John Armstrong

Lorène Bourgeois: Large-Scale Monotypes
Anna Leonowens Gallery, NSCAD, Halifax

This exhibit was part of a dizzying series of rapid-fire, one-week shows of the work of NSCAD summer faculty. In April 1989, Bourgeois showed a larger selection of her work at Halifax’s Eye Level Gallery.

Printmaking is emerging from a period of ghettoization that was, in part, due to printmakers’ preoccupation with rigorous and specialized technique in what may now be seen to be a commonplace of modernist practice: expression was held in a vice grip by procedures particular to the medium — prints represented printmaking.

An extreme example of all-consuming dedication to complex technical procedure may be seen the work of British artist S.W. Hayter who perfected viscosity printing, a difficult technique that facilitates colour overlays on a single intaglio plate. Hayter represented, and even in some print facilities continue to represent, a standard of technical mastery particular to the medium. The viewing of prints, as well, presupposed a technical background that might guarantee delectation and lead to informed connoisseurship. The initiate viewer and master printer/artist surrounded printmaking with a mystique that often obscured other levels of intent.

In her recent monotypes, Bourgeois mirrors the concerns of many contemporary printmakers who shun the discipline of generating facsimile multiples in favour of the more direct production of a unique image. For Bourgeois, plate preparation occurs at the same time as the realization of her image. The resulting prints are abutted to form larger composites in which a continuous background colour shifts in tone and intensity from one sheet to the next. The “printed-ness’ of this work is not lost: the control we associate with precise replication has given away to the implicit variations in the monotype process.

Parallels may be drawn with other Toronto artists who currently work in print media: Richard Sewell’s assemblages of folded paper cantilever out from the wall, held in place by pins and thread. His artworks are prints by virtue of the paper having been printed by the hand-held pattern rollers used in home decoration. Julie Voyce’s intimately scaled lithographs grudgingly admit their medium. Through under-etching and under-inking — an abrogation of the usual procedure — Voyce’s works don’t stand technically as “full” prints. Indeed, these artists have used monotype, a decorator’s tool, or under-inking in lithography with assurance. But, in their artworks, the relative historical innocence of their techniques point away from the foregrounding of the mastery of printmaking. The stark tonal contrasts in Bourgeois’s monotypes economically create the theatrical setting that imposes its character on her entranced figures. Sewell’s rolled floral and geometrid patterns recall the saccharine kitsch of popular ‘60s design, and lend the austerity of his folded paper japonaisserie a historical whimsy. Voyce’s under-inking emphasizes the paper as well as the fugitive nature of the poetic fantasy she images. Printmaking is not fetishized in the work of these artists, but expressly directs our attention to other referents, at times even parodying its own means.

If Bourgeois’s monotypes do not exclusively celebrate the craft of the fine art print, they do allude to the anachronism of the handmade by representing a non-specific, but technologically distant, period. In Les Dormeurs (1987) and La Classe, 1870 (1990), the sources are documentary photographs that, like all of her composites, evince a shuttering and contrasting light suggestive of early film. As in nineteenth-century photographic portraiture, which required long periods of immobility for the sitter, the figures in Bourgeois’s work do not solicit the viewer’s gaze. The effect of her close-lidded sleepers is further exacerbated in the darkened pupil-less eyes of her wakened subjects. Deprived of their eyes — the windows of the soul — the figures are frozen in a atmospheric gloom where darkness precedes light. Her subjects appear “disconnected” in the pre-Freudian sense of the word — something we now might term alienation. This disconnection speaks of a state of being prior to consciousness, creating a very amplified picture of darkness.

Sleep, or the near-somnambulant wakened state, represented in Bourgeois’s prints appears to be involuntarily motivated. In order to recall habitual or instinctual actions, Bourgeois uses the devices of reiteration, as in the doubled sleepers of Les Traverseurs (1989), or in twinning, as with La Bête (1987), which depicts a young woman bather beside a bear (that the bather rhymes in posture). We are all animals, point finale. Deprived of its stale conventions and formality, printmaking here serves as medium and metaphor for a conjectural period of simpler technology, of action without consciousness, in which the art of representation flickers across the surface of things.

ArtsAtlantic 39, Winter 1990 - 91