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Archeology of Meaning

‘Archaeology’ is a word that is often appropriated in contemporary art – it has almost become a ‘buzz’ word. It is used descriptively to indicate the interest of particular artists in layering (often in regard to memory), in historic time (usually their own personal past), or in a process of making art in which things hidden are revealed or discovered (another sort of layering). Michelle Griffiths constructs her own archaeology – in reverse. Instead of taking away, she builds up – and leaves us to peel away, so to speak, those layers and to interpret what lies beneath. I mean by ‘beneath’ both physically, under the surface we see, and metaphorically, in terms of meaning. The images she makes, however simple or straightforward they may appear to us, are complex, multi-layered, worked on over and over. In her activity as an artist, whether she is drawing painting or – as in this exhibition – making prints, she works hard and long to achieve the final image. What we see contains the history of her activity – much of it hidden, but all of it playing a key part in the finished work. The apparently calm, balanced composition in front of us has emerged from a multiplicity of events, both intended and accidental, in which the artist responds to the process of making rather than setting out with a fixed idea. The sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic ‘conversation’ between Griffiths and her materials (the subject of which is ‘what are we both capable of’) may take days, even weeks – and just occasionally is short and sweet. She is constantly exploring the potential of what she is using, pushing the paint or the ink as far as she can. In finding out what they are capable of she is challenging herself too – ‘if this is possible with this ink, what can I then do with it?’ The results can (and as far as she is concerned, must) surprise her as much as they do us.

The layering in Griffiths’ art is always physically real – paint lies on paint or, as in these silk-screen prints, ink upon ink. The images, the forms she creates, are layered too, for as she works shapes emerge, disappear, re-emerge, and in the final work may either have disappeared altogether or simply be shadows of their former selves. Like the stains of a timber building left for the archaeologist to interpret, so the ghosts of Griffiths’ activity, of an earlier stage in the history of her individual piece of work, are left for us to ponder and speculate on. Many of the forms she creates remind us of the plan view of buildings, of architectural outlines or the sketch of an ancient structure seen in a guidebook. None of these resonances are deliberate – we should not read them as specific or individual objects. However Griffiths’ early interest in ancient sites, and in the marks we humans leave upon the landscape is a useful pointer in our understanding of what we see in her work. More broadly she is concerned as an artist with interpreting the world in which we find ourselves, and the ways in which we relate (that is deal with) it. There is an essential duality in our experience – interior / exterior, conscious / unconscious, rational / irrational, natural/ artificial, and so on. For Griffiths this duality is characterised in her work by the fluid and gestural opposed to the geometric and structural. In a very real sense, the two families or types of forms which appear in these prints are codes for the nature of our reality. In life there is a constant struggle to achieve a balance between the organic, (natural) and the constructed (human-made). It is said there is no straight line in nature – architecture is our answer to controlling that, and there are times when the unnatural forms of the built environment threaten to swamp the natural and organic freedom of our humanity.

None of the forms Griffiths makes are therefore arbitrary. But neither are they deliberately, consciously made. The analogy with archaeology (in its characteristic of revealing what is buried and forgotten) is useful in understanding how the artist arrives at her imagery. Memory and imagination are aspects of ourselves that remain mysterious, even to science or psychology – we still only partially comprehend how they function and how they interact. We talk of the memory ‘playing tricks’, and we know that some images remain very strong throughout the years, while others (often to us more important) fade. Memory is selective, but it does not seem to be our conscious mind that makes the decision. We live, too, imaginative lives – where anything is possible, and the rules of exterior reality hold no sway. As an artist, Griffiths works in the shadow of the discoveries of Jung and Freud. Human experience is no longer defined by external phenomena. The subjectivity of our interior world defines and controls our understanding and interpretation of the exterior world. We read the world according to our own historical record, and in order to understand our response to it, we need to peel back the layers of the language of our unconscious: memories and dreams, their images and symbols. The discovery of the unconscious or interior self opened up a different sort of landscape for the artist to explore, a very personal world, that is both individual and common to us all. Psychology demonstrates that our separate interior lives have much more in common than our exterior lives would suggest. Personal yes, but more universal than any landscape, still life or portrait could ever be. Individual histories are to the artist, as the physical record of history is to the archaeologist.

