Saturday, August 10, 2013

Brentwood: The Beauty of the Surface, The Symphony of the Suite

If you have been a fan of Flatbed for any amount of time, you have probably been intrigued by the bold color and patterns in Ann Conner's large scale woodcuts.  Ann has shown and worked with Flatbed since the mid-nineties.  As Master Printer, I have had the pleasure of printing or proofing four of her major projects which include the Madrone Suite in 1996, Park Suite in 2000, Westwood in 2004 and most recently the Brentwood Suite in 2010.  This November Ann is scheduled to return to Austin to create another suite of prints and exhibit some of her new work.   

I was drawn to her early woodcuts because of her attention to the printed wood grain as well as curious carved contours of puzzle pieces. The Madrone Suite is an example of the early woodcuts. They were more than formalist exercises.  They playfully explored visual and intellectual content of subject and ground, minimalism versus pattern, the whole versus the part.

The creative process for Ann is often divided into two parts:  the development of her woodblocks through drawing and carving the wood blocks then the production of the prints through proofing and editioning.  Designing and carving the blocks is an individual endeavor.  Ann works for months to develop and carve the images into plywood blocks at her studio. She works out the designs and patterns at full scale on paper and transfers them onto the wood.  Using a hand-held Japanese carving tool she incises the lines or shapes into the blocks.  Ann brings her large scale blocks to Flatbed where she and our printers begin the proofing process on our large scale Takach press.  Proofing means we try printing the blocks with different colors on different papers using various printing techniques until we achieve the way the artist wants it to be printed. Her approach to the creative process of proofing involves her, myself, our master printer, Tracy Mayrello and our assistants in constant color proofing to search for the correct combination of color and block that work to create a suite of prints.  Decisions have been made in advance about possible papers and ink colors, but it is only when we start the proofing that Ann can make a final decision.

In 2009, Ann brought three large woodblocks to Flatbed which had been carved on both sides.  These six carved relief surfaces were used to create the suite of prints now titled the Brentwood Suite.  The large carved shapes of these blocks consisted of ovals, diamonds, circles and squares. They were arranged into structured patterns and configurations that have a mathematical logic in their placement.  It wasn’t until Ann identified the shapes as crafting pattern templates that I could identify their source.  Her ability to see and use these “ready-made” shapes in a unique way seems to transform and elevate the beauty of the form.  This transformative concept was extended to her color choices as well.  The Brentwood Suite was named after the middle to upper class suburban neighborhood of Los Angeles which is similar to many newly constructed city neighborhoods with contemporary strip malls, wide boulevards, familiar chain restaurants and closely cropped and manicured landscaping. The colors found in the architectural and landscape colors encountered there or in any similar neighborhood were inspirations for Ann’s choice of colors. She isolated and printed the “fast-food” yellow, the ubiquitous swimming pool blue, coffee shop green and so on.  I found myself finding her colors all around me in neighborhoods of Austin.  Ann insisted that the ink we used in the prints be pure and not mixed to with white or other colors to change the intensity of the hues that are in the ready-made PMS oil-based inks. As we proofed, we found that some blocks’ patterns seemed to call for lighter colors and others for darker ones.  For example, Brentwood 5, which has a diamond configuration of scalloped diamond shapes was printed with an aqua blue that suggests pools, skies, and reflections.  

 Ann’s ultimate goal during the proofing was to achieve a group of prints that work separately and hold together as a whole.  We were pushed to proof the blocks in many of the colors and arrange them in a salon configuration to determine how they worked together.  There were 36 possible color combinations for Brentwood and the proofing took five days to finalize colors for each of the prints.  

I compare the visual result of what can be seen as The Brentwood Suite to what you might hear in a woodwind ensemble: six woodwind instruments with their own tenor creating their own distinct and complete voice that can be experienced in collaboration with each other creating a new concordant, harmonious voice.  Each final print can be enjoyed as a single voice or in harmony with another.  The suite of six demands more space and creates a symphonic experience.

Ann's new project is due to be printed at Flatbed in November at the same time as an exhibition of her new and older works.


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