Weight & Measure – Prints 1993-2018
Young Gallery, Salisbury (8th Sept–27th Oct 2018)
A gallery above a council library seems an unlikely place to see an exhibition of prints by one of the most pre-eminent of British abstract painters. But Peter Riley, curator of the Young Gallery in Salisbury, has arranged an exhibition that constitutes the most comprehensive retrospective of Ian McKeever’s etchings, lithographs and woodcuts to date. All that were missing from the print category were his silver-gelatin photographic works, although two polymer gravure prints, which involve a photo-mechanical process, from ‘Eagduru’ (2015) were displayed.
Followers of McKeever’s career will know that, as with his various drawing and gouache series, the print output has been consistent in relation to his painting. The prints might be (mis)understood as extensions or preliminary exercises between painting periods, but the print editions stand alone too, forming coherent and independent bodies of work from well-defined periods of production. Not that the prints are necessarily unrelated to the paintings for the essential imagery of the prints are connected with the paintings in terms of sustained and evolving investigations into the visual dynamics of line, form and ‘abstract’, visual impact. So, if you love the paintings for their visceral and emotional effect, for prompting a meditative, slow pace of looking, and for following an authentic and active journey into a dialectically nuanced abstraction, the range of works in this exhibition will not disappoint.
The Young Gallery is divided into three rooms, and ‘Weight & Measure’ amply fills Galleries 1 and 2. Ideally the whole selection of prints would be distributed in one space to enable a manageable overview, but the extra wall space provided by Gallery 2 allowed for the rare showing of the monumental ‘Hartgrove Woodcut Monoprints’ made in 1994 with Hugh Stoneman. Printed on paper as strong as card (the sheets were originally reserved for Jim Dine), the four prints selected were pinned in line on one stretch of wall, unframed and benefitting from not having the glossy sheen of glass that can make viewing (and photographing) difficult, overlaying the surface.
The prints were made (or is manufactured a better term?) by cutting biomorphic, net-like shapes out of industrial plywood with a jigsaw. Coated with ink, the huge plates of thick laminate were passed through an etching press. The whole process engages a practicality of method and procedure, and an active awareness of the relationship between materials (wood, ink, paper) and process (cutting, placing, pressing), which is very much in keeping with McKeever’s association of the visual with the bodily and the corporeal. Most importantly, the combination of materials and processes leads to, and is lead by, an abstract visual aesthetic which transforms the medium and methodology into potent end results.
Even without a reflective layer, the black-on-black combination of printed ink impressions for ‘Woodcut Monoprint No.8’ required the viewer to adjust to a 45° viewpoint to make out the double layer of printing. This subtlety of surface, of ink and paper combining with the overall impact of a portcullis-like form fixed to the dark, flat plane not only invited an obligation to both stand back to take in and experience the pictorial space, but also to approach the picture surface as an immersive field to be visually traversed at close quarters. Smaller prints can function as objects one can pick up or leaf through in a portfolio, but these giant monoprints compel the whole body to engage, not just the eye and hand, as an architectural sense of edifice and entry might pull one in to its ‘space’. Conversely, the size of the works make the viewer more physically aware of height and width; density and vacuum; depth and surface. These palpable modalities are as just as consequential as intellectualised visual perception and abstract cognitive faculties. Or to put it more simply, the physical is the visual and the visual is physical.
The significant difference between printmaking and painting for McKeever lies in the experience of making the prints and the real time experience required for production. In the exhibition leaflet, quoting from his 2013 essay on Gunter Damisch, McKeever explains:
“To make prints (…) is to feel the weight and pressure of the moment. For the printed image is formed under pressure and is held in the moment. It is this difference of time, weight and feel which attracts so many painters to make prints. Providing as it does, precious respite from the incessant incertitude of paintings’ often meandering time.” [i]
Another characteristic of McKeever’s vocation as a painter/printmaker has been his interest in, and engagement with, the written word. In the same gallery space as the Woodcut Monoprints, ‘that which appears’ (1993), which generated 22 woodcut prints to go alongside, around and be placed in relation to a sequence of 80 poems by Thomas A. Clark, was represented by 15 of the 32 double page spreads. This is a particular treat as The Paragon Press produced just 50 numbered copies of the publication and so they are unlikely to be seen in public.
Responding to Clark’s poems in this publication in Modern Painters magazine in 1994, the author Iain Sinclair commented: “He delights, as does McKeever, in being at a distance, taking in the whole spread, horizon to horizon, and right up against the lichen on the granite: in the same instant.” [ii]
This sense of the expansive and the more confined was demonstrated by putting these very different sets of prints together making for a fascinating juxtaposition. Turning away from the larger ‘Woodcut Monoprints’ in the room, the black graphical forms of ‘that which appears’ are much reduced in size, transforming sheets of paper into pages, taking the viewer into the text for a more intimate and cerebral experience. On one such page we read: “in a wide / darkness / the touch / of rain”. In the imagination, small droplets of water might spatter and impress upon the skin. But the darkness is a shadow form, in an actual but poetic space on the page. The reader can relate the text to the images or vice-versa, for these are not illustrations to merely visualise the poem. Both elements are constituted as ink on paper and as disparate but related manifestations of language/sign made ready to be read, and interpreted, as one is able or prepared for – in a format that becomes personal and intimate.