Griffiths, like us all, has a memory bank of impressions, half-remembered images and feelings associated with them, which are evoked in the present by the incidents of daily living. In the process of creating, the incidents are contained within a canvas, or on the sheet of paper. As she works, memory and imagination freely associate with the elements of making art – colour, line, form, texture. Griffiths may make a mark, construct a form which evokes another, which in turn generates another and so on – it is spontaneous, intuitive – creative. In printmaking, more than in painting, there has to be a consciously planned aspect to the process too – what Griffiths describes as the “rational and organised times in the stage by stage development of the print”. I asked her if she found these periods distracting, if they interrupted the intuitive image making. In fact she likes the duality of the printmaking process, the combination of conscious and unconscious, of technical and intuitive, the periods of activity and the periods of waiting. It seems that making prints is another analogy for our experience of the world.

Griffiths’ command of colour is impressive. She puts together combinations of hue which shouldn’t work but do. Colour is a central conveyor of mood and meaning in our lives, and in the Unthinkable series, it is used as a dynamic player in the drama of each image. To see these prints as separate (and related) theatrical events is a good way of thinking about how they function in our own world. We know the theatre is not ‘real life’, but we also know that a good play can tell us a great deal about life, and help us understand ourselves better. Within the stage of each of these prints there are main protagonists and support players, who stand or move amidst a rich context of linked and opposed colours. The history of each of those colours is as complex and multi-layered as any forms they describe or contain. In silk-screen printmaking every colour is laid down separately – whether it floods a large area, or simply defines a single form. Final colour is achieved, not only by mixing but also by building one colour upon another. Each layered colour, itself hand-mixed, is unique and specific to the print – and to the artist. There are no colour cards here. In this way Griffiths creates a wonderful range of colour, from the very rich and deep, to the subtlest of light shades. They are transparent or opaque, depending on the amount of medium (the transparent substance in which the pigment is carried) she chooses. Her palette in these prints is surprising, even startling – not all these colours are quite ‘nice’, some are sweet to the point of being sickly, some are sharp to the point of acidity. Her personal language of colour challenges us, sets up echoes in us, makes us feel and wonder at their meaning. But as in life there is no ‘right’ answer. When we look at these images we complete the picture by our response.

We live in a world surrounded by visual images, and most of those are in some form or other mass-produced. We take the printed image for granted, don’t give it a second thought. When we walk into a gallery and see the word ‘print’ we think in terms of multiple copies and quick easy production. We are wrong. Artist’s prints have nothing to do with the process of printing an illustration in a magazine, or with photographically produced posters of the Impressionists. The association has led to the idea that when an artist makes a print, there is less intrinsic ‘worth’, less creativity than in a painting or sculpture. Artists have been making editioned (a limited number of any one image) prints since the 15th century, every bit as considered and creative as a drawing, painting or sculpture. The last thing we should do with Michelle Griffiths’ prints is to take them for granted. They have the capacity to surprise us. The energy and excitement of these images is self-evident, yet they are also concerned with subtlety and balance – and sometimes with a disturbance of both. Although produced as a group, with clear connections, each image also stands alone. By their nature ambiguous, their imagery cannot be tied down. They tease and delight – and occasionally annoy. Nor should the technical virtuosity of these prints be overlooked. Griffiths’ experimental approach has led her into new ways of using the silk-screen technique. She is able to capture the quality of a brush stroke or the creaminess of a wax crayon, in ink applied to the paper through a mesh screen. Like people, these works of art only reveal themselves slowly as acquaintance grows – the more time you spend with them, the more interesting and rewarding they become. Our response to them will be as diverse as we are as individuals, and as individuals our response to them will alter with our mood.

Lynne Green

Catalogue essay for the touring exhibition, ‘Unthinkable’, a portfolio of twelve screen prints.