We first saw the work of hand-crafted artist Robin McCloskey as 700×1200 pixel digital slides. Despite the shortcomings of that all-too-common jurying practice, we were immediately aware of not only the emotional impact but also the scale and ambition present in each image. We have often commented (without judgement) here at fotosavant on the sometimes blurry lines between the handcrafted photograph and print-making, among other disciplines. Just as the digital negative could be said to make the handmade photograph “less handmade”, so are there those who say that moving process to a more prominent position in composition makes a work “less photographic”. McCloskey combines image and process in a striking and original way that works on many platforms as her record of installations and gallery shows amply demonstrates.
fotosavant invited her to provide an introduction to her gallery (which follows). Not surprisingly that led us to still more questions…
RM: Like many Americans, I have relocated several times both as a child and as an adult. The landscapes in my work reflect my moves across the country: the seashore, dotted with wooden lifeboats, of Ocean City, New Jersey, where I spent childhood summers; the prairies of the Midwest; and the Baylands and redwood forests the of San Francisco Bay Area where I now live.
As I hike our local terrain, I am awestruck to think of its nearly total transformation in little less than 200 years. I try to imagine previous inhabitants standing where I do, looking at the places that have become familiar to me, fascinated with the idea that the land on which we now live and work harbors secrets from those long gone.
I am currently at work on a series of prints, which further explores this idea of the manipulated landscape. Overhearing a remark at a party about tree grafting lead me to seek out images of tress which had been grown from different root stocks. My motivation was personal, as we had recently adopted our second child, and grafting a tree seemed a perfect metaphor for what we were striving to do in our family. I happened upon the work of Axel Anderson, a Swedish American, who settled in Scott’s Valley, CA and grew the well-known “Circus Trees” in his backyard in the mid-twentieth century. Since his death, many of the surviving trees have been moved to Gilroy Gardens, where I have spent some time photographing them. These photographs serve as the basic element of my newest photo-etchings.
My working method is a bridge spanning print techniques hundreds of years old, nineteenth-century photographic processes, and contemporary practices, including computer-manipulated imagery. I begin most pieces with multiple scanned photographs or digital images, which I combine in Photoshop to create a digital composite. The computer montage is output as film to be exposed onto a photo-etching plate. The photo imagery is augmented with traditional printmaking, drawing or painting, to bring a feeling of the handmade to the photo-etching. This allows me to layer the present with the past, and the experimental with the traditional, in terms of both content and technique.
fs: Do you work out of a home or academic dark room/print shop?
RM: Although I do teach at a local university, as well as a large non-profit artist cooperative, I do most of my printmaking in a small studio behind my house.
fs: You work a great deal in large-scale projects (including installations…). What do you believe is the role of size in creating a final effect?
RM: For many years I have made work that features either small figures or small objects in a larger, sometimes much larger landscape. In order to create this juxtaposition of scale, the work had to get big. I ended up liking the physical presence that these larger prints have, and enjoy making them, although it is more challenging technically, as well as more labor and time intensive.
fs: Very specifically, “Why these images in this medium?” You have executed other series in digital/watercolor, digital prints, etc. “What goes into your decision making process when matching subject matter to medium?” To put it another way, “Are they medium-driven or subject matter – driven?”
RM: Most of the work begins in my journal, as drawings or collages. I then begin to translate the idea to print. Often this means making the photographs that I need in order to create the image. So I would say that they are definitely driven by subject matter.
Many years ago, when I was teaching printmaking at Columbia College in Chicago, we shared a studio with the alternative photo class. I began to see cyanotypes and brownprints, photographic images printed on BFK, the same kind of paper that we used for printing etchings and lithographs. I became intrigued and decided to enroll in the alternative photo class myself. One night during a slide show the professor showed a slide of a photo-etching. As soon as I saw it I knew that was what I wanted to do. I found a workshop that summer almost 20 years ago, learned the process, and haven’t really stopped since.
fs: When you approach galleries, museums, etc. with your work, how do you characterize it? “photography”? “multi-media”? and is that ever a problem in a world that likes to categorize and pigeon-hole art?
RM: I present myself as a printmaker and digital artist. Except for the one alternative photo class mentioned above, I really have no formal training in photography, and am self-taught in the digital realm. My degree is in traditional printmaking and drawing. However, I love being able to combine all of these disciplines in a cohesive way, and printmaking is what allows me to do that.
I think there are sometimes hurdles to overcome as printmaking is sometimes considered overly concerned with technique at the expense of content. However, I think the most important thing is finding a gallery or dealer sympathetic to the concerns of your work, whatever they may happen to be.
fs: As an instructor what advice to you have for adult students who are trying to choose among workshops and/or between different instructors teaching the same medium?
fs: What are you working on now?
RM: Right now I have a huge pile of dirt in my back yard, which I am making into a kind of underground environment. I’m interested in making a kind of personal archaeology, a site that looks as if it were discovered by someone digging in the dirt. I partially bury objects in the dirt and then make photographs. Eventually these will be combined with other photographs in Photoshop and output as film to create a mixed media print.
fs: Where can readers look to see your work in person? Any upcoming shows?
RM: My work is currently being exhibited in the On View show at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, CA, and Prints Galore at the Santa Cruz Art League. I am represented by the Kala Gallery as well as by Colleen Shira in Denver, CO.