The same could be said for McKeever’s visual explorations throughout his engagement with printmaking (his first prints, lithographs, were made in 1984) – where conjoined qualities, such as weight and measure, are factors of process and materiality that result in a particular visual and tactile consummation. The compulsive moods of light and dark, flow and stillness, essence and particularity are implicit, to varying degrees in the prints. From series to series, McKeever repeats, develops, lets go and introduces new features.
Moving into the larger Gallery 1, six or more print series were amply represented in part or whole and demonstrated this explorative journey. This included all ten ‘Colour Etchings’ (1996), works that were first shown at the Alan Cristea Gallery in Cork Street in 1997. The ‘Colour Etchings’ wall was as impressive and almost as impactful as the ‘Woodcut Monoprints’ already discussed, though more closely configured into two rows, one above the other, forming a larger rectangle. But these are black and white images. In the catalogue for the Cristea show McKeever is quoted by Pat Gilmour as explaining the reference to colour, “to feel a form’s aura, to make it luminous.” [iii]
That luminosity should replace or equate with colour is fascinating. On a simple level, luminosity means brightness but we know that with the right conditions light refracts into colour. Luminosity could also be considered as a lack of greyness – or darker tones. With varying degrees of contrast, McKeever creates grey tones from the combination of black ink on white paper to create and enable luminosity in the imagery. From constructing sometimes strong contrasts of black and white, with wiry grids and an inner rectangle with arms on each of the four corners of this shield-like form, the resultant ambient luminosity the aura is generated and appears within and around the proportionately large central motif.
On the two adjoining walls in six frames were the colophon (a kind of title page) and five painterly ‘Sentinel’ (2005) lithographic prints, opposite five of the original nine etchings from ‘Between Space and Time’ (1998-99). The latter is a potentially significant series in that colour content appears as prominent as line, tone and form – although one of the two red prints and the orange print were not included here. This series was made in close proximity to the oil and acrylic ‘Assumptio’ canvases (just before and after starting the paintings, it would appear) and the ‘Pause’ gouache on paper series constituted the third and final stage of this cycle. In an interview with Jill Lloyd, in another classic Cristea Gallery catalogue for a show in 2000, the artist confirms the prints as a very direct forerunner to the paintings:
“Things are thrown up in the printmaking which allow me a much more direct access back into paintings and to taking them further than I could see by looking at the paintings themselves. It’s very symbiotic in that sense. For me printmaking has become invaluable as a counterpoint to the paintings.” [iv]
The prints were produced with Hugh Stoneman in Penzance, which would have necessitated a trip away from the painting studio in Dorset. This geographical remove presumably helps to create some degree of separation of procedure, although the psychic mindset for the whole two-year endeavour was as cohesive as the range of works produced.
‘Sentinel’, as the title implies, made for a commanding series of lithographs to confront the viewer, but any assertiveness was softened by the impact of the round cornered stone with the fine grain, mouldmade 270g BFK Rives paper. These prints cleverly delivered both subtlety and contrast of tone with imagery returned to and developed later on in ‘Assembly Etchings’ and ‘Six from Twelve’. So, although complete in itself, in retrospect ‘Sentinel’ is a taster of things to come.
The net-like weaves of organic structure in ‘Between Space and Time’ are also apparent in ‘Six from Twelve’ (2009), printed from three traditional lithographic stones, to make a set of six. The ‘Six from Twelve’ prints are quite pale if viewed from a distance and are somewhat problematic seen behind glass. But in close proximity the nets of grey strands, implicit gateways, and loose and fragile liminal doorways are as compelling as in any other series. Vertical buffers, in some instances displaced within the rectangular format, might represent form dissolving or becoming. These were the prints that I thought were not done justice by a typical exhibition wall display as they need more time for viewing, and their own unencumbered space, for the viewer to assimilate more adequately. The significance of ‘Six from Twelve’ is surely worth further investigation as they lead to the ‘Twelve Standing’ series of painting, where in a contrasting state, spaces become claustrophobic and black, red and white dominate. It might be that McKeever is still in the ‘Six from Twelve’ zone, as the painting series ‘Three’ (2013-2014) and ‘Portrait of a Woman’ (2014-2015) owe something to the lithographs, which indicates an ongoing presence originated in the prints.
