Last Sunday I was invited to give a talk at the Association for Group and Individual Psychotherapy in London, which got me thinking about the nature of the image, and how it can play an active role in life and society…

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Farmhouse in Changsha, 2015. Photo by Wuon-Gean Ho

When I was thinking about how images are seen by the viewer, I realized that the intensity of looking long and hard at a print could amount to some sort of love or devotion. Rural homes in China may lack surface pattern and decoration, yet many have a framed picture of Mao on the wall. Set up high against the ceiling, the face is instantly recognizable, yet because his eyes are facing a vantage point that cannot be met, there is an inscrutability to his gaze. I imagine generations of people living in the household being constantly aware of the presence of Mao, represented by a bit of ink on a piece of paper. The situation is probably similar with other households across the world that include an image of a religious figure, for example, such as Jesus or Mary: images which brought the impossible/ incredibly important/ into the home/ humble daily life. 

The intensity of the transformation of the printed image into an object of power and authority shows us how prints on paper can be transformed into an icon with the look of love, or the loving gaze. Importantly, the figure depicted usually does not return the look of love, allowing the loving contemplation to continue. The viewer can fantasize about the thoughts of the viewed and start to imagine a relationship.

 

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Vintage Postcard from Pinterest, unknown source

 In a practical way, relationships have started and flourished as a result of the trade of images. Joan Fontcuberta, the photographer, writes in his book, Pandora’s Camera, of how his father met his mother. It was the custom in Spain in the early 20C for young men to have a photo printed of themselves to send to girls that they fancied. Fontcuberta says that his father’s photo was a winner, a dreamy Hollywood rendition of a handsome young man. Her mother would have had the chance to look at him without the fear of meeting the real person, and begin to idolize the image, and imagine a relationship developing. Her gaze could have caressed his cheek and traced the outline of his jaw, smoothed the unruly eyebrows… When she did eventually have a chance to get to know him better, there was already an amount of affection in the mix.

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Agatha Bas (1641) by Rembrandt van Rijn

Then that got me thinking to how often lovers have depicted their loved ones. One only has to think of Rembrandt and Reubens, Freud, Picasso, Dali, Hockney and Bacon to think of how artists have taken the opportunity to caress the flesh and illuminate the skin of their loved ones. The movement of paint on canvas with a brush is like the application of cream to skin, like the grooming of fur, like the licking of lips. Look at Renoir’s flickering depiction of light and shadow on skin of his nude female models. Hockney’s clear depiction of the angle of the neck, the incised outline of the pencil mark must have reverberated in his mind as a virtual tracing of the muscles and shape of the body. It’s not just a mechanical rendition of muscle and form, it’s an involved description of what is there in front of him.

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Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) by Lucian Freud

The intense gaze of the artist deconstructs and reconstructs the figure, making the portrayal of the subject a sort of intense familiarization. I wonder if the act of portrayal might also cause the artist to fall in love with the subject. I also wonder if the portrayal of a fragmented/ split/grotesque individual might result in contempt in the artist for the sitter. It certainly seems to me that Lucian Freud had much contempt for his portrayal of a benefits worker, not only does his gaze look down on the body, sprawled in an ungainly way on the sofa, but also that his treatment of the folds of flesh is reverberating with repugnance.

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Film Still of Anwar Congo from The Act of Killing (2013) by Joshua Oppenheimer

Truly repugnant individuals have been portrayed in surprisingly sensitive and loving ways. In Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing, the camera spends a long time lingering and looking at the chief protagonist, serial killer Anwar Congo, as he recounts his exploits during the Indonesian massacres in 1965-66. Unlovable from his actions and his behaviour, the long intense gaze of the camera, that does not seem to blink or become diverted by other issues, allows the viewers to develop some sort of connection and ultimately try for a connection or a kind of empathy.

