Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Essay: Mary Gilkerson on Monotypes

Edisto Variations, 2005
9 1/2 x 9 1/2 in


“We need tunes,” Phil Garrett says.
“Yeah,” Mary Gilkerson answers.

It’s a Friday afternoon in August at King Snake Press in Greenville, S.C. Gilkerson is painting on a Plexiglass plate, working on a monotype, as she had been that morning, the day before, and on a few other occasions in the past two years. Garrett hovers in the margins of the process, cleaning plates, cutting paper, turning on the fan when fumes build up and putting on music before he takes center stage as master printer, turning Gilkerson’s completed image into a one-of-a-kind print.

“Is this okay?” Garrett asks after a while, presumably about the tango tunes he put on a few minutes earlier, “or is it annoying?” It’s fine, Gilkerson assures him.

Gilkerson is relatively new to the medium, certainly in terms of creating a body of work for exhibition. Garrett, on the other hand, is both as an artist and printer among the region’s more prominent producers of monotypes. He has completed extensive studies in printmaking, including at the San Francisco Art Institute and with Tamarind Master Printer Cappy Kuhn. He has been making monotypes since the mid-1980s.

Since Garrett launched King Snake Press in 1998, the medium has spread like a happy virus through Upstate South Carolina and beyond. Artists as different as Edward Rice, Carl Blair and Katie Walker have made prints at Garrett’s press. In 2001, the Greenville County (S.C.) Museum of Art mounted an exhibition of monotypes produced by 25 artists with Garrett at his press.

The process is truly cooperative. Garrett takes care of the technical issues, allowing the artist to concentrate fully on creating images. While Gilkerson paints, Garrett cleans the plate she finished a while back and from which he just made a print. That’s the glamour of being a master printer. “That’s right,” Garrett says, “clean up the mess.”

There’s more to it, of course. Garrett might mix the different colors of ink that artists paint with. He provides general guidance, explains the technical aspects of the process and can suggest what paper artists should use. Most importantly, he does the precision work of turning the temporary image on the plate to a more permanent one on paper. For that, he first takes a sheet out of a tray with water. To remove the surface water from the sheet, he places clean, thin newsprint sheets on the wet paper. With his hand, he gently presses the newsprint, which absorbs excess water.

Garrett then lays a painted plate on his printing press, face up, placing it exactly in the desired spot. He is guided by a grid of registration marks on the press bed that shows the contours of different plate and paper sizes. Garrett drapes the paper over the plate, making sure paper and plate connect at just the right place. He covers plate and paper with a blanket and runs everything through the press by manually turning a crank. Plate, paper and blanket roll underneath the press’s metal roller, which extends the width of the press bed and produces the pressure necessary to transfer an image. Garrett runs the press several times for each print, back and forth, turning one dial on either end of the roller to adjust pressure. When he’s done, the reverse image of Gilkerson’s Plexiglass painting appears on the paper.

Gilkerson, a Columbia, S.C., native and resident, is a prominent presence on the art scene of South Carolina’s Midlands. As an artist, she is mainly known as a painter; the current show is her first exhibition of monotypes. Gilkerson also teaches art at Columbia College and is an art critic and curator.

This Friday afternoon, Gilkerson produces several Chine Collé monotypes. Chine Collé prints are printed on a thin paper that is attached to a larger, thicker, sturdier sheet of regular printing paper. As Gilkerson works on a plate, Garrett covers his face with a protective device. He sprays an adhesive on a sheet of natural-color, soft-beige Chine Collé paper the size of the plate Gilkerson is painting on. He then lifts a backing sheet out of the water tray, places the smaller, sprayed Chine Collé sheet on the damp paper and runs both through his press, adhering the smaller sheet to the larger paper.

When Gilkerson is done painting, Garrett takes her plate and hands her a clean one. While Gilkerson goes at it again, Garrett puts the freshly painted plate on the press, making sure the plate and Chine Collé sheet line up. Then everything goes through the press.

The Chine Collé paper Gilkerson uses is Japanese Kitakata rice paper. Because it’s a different color than the white Rives BFK support paper, the Chine Collé paper helps set off the image. It also instantly adds a color – its own – to the work where Gilkerson leaves negative space in her images.

“You get an integrated color,” Garrett says. “The thinner Japanese paper helps you show all the mark making. It picks up an incredible amount of detail and nuance. Even with not that much ink on the plate, in areas where interesting things happen, Chine Collé can really help, picking up great subtlety.”

Visually, Chine Collé further separates the image from the background, Gilkerson adds. “The ink also sits on the rice paper differently than it does on printing paper. I could get a similar effect if I used two plates, one for a background toning color and one to create the image on, but I just haven’t tried that yet because I’ve enjoyed the paper-to-paper contrast so much.”

Monotypes are in part characterized by the way artists’ brush marks are visible in the print. “It’s the painterly print,” Garrett says. Gilkerson’s brushwork on the plate is loose, looser than in many of her paintings, it seems, though she works deliberately and with restraint. As she works, the transparent plate sits on the flat, also transparent cover of a light box. The light shining from underneath gives Gilkerson a maximum view of how the work is developing, where there’s ink or isn’t, where she has left negative space. She applies ink and at times takes some off again with a rag.

Gilkerson is painting landscapes, and early in the process she often places a copy of a photo between the plate and light box, painting directly from the copy – in a sense painting on top of it. “It’s just a faster way to get the composition down,” she says. “At some stage the photo has to come out, otherwise it gets in the way. Then you can’t see anything anymore.” In many cases, Gilkerson has first reversed the photo on her computer, ending up painting the reverse of the scene she photographed. During the printing, the painted image itself will be reversed again to the original direction of the photograph, echoing the scene that intrigued Gilkerson to begin with.

Monotypes are one of a kind because the Plexiglass plate is untreated and won’t retain the image. Unlike lithography, intaglio or other print methods, printing a monotype can’t be repeated to get the same result several times. After the monotype is made, an artist can at best use the residual ink on the plate to make a faint second image, a so-called ghost print. Sometimes artists like the ghost print so much that they keep it, too, as a second but different print. Sometimes they use the residual ink on a used plate as the start for another monotype.

Garrett introduced Gilkerson to monotypes during a workshop he did for Columbia College students a decade ago. “I enjoyed the process,” Gilkerson said, “making a handful of monotypes a year when Phil would come in for workshops. But it wasn't until I started using thinner paint in my paintings three years ago, scratching and wiping out areas as well as making direct painterly marks, that I began to think about making monotypes on a more consistent basis.”

The sessions at King Snake Press have affected her paintings, Gilkerson says. “Making monotypes has started a dialogue between my paintings and prints, with a change in technique or process in one sparking a change in the other. The looseness of the monotype process has been finding its way over to the paintings.”

Monotypes are a good entry into printmaking for painters who have shied away from printmaking, Garrett wrote in the 2003 catalogue Edward Rice: Recent Monotypes, published by the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga. “Since monotype is very closely related to drawing and painting … it doesn’t require learning a new set of skills and, due to its process, relies on one’s skills as a painter.”

Wim Roefs