Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Unbalancing the grid at Amherst

Turnbull, from the Gates series, 2016
Rich Turnbull, in his annual excursion into chemigrams, has given us new images to digest, explicate, and fawn over, as though we were just so many eager students in one of his lecture courses at the Met or F.I.T. and this were a class assignment.  He does this every year.  He's a tough teacher.  The one shown here, part of his Gates series, is on display in a group show at Gallery A3 in Amherst, Massachusetts until July 31.  Let's see what he's up to with it and see whether, after reaching an understanding, we might move to the head of the class.

To tackle obvious matters first, his paper is Bergger and the resist is Liquetex Soluvar.  Many of you will say, aha! Bergger means a high silver content and therefore really dense blacks.  Well, not so fast my friends.  Here at the blog we view that attitude as urban legend - not the silver content per se but the blackness of the blacks, which is not at all correlated with silver content according to Richard Henry in his Controls in Black and White Photography, 2nd edition, 1987, who has done the experiments.  Once you get to Dmax, the maximum black, additional silver does nothing, and you can get to Dmax quite easily with a broad range of papers.  We feel Rich used it because he simply had it available and wanted to finish off the box.

Soluvar varnish is another matter altogether.  In the old days, our experience with Soluvar as a chemigram resist was that it was indistinguishable from Golden MSA varnish and was very good indeed.  Then, unannounced, the Liquetex folks must have added a polymer for brittleness to the formulation, who knows what they were thinking, for Soluvar suddenly assumed a very different character and became a niche product with quirks only a specialist could love.  Cracks, fissures, crazed rifts went everywhere, branching from one another down to the smallest of scales.  For the basic chemigram it was not something you'd want to use.  But Rich is not just anyone.

Let's go to the man's own words to see where he went with it.  'I made the outer and center vertical incisions with an X-acto knife to define the working space,' he says, 'then drew the grids freehand with a pin tool, commonly used in bookbinding [Rich also makes artist's books].  I didn't tape the paper down when coating it with Soluvar, and since paper curls toward the emulsion, the rather soupy varnish pooled a bit in the center so that my incisions didn't quite penetrate through the thicker areas of varnish, resulting in the large open area at bottom center.'

But this must have been a sought-after effect, indeed the entire pivot of the image.  He goes on, while addressing one of the classic difficulties of the chemigram, the tyranny of the grid:  'I've done my share of carefully ruled grids on chemigrams of course, but of late I've worked with hand-drawn grids to unbalance the balanced nature of the grid, which is all about superimposed order anyway.'

The struggle with materials is apparent in all his work, where each aesthetic decision comes about from a meditation on the limits of his tools.  This in turn gives it an integrity, a density, that is exemplary and an unforeseen payoff.

For Turnbull, who in the summer months lives on the edge of a forest in the far western part of Massachusetts and survives, according to some, on a diet of bear-meat and gin, the received impression from the Gates series can be - take your pick - melted nylon, ripped flesh, an old fence where something large and terrifying has bitten its way through and is now roaming ever nearer, and so on.  This is not easy work, but a punishing reward for the mind.  Best perhaps to stay indoors and enjoy it from there.


  1. It has occurred to me (and should have earlier) that Birgit Blyth has quite successfully been releasing the grid from its strictures - look at "Chromo grid #13A" in our post from February 2016. This should be pointed out, and of course she is not alone in this nor is Rich, in fact it's a recurrent theme and a productive one in the work of a number of chemigramists.

  2. We must all bow to the grid at some point, of course.

    1. We're either in the grid or struggling to escape from it. Either way it defines us. For some that's as unacceptable as it is unjust but Seneca, at my ear, whispers 'go with it.'