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Film Still from Like Water for Chocolate (1992) directed by Alfonso Arau

But why am I telling you about this? I don’t make anything like this at all! I wanted to talk about an aspect of image making that is to do with the casting of spells. The creation of a print does involve a certain amount of time and energy in its formation. During that time, the artist can invest hopes, dreams and prayers in the fabric of the ink. In the film, Like Water for Chocolate (1992) the youngest daughter, Tita is forbidden to marry her true love, Pedro, who is offered the hand in marriage of the middle sister instead, which he accepts so he can be close to Tita. When Tita is making the cake for the wedding, she cries into the batter; and as the cake is consumed by the guests, they are all overcome with sadness and sickness and grief.

I wonder whether the printed image could be a repository of hopes and desires, and perhaps even convey the thoughts and emotions of the maker which were experienced while the image was being made.

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Scarf Blur (2014) by Wuon-Gean Ho. Photograph and performance.

Whether this is because the paper retains the energy of the making process, or whether the energy of the shape and lines is able to convey this mysterious message to the viewer is something I’m still looking into…

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Most years for Valentine’s I hide away in the studio and make pictures, but this year was different. I was invited to give a talk at Wrexham’s Regional Print Centre at Coleg Cambria, as part of their Print Symposium, and seeing as it was Valentine’s Day I thought I would theme the talk around Love.

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It is a theme that I have been preoccupied by for many years: prints can be, after all, a token of affection, especially when each is handmade with love. I have explored making prints about love and connection with animals (Spirit and Guardian); sensual love (the Orchis Series); things I love and that make me laugh (Little Linocut Series); and fantastical love stories (Lansu Garden Series, China Love Series), with birds (Swallow Span) and beasts (Devour) that jump straight out from my imagination.

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Talking about caesareans. Photograph by Wiktoria Przekora

My current series of works (the little linocuts) has been all about a kind of loving conversation with my dad (without that sounding too weird, I just want to cheer him up with something more concrete that lasts longer than the short time we have together)…

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The Olympic Pool and its ridiculous hairdryer situation… Photograph by Wiktoria Przekora

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Clockwise from left, Vasile, me, Tony, Mum and Dad

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Showing my linocut process: I draw directly on the block. Photograph by Wiktoria Przekora

Anyway there are 35 of these prints now, and I showed my working process (I draw directly on the block) as well as bringing all the BAT (bon a tirer) proofs to Wrexham to show the delegates at the conference after my talk,. These BAT proofs are covered with notes and colour swatches and printing instructions.

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I made a special Valentine’s print for sale at the conference, as well as a New Year Card for the Year of the Dog, and enjoyed meeting the other presenters and chatting with the delegates.

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Despite all the excitement of being with a group of printmakers (surely the friendliest bunch, ever), I had to leave early…

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I had an evening reception to attend at Buckingham Palace! I’m not sure how the invitation came my way, or who nominated me, but I was really happy to be invited as an artist, not as a vet.

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After the invitation came, I started to feel completely unworthy of a royal visit. In my life there are many chaotic elements, strivings, failures and disappointments: all my possessions crammed into one room

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living in a wild and ugly part of town,

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a patchwork of jobs and commitments,

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long neglected friendships, a fridge that needs cleaning, a bike that needs new parts, a diary with scrambled deadlines, a pile of prints that threatens to collapse on top of me. I didn’t feel glamorous enough, or successful enough to be asked along.

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After some excruciating trips to fancy shops that I would normally never go to (what’s the point of an outfit where you can’t move your arms?) my dear sister Feng Ho, an ethical fashion designer, stepped in and offered one of her bespoke jackets for the occasion, and ethical handbag designer Embellished Truth lent me the statement bag.

Wuon-Gean Ho wearing jacket by Feng Ho and carrying Embellished Truth handbag

Image by British Ceremonial Arts, copyright The Crown.

