A Poetic Partnership

Gracia Haby & Louise Jennison
In the small courtyard, overlooked
2015
Collage

 

A collage created especially for the Collaboration issue of the Print Council of Australia's Imprint magazine (Autumn 2015, Volume 50, Number 1) featuring a Giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) in John Soane's courtyard.

In addition to the cover, the Collaboration issue features a written piece on our work, The Poetic Partnership: the work of Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison, by Dr Olivia Meehan.

 
 

A Poetic Partnership: The work of Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison
Olivia Meehan
The Print Council of Australia
Imprint magazine
Autumn 2015, Volume 50, Number 1
pp.18–19

Introduction: Out of this World

At breakfast time a mosquito and a wasp came to the edge of the honey dish to drink. The mosquito was a lovely little high stepping gazelle, but the wasp was a fierce roaring tiger. Drink, my darlings! [1]
The Journal of Katherine Mansfield 1919

The flicker of gold trimmed edges, the delicately hand-coloured plumage of a Yellow-fronted Woodpecker, intricate cut-outs and captivating silhouettes, the skilful illusion of shiny black velvet lit by stars against a midnight blue sky: the work of long time collaborators Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison presents a playful and transporting world. They bring gravitas to their pictorial works with narrative and a theatrical vision. At times this may be borrowed from, or inspired by, the likes of Charles Dickens or Katherine Mansfield, but mostly scribed by Gracia or Louise in original prose or text.[2] Such an approach augments the unique nature of this artistic partnership which produces artists’ books, zines, series of hand drawn pictures and sophisticated collage works.  The key aspect of their practice is paper but essential ingredients also include imagination and language. This magical combination, set within the skill-base of each artist, makes for a rousing body of work. Their story of collaboration began well over a decade ago, in the painting studio at art school. After establishing a brilliant studio companionship (I am assured sharing a studio is a delicate matter), they have gone on to acquire new skills and techniques in order to produce ambitious and original works.

Printed Alliances

It is a well-known fact that the performing arts rely on collaborative artistic forces to create new work. Some of these relationships may be enduring but, more often than not, collaborators come together for the length of a production, the working connection sometimes lasting just a few months. The day-to-day business of running a visual arts studio is somewhat different, especially when the artists work together both to generate ideas and to produce finished works. The role of collaboration in the world of printmaking, for example, has a long and fascinating history. Painters and other artists have long engaged the expertise of printmakers in order to spread their work and ideas further afield. In the 1820s, John Constable began exploring the idea of reproducing his work in the print medium.  Earlier attempts to experiment in mezzotint with Samuel William Reynolds and George Dawe proved disappointing and unfulfilling, but he was not discouraged. Upon meeting the young engraver David Lucas, Constable embarked upon a new series inspired by forty of his existing paintings: Various Subjects of Landscape, Characteristic of English Scenery, From Pictures Painted by John Constable, R.A.[3] The collaboration was initially predicated on Lucas’ technical skill and Constable’s artistic vision, but foremost required a united aesthetic. The nature of their alliance was somewhat fraught due to Constable’s overbearing and controlling approach: the resulting mezzotints however, add an intriguing dimension to Constable’s work.[4] Their collaboration not only highlighted Constable’s aptitude for risk-taking ventures, but also demonstrated an inability to trust print media for the interpretation of his powerful ideas. The English Landscape series, with an introductory text by Constable, enjoyed a number of editions, but the rich 'inky' quality of Lucas’ masterful mezzotints never quite satisfied the painter. Although the outcome can be considered a success, the nature of creative collaboration ultimately presented Constable with a serious challenge. Such an example reminds us that collaboration can be fraught, and serves to underscore the quality and success of Gracia and Louise’s working partnership.

Landscapes and Interior Spaces

A sultry and stifling day. Not a cloud in the sky...The sun-scorched grass looks bleak, hopeless: there may be rain, but it will never be green again...The forest stands silent, motionless, as if its treetops were looking off somewhere or waiting for something.[5]
'The Huntsman' in Selected Short Stories of Anton Chekhov

In literature we find bountiful descriptions of populated woodlands, wild rocky sea cliffs and shorelines. Gracia and Louise skilfully bring such scenes to life in both large-scale prints and the tiniest pocket sized zines. Landscapes and cityscapes, animals and winged creatures appear in reimagined form as seemingly impossible scenarios become routine. Evocative panoramic scenes borrowed from vintage postcards and books provide the backdrop for many new works. With the addition of collage, pencil and text, fragments from the past are transformed into new tales and stories. Gracia Haby’s artists’ book As if from the clouds, restless (February, 2014)[6] unfolds like a Japanese screen to reveal colourful trapeze artists appearing to traverse rocky snow-capped Swiss Alps. The cut-out oversized figures swing and soar in and out of each frame. Never landing, always in flight, they are accompanied by large, imposing animals. A splendid hoopoe (Upupa epops) perches on the behind of one of the trapeze artists, and a cunning dhole (Cuon alpinus) observes on high from a rocky outcrop. The multi-layered parts of this work represent Gracia and Louise’s practice to a tee: they forage for old images, books and postcards from the past and interrupt them with carefully selected collaged pieces and drawing to create a new narrative.  One is reminded of Max Ernst’s wonderful volumes of surrealist artist books Une Semaine de Bonté (1933-1934): those seamlessly twisted images are so carefully printed it is impossible to detect the artist’s intervention.

