Artsdesk: The Print Sub/Plot

Posted May 18, 2022 in Arts & Culture Features

A trio of printmakers explore cinema in their latest work, cross-pollinating to create a distinct sense of angst and existential unrest.

At the exhibition’s opening on a rainy Saturday in Powerscourt, it’s clear that Catherine O’Riordan, director of SO Fine Art Editions, and Richard Lawlor enjoy one another’s company. O’Riordan is quick to point out that it was Lawlor who conceived of the exhibition in the first place and who recommended his fellow artists – Ria Czerniak-LeBov and David McGinn – to the curatorial team. Lawlor’s choices stem from his love of printmaking, which is a medium that he thinks is going through a period of renewal in Ireland. “In the last ten years, we’ve seen prints come back in a big way. There’s a gang of brilliant printmakers in Dublin and throughout the country changing how the medium is understood. One of the challenges to producing this kind of artwork is the scale of the equipment required, whether you work with copper, zinc or wood, but with organisations like Damn Fine Print, Black Church, and The Graphic Studio Dublin giving people the space and opportunity to develop their practice, there’s a lot of talented artists making exciting work.”

Lawlor is a lucid interlocutor, at ease discussing the historical motivations and aesthetic properties of his prints, and while his analysis of the state of printmaking may be influenced by the strength of his passion for the medium, that doesn’t mean it contains any exaggeration. If you’re in doubt about the health of printmaking at the moment, a brief visit to this show should cure your agnosticism. In collaboration with Lawlor, the SO Fine team have put together a fascinating exhibition of three artists whose work, while substantially different in some respects, cross-pollinates to create a distinct sense of angst and existential unrest. This atmosphere, according to the exhibition’s curatorial material, stems from these artists investigating their love of cinema, lens-based practices, and notably, the visual tropes of Hollywood film noir.

David McGinn’s stunning set of prints, which are mostly etchings and aquatints but include one or two screenprints, is perhaps the most explicit in referencing cinema as its guide. These prints depict three men journeying through a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, where vivid, mossy-green outgrowths cover old buildings, railway lines, broken telephone poles, and sometimes even seem to fix to the figures of the men themselves. The character of their journey isn’t triumphant but listless, as though they were wandering from one location to the next without understanding the motivation for their travel, compelled only by the certainty that they cannot rest for long.

The impetus for McGinn’s series is the famous avant-garde film Stalker by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, and McGinn’s intervention into the latter’s artworld sets up an interesting tension, insofar as Tarkovsky was famous for deliberating on the holistic, temporal quality of cinema.

His writing is full of statements like “the dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame,” and yet here, we are presented with a set of static images that nonetheless capture something essential to his work.

As I read the programme material and tried to understand the central thread that weaves these artists together, the reference to the influence of film noir struck the deepest chord. The category of film noir is beloved by cinephiles and film historians alike. Emerging in the 1930s and coming to fruition in the immediate post-war period of the late 1940s, film noir (meaning literally ‘black film’ in French) was the product of a confluence of factors: the horror of fascist dictatorships and mechanised genocide; a profound anxiety about the traditional role of women in society; a signature aesthetic imported by émigré European filmmakers who found themselves adrift in Hollywood; a growing dissatisfaction with rampant consumer culture; and of course, a civilisational dread, bordering on obsession, that concerned the possibility of global nuclear war.

According to one notable theorist, “Film noir is the cinema of paranoia, of doubt and fear and uncertainty… In all noir films, darkness surrounds the characters within the narrative, threatening to engulf them at any moment.” The darkness of film noir is not only metaphorical but literal, swallowing the events onscreen, and this same tendency is visible in Sub/Plot, where the artists shroud their work in shadows and black predominates.

Czerniak-LeBov is, perhaps, the most active in exploring the contours and weight of darkness: her monochrome prints, “unpeopled and distorted” in the words of the curatorial team, take building design as their subject, and seem to transform the colour black into a physical substance. Her works can be split into two camps: some are realist in tone, as though they were snapshots of various urban settings, whereas others combine the aesthetic of architectural drawings with abstract blocks that look like the negatives of time-delayed light trails.

The latter include Lancet, one of my favourites, comprising a number of delicate structures like cross-sections of roofbeams, and which at the same time conveys something of the Rorschach inkblot, as though hinting at the presence of a psychic malady. In the realist vein, Czerniak-LeBov’s Conduit is paradigmatic, and one that will appeal to a wide audience (I considered buying it myself).

At the centre of this detailed print is a large and ornate glass building, like those you find in the Botanical Gardens, surrounded by hauntingly white, ethereal trees. It’s a scene that evokes the uneasy sense one has in isolated parts of the city late at night, and this fearfulness is compounded by the transparency of the glass building, as the night invades the interior, turning shelter into something more vulnerable, from which there is no escape.

Czerniak-LeBov’s of intricate design and morbid unease is echoed in Lawlor’s works. Lawlor’s subjects refer to popular culture and the history of photography in the 20th century, and many of the depicted figures “enjoyed a brief flash of notoriety,” as O’Riordan notes. These figures range from Buddy Holly to T. E. Lawrence to Orson Welles, all of whom were marked by tragedy or failure in some fashion. Perhaps the most poignant is To Break A Roses Neck, which portrays a woman immersed in what look to be swathes of dark material. This print is based on a photograph named “The Most Beautiful Suicide” by Robert Wiles, taken in 1947. Book-keeper Evelyn McHale jumped from the 86th-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, and landed on a parked car in front of Wiles, who happened to have his camera in his hand.

According to Lawlor, he “wrestled initially with the idea of using this tragedy for my own purposes, asking myself again and again what Evelyn would think of the image.” Nonetheless, the thought that his artwork would bring her story back to life persuaded Lawlor to include this homage to her death: “according to the suicide note she left on the ledge, Evelyn thought she would never live up to the standards of her family or her fiancé. I don’t think she knew her own potential.” Lawlor’s sensitivity to noir conventions also expresses itself in this artwork, inasmuch as Evelyn McHale’s youthful visage and immaculate dress suggest the trope of the femme fatale, a female character who represented death as much as she represented beauty.

Lawlor’s aesthetic is both brooding and theatrical, which is representative of the exhibition as a whole. If that combination intrigues you, do yourself a favour and visit the gallery today – just don’t expect to feel uplifted afterwards. The noir influence makes for a compelling experience, but it’s not an appealing worldview: as one film noir protagonist memorably observed, “In this world you turn the other cheek and you get hit with a lug wrench.”

Sub/Plot is at SO Fine Art Editions, 2nd Floor Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, until Saturday May 28. All unsold prints will be available online after the show.




Words: Tom Lordan


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