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Portraying Vulnerability

Portraying Vulnerability

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Anne Hudson explores the work of Christchurch’s own Ben Reid, one of New Zealand’s most prominent printmakers.

bird_in_the_hand__deThe New Zealand environment and its beauty is a source of national pride. It is our tūrangawaewae – place to stand. Accordingly, there is an awareness of the vulnerability of that landscape. New Zealand was, for much of its existence, unpopulated and without predators. No snakes, no rats, rabbits or stoats, no sheep, no cattle or deer. Many species were unable to adapt to the effect of man’s needs as a hunter and later as a cultivator. Many birds are extinct and some on the verge of extinction.

Ben Reid seeks to portray that vulnerability and loss within his sensitive prints. He uses a multi-layered approach of different printing methods demonstrating a mastery of the printmaking genre, often combining multiple techniques, such as dry-point etching and wood block, in one work. Printing is a skill-based process. There are several stages to go through in the creation of a print. The final picture may have an abstract quality but the making takes mastery and control. In many ways it is like glass art and ceramics where the process and material used are integrally part of the finished piece. Ben Reid’s work is a good example of this. Dry-point etching, for example, requires a steady hand. The image is drawn on to the metal plate; there is no room for error.

It is then inked and paper is pressed on to the image to pick up the raised design. Woodblock work also requires patience and skill. Once the etching or block has been made it can be used many times over with different coloured inks.

The layering of images on to the paper requires care and precision. Reid says of printing, “There are certain effects, moods and qualities that can be created in original prints that can only be achieved using printmaking processes.” Reid’s prints are often multi-layered, building up the image, each layer offering its on associations. Paper, printed like Victorian wallpaper with repeated patterns, form the background. They look pretty but the animals portrayed so prettily are predators, such as rats and stoats. Using another process, the subsequent layer puts the subject in focus.

We are seeing the bird in its habitat but are also being made aware of conservation issues of global warming, pest control, and pollution – all threats at the hand of man. Drawn to the sensitive representation of the prime subject we might miss the more subtle illustration of predators and other foe. A darker meaning hidden behind the beauty creates a tension, an anxiety for the plight of his subjects. Reid’s titles are often written on the work adding yet another layer. The text becomes part of the work. Reid asks us to consider our flora and fauna, particularly birds, by reminding us of the damage done to them through human intervention, persuading us to be more sensitive to the environment. He does this not by creating a placard or shouting at us, but by creating sensitive works that demand our attention in a subtle, almost subversive, way. We are drawn into the work, admiring his technique, his drawings and juxtaposition of ideas and then once entrapped we are made aware of his serious message.