February 25, 2020

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Opinion

Arts and labour

Duo combines traditional printmaking and cutting-edge technology

SUPPLIED</p><p>Beth Howe and Clive McCarthy make the most of the ambivalences of printmaking in their show Monument: Coding a Woodcut.</p>

SUPPLIED

Beth Howe and Clive McCarthy make the most of the ambivalences of printmaking in their show Monument: Coding a Woodcut.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/11/2016 (1202 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Printmaking has always straddled seeming contradictions and hard-set boundaries. With equal footing in fine art, craft and design, the medium blurs distinctions between original and copy, integrating manual labour and mechanical reproduction, centuries-old techniques and cutting-edge technology.

Monument: Coding a Woodcut, the exhibition at Martha Street Studio by frequent collaborators Beth Howe and Clive McCarthy, makes the most of these ambivalences, adding fresh wrinkles and proposing new ways of seeing and producing images. The artists’ digitally assisted relief prints offer concise, approachable object lessons in conceptual and technical concerns, but they’re also beautifully made, subtly thought-provoking and, above all, visually striking.

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Howe and McCarthy begin with digital photographs, stark if unassuming views of the urban landscape — bridges, transit cars, overpasses, rubble piles and rocks. Using software and custom algorithms, they translate the photographic images into digital "drawings," sets of paths and co-ordinates for a CNC router to follow. The machine engraves wobbling, halftone lines on wooden printing blocks, which the artists ink and print by hand on large, rough-edged sheets of cotton rag and mulberry paper.

From photograph to computer code to wood engraving to final print and gallery installation, things are lost and gained in every translation, which Howe and McCarthy exploit with clear enjoyment.

There is a loss of resolution, certainly. Some of the images become clear only at a distance and only then with effort. In sacrificing legibility, however, the pointedly humdrum pictures become newly and strangely active. Printed lines produce destabilizing visual effects recalling Op Art paintings and the lacy Guilloché designs used on banknotes. (As a program note, viewers susceptible to pattern-induced seizures or migraines may want to give the show a pass.)

In larger works, single images are divided into rows and grids of discrete panels, further abstracting them while echoing architectural features of the photographs themselves. The format creates opportunities for reshuffling and repetition, as in the "site-responsive" 3500, a stuttering, filmic sequence of red and black frames that follow a passing light rail train.

SUPPLIED</p><p>Triumphal Arch (Class II)</p>

SUPPLIED

Triumphal Arch (Class II)

Despite the technical nature of their processes, Howe and McCarthy make room for error, chance and unanticipated consequences. The exhibition includes a trio of colourful, pattern-heavy letterpress zines in the OK Do Over series, made using rejected printing plates from other projects. In their statement for the work, the artists invoke and embrace the glitches and hiccups that inevitably arise — botched plates, misaligned prints and stray marks they playfully attribute to "a ghost in the machine."

Issues of attribution and authorship, the nature and place of the artist’s "hand," are bound up in Howe and McCarthy’s novel mashup of digital and analogue processes, while the subjects they choose invite broader conversations around labour, technology and progress. If the work has a fault, it’s that it can seem too resolved, too in command of and comfortable with the contradictions it exploits. In the end, however, and to its credit, it leaves us with questions, straining to make out fragments of a white sky through a hulking lattice of crisscrossed highways.

It can be hard to make out our surroundings at the rate we’re going, much less know just where this train is headed. In Monument, that’s cause for excitement and some concern.

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

 

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