An essay written by Dr Carole Shepheard ONZM on small holes in the silence, an exhibition featuring the works of Kyla Cresswell, Catherine Macdonald, Prue MacDougall and Nan Mulder. Small Holes in the Silence is on display in MANAAKI NUI from Saturday 3 February - Sunday 14 April 2024.
There are certain metaphors that arise when we begin to embrace poetic language. We read, listen, absorb and attempt to understand how it transcends and turns inky marks on paper into fully fleshed out imagery. For the artist, taking a word or a phrase from a text such as a poem brings with it the capacity to add another voice, albeit visual, silent. Words are often the catalyst for those whose creative practice is indelibly linked to the wider arts such as music, theatre and literature. We know there was a strong thematic connection between close friends Hone Tuwhare[i], the poet and Ralph Hotere[ii], the artist. Their spiritual appreciation is apparent by the way they both personalise and directly address their ‘readers’ using pared back text and symbolic imagery.
I can hear you - Ka rongo au i a koe
making small holes - e hanga kōwhao iti ana
in the silence - i te marino
rain - e ua
The title and theme for this exhibition comes from the poem Rain by Hone Tuwhare. It tenderly suggests ‘small holes in the silence’ can be experienced in a number of imaginary and physical ways. It can capture intimacy and tender memories as if every droplet was a touch, a signifier of a connection we need to pay attention to. In this work the poet highlights the idea that rain plays on all the senses and how the sensuality of this is imbued in every pore of his body. Tuwhare considers death using the metaphor of rain, however it suggests a deeper personal experience, and with it a direct conversation as if he were speaking to another human being. Perhaps he was communicating in a private, intimate way to an audience of one, or more?
rain is the ink in the sky
It is richly rewarding to see four established artists using print techniques that emphasise material demands of the medium but for whom concept is the primary motivator. While each has brought their unique perspectives to this literary prompt, they are also a group who have worked together before. Through exhibitions and extended discussions they have learnt of one another’s interests, challenges and passions. Technical skill, technique, drawing and medium-specific characteristics are essential to the way each works. These ‘process’ elements, however, can contribute to new directions, informed critical discourse, and can highlight print’s potential to address global realities from very individual points of view.
Unlike many other disciplines, these decisions can be physically traced, given an opening into the mysteries of their conception and construction. This process of transformation has always been important to painting, but has failed to be seriously considered within the context of print, despite the way in which images can be as fluid on metal or stone as they are on canvas or in wax. At a pivotal time where digital reproduction is blatantly named as ‘print’, these artists are working with traditional print techniques not because it comes with a hallowed past, but because it fits the demands of the subject. The match is seamless. Dry point engraving, etching, mezzotint, photo-gravure - all part of the field of intaglio - are the primary technical processes used by these four artists. Importantly, none are constrained by the weight of history, tradition or convention and all have taken print into other fields of creative practice. Drawings, artists books, text based works, sculpture, installation and more are all part of the mahi for these four. What is to be recognised here is that all are experienced, dedicated artists for whom print is their primary creative calling.
The artists in this exhibition have taken the phrase ‘small holes in the silence’ to explore their own connection to the land, the air we breathe and the language we both speak and hear. Even though they are geographically dispersed, they provide a range of ideas based not only on a physical environment but also on its relationship with human beings. Curiously though, none of these individuals are working in the realm of abstraction as the Tuwhare quote might suggest, but make shifts and take printmaking into a personal narrative of sorts. There are many connections between the artists in this exhibition. Some are process driven, some content similarities and some material investigations. All however are recognised as authorities in their fields with national and international reputations.
rain is the legacy of the winds
‘My practice is grounded in the place where I stand. I respond to my environment and explore the micro and macro of the natural world. I am often inspired by, and drawn to, connecting with the Murihiku region in my artworks.’ [iii]
Ōtepoti Dunedin artist Kyla Cresswell creates prints that explore space and a quiet stillness of time. She directly expresses the essence of her ideas by relying on the graphic mark—either direct or indirect. Perhaps it was her time in Japan that influenced this minimal approach, where she realised the need to remove extraneous elements in order to interpret her ideas and focus the viewer. Cresswell shifts between sparse drypoint gestures and moody dense mezzotints - each process deliberately chosen to express a different narrative, a different voice. In her drypoint series ‘Once Lay a Wetland: Kōreti I’ (2023), we see waving wetland grasses and in others bare trees and winter whiteness. In contrast, Cresswell’s mezzotints create an inescapable denseness that could be considered stifling but in her hands the results are immersive and enigmatic. By working across these two intaglio fields, with their very obvious technical signifiers, Cresswell creates an opportunity for the viewer to question the juxtaposition of the printed mark with the embossed paper and focus on the integration of both. There is no flashy technical brashness in the work of Cresswell. She works at an intimate scale and understands that graphic intensity that can be successfully achieved in the small.
