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
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
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.