Catalog essay for the exhibition, MOMENTS OF CHANGE, 2010 Organized by Richard Waller for the Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art University of Richmond, Virginia
Jackie Battenfield’s lavishly beautiful compositions, which sometimes coalesce into luminous waterscapes or studies of tree limbs, and in other cases remain abstract, are all, in a sense, collaborations ̶ not with other artists, but with the processes of nature and the properties of the materials she uses. The serendipity of evocative spills and blots is controlled by a practiced hand whose movements are themselves half unconscious. The interplay between the support surface and the ink or paint applied to it ̶ the papers’ various degrees of absorption and resistance, the variable glide and drag they permit the brush ̶ and the bleeding of one liquid medium into another, or the medium’s spread when applied to a smooth surface that is covered with paper and sent through a printing press, are similarly engaged, again more or less intuitively. A connoisseur of handmade paper, Battenfield makes use of every nuance of color, texture, and pattern. And in the work of roughly the past ten years, she has embraced the unpredictable patterns of light on moving water, or tree limbs against changing skies, using photography to capture (or, submit to) still another compositional element that is more active partner than passive subject.
This exhibition samples nearly two decades of work on paper, all of which can be called printmaking. But in Battenfield’s practice, the boundaries between printmaking, drawing, and painting are porous, though she has lately been making editioned woodblock prints and photolithographs, many of her prints are monotypes, done with ink or thinned paint brushed onto a lithography stone or a sheet of Plexiglas. Battenfield came to painting from sculpture, and has never considered herself a dedicated draftsperson, nor has she studied calligraphy, though its influence on her work is clear. Even her earliest paintings reveal an interest, which remains active, in the visual energy generated by juxtaposing geometric form and spontaneous gesture ̶ a square sheet of paper, a sweeping stroke, a spatter of paint or ink. And she has always been unabashedly enchanted by the decorative, naming Robert Kushner, Pat Steir, Robert Motherwell, and Giovanni Tiepolo as among her touchstones. Notably, Kushner and Steir are both artists equally comfortable with abstraction and figuration.
The earliest works in this exhibition are selected from an extensive body of collages made from horizontally arranged quartets of six-inch-square sheets of Japanese paper, each sheet bearing a fluid stroke of ink or paint applied in thinned oil paint on limestone. Individually monoprinted, the sheets are assembled like puzzle pieces, the curve of paint on one finding its near- perfect continuation, or potent contrast, on another. The clean sharp boundaries between the constituent sheets, and around each four-part whole, are as important as the turbulent brushwork within. Accepting the accidental ̶ pursuing a process that could be called automatist ̶ was a choice that reflected what Battenfield calls a “deep scrubbing of my unconscious.” the examples here are from a 1992-93 series called “Mizu” ̶ water, in Japanese; each work is named for one of the thirty onomatopoeic words the Japanese language has for the sounds water makes when it drips, roars, rushes, trickles, and streams. In a catalogue essay for an earlier exhibition, Richard Waller compares the works in “Mizu” to musical scores, and also to Asian scrolls; the melodic lines they carry are certainly resonant, as is their affinity with the mark-making of writing. In another early essay, Janet Riker likens Battenfield’s collages of this period to Haiku, again with justice. Equally important, though, is this work’s access to spaces between nameable qualities ̶ like an unspoken language, these collages probe for visual sensations beyond the reach of familiar words.
Just as she celebrates the visual wealth of the natural world even in these abstract collages, Battenfield also showcases the extraordinary subtlety and variety of the mostly Japanese papers with which she works (she also has used papers ranging from Egyptian papyrus to Mexican bark to Chinese funereal money). Made with a range of natural pigments and fibers, and often breathtakingly delicate, the Japanese papers ̶ products of an extraordinarily sophisticated and, sadly, quickly expiring tradition ̶ sometimes have intrinsic patterns; some incorporate gold leaf, or plant life: blossoms, the leaves of Gingkos, and bamboo. "The gestures have life, the papers have life," Battenfield says.