rain is a murmur of thoughts
‘We have been given the use of kōwhao itiana i te marino, a line that resonates with us all. In this Tuwhare speaks to Rain as an equal, a friend, a lover and acknowledges that if he were gone the rain would continue’.[iv]
Catherine Macdonald has worked in a connected multi-disciplinary way for some time. Alongside her drypoint etching mahi, Macdonald also explores letterpress, zine production, bookbinding and drawing, all of which impact on ideas related to language and communication. Based in Whanganui, fondly referred to as the ‘home of contemporary print’[v], her attention focuses on the relationship between subject/object and space. These two main components are often at odds with one another but intended to create a narrative, a conversation - a good example being ‘Between Here and There’ (2022). Often this subject is an animal, a bird, a human—all of which have been densely etched in silhouette and placed within an empty environment. In many of Macdonald’s print works, the subject is both protagonist and spectator, willing to confront if required and unafraid of the consequences. An often-used symbol for Macdonald is the rook, an intelligent bird with complex behavioural traits, and one who has the ability to use tools and solve puzzles. Armed with this information we are forced to consider the stories Macdonald is telling. By placing this symbolic form carefully (as she does) within an empty space, the tension builds and creates a sense of dread and anxiety. It is this unfolding strategy that connects with her other mahi.
rain is the atlas charting earth’s emotions
‘Elements of the natural world are always present in my work and essential to my sense of well-being. The common experience of rainfallis more than just quenching the natural world but a full sensory sensation forthe whole ecosystem that surrounds us.’[vi]
Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland artist Prue MacDougall locates her practice within a theatrical context—sometimes whimsical, sometimes surreal, but always curious and complex. She takes ‘everyday scenes and transforms them into a magical narrative’[vii]. The layers of graphic information used to create the matrix for her prints is often an eclectic gathering of narratives sourced from early graphic illustrations, maps and early picture books. This information is then [re]constructed with a strong drawing element present. The graphic content, along with her interest in re-creating drama through chiaroscuro, scale and hand drawn additions, is recontextualised and carefully re-worked in her studio. When collaged together they create a new narrative in a form particularly appropriate for the intaglio photopolymer process she uses and which has become her signature. The integration of figure, animal, environment and mythology is convincing as in the etching ‘Elida (small winged one)’ (2023). While MacDougall has travelled widely and investigated examples of early print history and tradition, she has also experienced contemporary art, in particular print. This accumulation of knowledge, and understanding of print in the 21st has informed her own practice, been shared with this group and positioned her as a serious artist.
rain is the sigh of the clouds
“We live in two worlds: an external and internal world. In my work these intermingle. Through the one I try to explore the other.”
Global nomad Netherlands artist Nan Mulder has gained an international reputation as an expert in the mezzotint process. She is also an artist who is willing to acknowledge the importance of her physical plate making actions and how this understanding creates the moody dynamic she desires in her print production. The language often used by intaglio printmakers—abrasion, erasure, scratching, burnishing - are psychologically linked to the development of the idea for Mulder and she cites Josh Cohen, “The Private Life: Why we Remain in the Dark”[viii] for allowing her to accept and understand the ‘strangeness’ in much of her work. Devoid of a human presence, the imagery she uses is a haunting reminder of the preciousness of our natural world. In her recent prints there is a sense of awe - from the dense sub-tropical gardens at Wharepuke (Kerikeri)[ix], to the psychologically chilling iceberg forms as a response to her visit to Iceland. In both bodies of work, she is ‘making my way towards that dark place of strangeness’. Works such as ‘Liminal Space I & II’(2022–23) are convincing examples of being at an uncertain, uncomfortable point in ones life and very pertinent to Mulder’s current situation. A threshold of sorts as she has travelled between the Netherlands and Aotearoa New Zealand many, many times and has contributed to the print culture of this country in valuable ways.
The motivation to exhibit together comes from the desire to collectively position print as an integral part of contemporary art. Not as a ‘reclaiming ’but as vehicle in which to have a voice that may not be otherwise seen or heard. To use an art form that is accessible and has mobility is similar to that of literature and which connects these artists to Hone Tuwhare with his suggestion that rain, making small holes in the silence, is a cleansing act that will eventually unite us all to the natural and spiritual world. Might we also add cultural and psychological worlds to this and embrace the voices of four dedicated print artists.
Dr Carole Shepheard ONZM
[i] HoneTuwhare (1922–2008). Poet, Aotearoa New Zealand.
[ii] Ralph Hotere (1931–2013). Artist, Aotearoa New Zealand.
[iii] Kyla Cresswell, Website Blog 6.1.2023
[iv] In conversation with Catherine Macdonald. Nov 2023 (Patu Hohepa translator Small Holes in the Silence—Collected Works Hone Tuwhare, Radom House, 2016)
[v] The Print Council of Aotearoa New Zealand was created by Marty Vreede in Whanganui. 2000
[vi] In conversation with Prue MacDougall. Nov 2023
[viii] Cohen,J. The Private Life. Granta Publications. 2014
[ix] Wharepuke is the studio and home of artist Mark Graver RCA