11 April to 17 May 2014
Antonia Aitken, Prospect II: Mt Lyell and Prospect I: Mt Lyell, (detail) 2014, Woodcut print on Mulberry paper, image courtesy of the artist
Prospect by Maurice O'Riordan
Sculpture, film, and installation are mediums we may not necessarily associate with printmaking. Together with woodblock prints and drawings, Canberra-based Antonia Aitken's Prospect solo exhibition at Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre certainly offers the prospect of fertile cross-media experimentation though still with a strong sense of printmaking at its heart. Since graduating from the Australian National University (ANU) School of Art in 2006, Aitken's practice has been a dedicated and deft exploration of the printmaking process and its intersection with issues of environmental and social concern. She has spent time in numerous environments: Namadgi National Park (ACT), Hill End (NSW), Bundanon (Shoalhaven), Hudson Valley (New York), the Liffey River (Dublin) and, more recently, Queenstown, in West Coast, Tasmania, the subject of this exhibition. Her abiding interest has been in environments which have been degraded by the effects of land exploitation such as farming and mining.
An avid bushwalker, Aitken's approach to her environments of study is often through the intimacy and simplicity of being on foot walking around and through particular country. Walking itself is a form of enquiry, the willingness to move, to move in a certain direction even without a known destination; the enlisting of perceptual knowledge and a slowed-down, more localised embodiment. Walking plays a key part in Aitken's practice and environmental gaze. It is a subject of potent enquiry in several of her works including Walking River Tracks (eight river walks, Murrumbidgee River, 2008; large-scale etching) and the artist's bookDrawing the Step (2012) which features a CD soundtrack along with etchings as a record of seven daily walks in Rosendale, New York.
Aitken consistently pushes the boundaries of printmaking. In 2007, for example, she initiated the Collecting Home project which saw seven artists don etching plate shoes to gather the traces of their home. Transferred through etching and cello-tape casts, the resulting prints were accompanied by short texts that described significant and memorable moments or discussion that were had during the walks. During her 2009 residency at Bundanon, along the Shoalhaven River, Aitken produced tall (body-sized) ink and river water drawings by allowing the tide to draw its mark directly onto the paper. In Prospect she has produced a large-scale six-panel woodblock, an epic but intimate depiction of Mt Lyell in Queenstown, a site of large-scale ravage through mining and railway construction for over a century. As with Aitken's last showing at Craft ACT, as one of four artists in the culminating exhibition (April 2013) for Craft ACT's 2012 Talking Water: Artists in Residence program (Namadgi National Park and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve), the large-scale print is exhibited along with the originating woodcut blocks for an installation which mirrors Aitken's concerns with process and practice. 'I have always been fascinated by the alchemy of printmaking', writes Aitken, 'and have tried to find the innate qualities of the medium to communicate notions of time and place'. Aitken's recent tendency to exhibit her carved woodblocks and etched plates as 'objects in their own right' is tied to broader questions about 'the role of the printed image'.(1)
The wood of Aitken's woodblock medium is richly manifest in this exhibition and central to its response to issues of deforestation particularly in relation to Tasmania's now rare Huon Pine. The physicality of the cut plywood blocks (1.2 x 3.6 metres) draws attention to the resource of wood and to Aitken's carving method which in this case consciously echoes techniques from early European engravers, contemporaneous with initial moves in the mid-19th century to develop mining in Queenstown. Aitken has also carved/cut and drawn on reclaimed pieces of Huon Pine for her sculptural assemblage Re-cut which forms another key arm of Prospect. Re-cut is reprised after an initial showing in Queenstown (March 2013) as part of the Temporary Residency 4 collaborative print project in conjunction with Land Art Research Queenstown (LARQ), and in which Aitken participated as one of five artists (2). The work is a landscape of sorts, or reconstructed landscape, a configuration of variously-sized and shaped timbers, 'reflecting', as Aitken writes, 'on the reconstructed nature of the mined environment' (3). Lit to dramatic effect, the overall sculpture casts a dirge of deep, dancing shadows. We take in the detail that Aitken has rendered in ink and woodcut on many of the timbers - hillsides, landscapes within a landscape; the carved, painted wood returning us to the material and philosophical dimensions of Aitken's practice.
Aitken's desire to stage this major solo exhibition project at Craft ACT is also a kind of boundary-pushing, the artist well aware of printmaking's own history of sitting 'between the art and craft realms'(4), and equally curious about the reception of her work within the context of a craft and design centre. In this regard, it is fitting to see the tools, the materials of Aitken's craft with the woodcut blocks and woodcut/inked Huon Pine fragments on display. Aitken's work demonstrates a palpable love of the craft of her medium even while its processes and resourcing are also subject to scrutiny. It is this commitment which enables her to constantly test the parameters of her practice, to research and hone technique, to collaborate, experiment.
Prospect represents one of Aitken's most ambitious experiments to date. It marks the evolution of an early-career artist whose highly refined technical and conceptual approach has earned her numerous sought-after residencies and awards in Australia and internationally. These have allowed Aitken the time to spend inhabiting and learning about particular environments as well as numerous opportunities to work alongside other artists and communities. Prospect also marks the gathering gravity of Aitken's oeuvre, one which carries its printmaking tradition with openness and rigour and with a willingness to expand and cross-fertilise. The place of the printed image in Prospect is less predominant, perhaps, than in Aitken's earlier exhibitions, joined as it is here by the moving image (projected film)(5) and those objects which either precede or, as with Re-cut, elude the printed image. For Aitkens the role of the printed image is both fraught and fertile, and ultimately central in a practice as poetic as it is political.
Maurice O'Riordan is Director, Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Darwin.