The Inverted Line by George A. Walker
‘George A Walker did not make it into An Engraver’s Globe, and looking through this collection of his wood engravings I see again exactly why. An editor should not present as a fool one who has persisted in his folly to become wise if the wisdom cannot really be shown in the space available: better to omit than risk making him look silly. On the evidence of just a couple of works George Walker does look clumsy in a field where finesse is prized, perhaps to excess. But give him his head, as here, and you see an artist of sustained and wacky integrity half way between Posada and Krazy Kat. ...
‘Is the work any good? Yes, of course it is. Of course, too, if you go for rough trade in wood engraving, you end where you began: some of this does look like beginner’s work. But Walker does things with engraving I’ve not seen anyone else do: look at Raguwl, Angel of Vengeance. His images of people in cars are startlingly expressive: he can draw -- look at The Printer’s hand and the break of light around him; has Walker bodged the ear here to prove he can’t draw (so there!)? But he can and does. His small images have power and sometimes even humour and tenderness, even though he presents himself as an obsessive, the Mad Hatter of wood engraving.’
‘Walker’s engravings are distanced from the twentieth-century English tradition exemplified by Gill and Gillings: for example, he often uses a dentist’s drill to rout out deep grooves. This is not an inconsequential labour-saving technique: it gives the images more of a folk-art feel and dramatizes his symbolic and often surreal compositions.’
—Paul Razzell, Parenthesis
‘George Walker is one of the most unusual wood engravers in the country, and works in a distinctly contemporary idiom. Using a dentist’s drill, he routs out deep grooves which create bold graphic white lines, providing a brilliant black-white contrast.’
—Patricia Ainslie, Glenbow Museum
‘Why this cultured man who values history and says ‘‘the best training ... is to be had by looking at the work of other artists’’ does not bring this sensitivity to extending his own art, but is content to remain in a Looney Tunes world, remains one of life’s smaller mysteries. The world of wood engraving is undoubtedly extended by the presence within it of such a serious, self-defined, if self-limiting, clown; and this collection which shows a sufficient range of his work to let you see what he is about is very welcome.’
—Simon Brett, Multiples
‘This is a lively book by a very lively artist and wood engraver.’
—Bill Poole, Pica
‘The greatest compliment I can pay it is, there is not a dull spot in the book. He can present us with humour without a hint of them being cartoons. I think he must have fun doing these prints. It is a good example of drawing straight to the point, and not fussing with a lot of extra stuff. These drawings wiggle and dance in space. They are small in scale, but each is huge in heart. They look like they are chiseled out of rock. I’ve had this book laying around, and when a visitor picks it up, I hear exclamations of surprise and awe.’
—James Horton, Block & Burin
‘There’s not a lot of text in this book: commentary on each of the 70+ featured images, plus a little about Walker’s life and manner of working. That helps explain why his work is so little-known. Much of it has gone into handcrafted books of which only one or two hundred were ever printed, and into collections that rarely circulate outside the printmaking community. Even though the uniqueness of each impression is lost in reproducing the works for a wider audience, I’m very glad that he has made it available in this lovely edition. It’s fascinating work, sure to be welcome in any library on prints and printmaking.’
‘Walker is an artist of many talents and media -- and many contradictions. A figurative artist, he is interested in illuminating abstractions cast up from his unconscious. Literate and articulate, he expresses complex thoughts and ideas in singular images. He published a book without text, letting the images carry the narrative. A generous nature can give way suddenly to a disquisition on social inequality that he also translates into the grammar of picture making. There is a startling muteness and directness to his pictures, yet they are intended to effect change, often in the immediate world around him, or in the viewer’s perceptions of the world around them. The technical dimension of his artistic practice is privileged and apparent in the work, yet the art far exceeds material, method and process. His art is often grounded in the process of automatism, allowing for the unconscious to speak directly and spontaneously in images, even as his technique embraces the painstaking and precise nomenclature of wood engraving, block printing and bookbinding. The immediacy of his messages and their meanings are the product of careful rendering, circumspection and consideration.’
—Tom Smart, Devil’s Artisan
‘I fell into wood engraving, therefore, much in the way one might fall into a pile of autumn leaves -- not entirely by chance, but because the urge to jump in overcame me.’
Introduction or preface
As a printmaker I’ve cut, scraped, carved, inscribed and pierced my way into literally dozens of materials to make images at one time or another, though I’ve always found myself coming back again and again to make marks in wood. There is something about the polished surface of a block of end-grain maple that simply begs to be scratched, and in so doing provides for the artist an experience utterly distinct from making woodcuts or linocutting in which parting tools and gouges are used, as opposed to the more exotic tools used in engraving with names like spitsticker, tint tool, lining tool and lozenge-shaped graver. I had never really considered myself a wood engraver as such, but I’ve always been engaged with printmaking in one form or another and found myself inevitably making engravings on wood as a convenient means of illustrating my artists’ books. Eventually I surprised myself when I realized that I had, quite unintentionally, made several hundred engravings over the years. I am sure a similar level of astonishment will be familiar to anyone who has been preoccupied with a complex task over a long period of time only to recognize that in the end, he or she has become inextricably identified with the task itself.
I fell into wood engraving, therefore, much in the way one might fall into a pile of autumn leaves -- not entirely by chance, but because the urge to jump in overcame me.
