Paradoxical Places

Posted on June 16, 2014 Under Articles

by LESLIE ALLAN DAWN, Assistant Professor, Department of Art, University of Lethbridge

THE PHOTO-BASED ETCHINGS of Ontario printmaker George Raab appear as contemporary as today and as immediate as the landscapes they depict. Yet they invoke a centuries-old tradition and are highly complex under-takings. His art is paradoxical, but no more so than any attempt to capture “nature” and enclose its limitlessness within the confines of a picture frame.

Although its photographic beginnings give Raab’s work a sense of modernity, both his imagery and his subsequent printmaking processes tie him to the origins of using nature as a subject for art in the West. The focus of Raab’s hand tinted photo/etching/aquatints is the untamed wilderness, especially the valleys, woodlands, rocks, swamps, ponds and rivers near his residence in Southern Ontario. This repertoire links him to a little known, hut very important group of printmakers and painters who worked in Southern Germany in the early 1500s. Here, members of the Danube School like Albrecht Altdorfer were the first in Europe to create images solely from nature that qualified as independent art works. These artists specialized in the same wilderness features as Raab, although based on their native land, which, in turn, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Ontario Shield.

A further comparison of the similarities between these original landscapists and Raab’s contemporary work is instructive. Both represent nature as an untamed wilderness rather than as an idealized, bucolic arcadia. Their prints each try to show the underlying spirit of nature as a universal idea involving transformation and regeneration. Hence, Raab, like his Danube counterparts, rarely, if ever, titles his work by a geographical location. He prefers, instead, poetic, even prosaic titles like The Next Generation (Pictured) Wishful Thinking , and Where It All Began which invoke (as one of his prints is called) a Native Spirit Yet a paradox emerges here. As we shall see, by virtue of both his imagery and this very intent, he, like the Danube School, may be identified with a singular place and a specific time. As well, both the Danube School artists and Raab used the inherent qualities of their medium, especially etching, pushed to its limits to accomplish their ends, although the early Germans used line, while Raab, in harmony with his photographic basis, employs tone.

It is precisely this contemporary technological technique plus almost 500 years of artistic development that separate Raab from the origins of his practice. During this time, landscapes both took root and flourished to become one of the most popular of art forms. It evolved from the Danube to Breughel, then to the Italian and Dutch schools, followed by the British picturesque and sublime painters, the German Romantics and the North American Luminists. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the introduction of modernism, especially the French Impressionists, gave landscape a tamer, even suburban, quality before imagery began to disappear altogether. In the early twentieth century, artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian abstracted the basic elements of nature into the first non-representational painting.

Despite the variations in time, location and style, all these artists are linked by the challenging paradox of reducing the vastness and homogeneity of nature to the media of ink, pencil and paint on paper and canvas. This core problem can be seen from the earliest Danube artists to the Impressionists and even the early abstractionists. The first invoked the non-differentiated aspect of nature by using a broken, almost abstract line which allowed one form to bleed into another, while the Impressionists resorted to a soft, atmospheric haze that dissolved all forms into a shimmering light and painterly texture. Each of these approaches was in accordance with the principles and practices of its time, and each signified entirely different meanings, yet the same basic problem underlines each, that is, how to represent the unity of nature through the diversity of objects within it. Raab too, working both outside, yet in reference to the modernist tradition, continues to find this problem fascinating in accordance with the possibilities of our own age.

In bringing this tradition nearer to home, and closer to the present, it must be noted that the representation of nature as wilderness has a very specific history in Canada. Here, in the early twentieth century, it was, of course, associated with Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven who specialized in depicting precisely the area now occupied by Raab, that is the Southern Ontario Shield. They, too, wanted both to paint the spirit of nature and to define a unique place and a distinct national identity.

This attempt was tied to the assertion that they drew their inspiration directly from the land itself, staking out a claim to a native Canadian painting uninformed by European conventions and which, in many ways, turned a blind eye to the entire history and tradition of landscape art. The idea that they could approach the land with an “innocent eye” was an essential part of this ideology. Yet, as we now know, this was a carefully constructed myth. As Ernst Gombrich has pointed out in his landmark study Art and Illusion , even the most “natural” of nature painting is directed by learned conventions rather than raw vision 1 . In fact, the Group cobbled together our national landscape image from a variety of learned sources, almost all European (as was the very ideal of painting wilderness landscapes itself). Yet, as Gombrich and history will testify, innovation is possible if absolute originality is not 2 . The images of the Group and associated artists like Emily Carr gave Canada a distinctly new vision of nature and a new sense of place, tied to the landscape, that had never been accomplished before.

This, too, remains Raab’s goal. He seems to have a sense of the immense history of the tradition in which he is working and wishes to acknowledge it. Yet at the same time, he wishes to innovate, to go beyond, to explore new areas. The paradox is as central to his work as is the dual attempt to portray nature as a sort of “Ur” place, a no-place, a universal, eternal spirit and to use a tradition and image which ties him to a specific area and time. Indeed, rather than attempting to disguise these paradoxes, Raab has chosen to make the most of them by incorporating them into his work as an integral part of his imagery. In so doing, he joins them to the actual processes of his art making practice, which, as we know, combines both photography and printmaking. Both are mechanical processes in which the original disappears into a series of reproductions, and both were almost entirely neglected by the Group of Seven.

