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On looking at old work

I've been going back through folders, looking at older work, trying to discern the threads that connect it to my current work. I looked at the first set of etchings that I made in the late 1990s, about a year after I started learning the process:

It's from a set of 10 etchings called Circe, based on the Night-town section of James Joyce's Ulysses. This print illustrates the moment when Leopold Bloom fantasises that he is being ridden around the room by the madame of a brothel. It parallels the moment in Homer's myth where Ulysses' men are transformed into pigs by the sorceress Circe.

There are a number of influences that brought this print into being. The first was a suggestion from my etching teacher, a great German artist and printmaker called Thomas Gosebruch who lives in London. After taking classes with him for a while, he suggested I put what I had learned to use by working on a series based on my favourite book. Perhaps he had in mind a famous set of his own: a version of the first chapter of Celine's Voyage au bout de la nuit, reproducing the text accompanied by a series of etchings, which was published in Paris by a renowned French publishing house.

Ulysses was the first book that came to mind. Perhaps it wasn't my favourite - only one of them - but I had read it many times, and had written an undergraduate thesis on Joyce's work as part of my English degree at Cambridge. I had been looking at Degas prints of brothel scenes, and this influenced the look of this particular print, with the naked working girls in the background, and the steaming chamber pot at the front. One thing Thomas Gosebruch liked in prints was accidental marks, so I usually tried to damage the surface of the copper plate a little before I started drawing on it, either by scratching it with a heavy file, or by dropping it face down on the floor a few times. That accounts for the little marks around the edges of the image. The rest of the image was drawn in a hard ground, proofed, aquatinted to produce the dark areas, proofed again, then I scraped white highlights into the aquatint, proofed, and finally used a drypoint needle to scratch even darker velvety black tones into certain areas.

I've done a lot of printmaking in the last ten years, but I've never done anything better than this set of Joyce prints. For the last couple of years I've been working on installations, based on memories of my childhood in an English mining town. I haven't thought about this until now, but there is a thread that connects the Joyce prints to the new work, and that is personal narrative, and combinations of word and image. There are no words in the Joyce prints, but they have their source in a literary text. My newer work, however, incorporates words as well as images, and also references to pop culture of the 1960s and 1970s. I think that in all my work, I try to embody the personal moment in a set of visual symbols.

Images from this set have been used for several covers of F Magazine, a publication dedicated mainly to novels in progress, published here in Chicago. Their website reproduces two of those covers.


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