I think many artists are obsessive-compulsive by nature. Such an affliction should be helpful to anyone who chooses to engage himself fully in a task, to the point of not being able to moderate it. Art colleges are filled with students who suspect they may want to become artists only to discover in the end that they are truly too sane to commit to the required level of obsession. After three or four years, such students typically leave the institution cured of the urge to create, ever again, anything remotely identified with art. In short, such students choose either to abandon art altogether or (as in my own case) they become terminally addicted to the creative conundrum of making things, precisely because they are so utterly obsessed. Seduced into the trance of the ascetic state, the artist has no choice but to continue the journey, much like the meditating yogi who comes one day to realize he has been sitting in the same place for many years and yet retains the unshakeable conviction that he has travelled a great distance.
Part of what I find seductive about wood engraving is the inversion of the line and the image inherent in the medium. Michael McCurdy calls it engraving ‘towards the light’ and Gerard Brender à Brandis calls it the art ‘of the white line’. I think of it as the art of the inverted line. There are two reasons for this: first, that the wood engraver works with white lines in negative space, and second, that the image must be drawn backwards on the block before it’s ready to engrave. However you describe the process, the black line of the artist’s pen is transformed by its transliteration from the matrix (plate) to the impression on paper. For every black line, the engraver must cut parallel white lines on either side. It is this inversion of lines, shapes and patterns that appeals to my artistic temperament and begs to be explored.
I am by no means a traditionalist when it comes to engraving or indeed to any form of art making. Although some of my work may appear to possess elements of representation, illustration and tradition, I am in no way opposed to non-representational and conceptual artworks. To the contrary, I often enjoy work that challenges convention. The object of any language is to communicate and it is to this end that the visual artist explores all available dialects. I choose to use wood engraving, for example, for the same reason I might use a computer, a pencil, or a brush -- because the medium serves my expressive need of the moment. Conversely, I have been known to scan wood engravings into a Macintosh, manipulate their form, take the laser output and then transfer the contorted image back to a woodblock to engrave in the conventional manner. I’ve also been known to cut into the block with a pen-sized router, freeing my hand from the constraints of the graver to create a more lucid and immediate line. This departure from orthodoxy is, for me, simply an alternative method of exploring the potential in any specific image and by no means does the orthodoxy or lack of it diminish, or enhance, the value of the art. What concerns me is the character and spirit of the material that translates the image and gives it life, not necessarily the technology used to create the image.
An image, for me, is either strong or weak. And if the image is weak it doesn’t matter if it is photocopied, digital or printed by hand from the block, it is still weak. I am reminded of Matisse’s comments on linocuts, which I think also hold true for wood engraving. Matisse said, ‘The gouge, like the violin bow, is in direct rapport with the feelings of the engraver. And it is so true that the slightest distraction in the tracing of a line causes a slight involuntary pressure of the fingers on the gouge and has an adverse effect on the line. Likewise, a change in the pressure of the fingers which hold the bow of a violin is sufficient to change the character of the sound from soft to loud ... I have forgotten a valuable precept: put your work back on the block twenty times over and then, in the present case, begin over again until you are satisfied.’ This sensitivity to the material is what the artist strives to control and articulate to convey an idea visually, but the material and the technology are just a means to an end.
My interest in wood engraving led to my continued, and on-going, interest in artists’ books. The small format of the block and relative ease of printing the blocks simultaneously with type made the connection to bookmaking fluid. Most of the engravings in this collection were commissioned for limited-edition, letterpress productions, some of which I printed myself, and some of which were hand-printed from the blocks by my colleagues. The hand-printed fine book is becoming increasingly important to our culture as electronic media begin to dominate our various methods of mass communication. Slowly we are moving towards an appreciation of the book as art object in response to the perceived decline of the book as the primary conduit for information and for knowledge. The book does remain, at this time, the undisputed time capsule of knowledge, although the Internet has recently become the equally undisputed superhighway for information retrieval. I do not envision the obsolescence of books, just their gradual reinvention as the permanent storage receptacle of choice for our most valued knowledge. It is from this precept that a new appreciation of fine paper, type and binding will evolve.
Unfortunately, the nature of a popularly priced publication such as The Inverted Line does not allow for the same tactile qualities inherent in an image that has been hand-printed on fine paper. Some of the richness in the blacks and the subtleties of hue and blend that I can control with hand-printed images are regrettably lost in the reproduction process. What does remain, however, is the bold gesture of the line, and the character and feeling of the original image. This is an important part of the print, and an aspect of the art that many people savour. I hope that the reader of these pieces revels in their peculiarity and content and comes, in the end, to appreciate something of my personal obsession with the end grain block. -- George A. Walker
George A. Walker (Canadian, b. 1960) is an award-winning wood engraver, book artist, teacher, author, and illustrator who has been creating artwork and books and publishing at his private press since 1984. Walker’s popular courses in book arts and printmaking at OCAD University in Toronto, where he is Associate Professor, have been running continuously since 1985. For over twenty years Walker has exhibited his wood engravings and limited edition books internationally, often in conjunction with The Loving Society of Letterpress (and The Binders of Infinite Love) and the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (CBBAG). Among many book projects Walker has illustrated two hand-printed books written by internationally-acclaimed author Neil Gaiman. Walker is also the illustrator of the first Canadian editions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass books (Cheshire Cat Press). George A. Walker was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Art for his contribution to the cultural area of Book Arts.
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