The Big Country

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The Big Country/Stephen Chambers

The Artists’ Laboratory

The Artists’ Laboratory is an ongoing series of events at the Royal Academy of Arts, London for Academicians to open up their practice, take risks and explore new ideas, offering a chance for the public to experience less familiar aspects of their work. Now in its sixth incarnation, while many have previously used the elegant Large Weston Room galleries for a presentation of existing work in what is after all a prime location in the centre of London, Stephen Chambers has planned and conceived an event as an opportunity to test himself in a new ambitious project. Chambers, a painter and experience printmaker has taken on the challenge to make a singular work specifically for this location. The result is a mural sized screen-print consisting of 78 individual framed sheets each 56 x 76cms which together fill one whole wall of the gallery and together constitute the aptly entitled The Big Country.

Chambers is not new to the grand scale, having worked on backdrop designs for the Royal Opera House, but in terms of printmaking this work represents a departure from his regular practice and not one without considerable risk. Rather than attempt a large print on a single sheet, Chambers has adopted the strategy of building the work from numerous individual sheets following in the footsteps of such as Dürer whose monumental woodcut, The Triumphal Arch of Emperor Maximilliam I was made from 192 separate blocks, measuring almost ten metres squared.

The Big Country takes its title from the William Wyler’s 1958 film of the same name starring Charleston Heston and Gregory Peck and provides the key to its genesis. This is an image that owes its origin to that genre of Hollywood movies, The Western and the recurring theme of the opening up of America by prospectors and pioneers. It also draws from personal experience: journeys made by Chambers across the USA where he experienced the vast open spaces, those in-between places which he describes as “a wilderness big enough to be lost in and then somewhere would be a tumbledown cabin’ evidence of those early settlers. These cabins, now in various states of decay, speak of the harshness of lives in such an unforgiving landscape where each person would be dependent on their own resources for survival and the nearest neighbour, days travel away.

A Big Country has been a year in the making although one suspects this is a project that has been slowly coming to focus over a much longer period. It represents a bringing together of motifs that Chambers has explored in individual prints and paintings but here what comes across is the attempt to map his vignettes both an imaginary landscape but also one suspects an inner landscape and a sense of the isolated nature of existence.

The work has been drawn up on a one to one scale in ink on paper. Its grown as Chambers poetically states ” like a coral’ working on individual sheets of paper, the drawing crossing over from one sheet to the other. In appearance the final format resembles a crossword puzzle, the sheets providing a grid against which the narrative is played out. There are also gaps, empty spaces that serve to jar against the lyricism of the piece, suggesting either that this might be ” to be continued’ or that these are spaces like on a map, still to be discovered.

” I like the idea that the big country will echo the crossword format. The invitation to fill the gaps sits well with a refusal to complete the narrative, or even acknowledge that one exists at all. Crosswords are a silent insight into the compiler’s mind…’ (1)

This open ended approach coupled with the enigmatic nature of the characters and imagery that populate the piece, makes it hard to assimilate on first viewing and is certainly a work that gains with repeated visits.

At the centre is an image which crosses dozen of sheets and describes a community, dwellings in the form of clinker built houses and barns, some either wrecked or being built, set amongst trees. The space in-between each building create a separateness, these are neighbours but at a distance. Into this, silhouette figures, described by Chambers as ” woodland folk ” are caught like stills in a film, a horse startled by a dog, throws its rider, a woman is startled by an open coffin, a man on his horse with his two children seem to be receiving directions. All of these events are played out beneath stylised trees whole delicate foliage acts to provide a transparency through which each scenario links to another.

The work has three scales of figures, small size in the central area, medium size as the images spreads out and then framing the whole piece like bookends are two figures, a man and a woman dressed in costumes, which suggests the 19th century. All are portrayed as silhouettes, giving the piece overall the feeling of a shadow play. The whole image is knitted together through an overall delicate pattern, “lifted from Japanese screens that serves as an alternative half tone and shimmers across the whole surface. This breaks up the silhouettes, bringing delicate pinpricks of light and giving the whole piece a unifying quality. It knits the elements to the surface, wedding them together as if a tapestry. There are obvious echoes of Kara Walker, the common use of the silhouette, but while her work directs the viewer to a political reading of history and anger against prejudice and injustice, Chambers’ work has more of a sense of revelry, a continent conjured through dreaming.

There is a further dimension to the work, written in copper plate around the edges of form are inscribed the names of ports from which émigrés would have either arrived or left from, Odessa, Istambul, Beirut, Alexandria… adding to the feeling of the exotic. These names also encourage a reading whereby a reclining figure can become a continent, a branch the edge of a landmass. The piece therefore takes on some of the qualities of antique maps, which both attempt to state what’s known and make a graphic representation of what isn’t. It references that important tradition within printmaking of the illuminated map, those printed works often engraved, which combined function with decoration into one pictorial image.

I have always believed that at its essence printmaking is the language of economy, making less do more, and here Chambers has both been set the imperative by his natural inclination as a printmaker but also through the pragmatic economics of making a work on this scale. Working closely with the printer Kip Gresham at Studio Prints in Cambridge (UK), each sheet has been singly screen-printed in black on warm white paper. However the success of the piece is in the impression it gives, not of monochrome but one suggesting soft colour and a range of tones.

While The Big Country occupies one whole wall. opposite, acting as a stand off, is his suite of small coloured etchings, Trouble Meets Trouble. Chambers describes this work as “originating from an idle thought, imagining the combustible- and impossible- the result of a liaison between the Hindu goddess Kali and the Norse god Loki. Once that coupling had been mused, I began to consider other pairings of people … Angela Merkel and don Quixote, Marie Antoinette and Dr Foster… it’s a dating agency from hell.’ (2)

These work like miniatures displaying a remarkable inventive range, utilising once again Chambers’ love for pattern and whimsy. The contrast is intense between these small richly coloured portraits and the l monochrome The Big Country. Its as if Chambers is deliberately subverting the balance of the gallery, or proposing that the density and intensity of these small works can offset the scale of the larger.

In a side room, as if to further demonstrate this face off, Chambers shows a group of lithographs Portrait of a Pre Caffeinated Mind, in which images are mirrored across a central axis. Saturated colour and pattern, as in the etchings, are used to break up and subvert a simple reading of the characters in silhouettes. Also on display, an early potato cut print, a reminder of the simple act of stamping down an image remains his central preoccupation.

The refreshing quality of this exhibition lies in the manner in which Chambers has accepted the brief of the The Artists’ Laboratory project and has taken this on through printmaking. It was important for him that The Big Country was made as a edition able work, one copy of which was sold in advance to the ……… and through this, the project was underwritten, since in his words “it’s a contribution to the debate about what printmaking can be’.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an excellent essay by Rod Mengham , Fellow in English at Jesus College, Cambridge and a conversation between Chambers and the sculptor Alison Wilding.

Paul Coldwell

(1) Stephen Chambers in conversation with Alison Wilding in cat. Artists Laboratory Stephen Chambers RA The Big Country, Royal Academy of Arts, 2012, London p29

(2) ibid p27