You aren’t allowed to take photos or record anything when you are in the Palace, so I wrote the description below for my instagram page the following day, when everything was sparkling and fresh in my mind…

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The Palace is a bit like stepping inside a lavish cake. A red carpet takes you up three flights to a domed lobby, a perfectly white and gold studded ceiling. Prince Albert, looking young, in marble, stands in an alcove, and I’m sure there’s another statue of Albert facing himself, in a weird parallel world. A marble girl plays with a dog, her hand buried in its fur. Heavy sparkling chandeliers glitter. The ceiling is far away, the carpet so so soft.

Every surface is embellished with gilded twisted vines, intricate repeated oak leaves and acorns, goat hooves, naked women clutching their breasts, lions feet on every chair and lions heads on the armrests. There are crests and shields, fleur de lys and red pentagonal roses, Corinthian columns and swirling mirror surrounds. Ming vases, rosewood inlays, opal cabuchons, a pair of pink thrones, embroidered ER on the left, and P on the right.
In the picture gallery, Rembrandt, Vermeer(the light! The shades of blue!), Frans Hals, van Eyck, Rubens, there, on the wall. I spent a while gazing entranced at the Rembrandt portrait of Agatha Bas. Her creamy skin glows in the light, and her hand posed casually on the picture frame makes you think she is just there, beyond the archway.

Carved wooden vines sprout from doorways and birds nestle on swagged foliage on the walls. A pair of mirrors reflect you into a blue limpid infinity. Marble girls posed casually, resting an elbow on either side of the fireplace, hold yet more abundant grape vines. I tried the sofa out for comfort, it was padded with fraying satin, the silky fabric split by regal weight.

The Queen is so pretty she has a soft sparkling air and smiles at everyone, calmly greeting everyone individually. They read out your name from the pink card so she knows who you are. She gave me her gloved hand and I didn’t kiss it but shook it awkwardly with a half curtsey but didn’t fall over, hurrah (oops clumsy me)…

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Sheika bag by Embellished Truth

When things have settled down, perhaps some of these things will emerge in new work, who knows. In the meantime, I’ve cleaned the fridge, repaired the doors, done some laundry, and started to tidy up some of the piles of paper… just in case she ever wants to visit me in return…!

I’ve just come back from a March printmaking bonanza! Firstly, New York and the Metropolitan Art Museum, and then the Southern Graphics Conference in Tennessee. Here are some of the things I saw…

IMG_8824_eAt New York’s Center for Book Arts, I enjoyed John Jacobsmeyer’s show More Than Human, a sequence of over 80 wood engravings all cut from cross-sections of the same 40-year-old maple tree, representing an American Sign Language interpretation of the soliloquy in James Dickey’s poem Sheep Child.

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Noah Breuer and I then went to NYU to teach printmaking. Here are some of the students looking at my books.

IMG_8828_eAt the NY Metropolitan Art Museum print department I had a look at the anamorphic prints in their collection as research for my talk on Distortion.

IMG_8921_eI was completely stunned by this etching by Kathe Kollwitz and some small Posada prints which were there.IMG_8908_eKnoxville is located in Tennessee close to the Great Smoky Mountains; Dolly Wood, home of Dolly Parton; a building called the Sunsphere (that looks like a tomoato on a stick); and the University of Tennessee. I stayed in downtown Gay Street in a loft in the iconic Sterchi Apartment block, with the most amazing view.

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Printmaking madness was already obvious on the campus, with Crystal Wagner’s huge installation of prints that looked like a cascading dragon stretching over three floors and entering the gallery space itself.

IMG_9019_eThe print department was really spacious and boasted the largest (reportedly) American French Tool press in the USA, along with a wide array of printing stations ranging from litho at one end to screenprint and the other.

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I admired the beautiful prints by Karen Kunc and Tracy Templeton, who had visited the department.

