “hand” is not there. There is a different set of choices made. Generally, everything is planned before the paper goes through the press. Everything that might be “spontaneous” happens before the ink hits the paper.
Two shows, right next to each other, at Augen and Froelick Galleries are particularly interesting. Both involve “older” artists, Tom Prochaska at Froelick (through April 2) is 70, George Johanson at Augen (through April 2) is 87. Both utilize old-time printmaking techniques: etching for Prochaska and linoleum cuts for Johanson (linoleum is the modern version of wood blocks, the oldest form of printmaking). Both also show paintings along with a suite of prints and we can see how the choice of medium, painting or printmaking, affects the result. However, the best thing is that there are some compelling artworks, objects for deep looking.
Johanson’s small (about 12 x 16 inches) prints depict some familiar scenes: folks at the beach, on waterways, umbrellas held in the rain, some feeling like they are based on old snapshots. But the most dynamic, bold works are based on the artist’s studio, either an artist at work or the artist and model. The artist and nude model motif is another kind of artist’s “self-portrait,” the artist on the job. Pablo Picasso loved the theme and did hundreds of prints, drawings and paintings of it.
In “Artist & Model,” 2015, Johanson depicts the artist and nude model are shown as backlit silhouettes, both looking at a painting on the easel. It is an odd scene as the model is on a high stool behind the artist, opposite the face of the canvas, in a place where the artist cannot see the model and the work in progress at the same time. The model is in the artist’s space, not in the “model’s space.” Both the artist and the model hold up a hand, perhaps blocking out part of the painting to consider it in isolation from other parts, or evaluating proportions. It is unclear whether the model’s gesture is mocking mimicry, or if the artist has asked, “what do you think?”
The image reminds me of Gustave Courbet’s “The Painter’s Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life,” 1855, in which a nude model looks over the painter’s shoulder, thoughtfully considering a big landscape painting in progress. In the Courbet though, she is one among many possible critics among a crowd in the studio, including a small child at the artist’s knee. “Artist & Model” is a linoleum block reduction print. In this process (pioneered by Picasso) the block is first cut to receive the initial color for the print. After that is printed, more of the block is cut away to shape the second color, and so on until the final color is printed from the relief that remains—in this case the black silhouetted figures, the floor, the easel, the model’s stool and a drapery.
Johanson has included a few of the actual linoleum blocks as artworks in themselves in this show. That is unusual. The block for “Artist & Model” reveals the activity of Johanson’s cutting tool, and it is that activity that makes these prints compelling. Cutting into a block is very different from drawing a line on paper. Precise control is not sought. If you desire precision, you choose a different medium. In the best of the prints, like “Artist & Model” Johanson allows his gouge to freely gesture, almost scribble. A “devil-may-care” attitude comes through, a balancing act that teeters at the edge of “out-of-control.” That’s where the excitement is. He plays an old theme with a new energy—we haven’t seen it played like that before.
Some of Johanson’s prints are more tightly controlled, but even in those you can see the variety of mark-making possible with block printing. (Check out works by Jonnel Covault and Nancy Friese in Augen’s companion exhibition, Nature as Metaphor: Invitational Print Show, for more examples of excellent block print mark-making techniques.) Johanson’s free-wheeling approach to block printing makes the medium evident and we derive gut-level meaning from the process. On the other hand, his two paintings in the show seem tidy by comparison—we don’t really feel that medium.
Over at Froelick, Tom Prochaska’s small (16 by 20 inches) paintings star in his show. We do feel Prochaska’s medium, acrylic paint on canvas. It’s a challenge to say exactly what is going on in his paintings. They suggest scenes. They are rendered in a range of grays only. We could say they are smudgy, or murky, but not confused.
In a painting such as “Hillside Nevada,” 2016, it seems as if there are some buildings, perhaps a column of smoke rising from a chimney, some architectural jumble off in the distance, perhaps a watery foreground. It feels familiar, as if a memory, or a dream, or a scene viewed through a window that needs cleaning—a window in travel, from a train or an automobile, maybe from the past, déjà vu. That’s how Prochaska’s paintings feel, and that comes from how they are painted, not what they depict. What they might depict is ultra-mundane.
Though their paintings are totally different, my response to Prochaska’s paintings is similar to how I think about Cezanne. Every time I see a Cezanne I sense the intense concentration and careful placement of every brushstroke. Prochaska has a completely different “touch” from Cezanne, but every mark, every nuance of edge, seems considered. Here something feels solid, there a bit watery, above everything an interesting overcast of sky. My sense is that, as a musician plays the feeling of the notes, Prochaska’s brush paints the feeling of what is being rendered, not the look of it. The resulting image is the result of how it felt to paint it, and if we, the viewers, engage with these works it is in some way to engage with the painter’s story of being a painter, of being in the work. Tiny shapes, strokes, dabs, progress across the small canvas, nudging us from one mark to the next. There are a few small brushed lines giving a bit stronger push, but nothing is “bold.” These are quiet paintings.
There is a range of how painters depict their subjects. Some play down the paint to clarify the image, and some show off the paint to be “painterly.” I remember Mel Katz telling us students that “the paint’s gotta sing.” That’s in the wide mid-range between “the paint doesn’t matter, it’s the image that counts,” and the over-the-top “hey look I’m a painter, I can leave random brush marks and drips.” How to tell the difference? I think it’s like figuring out the difference between your average cellist and Yo-Yo Ma. It’s hitting the feeling of the right notes right. Sounds good. Looks good. The painterly painter entices the viewer to become involved in the process.
On the other hand, the suite of prints that he shows, “Baulmes,” 2014/15, hides the view of the artist’s engagement in the process because the lift ground etching technique involves drawing with a liquid medium on the etching plate. The artist’s activity here is hidden, the touch of paint application isn’t there. That’s different from the sensed tactility of cutting marks in the block in Johanson’s works. But where Johanson pretty much covered the paper with ink in his works, Prochaska leaves a lot of crisp white paper to provide another aspect of meaning, whatever that might be. These live in the realm of normal printmaking as a quiet, dignified set of prints.
Another group of quiet dignified prints is seen in the companion show at Froelick, “Lepidoptera,” small tight delicate etchings of moths by Sarah Horowitz. The fine line available to medium of etching is perfect for the message of these works—just another small example of how the symbiotic relationship works, when it works well.