The modern world comes to us faster than we can analyse it. A.N. Whitehead expressed it clearly when he said, 'we experience far more than we can analyse'. Ian Westacott and Raymond Arnold have been working on an etching project for more than 12 years now, in which they have been trying to fix, through the etching process, a series of precise moments in the tumultuous world around them.
Westacott is an Australian artist who lives near Dornoch in the highlands of Scotland and Arnold is an Australian artist who splits his life between France, Scotland and the remote west coast of Tasmania, where he currently runs a thriving international gallery and artist-in-residence programme, attracting artists from around the world. The complex migratory pattern of these artists, friends since they attended art school together more than 30 years ago, forms the background to their artistic endeavours.
Their stereoscopic collaboration of making etchings takes in a range of objects that come to the pair as 'secretions' from the world. Tony Cragg puts it like this:
For me it is very simple. For me there are three categories of objects in the world, as there are subjects for art. There is the landscape …. Then there is the figure, the human figure classically, but I would extend the idea to include the figure of any other organism …. Then there is obviously a third group - of objects. These are the objects that the organisms produce to help them survive in any given landscape …. All of these objects (or structures) are a kind of secretion that facilitates our survival. And that is what we call culture.
The battered and disfigured sarcophagus of Sir Richard de Moravia, brother of Bishop Gilbert 1240AD; a bobbing oil industry mooring buoy at the mercy of the tidal flow; the sinuous Celtic inspired weave of stone and lichen on an Invergordon headstone; the littering of children's toys; melancholy French 18thC sculptural warriors; wrestling Roman marble figures; and a First World War memorial where the bronze soldier shades his eyes to perpetually gaze towards the horizon. These are some of the objects depicted in Westacott and Arnold's etching collaboration - an inventory of sorts!
The subject of their collaborations, whether it be a Picasso sculpture in the Pompidou Centre, Paris or a weeping willow in a Dornoch garden, Scotland, is drawn - on-site - by Westacott and Arnold simultaneously.
This process is akin to 'plein air' painting in that the artists take up a position in relation to their subject and proceed to transfer or integrate their experiences of that time and place onto their respective grounded copper plates. The vagaries of weather or the presence of spectators are factors in the outcome.
Westacott draws in a frenetic manner and his line twists and morphs across the darkened plate surface as it searches for the mass of things. His etching tool is sharp and precise and weaves a delicate and inscripted net.
Arnold looks for the outline and the boundary where the figure separates from the ground. His etching tools are broader in edge, which he uses in such a way as to carve the waxy ground into a suitable mosaic of line and form.
The printmaking process has a rich and long history. Etching, in particular, develops out of the production of decorative armour in the Middle Ages. Artists such as Rembrandt and Goya have subsequently used the 'graphic' qualities inherent in the medium to present their ideas. The etching plate is a matrix and it is constructed in relation to a subject or an idea. It becomes a mirror, in effect, of a particular reality imagined or devised by the artist.
In moving to the plate-making and printing stages of the etching process, the artists take the image into another realm. In some respects the image now conjures and cooks itself into another, more metaphoric, condition. As the two plates are etched (the etched plate is completely submerged in an acid that eats away at the metal exposed by the drawing process), and then printed one after the other onto the same paper sheet, the subsequent image develops a dynamic quality unforeseen in either or the artist's original strategies. That the object comes to life through a type of animation or what could be described as a kind of 'wobble' does not underestimate the effect.
Octavio Paz's mantra, 'from eye, to image, to language,' might be an appropriate phrase to describe the flow of the artists' original experience before their subject into their drawn responses and the construction of their plates and then into a concept of a chaotic or disordered world that can be catalogued and ordered in some way through art.
This ongoing project by Westacott and Arnold seeks, in a small way, both to order their own complicated reality and to mirror the broader social context of the contemporary, and increasingly virtual, world.