Words by Lucinda Bennett
Scroll down to read
Emma McIntyre’s paintings remind us that paint is liquid. It drips, floats, washes. I have described her paintings before as like baths, for their sheerness and liquid feeling. Ink, however, is wetter.
When John Pusateri opens a folio to reveal the prints he and McIntyre made together in 2019, the topmost work looks like it has been brushed over with a layer of watery jam, sweet dark red over aquatic green. The combined effects of wetness and McIntyre’s signature flower motif remind me of the backgrounds in Spongebob Squarepants, where vaguely 1970s flowers stamped on blue signal an expanse of ocean studded by coral and sea anemones. The print feels sticky and childlike, but with subtle plays on perspective and line that a child most likely would not achieve: flowers receding backwards into liquid space, a top layer of blooms traced into the red with a stick, jam being pushed aside creating deeper edges of colour.
Ink is wet, but it is also viscous. I think about testing hot jam for a set, dripping it onto an ice cold plate, waiting and then swiping a finger through to see if the channel will remain. But the jammy plate is easily washed, and as Pusateri reminds me, the main principle of printmaking is that oil and water don’t mix. Ink is greasy, it needs to be scrubbed from the skin. When an octopus is scared, it secretes ink into the water, obscuring predators vision with a pitchy cloud that will hang there for a long time. Once placed, ink can be manipulated, but removal is a lengthy process, and residue has repercussions.
McIntyre’s residency was supposed to be a lithography residency. These prints, however, are monotypes, made by painting ink directly onto the stone, or covering the surface in a wash of ink and then manipulating that ink using whatever tools – a brush, a stick, a spatula, fingernails. Early in the residency, Pusateri noticed how spontaneously McIntyre worked, and suggested a move to monotype, which would allow for more immediate painterly experimentation. McIntyre responded immediately, employing the same tools as in her painting practice (as listed above, and Russian lace, and mesh wire) but using them in this more protracted process. Although each monotype is unique, ghost printing became an important part of her process, residual ink from the final layer of a previous print becoming a starting point for a new work. Looking at the prints, I find myself trying to count the layers to discover which came first, third, last, but it is impossible. Each layer has been absorbed into the whole, and each final print is a culmination of incremental decisions, completed only when the artist deems it time to stop.
Printmaking demands patience. It is about precision, layers and waiting for the ink to dry. It is about accepting the whatever has happened on your previous layer and responding in the best way possible. As a painter, McIntyre works quickly by comparison, especially when it comes time to place the final layer. So much spontaneous decision making happens across just a few hours when laying the topmost layer, and so much information is divulged there. Working in a new medium, McIntyre had to adjust her rhythms. Only a single layer could be placed each day. The silver lining of this being that she really had time to consider each new layer, to experiment with opacity and the subtle values of different colours, often choosing to use these delicate colours at a higher concentration to create saturated pastel shades. Her palette, already broad in her painting practice, stretched even further as layers placed on layers blended to create new shades. It is through this extended palette that similarities between her paintings and her prints become most pronounced. For one, there is that sense of something a little grubby hidden beneath so many washes of beautiful brights and pastels, a sly murk that prevents them from being too lovely and therefore vapid. There is the sense of grubby hands clutching the crayon that draws the looping pale green cloud atop the fat, smudged pink one. But there is also the recurrence of these familiar shapes and patterns that appear so often in McIntyre’s paintings – the fluffy clouds, flowers, carmine dots and harlequin grids – re-deployed in her prints as masks to prevent colour from being placed. In A (Red), a grid is even created by using the off-cuts that McIntyre cut her flower shape masks from, placed so that the flower shapes are cropped and recede in the same way as other works. And then there is the liquid value, the watery drips that are no mistake, the pale transparent layers that make a scene seem underwater.
The works are ecstatic and delicious, the colours so vibrant and textures so visceral, finger painting and crayon clouds, big blowsy flowers, purple drips and funny little fingernail scratches.
If these prints are a bath, they are a child’s bath: boisterous and a little syrupy with a faint ring of grime shoring up at the edges, hidden for now under the rainbow soap sheen of bubbles overflowing. Looking through McIntyre’s final folio of prints, it’s hard not to make these childhood comparisons. The works are ecstatic and delicious, the colours so vibrant and textures so visceral, finger painting and crayon clouds, big blowsy flowers, purple drips and funny little fingernail scratches. If they were printed on textiles, kindergarteners would gladly wear them in clashing shades. But taken individually and waded into, each print has a deep end, a place where you begin to notice the faint bubbles and crescents, the spiny ridge of a crayon that has collected inky residue in its path, orange turned chocolate brown. From this end, the time and patience steeped in each work is tangible and deeply felt. From here, you can see the marks and shades that can only be built up through time and careful layers, information that would never appear if the artist wasn’t patient.