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Off site shows were rich and varied, sadly I forgot to take photos of many favourites. However, here are a few good uns: local Yee Haw industries letterpress posters which were full of colour and wit…

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Happy printers from Drive by Press located in Striped Light letterpress studio giving a popular demo of T shirt printing…IMG_9249_eMiguel Aragon’s sobering series of victims of the Mexican border wars (drug cartels struggling for supremacy): laser-cut burnt residue embossed prints based on newspaper photographs….

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Wroclaw school of art graduate Agatha Gertchen’s incredible linocuts…IMG_9161_e_agathagertchen

And fellow Wroclaw printmaker Zuzanna Dyrda’s witty print intervention on the occasion of her mum’s marriage…IMG_9167_e_zuzannadyrda

Art Werger’s multiplate mezzzotint colour trial proofs… (honestly mad)IMG_9301_werger_e

IMG_9290_eUniversity of Tennessee graduate Jade Hoyer’s lithographic print installation…IMG_9220_e_jadehoyer

Select Serigraphics poster designs, combining retro elegance with op art and current bands…IMG_9237_e_selectserigraphics

Norwegian Tom Stian Kosmo’s mezzotint Surrender…IMG_9172_e_tomstiankosmo

Ericka Walker’s vintage style aphorisms…IMG_9333_e_erickawalker

Hannah Skoonberg’s delicate landscapes…IMG_9340_e_hannahskoonberg

Lauren Kussro’s mad seascape installation…IMG_9351_laurenkussro IMG_9350_laurenkussro

Emily Minnie’s printed wallpaper…IMG_9358_emilyminnie Liz Klimek’s printed and folded houses…IMG_9356_lizklimek

Intense subject matter and beautiful prints were paired with generous helpings of food at the private views… (We may be artists but we shall not starve!)

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In town, I also saw a few random print events such as this striped tent with painted beer cans…

IMG_9225_eLetterpress studio The Happy Envelope…

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Tatiana Potts wall installation…IMG_9085_e_tatianapotts

Interesting demos including electronic circuits…

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Brian Gonzales of Illegitimate Press, North Carolina showing off his thermographic ink printsIMG_9438_e_thermochromic

Apart from the displays of work, of which I’ve only photographed a small portion, there were some great talks. Sarah Suzuki of MOMA in NY gave a really lucid talk on the burring of lines between the printed useful object and the printed fine art singular object: illustrating her talk with artists such as Tabaimo who uses the printed aesthetic of Ukiyo-e as an essential flavour to her digitally scanned animations; Gert and Uwe Tobias, whose monumental jigsawed prints are unique rather than multiplied; Ellen Gallagher whose layouts were scanned, printed, scratched, added to painted on and reverted to sculptural form again; Daido Moriyama whose book Printing Show 2011 consists of a selection of digital images that viewers are able to sequence order and print themselves; Qiu Anxiong whose beautiful woodcuts show modern stealth bombers and genetically modified creatures.

Another favourite was Amze Emmon’s talk on print in the built environment, how we are surrounded by buildings which have hoardings, some of which describe the contents, some of which describe what will be there in future, and some of which, particularly in China, which have pictures of photoshopped idyllic landscapes far removed from the migrant worker housing that they shield.

IMG_4090_SGCI_eMy involvement in the lecture programme was on Friday 20th March when the panel I had coordinated gave their talks on the topic of Distortion. Noah Breuer and Julia Lillie talked about distorted materiality, in the mimicking of other techniques such as watercolour, engraving, stains and blood in printed format. John Jacobsmeyer talked about renaissance perspectival striving for an elusive truth, and how this delineates subject from object, which is confounded in contemporary approaches. I gave a survey on the topic of distortion, with our desire to see things and faces where there are none, tricks and marvels of machinery, and what happens when machines contribute a distorted view of the world. Erik Brunvand talked about sonic distortion and how to print with conductive ink to create speakers which were activated through electromagnetic signals. It was fascinating for me to hear what the others have been researching.

We jumped around afterwards making distorted poses to celebrate!!IMG_4097_SGCI_e