This month we are exhibiting the work of Richard Hricko in conjunction with our show, Grayscale. We were first introduced to Hricko’s work when he showed in last year's alternative process exhibition, Methods (Alternative). We fell in love with the photogravures and their presentation and curated Richard Hricko, a solo exhibition.
The photogravure is an early photographic process and not widely practiced today. Why did you choose the photogravure for this project rather than a more traditional etching process? Walk us through the execution from photographing to the final print.
I have endeavored to master many processes within the broad category of Intaglio printmaking. Until a few years ago, my work depended upon hand drawn imagery and my interest in traditional, high quality plate making and hand printing processes. Photogravure was developed in the 19th century and, like etching, engraving, drypoint, mezzotint, and other printmaking techniques, is Intaglio printed. Intaglio prints are capable of achieving the most highly detailed images and the richest, most luminous range of tonal values of any medium. These visually qualities, the physical properties of the medium (the copper plate, ink, paper, and etching press, etc.), and the ability to integrate both hand made and photographic imagery attracted me to photogravure. Although photogravure is a historic, highly technical alternative photographic process, today it can also employ digital tools to create the initial image, further blurring the lines between print and photo, digital and hand made. Like my drawing-based works, I literally construct my photo-based images from various natural materials and found objects. These are photographed or scanned into the computer and printed on an inkjet printer as high resolution, continuous tone film positives. The rest of the process employs the very involved, original 19th century methods, which can require a couple of days to create a single image/plate.
The following is a basic description of the photogravure plate/printmaking process:
A paper-backed gelatin sheet is made light sensitive in the darkroom. The full-size continuous tone positive is placed in contact with the sensitized gelatin and exposed to ultraviolet light in a vacuum exposure unit. The light sensitive gelatin hardens under the influence of ultraviolet light in proportion to the amount of the light it receives through the film positive image. The exposed gelatin is adhered to a copper plate and developed in warm water. The warm water releases the backing paper and dissolves the unexposed unhardened gelatin. The remaining gelatin on the copper plate will act as the etching resist. A rosin dust grain is melted onto the dried gelatin (other aquatint methods using a mezzotint screen are also possible). The plate is then etched in a series of ferric chloride baths of various strengths. The amount of water in each solution controls the speed at which the plate etches. During this process, the thinnest areas in the gelatin (the shadow areas) start to etch first. Once the plate has been etched to completion, the gelatin is washed off the plate. Like traditional intaglio printing, oil based ink is applied to the plate and the surface is wiped clean, leaving ink behind in the etched portions of the plate. The deeper the mark is etched into the plate, the more ink it holds and, consequently, the darker it prints. The ink is transferred on an etching press to heavy printing paper that has been softened with water.
Much of your work incorporates nature as subject. Tell us how and why you are influenced by the natural world. This work is visually dark and a bit unsettling in its subtle chaos. Tell us more about the evolution of this project.
My studio work draws upon the observation, invention, and integration of details from natural and built environments. This direction is rooted in a rural childhood experience, exploring the surrounding woods and encountering its many histories and mysteries. It has evolved to include a fascination with both my contemporary urban experience and the historic tradition of “ruins” in Italian art, as exemplified by the mid-18th century “Capriccio” series of etchings by Piranesi. My recent photogravures are part of an on-going “urban growth” series – soft, organic life that survives and even thrives in the hard, chaotic environment of concrete, asphalt, and architecture.
Printmaking is your primary medium. What was the impetus for adding a photographic element to your work?
I have grown most as an artist through my ability to renew my focus and adapt to various new ideas, experiences, and environments over an extended career. I consider myself a printmaker who employs many tools, including some associated with photography. Tools are at the service of the idea and finding those tools that best enhance and strengthen the content of a given work is the challenge. My idea behind the image, its subject, and construction are relatively constant, whether I’m using a pencil, etching needle, or scanner. Very fine detail and a strong sense of atmosphere and mystery are also consistent qualities in my work. The photogravure allows me to achieve a heightened attention to such qualities that other processes do not always offer.
You are the department chair for Printmaking at Tyler School for the Art. How has teaching influenced your work?
Teaching has had a major impact upon my work. I have amazing students and their youthful energy, enthusiasm, and constant questioning is contagious. They ensure that I am always searching for effective ways to teach new and interesting printmaking processes, which in turn continues to drive my own exploration of idea and process. A part of discovering and honing in on the process of the photogravure was also learning how to best share this historic process with my students.
Finally, we ask this of all of our artists, how do you define success in art?
For myself, the ability to consistently maintain and advance my studio practice is the greatest measure of success. Successful practice means going to the studio every day and just putting in the time, whether or not the work of that particular day is successful. If my studio practice is really strong, opportunities for communication, through the exhibition and distribution of the work, and other means of support, such as grants and residencies, will follow.
Richard Hrickos's work is on view at The Kiernan Gallery through November 30.