Contrariwise, an adjacent wall displaying all five of the ‘Assembly Etchings’ (2007) which are characterised by bubble-like forms and overlapping discs, extend rather than pre-figure the ‘Temple Paintings’ (2004-2006) en route to the ‘Assembly Paintings’ (2006-2008). The print in McKeever’s oeuvre is something more than a substitute for painting. Certainly one cannot divorce the prints from the paintings totally and ‘Weight & Measure’ confirms the symbiotic and collusive relationship between all of McKeever’s various bodies of work.
In the last section of the exhibition another image/text series confirms McKeever’s interest in this literary art form. Some 24 years on from the woodcut and text combinations of ‘that which appears’, the series of lithographs, entitled ‘The Measure’ (2017), made in response to a sequence of poems by the American poet Peter Levitt, are displayed alongside the ‘Henge’ lithographs. These prints were also produced far from home in the Faroe Islands, which again facilitates a way of standing back, positively removed, from the central preoccupation with painting in the studio.
A poem from ‘Stones of the Sky’ by Pablo Neruda was also translated for ‘The Measure’ sequence. The Neruda poem ends: “Before wind / stone was there, / before man and dawn: / Its first movement / the first movement / of the river.”
Here the juxtaposition of solid, seemingly immovable stone with the flow of water (or maybe ink for the printmaker and paint for the painter?) echoes visual qualities and tropes in McKeever’s work. The essentially flat and monochromatic colours (typically black, red and green) function as curtains or moveable sections in the recent prints which segue into ‘Henge’ (2017), a series of lithographs that follow paintings of a similar diptych format and, superficially at least, a colourfield/minimalist/abstract theme that reminded me of McKeever’s interest in Barnet Newman. ‘Henge’ also appears to have links to ‘Hours of Darkness, Hours of Light’, which demonstrates a shifting from one body of work to another where processes and media (including paper, canvas and wood as variable surfaces to work on with ink, paint or photographs) promises and prompts in a varying, ever-changing, morphology. Despite echoes and repetitions, the combinations can only increase the possibilities for more cycles of work in the various media and the importance of printmaking is duly espoused by ‘Weight and Measure’.
How do McKeever’s prints relate to his particular take on abstraction? All of this work looks abstract enough, from any stage of his career. Typically it appears to reference or be fed by personal (though not autobiographical) experience. In a concrete, material sense, whether we bare in mind his landscape references from the early days or from the ongoing allusions to the body in all manner of discussions about his paintings, a phenomenological framework appears pertinent. Not being well read on Husserl, Heidegger et al I now enter dangerous ground of course and I can only direct you to Wikipedia for a way into this area of philosophical theory and speculation. [v]
In the meantime we could rely on McKeever’s own explanations for his, and other’s, work. Returning to his essay on Damisch, he says of his printmaking:
“Perhaps the solution is not to look at the work as image-picture as such, but instead as evocations of thought or of simply manifestations of being in the world; as states of being.” [vi]
And, in his interview with Jill Lloyd, also referenced earlier, McKeever says:
“In a way I would see it as being a kind of post-abstract figuration. It is as if I’m trying to sense an image that is on the other side of abstraction and moving away from the abstract rather than towards it. I try to find a point where the prototype of this post-abstract figuration can be sensed lurking, ghosting. Where it’s suggesting a figurative edge, an edge of recognition.” [vii]
On one level ‘Weight & Measure’ provided an opportunity to look back at a quarter of a century of printmaking practice. To truly weigh up and measure McKeever’s various printmaking projects in relation to his painting the prints will ideally be shown again alongside his paintings in the future. For a debate, discussion and understanding of the continued development of abstract art we shall also have to take on board notions of post-abstraction figuration too.
All images © Ian McKeever.
Note: ‘Ian McKeever: Paintings 1992-2018’ will be displayed at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, from 20 October 2012 to 13 January 2019
Young Gallery https://younggallerysalisbury.co.uk
Ian McKeever’s website http://www.ianmckeever.com/prints/
Alan Cristea Gallery https://www.alancristea.com/artists/67-ian-mckeever/
Paragon Press http://paragonpress.co.uk/works/that-which-appears
Ferens Art Gallery https://artinyorkshire.org.uk/events/ian-mckeever-paintings-1992-2018/
[i]McKeever, I (2013) ‘Bouncing Back’ in Gunter Damisch: Macro Micro. Vienna, Albertina, Snoeck, p26
[ii]Sinclair, I. (1994) ‘Released By Light’ in Modern Painters,vol.7 no.4, pp38-41
[iii]Gilmour, P. (1997) Introduction for Ian McKeever Colour Etching. Alan Cristea Gallery Ltd., London
[iv]Lloyd, J. (2007) ‘Between Space and Time’ in Paintings and Works on Paper. Alan Cristea Gallery, London
[vi]McKeever, I (2013) ‘Bouncing Back’ in Gunter Damisch: Macro Micro. Vienna, Albertina, Snoeck, p28
[vii]Lloyd, J. (2007) ‘Between Space and Time’ in Paintings and Works on Paper. Alan Cristea Gallery, London