After 1993, Battenfield enlarged the format of the collages, working with 10-inch square sheets of paper in groups of three to make compositions that are 10 by 30 inches overall ̶ or, since some are oriented vertically, 30 inches by 10. The change in size permitted broader, slightly more deliberate brushwork ̶ here executed in thinned oil paint on plexiglas, and printed as monotypes ̶ that is continuous across multiple sheets. The linear figures that result have more independent life, as can be seen in In Deep 5 (1997), a vertical composition dominated by a bold stroke of indigo that descends in a series of tumbles from sheet to sheet. At this time, Battenfield began to use a wood-graining tool to create regular concentric circles and ovals that evoke ̶ portentously ̶ the rings made by stones dropped in water; In In Deep 5, the imprint also suggests the chop mark of a traditional Japanese woodblock print, as it does in Mood Marks 2 (1997), a diptych of paired vertical collages over which a nearly black calligraphic stroke leaps with explosive urgency. By contrast, the scramble and flow of variously colored paint strokes across the horizontal collages Natant Couplet 10 (1997) and On Shore 15 (2004) ̶ gestures that speed up, double back, sputter and slide as they encounter different qualities of paper along the way ̶ have an almost narrative sense of development and complexity.
If, as Battenfield says, all the rules that she established for her collages only served to provide her with freedom, that liberation is seen most clearly in the most recent and most expansive examples. Made with 12-inch-square sheets, and also with various smaller (though always rectangular) paper fragments, they are 12 by 48 inches overall, and as can be seen in Cross Currents 4 (2004) and Cross Currents 19 (2006), each stroke, and each fortuitous incident, is given the space and expressive integrity of a freestanding figure, though there is lively conversation among them, as among the variously colored and textured grounds on which they appear.
While continuing to make these collages, Battenfield began, in the late 1990s, to take photographs of water, most of them shot along the James river in Virginia or its vicinity; she uses the photographs as the basis for woodblock prints or screen prints. As with the individually inked handmade papers in the early collages, she has assembled hundreds of photos. Early on, she determined that to get the high contrast she wanted between shoreline foliage and water or sky, and between light and shadow on the water’s surface, she needed to shoot at twilight; initially, Battenfield enlisted her two young sons to throw pebbles in the water to produce the ripples she also sought, uncannily close to the effects produced in the monoprints by the wood-graining implement. But as always, she was even more interested in completely fortuitous incidents ̶ in the unpredictable operations of light, or of vegetable growth, that the photographs reveal, which fly in the face of descriptive convention.
Though often based on photographs in which the sky is nearly drained of color, the chromatic range of these prints is extravagant. Along the James, College Creek, and James River Spring (all 2003) are printed on handmade paper that has been "painted" with pigmented linen pulp in colors ranging from royal purple to a robust orange and a nearly tropical blue. The shorelines silhouetted against these sweeping torrents of color are screen-printed in sober shades of near black that only heighten the chromatic intensity and variety ̶ which nonetheless remains believable as a condition of wintry sunset or early evening. Similarly, in a series of woodcut prints that frame a slice of rippled water within very wide (5-by-30-inch) panoramas, the colors range from hot reds, blues and yellows (One Thousand Thoughts/Dusk and One Thousand Thoughts/Dawn) to rich deep blues and purples (One Thousand Thoughts/Night, all 2001). Again, the horizontal format suggests connections with scrolls, and with reading, though in these water images, the suggestion of a program for wordless meditation is even stronger. In fact, Battenfield did begin meditating during the period she developed this group of images, a practice in which she often imagines passing thoughts as a stream of water beside which one sits without making judgment. Cutting the woodblock for these finely detailed works, a slow and painstaking process, is, as she points out, itself a meditative activity.
The scale of some of the water-image prints approaches that of the more expansive kinds of landscape painting. The triptych Soundings (1999), 30 by 66 inches overall, and the gorgeous four-part Deep Water (2005), 39 by 62 overall, are both horizon- less images of water reflecting deep blue slivers of sky at their lower margins. Scaled to the body, they invite full immersion. Battenfield says she was aiming to capture, in the experience of a glorious waterfront sunset, the "depth charges of emotion that activate your whole system."
The newest series of prints in this exhibition are based on photographs of tree limbs, shot from below against open sky. The photographs are photocopied and rephotocopied until details are lost and contrast is heightened to the point of silhouettes, and then used as the matrixes (the toner accepts ink) for twinned lithographs on paired sheets of Japanese paper, one unaltered, the other monoprinted with atmospheric color. Almost without exception the branches in these images descend from the top of the frame, like brushstrokes, sometimes anchored by a distant, upright tree. Though these images bring Battenfield as close as she has yet come to the direct transcription of nature, they retain the delicate balance between realism and abstraction, control and abandon, that has animated her work from the start.