RA Magazine Autumn 2012
Issue Number: 116
Artists' Laboratory 06: Stephen Chambers RA
The experimental nature of the ‘Artists’ Laboratory’ has spurred Stephen Chambers RA to make his most ambitious print to date. By Emma Hill
In the darkness of a Hackney alleyway, a small hand-drawn sign spells out the word ‘studio’, its elegant calligraphy at odds with the adjacent local authority signs and grey concrete. An arrow points cryptically, upwards. Climbing the iron fire escape I come upon a profusion of plants, held in small earthenware pots, balanced at different heights on steps and windowsills. The rioting lattice of curling stems and vivid flowers could be a living template for a painting by Stephen Chambers RA and for the rest of the afternoon I am left with a distinct sensation of somehow having entered into a parallel reality of this artist’s distinctive images.
Stephen Chambers RA, 'The Big Country' (detail), 2012. © Stephen Chambers/Photo Tim Gresham.
I have come to talk to Chambers about The Big Country (2012), a monumental print image he has conceived for his ‘Artists’ Laboratory’ exhibition, which is the most ambitious work he has ever attempted in print. The working drawing for the project has taken over the studio in an undulating trail of black ink on creamy sheets of paper that are pinned across walls and in places, onto the ceiling. Comprising 75 separately drawn and printed sheets (each measuring 56cm x 76cm), the finished work will run over one main wall and some of the two adjacent walls in his Royal Academy show. Each sheet will be individually framed in a Perspex box – allowing Chambers a degree of flexibility in assembling the overall image from the different related parts.
Chambers says he has wanted to make a really big print for a long time, one that challenges ‘the earnestness and formality of most printmaking and traditional conventions of scale, production and framing.’
‘It is a complete lunacy,’ he exclaims. ‘My Alexander McQueen moment – the unwearable dress, an anti-print. But the ‘Artists’ Laboratory’ series is meant to be experimental and it has been enormously challenging to bring images together on such a vast scale and with a perspectival space that is quite at odds with my paintings.’
In counterpoint to The Big Country, Chambers is installing a grid of 20 miniature etchings collectively entitled Trouble Meets Trouble (2012). Many of these incorporate an under-layer of pattern paper – the printed decorative papers that are often used as end papers in books. These intricate prints were made at Pauper’s Press, London (a studio he has collaborated with for many years) and the suite of prints won this year’s London Original Print Fair Prize at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. Also in ‘Artists’ Laboratory’, a selection of screenprints he has made with Kip Gresham at The Print Studio, Cambridge, illustrate methods of overlaying drawn images with intricate pattern, which are applied on a more expansive scale to The Big Country.
Chambers is not a stranger to working large and has designed theatre backdrops for productions of Room of Cooks (1999) and This House Will Burn (2001). He says that having been horrified to realise that these could only fit into three theatres in the world, he decided to construct this new image as a more flexible series of ‘inter-related visual verses that cluster in different places at intervals across the wall, rather than as one large rectangle.’
Stephen Chambers RA in his east London studio, at work on his print project, The Big Country, 2012, for his Artists’ Laboratory exhibition at the RA. Photo © Richard Dawson.
The image as a whole is rather like an ancient wall painting – the fluid, life-size figures of an Etruscan tomb, or the pictograms of Egyptian gods and hieroglyphs. These things, eroded by time, have disrupted narratives that give us only a partial sense of the stories they were made to tell, and the effect of Chambers’ drawing is somehow similar. His decision to make the image as a series of visual sequences punctuated by empty space, not only makes it possible for the work to be shown in different contexts in the future, but also allows him to make radical changes of scale and imply distance in the stretches of blank wall.
Did he have a sense of the overall image at the outset? Apart from a large central section of delicately drawn trees, used as a visual pointer to landscape, or countryside (with allusions to Lewis and Clark – pioneers of the Oregon Trail wagon route that ran east to west across America), Chambers says ‘much of the image was invented on the journey.’
Since it charts such unexplored territory, it is fitting that the print takes its title from William Wyler’s 1958 classic Western and in particular from a scene that shows a fight between two characters that pans out from the immediate action to a view of the enormous natural landscape which surrounds this insignificant human incident. ‘It is the space that shows the futility of the fight, of trying to contain or define this kind of huge territory,’ he explains. ‘In many ways the title is an embarkation point and the image itself shows a series of different kinds of jumping-off points, or ports of call. I thought a lot about Cormac McCarthy’s writing while I was drawing – Blood Meridian, in particular. He uses an almost staccato method of getting the immensity of epic down on the page; vivid descriptions of the environment interrupted by matter of fact, usually brutal, incident.’
The Big Country is structured around a number of large figures that seem to be relaying messages in semaphore across the room. In the studio, two are positioned, back-to-back at the junction of a corner, pointing the viewer in different directions. Some of these figures have cartoon-like speech bubbles, others seem to announce single words: Dakar, Luanda, Liverpool, Freetown, Cadiz, Montevideo, Georgetown. It becomes apparent that the image is a map of the world, in which the figures represent continents or the starting points for migrations or epic journeys. Elsewhere, smaller vignettes depict the dualities of human experience, a push and pull of order and chaos. There are scenes of conflict – a massacre at a card table, a burning house, a woman gesticulating at three children who are brandishing shotguns, while calmer, more pastoral scenes show a bee-keeper, men on horseback and an abundance of vegetables spilling from a basket.
Chambers has spent over six months working almost exclusively on the drawings for the print and is now at a crucial stage of proofing various parts of it to see whether the initial ink image will be better suited to screenprint or lithography. Through the printmaking process he has introduced another of his characteristic visual elements – a layer of intricate pattern, which now overlays the drawn images. Close up, tiny bunches of grapes are just discernible, dramatically changing and agitating the image. It is a visual effect that Chambers describes as ‘mesmeric’.
Technically The Big Country is hugely ambitious and I am stopped short not only by the sheer scale of the work, but also by the way that Chambers has wrapped the space in such a complex and enigmatic narrative. At the end of our interview I ask him how he would describe his work and he replies: ‘I give you the idea that here is a picture, but just before it really becomes a picture, it is pulled back to become more speculative or uncertain. I am offering ignition points for narrative, without providing the conclusion. I am interested in riddles.’
- Artists’ Laboratory 06: Stephen Chambers RA: The Big Country is in the Weston Rooms 24 Oct–2 Dec.
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