Performing Print

Profile of artist Clare Thornton for the Summer 2018 issue of Printmaking Today.

‘Even a solo gallery show is all about collaboration,’ says interdisciplinary artist Clare Thornton. This generous, open attitude is perhaps unsurprising given her background in dance and scenography: disciplines in which working with other artists, performers, producers and technicians is the norm.

In 2014–15 Thornton took part in the Redefining Print project with Double Elephant Print Workshop in Exeter. Her enquiry there focused on ideas around folding (of paper, fabric, her own body), and the sculptural and spatial possibilities of printed materials. Since then, printmaking has become a central expression of her artistic concerns.

Materials of Resistance, her solo exhibition at Plymouth Arts Centre (1 December 2017–20 January 2018), featured work across multiple media, including printmaking alongside ceramics, photographs, wax casts and video. In preparation for the show, Thornton worked with Monika Rycerz, printmaker and Printmaking Workshop Co-ordinator at Plymouth College of Art, to reactivate the college’s rarely used woodblock wallpaper press. Thornton and Rycerz together embarked on a ‘voyage of discovery,’ filled with potential, experimentation and the willingness to fail, and found using such a heavy piece of equipment often slow and laborious.

In a triptych of photographs taken during the production of Thornton’s wallpaper, we see dancer Laura Dannequin interacting with the huge, mechanical press. Her body dynamically demonstrates the sheer physical effort required to produce a decorative pattern. The études devised by Russian theatrical producer, director and actor Vsevolod Meyerhold influence her postures and costume. Meyerhold’s principles of movement considered the body as a living machine, while his Constructivist theatre sets featured complex stage machinery – skeletal frames with exposed moving parts – that the actors incorporated into the play’s action. Applied to the wallpaper press, Dannequin’s poses evoke a sense of body and machine unified in a collaborative act of creation.

The influence of Constructivist theatre and graphic design is also evident in the wallpaper itself. The motif of a falling figure recurs throughout Thornton’s work (in the past it has often been her own body falling), and in this print, from the abstract geometry of bisected circles, elongated triangles and V shapes, a fractured figure seems to be tripping or toppling forward, head and limbs detached, the body coming apart. Printed in yellow and eau de Nil against a pale pink background, Thornton selected the colours for their authenticity to an Art Deco palette. The particular shade of green casein distemper paint she used is named Arsenic, a reminder that this calming colour, which was highly fashionable in mid-19th century interior decoration, originally contained the poison, resulting in numerous deaths.

At Plymouth Arts Centre, Thornton’s wallpaper was installed as a pair of strips held up by butterfly-bolted white oak batons that transcended functionality. The paper escaped its designated wall space, intruding on to the floor: decorative surface pattern transformed into sculptural object.

Thornton often re-stages or re-presents work in new iterations, discovering shifts in meaning and emphasis. A hollow, clear acrylic door, made for a performance installation at the Tudor Red Lodge Museum in Bristol was originally filled with 2 kilometres of slowly falling red ribbon. Now it acts as a frame for a diaphanous screenprint on habotai silk, made with the assistance of printmaker and University of Plymouth technician Esmé Cooper. The gathering of excess fabric as it touches the floor references the ribbon’s accumulation in the earlier work, but where the ribbon created an opaque fill of colour (‘a slow curtain rise,’ as Thornton describes it), the silk’s translucency seems vulnerable, less certain.

As viewers we are also placed in a position of uncertainty: which side should we approach this transparent door from? Where might it take us? The door is a portal for the imagination – to new ideas and possibilities. The silk inside – which is both background to an image but also a veil – is printed with a photographic screenprint showing Thornton’s bangled arms. Her palms are pressed together, fingers active, the body absent, cropped from the frame. This posture, while elegant, is also awkward, perhaps even deliberately uncomfortable. It is inspired by writer, publisher, activist and rebel, Nancy Cunard, who, in a Man Ray photograph, is seen covered with ivory bracelets from wrist to elbow: armature as much as ornament.

In Thornton’s printmaking, which pushes the notion of print as surface decoration to breaking point, she has created stand-ins for the body and its movements, communicating its contradictory qualities of strength and vulnerability. By bringing the vernacular of performance to print, she creates works that – like bodies – are never quite still.

Images: (Top) Clare Thornton, Materials of Resistance detail (2017), performance photographs, each 420mm x 297mm. Performer: Laura Dannequin. Photo: Dom Moore. Documentation photo: Jamie Woodley. (Bottom) Clare Thornton, Materials of Resistance (2017), installation views, dimensions variable. Photos: Jamie Woodley.