Words by Patrick Kirk-Smith. Images courtesy the artist, Gwilym Hughes.
Editions Ltd’s new exhibitions, featuring the work of Fred Jones and Gwilym Hughes, address an interesting issue that I have been mulling on for a while. It is an issue around printing, and saleability. When you enter a sales gallery you expect some digital reproductions of work to be on sale amongst large original paintings – more often than not in full colour. It’s surprisingly rare to come across work that is entirely monochrome and manually printed using relatively old fashioned techniques.
It might sound fair enough. Who wants black images on their wall? But these printing techniques of etchings, engravings and woodblock printing are very much coming back into fashion within arts education. So why are they not common place on gallery walls?
Well the simple fact is, they’re very often mistaken for working drawings and don’t feel like finished work. Hughes and Jones’ prints and etchings displayed in the intimate gallery on Cook Street are brilliantly accomplished pieces of print work that stand out as very finished indeed, and more worthy than the vast majority of painting to adorn a gallery wall.
Gwilym Hughes’ prints focus on people, whether famous or not, with a lens on how they are seen by those around them. Drawing on memories and histories that need recording in unconventional ways. Whether that is because of how they are perceived or, in Flamenco Faces, the entirely practical reason that sound and photography recordings weren’t all that great once upon a time. What really intrigued me though, was the method in which these prints have been produced. Woodcuts are woodcuts, it might seem, but to Gwilym Hughes woodcuts tell their own story as a process, not just an outcome – and that story is highly visible in the quality of the final prints.
Using reclaimed wood, he follows standard wood cutting techniques, and maybe intentionally, maybe unintentionally, creates a new level to the work that compliments his primary interest in human character; a statement I should probably expand on a little. If you and look at the history of the technique, it was a way of producing unlimited edition prints. You carve out your pattern in hardwood, sand it, treat it, sand it again, and create a solid, weatherproof printing block that will give you a perfect print every time.
When you follow that process with old wood, it leaves marks, and those marks build up more ink, and change the print – so even in a limited edition run, there will be subtle but noticeable differences. It’s hard to follow, but that’s what makes these prints special. Tiny but critical differences, which mirror their human subjects in all their difference.
Fred Jones is a well-travelled printer, having exhibited across the globe, making it apparent that etching and engraving of all kinds still have their place in a contemporary world, where printing is becoming more experimental, and more digital by the day. Even against the work on the opposite wall, Jones’ work creates parallels and contradictions that provide a talking point for the gallery. I think the biggest shame here, is that all this work is going to get separated at some point, and might never share a space again.