Friday, October 16, 2015

What we cannot speak of, we must remember

Sarachek, After Fukushima (O), 2014

As visual artists, we are most sensitive to what we see.  What we see in fact could be said to become part of our body's tissue, which soaks in, while we walk around and conduct our lives, events happening or glimpsed at the most remote distances, as well as those from nearby, not to overlook those from the snapshots and clips of television, magazines and cinema that our culture has so carelessly laid before us.

With our organs of sense therefore we extend ourselves, and what is there is also, by this extension and in a way, within us.  We may ignore it - we are free to do so, as some artists strike a pose of doing - or we may be so engaged emotionally by it that we are wracked with outrage, heartbreak, and despair.  There is an art of protest that comes from this, often reduced to naive cartoons, graffiti and posters, as if all the rights and wrongs were already established in everyone's mind; and there is a deeper art that is itself a struggle for expression.  One thinks here of Goya's El 3 de mayo (1814) in the Prado or Picasso's Guernica (1937) at MoMA, pictures of a specific time and place and yet the most devastating statements imaginable about man's injustice to man.  There is also an art of response, call it political or not, which, quite unlike these stirring calls to arms, sustains itself more softly as meditation, commemoration, memorial, or prayer, and may last the lifetime of the artist.  Examples abound; to mention them all would constitute a poem of epic length, a prolonged lament for life and for peace on earth.  One favorite of many is the 40-year series of pictures by Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, begun in 1948 but based on memories of the Spanish civil war a decade earlier.  Some versions are of an astounding simplicity of gesture, such as this lithograph in the Tate.

Motherwell, Spanish Elegy I, 1975
This appropriately brings us to the present exhibition of works on paper, twelve chemigrams in all, together with an installation of ceramic funerary bowls, by Norman Sarachek entitled After Fukushima, on display at the New Arts Program Gallery in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, until November 1, 2015.  Norm's intent is to draw attention to the meltdown of four nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011, with the accompanying release of deadly radioactivity into the water and atmosphere that is, quite inconceivably, ongoing to this day, and not only to honor the memory of the victims of that tragedy, which it almost shames us to say in passing, but also to stimulate public discussion of the dangers of nuclear power in its aftermath.

Sarachek, After Fukushima (D), 2014
Sarachek, After Fukushima (C), 2014

Sarachek, After Fukushima (H), 2014

The fragile, flowery imagery, lazy with the relaxation of a summer's day, recalls Norm's deft chemigram touches from previous outings, in particular the handsome show he had in Philadelphia in 2010, which we covered then.  The strategies and devices haven't changed much over the years, nor need they : it's a language waiting for good use and he has found it.  His images amass a subtle power as they confute the public's relative indifference to the tragedy and even perhaps ironize it - but it all takes place by tiny, slow movements which achieve their graded effect almost without one's noticing.  He helps complete the picture by placing funerary bowls containing clear glass beads, an allusion to radioactive particles, beneath each picture, with inverted chopsticks that, I'm told, symbolize death.  It's his conception that each picture becomes an altar.  OK, maybe the staging's too obvious, but maybe also it has to be : the exhibition will serve as a platform for future poetry readings in traditional Japanese modes and for public discussion of issues raised by Fukushima.

Sarachek, After Fukushima (L), 2014

installation view showing funerary bowls

Sarachek as pot-maker

Sarachek's chop on lower right of an After Fukushima scroll
The twelve chemigrams are printed as an edition of 10 on Moab museum rag paper, each presented as a 56 x 24 " scroll, in further tribute to traditional Japanese practice, with an impressed chop in the corner fashioned by Norm himself.

For further information, the reader is invited to contact the artist at his site,


  1. Why is it that Sarachek's chemigrams don't look like others' chemigrams, with erosive borders and mackie lines? Is he using a different kind of resist, a tougher one? Clearly, this is an aesthetic choice..

    1. You're right, Steve, it is an aesthetic choice. To accomplish it, after applying a conventional acrylic resist, he dips the paper in fixer for a few seconds, then switches quickly to developer where he lets it reside, and soon it will display the ochre and golden hues that Norm likes as background. Once that is stabilized, he pulls off the resists completely, exposing those previously covered areas to developer, and hence they turn promptly black. In other words, he doesn't do the customary, Cordier-style 'dance of the trays' in which immersion of the paper alternates between fixer and developer over a considerable period of time, producing the mackie and erosive effects you refer to and seem to miss. As artist, the choice is his. There are many ways to do a chemigram, just as there are many ways to write a novel or paint a picture. I hope you appreciate it with Norm's work.

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    3. Steve, I work with the same materials as you and other Chemigram creators - photo paper, chemicals and resist, but in a totally different way. That is probably because, when I began the work about fifteen years ago I knew knowing about Pierre and others working with Chemigrams, and called my process "Chemogram" with and "o" instead of "i". I began by removing a piece of photo paper from the paper–safe, and then turned on the darkroom lights (a bit different form Doug's comment above). If developed, the paper would have been completely black. I decided to see what effect fixer and developer have on the silver and if they degrade it so it does not turn black while exposed to light. I dipped the paper in baths of these, washed the chemicals off, and developed it. I n fact, areas of the paper immersed in the bath developed as beige, pink, white and other colors, and not as black. After three years and some viewers commenting on "Chemo" I changed the name to Chemigram, reGoogled it, and then found out about Pierre and others. In order to make more complex and interesting "marks" on the paper I began to use a resist to protect areas from the chemical bath. Paper protected from the fixer by resist ends up as the black marks you see. The backgrounds are controlled by the way I immerse the paper in the bath and the number of seconds it is immersed. After applying resist, the paper is immersed only 5 to 20 seconds. Then all chemicals and resist are washed off, and the paper developed in normal fashion. Lights are on the whole time. My process is very rapid and very gestural. A full description and photos in darkroom doing this, as well as many images with and without resist are on my website, Thanks for posting and your fascinating commentary, Doug, and for your interest, Steve.

  2. Thank you for sharing more on your technique; I appreciate your aesthetics & processes a great deal; you inspire me to have confidence in my own work... K

    1. thank you K. I would love to communicate directly and see what you are doing or plan. Please feel free to email me at
      I do not know if you are in the area or interested, but in August, 2016 I will be running a three day workshop at the Goggle Works in Reading, PA on my techniques of making a Chemigram.