Taking inspiration from contemporary artists, the duo has engaged and commissioned others to participate in the making of new work. Writer Hila Shachar provided the poetic text, Evening Postcard, an enthralling tribute to the night, which features in It's the Dusty Hour, (August 2012). This enchanting zine, hand-stitched with a single piece of golden thread, presents spirited animals that occupy a series of interior spaces. These worlds are at once theatrical and delicate, presenting readers and print lovers alike with the perfect escape: animated wonderlands inhabited by enthralling narrative.

Noble Portraits

The tradition of portraiture under Gracia and Louise’s watch takes an unexpected turn. A recent suite of Salvaged Relatives (2014) presented under the mantle of Haby’s ongoing rediscovered sepia portraits of gentlemen and women newly decked out in borrowed costumes, have been set against Jennison’s hand-coloured landscaped backdrops[7], and more often than not accompanied by a handsome, larger than life, barn swallow.  These reanimated folk are featured in zine format and also a tiny and exquisite nine second animated film Salvaged Relatives and Bird Song.[8] Performance plays an instrumental role throughout their entire body of work. With a nod to the superb costuming of Ballet Russe or the modernity of Balanchine’s choreography, figures are endowed with a theatrical quality which adds to the vitality of each piece. Their capacity for detailed research is the equal of the best in academe.

Under the canopy of portraiture, I also include an edition of ten inky Plum-headed finches: these hand-printed gems contribute to Louise Jennison’s ongoing series of hand-crafted winged beauties. Working painstakingly, predominately with a 2B lead pencil, she has accomplished a mesmerising edition entitled A Year of Southern Hemisphere Birds (2013). The illustrations reveal absolute truth in terms of botanical detail, while the accompanying explorer’s narrative by Haby ensures these birds an existence beyond the two-dimensional. For In Your Dreams, Blurred and Distinct (2014), an ode to a much-loved family pet friend, she demonstrates her talent as a wordsmith:

At her side, a small cat burrows, trying to make a well between her waist, the crook of her elbow, and the mattress beneath. Clockwise, clockwise, round and round, the little frame of the Siamese cat, now more bone than flesh, slowly, awkwardly, rhythmically rotates in his search for sleep, but he cannot settle. At night, the long black cat that follows him by day cannot be seen, but is still felt: his long shadow, his time soon up. This nightly courtship, a dance performed as comfort sought, as constant as the stars.[9]
In Your Dreams, Blurred and Distinct, text by Gracia Haby

Clearly, the visual is their core ingredient, but the works are completed by such texts, whether set alongside the objects encased in handcrafted solander boxes bound by Jennison, or handwritten on the gallery wall as part of an installation.

Print and Beyond

As Gracia and Louise continue to investigate the potential of artists’ publishing and creative collaboration, we have the privilege of witnessing the evolution of a dynamic and productive duo working in paper and beyond. Their website, blogs and Instagram feeds are also proof of their ability to generate thought-provoking new work from remnants of the past. Once you dip your toe into their world, you will soon find yourself completely absorbed, waiting for the next instalment, the following wonderful interpretation of the world around us. Just as Björk courageously explored the natural world and music through her piece Biophila, we observe the crystalline form of Gracia and Louise stretching from traditional print form to the digital world and beyond.

Dr Olivia Meehan is Research Fellow at ANU Centre for European Studies and Visiting Researcher at École Normale Supérieure Paris.

Written especially for and published in The Print Council of Australia's Imprint magazine, Collaboration issue, autumn 2015.

References:
Gracia & Louise website
Gracia & Louise Instagram
Bailey, Anthony. John Constable: A Kingdom of his Own, London: Vintage Books, 2007.
Chekhov, Anton. Selected Short Stories of Anton Chekhov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, New York: Modern Library, 2000.
Evans, Mark. The Making of a Master: John Constable, London: V&A Publishing, 2014.
Lloyd-Fraser, John. John Constable 17761837: The Man and his Mistress, London: Hutchinsons and Co., 1976.
Mansfield, Katherine. The Journal of Katherine Mansfield, London: Persephone Books, 2006.

Notes:
[1] Mansfield, Katherine. The Journal of Katherine Mansfield, (Journal 1919, Second Violin), London: Persephone Books, 2006, p.120.
[2] 'Daring Adventures in Collage', Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison Q&A with Mati Rose McDonough for her guest interview series conducted as part of her Daring Adventures in Collage 5-week e-course, May 2014.
[3] Evans, Mark. The Making of a Master: John Constable, London: V&A Publishing, 2014.
[4] Bailey, Anthony. John Constable: A Kingdom of his Own, London: Vintage Books, 2007, pp. 210-219.
[5] Chekhov, Anton. 'The Huntsman' in Selected Short Stories of Anton Chekhov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, New York: Modern Library, 2000, p.9.
[6] As if from the clouds, restless, 2014, Gracia Haby, artists' book, unique state, featuring collage elements and pencil, Melbourne University Library Collection.
[7] A Quartet of Salvaged Relatives in Borrowed Costumes by Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison for the November Book Arts Newsletter, No. 93, 2014, published by Impact Press at the Centre for Fine Print Research, UWE Bristol, UK, and edited by Sarah Bodman.
[8] Salvaged Relatives and Bird Calls, 2014, Gracia Haby.
[9] Text from In Your Dreams, Blurred and Distinct, 2014, Gracia Haby.