Currently on show at Visions Gallery, Triple Axel is a collection of work produced by Luca Nicholas during his undergrad and postgrad studies at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT). Graduating earlier this year with a Master of Visual Arts, his practice explores the philosophical and aesthetic qualities of printmaking, likening the process of transferring an image from a matrix to a substrate as an intimate, tactile embrace. Encapsulating this idea is a suite of twenty intaglio prints, titled In Bloom (2019), composed from detritus Nicholas had found during his walks to and from the studio. His process involved applying an incredibly delicate layer of soft ground to a steel plate, allowing for the surface to capture every miniscule detail of the object pressed into its surface when passed through the press. The sense of fragility is further heightened by the use of thin, translucent, mulberry paper, which much like the plate, Reveals traces of material sensibility which includes the artist complicity in this organic practice, being highly sensitive to the tiniest crease or buckle. Installed with metal pins, the prints seem to flutter uncertainly, with the warmer charcoal-coloured ink evoking old Victorian photographs, recording and cataloguing new discoveries.
Sentiments of care towards otherwise disused and abandoned fragments at the end of their life, giving them their last, final embrace has driven his most recent series of larger, soft ground etchings. Hyper-ballad (2020), winner of the New Zealand Painting & Printmaking Award, is comprised of several layers of etched objects and abstract mark making in a complex process of addition and subtraction resulting in a beautifully balanced, rhythmic composition full of texture, deep tones and gentle greys. Over the space of about three months, Nicholas etched two to three objects at a time, re-working the plate using an orbital sander to give lightness in some areas and drypoint to create stronger, darker lines in others.
What’s striking about these works is their ability to sit comfortably between printmaking and painting. Nicholas often uses etching and monoprint, marrying the two techniques in a single work, exposing the painterly qualities of both mediums, arguing that a soft ground etching can be just as expressive as any other abstract gesture. In his earlier works, such as Krull and Bad Vegan Pizza (2018), bursts of dynamic brush strokes can be seen alongside more orderly incised lines. Like other works from this time, Nicholas has constructed an intimate space, half real, half imagined, requiring the suspension of disbelief on behalf of the viewer, a technique frequently employed in the theatre. Attending high school in New York, he had the opportunity to peruse his passion for acting and the theatre, getting a position as an assistant props master for a production of Bob Fosse’s 1969 musical Sweet Charity, inspiring the piece But Baby, What Can You Do? (2018). The work references a moment when Shirley McClain’s character, ballroom dancer, Charity, is up on the rooftop expressing optimism about her desired but uncertain path outside of the ballroom. Superimposed onto the studio wall Nicholas inhabits, this scene illuminates his own predicament of being avidly committed to following the path of print but not knowing exactly where it would take him.
He first encountered printmaking during his second year as an undergrad, where his interest in the medium was noticed by the tutors who encouraged him to try different intaglio techniques such as spray aquatint, getting him hooked on the endless possibilities of the medium. Since graduating, he has been taken on as an assistant tutor in the printmaking lab at AUT, giving him the opportunity to give back by guiding and supporting new students coming up through the department. It also provides him with a way to stay connected to a stimulating, creative environment. If it weren’t for the current global lockdown, Nicholas would have pursued a residency abroad, such as the Fran Masereel Centum in Belgium where artists get 24-hour access to fully equipped etching studio. Currently, open access print labs such as these are absent from the artistic landscape in Auckland, a gap that Nicholas hopes will be filled so that new graduates like himself will have a space to continue to practice and innovate print. He has noticed that among first year students there is increasing interest in the medium which Nicholas believes is due to so much of contemporary visual and digital culture being directly informed by print culture and that students naturally gravitate towards what are the precursors of our modern visual language.
Perhaps two of the most intriguing and memorable pieces in the show are two large sheets of velvet draped on the wall, screen printed monochromatically requiring the viewer to bend, tilt and angle their bodies in order for the image to reveal itself fully. They speak to his etchings which are also concerned with examining his external environments to shed light on what often vanishes into the periphery of everyday consciousness. Hedges (2019) depicts dense foliage with seemingly no beginning or end, patches of leaves capturing the light and others receding into the shadows. Like most of his other prints, it is a limited edition of only two, giving the work more agency and value as well as an intimacy with the object that large edition wouldn’t give and challenges us to rethink print as multiple.
The work in Triple Axel is ambitious in is experimental exploration of surface, uninhibited by preconceived notions about the traditional presentation or function of prints. This collection clearly expresses the artist’s reverence of the poetics of print.
New Zealand Painting and Printmaking Award:
Auckland University of Technology Master of Visual Arts:
Frans Maserel Centrum Residencies, Belgium: