by BRYCE KANBARA
OF COURSE, the first thing we feel when looking at one of George Raab’s prints is a longing for our own, solitary, encounters with this country’s natural wilderness. The softened, hand-applied colours and the aquatint process infuse the scenes with nostalgia — not sentimentally, but in a way that perhaps persuades us that there is importance in reminders of where we have deeply experienced tranquility.
The photographic base in the prints is recognizable by their compositions (they look as if they were framed through a viewfinder) and by the modulated range of tones that spread with mechanical precision over the rocks, trees, water. The gracious camera lens encompasses everything in its field of vision and allows the artist to begin his images with total complexity. This is a feature that alleviates the need for him to organize the visual elements and render them himself. Raab’s views are mostly frontal. The strongest do not include sky or much sky, they bring us close to the ground, and make us want to inspect details.
Photography is integral to Raab’s process of making art. There is no flinch in him about that fact. If we are oblivious of how the prints are done, he makes us quickly mindful of the photographer’s role in them. His compositions look camera-sought and selected; they make us think we are looking at them through a camera from a canoe, from a river hank, from the edge of a field or woods. We are situated in front of them, not in them. In some, there are shadows cast by trees which are outside the camera frame. The foreground shadows suggest, too, the presence of the photographer. They adumbrate to us the significance of photography in our eventual understanding of what Raab is doing.
The prints reveal Raab’s committed sensitivity to the natural environment, but as photographs alone they would be conventional. Some of them bear charming, though naive, titles such as, “A Good Place to Get Stuck”, “Rhapsody in Milkweed” (Pictured above) , “Frog City”, which are reminiscent of titles used by nature photographers. By posing a seemingly simple premise for his subject matter, he disarms and primes us for an engagement with the high sophistication of his images beyond the photographic.
Raab often starts by altering the images on the photographic negatives; he scratches them, and cuts and assembles pieces from different frames. He can control the exposure of the image onto the photosensitized metal plate. After the plate is etched in an acid bath, he works on it by etching additional, drawn lines and areas of tonal gradation through the aquatint method. The plate undergoes the repeated scraping and burnishing of bitten lines, and the careful etching-in of new ones. Here is where Raab’s vision and technical mastery achieve amazing consummation. We get past a kind of viewers’ “gaze-lag” and experience another dimension in the work. We see the agitated quality of the printed intaglio line, the enhanced (artificial?) hues … the certain, anxious pull of “form” from “subject”.
The shock of pleasure Raab feels when he is startled by the “picturesque” in the landscape is different from the one he experiences when he peels the dampened paper from the inked plate. The print springs forward as glistening ink on a white surface. His subsequent manipulations of the image by obliterating portions of the etched lines, and through colour augmentation are governed by distinctly other urges than wanting to capture a heightened moment in the wilderness. The incongruity of the initial photographic act with the intuitive and exhaustive studio-working of the image creates mild and satisfying tensions.
The potential for an abstract reading of some of his most intriguing prints (for example, “Water Clump”, pictured above ) is sharply thwarted by the very abstraction they aspire to. Curiously, as in Monet’s “Water Lilies”, they are abstracted to the point where, rather than detaching themselves from the source objects, they become symbols of them, which even more compellingly evoke in us sensations of the real thing. In its abstracted state, “Water Clump” seems to possess textures more tangibly sodden, and smells more pungent of stagnant water and decaying flora, than could be possible in any realistic rendering. Examples of this phenomenon, in simpler form, are the thickly painted apples in dense, green trees found in children’s art. The depiction of the fruit as impossibly huge, red and round, induce in us the smell and feel of an actual autumn orchard.
Raab’s most provocative works beckon us towards our familiar interactions with landscape and with art, then confront us with fresh ways to think and feel about them.
From the exhibition catalogue produced in conjunction with the exhibition “Out-Side-In”, a 3-person show (Jennifer Dickson, Doug Kirton, George Raab) at the Burlington Cultural Centre, Burlington, Ontario.