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Photogravure phenomenon 

Newfoundland artists Marlene MacCallum and David Morrish resurrected the almost-lost art of photogravure.

Marlene MacCallum and David Morrish share more than exhibition space at

Dalhousie Art Gallery. The married Corner Brook artists are experts in photogravure, an intaglio printmaking process, born in the 1800s, where images are etched into a copper plate then printed by hand. A form of photo-reproduction, the prints have amazingly rich, supple tones and depth.

"It was in '93 when David and I first said, "Let's learn this process,'" says MacCallum on the phone from her home. Her exhibition of photogravure prints, bookworks and photography, The Architectural Uncanny, explores interior spaces, drawing dramatic attention to mundane details that otherwise might go unnoticed. "It took about a year before we actually got anything that would print." Considered almost a dead art, Jon Goodman, a contemporary photogravure expert, told them it would take about seven years to master.

"It's a tedious process, but you can be fairly efficient and over a few days create an image with it," laughs Morrish, on the other line. Whereas MacCallum's background is in printmaking, Morrish, whose exhibition Nature Morte—photogravure prints of deceased animals and decaying nature—approached the medium as a photographer. His interest in vanitas and memento mori images (a reminder of death's inevitability), which often included bones or mummified remains, lent itself nicely, so Morrish started working with taxidermy gone wrong.

"If you look for it, you can find it," he says. "You stay out of really nice museums and start going to private collections and junk shops. It was a way to continue addressing issues of mortality, but also how we treat and consider animals in weird, anthropomorphic ways." Some works are from his 1998 Bestiarum Excerptum series, where Morrish pairs images of misfit stuffed animals with translated texts from old bestiaries. Take Mustela: originally a mink, or maybe a weasel. There's something not quite right—perhaps it's her lazy eye and dozy smile. According to the text accompanying the photo, the mustela receives the seed of the male in her mouth and gives birth through her ears.

"The texts I used from those sources, I didn't alter in any way. What I found was strange enough."

In his 2001 series Locomotive Torpor,

Morrish reverently poses smaller animals—some squished, others mummified—on a clean, white background. He shouldn't be considered a road-kill artist, though. His recent prints "move away from animals but still deal with struggle and struggles of existence, like the ways trees grow, the way landscapes tend to erode. It's quite varied but there is that sense of the tactile surface of things, layers of meaning that have to do with existence and time."

For MacCallum, interior spaces are "a very long-standing interest that I'm starting to think borders on compulsion." For The Townsite House Project, she photographed five houses, including her own, that share the same architectural model.

The resulting book, which also uses lace paper and Mylar, like a voyeuristic look through a neighbour's window, examines how individuals inhabit a space. Visitors are also allowed to handle MacCallum's tunnel book, Do Not Enter, which unfolds vertically to reveal images.

MacCallum was inspired by her step-daughter, a typical teenager, who posted notes on her bedroom door warning them to stay out. "It amused me but it also made me aware of this almost-futile notice to stay out. That's where the texts came from—this idea of telling people, posting a note that you can't come in and, at the same time, you see an image of a space where you're supposed to enter and supposed to travel through."

Both artists incorporate new techniques into photogravure. Morrish says, "Modern technologies tend to try to imitate other things. You can buy canvas to put through an Epson printer, put filters on files to make it look like a watercolour, and on and on. Nothing seems to be about itself. To work with a technology that has its own imprint, its own language and is not coloured by something else other than the physical act of making a gravure, is really, really key."

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In Print This Week

Vol 28, No 2
October 15, 2020

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