There is even something paradoxical in the way Raab begins his work. What could be more contradictory than entering the untamed wilderness and attempting to capture its spirit with the most sophisticated and civilized of instruments, the camera? This is a paradox that has fascinated landscape photographers since the invention and popularization of the medium in the last century.

It is here that the potentialities and possibilities become most clear. As Gombrich points out, photography may well be better suited than drawing or painting as a means for approaching nature directly, as a pure visual transcription 3 . Raab uses the camera’s random framing abilities to undermine or bypass the familiar picturesque conventions that have traditionally defined both the selection of the site and its depiction. Instead of aiming his lens into a neatly framed distant vista (although from time to time he does this too) Raab usually focuses downwards, at a slightly oblique angle, cropping out the sky and background space. His viewpoint tends to keep his images non-specific as “sites,” especially the “beautiful” sites associated with the picturesque. But it does more than this. By sidestepping popular conventions his works take on an immediate and informal composition that has the appearance of “naturalness.” The clear distinctions of formal design are avoided as the branches of trees and stalks of grass merge with the textures of rock and moss and their reflections in water to form an overall flattened pattern.

Raab coordinates his viewpoint with his subject. His photographic eye, although not “innocent” (and indeed highly sophisticated in its choices), tends to record neglected swamps and areas where the basic elements of nature, indeed even of life and death, are being transformed into each other. This sense of one-thing-becoming-another in an eternal transformation is an underlying theme of his work and underscores both his conception and depiction of nature. In this state, non-differentiation and homogeneity prevail over a clear separation of objects into distinct entities. Raab thus tries to use the inherent possibilities of his medium to sidestep tradition and to gain direct access to his subject.

The problem lies in the inherent “realism” or “truth” of the photographic image. Realism is generally associated with sharp focus, clear lines and differentiation of individual objects into discrete, heterogeneous images. Raab, however, both uses this possibility of the camera and overcomes it. The process begins in his selection of image and continues after he has returned from “nature” and is back in that highly sophisticated technological area: the darkroom. The developing of his negatives for transformation into etchings requires, for its success, a certain “structure.” This means that the negatives must be high contrast, which in turn implies both the absence of middle tones and a coarse grainy surface. To the extent that this is emphasized (and Raab has other means for taking it further), edges and specific surfaces tend to blur into an overall uniform black and white texture. Thus, while the image maintains its sense of realism in the shapes, especially at a distance, up close it tends to lose its differentiation. At their most extreme, Raab’s works can border on abstraction and pure tonal and textural variations. He plays with the boundaries separating abstraction and representation with a sure sense of control and balance, as in Northern Crack-Up (Pictured below) and Logaphant . He may even go further than this, cropping or editing his images and superimposing parts of one photograph onto another in order to enhance his initial conception.

ncrack.jpg (44k)

The next stage of the process transposes the image on the negative onto an etching plate for printing. This is a highly technical procedure that involves exposing a metal plate covered with a photosensitive film, biting the exposed plate in an acid bath to etch in the image, inking and cleaning the plate, covering it with a sheet of thick wet paper and running it through a press. The final image is left on the paper which is then stretched to dry flat. Yet even here, Raab actively intervenes to augment the image.

The artist may work on the plate before printing, adding and clarifying lines or burnishing out areas etched in the acid bath. But the major tool in Raab’s repertoire, and one he utilizes often, is the enhancement of the texture through the addition of aquatint. This technique involves dusting the entire plate with a fine powder which, after the biting process, can further blur the already large grain of the photographic image, add to the overall texture and push the image further towards abstraction. As the image subtly becomes less distinct, form dissolves into form; in imitation of the unity of nature water fades into rock, rock into moss, moss into tree, all into the whole.Killarney and I Know a Dark Secluded Place and Here I Lay Me Down to Sleepdemonstrate Raab’s mastery of this process in communicating the non-differentiated aspect of nature which in turn is read as a spiritual message.

Once the black and white print is pulled, Raab may decide to add an overlay of transparent watercolour wash. This can take the form of a few, almost indiscernible touches of the brush to pick out special details, or it may entail a complete coloration of the entire print. In any case, he approaches this stage with the same discretion, tact and knowledge as in the preceding stages. This last addition, again paradoxically, makes each reproduction in the edition into a singular and unique object and gives it a historical resonance that recalls its complex history. Early photographs, before the invention of colour film, were, for example, hand tinted. This process, in turn, echoed the use of watercolour as the basis of picturesque landscape painting during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And finally, the medium points right back to the origins of landscape itself, since the first studies, as distinguished from independent works, from nature were Albrecht Durer’s watercolours of the Alps done in the late 1400s, just prior to the formation of the Danube School.

Raab’s finished prints are, then, multi-layered images which have passed through a series of complex processes. Their final paradox is that Raab’s mastery of all facets of both his tradition and his techniques produces a work that appears as artless, mysterious, unified and beguiling as his subject itself.

1. E.R. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, a Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation , (London: Phaidon Press), 1968, third edition, pp.29-34 and 265-271. See also E.R. Gombrich “The Renaissance Theory of Art and the Rise of Landscape,” in Norm and Form (London: Phaidon) 1966, pp.107- 121.
2. Art and Illusion 
3. ibid . See esp. pp. 30-33.

This text has been taken (with permission) from the catalogue for an exhibition of my work at the Kamploops Art Gallery.