Essay 2: Between Abstraction and Representation

My practice is at a point now where I am reasonably comfortable with my ability to express myself in my art, but I had to travel a laborious winding path—when there was a path—to get here. I started art school in the late 1980s, graduating in 1992, a time when there was a larger shift than the general flux characteristic of the twentieth-century art world. Modernist colour field painting was starting to wane in its influence, being gradually replaced by postmodernist practices that dealt with politics, race, gender, and the general anti-dead-white-man-ism that is characteristic of its attitudes and methods. As can be expected of the Oedipal pattern in academic discourse, these postmodernist ideas were spreading through my department like a slow virus, leaving few survivors from previous intellectual generations. But whereas even the modernists were still exploring aesthetic issues in their work—the art object was still the focus of the practice—postmodernist ideas often ignored or intentionally dismissed aesthetic concerns. There was a sense that some of the proponents of this latter kind of artistic activity didn’t actually like art, or were actively against it.

I managed to steer clear of this, willfully trying to keep these at-the-time academically fashionable issues in the background of my practice. I managed for the most part to keep the destructive forces at bay, isolating myself in the printmaking studio where I felt that if anything, I was at least practicing a craft that had applicability beyond immediate art-world trends. I had already been painting for a number of years before university, but my early experiments in trying to teach myself silkscreen printing, while not disastrous, had been unsuccessful enough that I decided to get some instruction. When I began university, I specifically enrolled in printmaking to learn its particular techniques.

As my studies progressed—both inside and outside of the printmaking studio—I found that none of the practices I was being trained in—pure abstraction, conceptualism, installation art, among others—was well-suited to the way I worked, or to the kind of work I felt compelled to make. I found that my work fell into unidentified territory between abstraction and what I’m going to call art v√©rit√©. By this I mean art that was either about representation of real things including landscape, still life, and portraiture, or used representation or found objects to further an agenda. The latter approach included but was not limited to documentary photography, installation work, and activist- or issue-centred work which might use any means and materials—and often did—among them words instead of images.

Near the end of my program I realized that printmaking was an art-world ghetto of its own, and that my work wasn’t primarily about printmaking as a medium. Having mastered the basic techniques, I found that the various types of mark making and other formal issues that are the primary concerns of most printmakers didn’t hold my interest.1 After four years of learning how to apply technique, I had arrived at a point where I was reasonably satisfied with my skill and ability to use the various printmaking media to express my ideas, but technique alone ceased to be of compelling interest to me as it related to my practice.

Furthermore, the marketing issues and advantages of printmaking weren’t immediately relevant to my practice. I asked myself why I should pursue making multiples. I was an art student on the cusp of trying to enter the ranks of practicing artists, at a point where I had little market for one-off pieces such as paintings and drawings, let alone stacks of etchings, lithographs, and other prints. I felt that the creation of multiples was an unnecessary display of technical proficiency, and that my time would be better spent elsewhere. I did enjoy the process of printmaking, and was always excited to pull the first good proof—the BAT, or bon-√†-tirer, to use the technical term for the reference print in an edition by which all subsequent ones are judged—but after this it was just so much busywork to print even a small edition of ten.

Many artists come to printmaking from other artistic practices. Sometimes this is motivated by curiosity, but I think that at least as often it is in order to have more widespread dissemination of their work. Again, this is not a critique of marketing as a motivation for turning to specific media, nor of the commercial aspects of the art world. I am simply pointing out the tendency for artists to make names for themselves in other media, and then turn to printmaking as a logical way to keep up with growing market demand for their work. I felt that this approach—the creation of prints to satisfy market demand rather than attempting to embark on my career by marketing prints—was a more sensible strategy for someone in my position. I spent most of my final year of art school creating monotypes—one-off images that make use of printmaking techniques—and painting. After earning my undergraduate degree in printmaking and drawing, I decided to take a break from printmaking and continue with my primarily self-directed exploration of painting. As such, though my digital practice is influenced by some traditional printmaking ideas, I haven’t done any traditional printmaking since. Now that I have spent many years away from printmaking, the question of whether I would still be bored by the process of printing editions—or whether I would embrace this as an act of attentive craftsmanship—is open to speculation.

In art school I had found that whatever studio area I trained in, I wanted more of something. Printmaking was interesting, but I knew there was more to art than what I saw as the narrow concerns of that medium. So too with other media and methods.2 After having practiced abstraction in my work during art school—here I mean “practice” in the sense of doing exercises, as opposed to the professional application of methods and techniques—I found that the pure play of materials on surfaces, or the construction or modeling of sculptural forms was not enough to hold my interest. Similarly, through representational practices—life drawing, landscape, and other rendering techniques—I found that mimicry, even in light of the then-current discourse about representation, was merely a demonstration of technical skill. I felt that if I truly wanted to depict the observed world, I could more easily do it with a camera. But at the time I was interested in creating images rather than capturing them. As such I had little desire to bring the camera into a drawing-based practice, so I moved on.3 Some of my instructors tried to get me to try my hand at installation- and theory-based work, but I felt no compulsion to explore these areas beyond the desire to pass my courses. As far as I was concerned, I had done enough work exploring installation, intervention, and collaboration prior to attending art school.4 I was well aware of their potential, and as with other areas, concluded that they were not the core of my practice.

So, having dabbled in many areas of practice—I had abandoned pure formalism as manifested in colour field painting, pure craft and technique as manifested in printmaking, and pure concept as manifested in postmodernist identity- and installation-based practices—I eventually came to a stage where my work took on aspects of all three. I started making work that used vivid colour and rich texture, represented the real world of things and places through semi-abstracted stylized imagery, sometimes explored personal issues, and was not afraid to use non-traditional presentation methods.


  1. This is not to say that the exploration of technical and formal issues in printmaking—or any other medium—is invalid. What I am saying here is not a critique of the medium, simply a description of my own preference to not make these concerns the focus of my own practice. ^
  2. Again, this is me talking about my own experience of media, not a critique of the practice areas of other artists. I am well aware that individual media have such breadth and depth that it would take multiple lifetimes to fully explore them, and that many artists find or have found a life’s work within very small slices of a medium’s potential. ^
  3. Yes, I’m aware of the issues related to constructed meaning in photographs, and how despite over a century-and-a-half of documentary footage purporting to be neutral it can be argued that there is no true neutrality in the camera. These issues are tangential to the point I’m trying to make, which is that at that time in my practice, if I was going to set up a still-life, I did it with the intention of drawing it, not with the intention of taking photographs of it. ^
  4. During the summer of 1988—between finishing high school and beginning university—I attended a two week intensive art camp at the Saskatchewan Summer School of the Arts. In addition to the wide range of practices I was exposed to through visiting artists and curators, the instructors had us engage in a great deal of individual and collaborative work. As well, I created a number of site-specific installations and interventions under my own initiative. I admit that much of the work that came out of this activity was sophomoric but it enabled me to get a taste for approaches beyond traditional areas of art practice. Eventually the same approaches came up in my art school curriculum. I believe they were intended to expose me to a diversity of arts practice. Needless to say, I questioned the necessity for me to review ideas I had already known about for some time, and found it boring to have to create new work using methods that I had tried in the past and moved on from. ^