Saturday, October 26, 2013

Chemigrams in Prague and Brooklyn

Collins, Colorchart, 2012
If you were in Prague this fall and found yourself along the embankment called Smetanovo Nabrezi near the Charles Bridge, you could have taken a moment to drop in to the Hollar Gallery to see the New York printmakers show, which ran from Sept 18 to Oct 13 2013.  One of the works on display was a chemigram, Colorchart (2012) by Douglas Collins.  While there are many different ways to make a chemigram, this work is a good place to start in trying to understand some of the standard chemigram methods and strategems, as least as practiced by myself, a few but not all of my colleagues, and a number of my students.

The pictoral space here is organized as a grid, for simplicity - not a requirement but that's just how I often work.  My goal was to generate a random sequence of colors by allowing the chemistry in my trays, fixer and developer, to chip away at the tiny silver halide grains in the emulsion, changing the ways these grains refract light and thus selecting for certain wavelengths.  Since I knew we were going to generate an array of colors (geeky is good, but for a refresher look up the Mie effect on your own: it would take us too far afield in this post), what better way to think of it than as a color chart?  We're half way done.

The photographic paper I chose was Ilford FB warmtone and I coated it with MSA varnish by Golden - undiluted in this case, although dilutions are certainly permitted and can lead to different results.  (Actually everything is permitted but that too is another, quite wonderful, story.)  Once dry I incised in it a set of boxes, using a small blade, taking care not to go through the paper and prematurely end with tatters.  These boxes would become my color swatches in the finished work.

Next I proceeded with the 'dance of the trays', passing the prepared paper from developer to fixer to wash and back again - and again and again.  Did I say that all this can be done in daylight?  The basic chemigram method does not demand darkness, it's only in hybrid practices involving stencils, drawings or photo negatives that you may need to work under safelight, or in pursuing solarization effects or other variants; Christina Z. Anderson's book is a useful review of these methods.

After a certain time, when you start to think you screwed up and nothing's going to happen, things do happen.  Bits of varnish start to lift, at corners usually.  After a few minutes more will lift.  You can intervene here with a pair of tweezers and pull the rest off - or you can leave it to desquamate on its own.  If you decide to let the sections of varnish shed by themselves you will soon receive a bonus: the loose ends of varnish, flopping around on their tethers, generate a wispy color of their own, a kind of imprint of their brief existence.  That accounts for the strange outlines around some of the boxes in Colorchart and adds to the overall character of the work, a lyricism maybe, I'm trying to be modest.

Finally, when you feel the colors are right you plunge the paper, not without trepidation, into fixer for a last time, but be attentive here because the fixer may squelch everything, all the vibrancy you thought you had: some bypass this step and go directly to a long wash.  (See the post on Jeff Robinson, January 2011.)  Then you dry and you're done.

Nikolova, untitled, 2013
A very different way to make chemigrams is by using the so-called soft resists, materials that disintegrate or lift off almost immediately.  Eva Nikolova makes surprising use of some of them found in the local delis of her uptown Manhattan neighborhood, and in doing so has extended the expressivity of chemigrams in unforeseen directions.  "I draw," she says, "mostly with peanut butter and guava paste (a Dominican favorite), using pieces of mat board and credit cards, alongside the customary sticks and Q-tips.  The guava paste behaves exactly like honey except it has a stiff granular texture and doesn't spread, so it's easy to control.  What you are seeing is just the interplay of simple additive and subtractive drawing transformed by the chemical process."

I have to stop here: this is too astonishing.  To build the ruined cities that continue to haunt her, these fragments torn from dreams - go see the rest of her work on her website - with the most humble and ruined of tools gives the whole enterprise an unexpected pathos.  It is consummately eloquent.  It makes one think of Piranesi's Imaginary Prisons or maybe one's own nightmares, and yet it's a chemigram.

Piranesi, from Imaginary Prisons, 1761

Eva is showing some of her new work at the New York Foundation for the Arts, 20 Jay St, Dumbo, Brooklyn, until Jan 17 2014.