Process and Prints: In Conversation with Matt Saunders

By | January 31, 2018

Currents 114 features new work from multimedia artist Matt Saunders. Working across painting, photography, animation, and printmaking, Saunders endeavors to reveal the “analogous relationships” between seemingly distinct media. One component of the exhibition is a suite of five copper plate prints produced in collaboration with Copenhagen-based printer Niels Borch Jensen. Ratlos / Indomitable (2017) incorporates borrowed images of the actress Hannelore Hoger in the role of Leni Peickert, a character created by German filmmaker Alexander Kluge. By combining soft-ground etching, soap-ground aquatint, sugar-lift aquatint, spit-bite aquatint, and open bite for this series, Saunders achieves dense, painterly layers of texture and tone.

Saunders recently sat down with Heather Hughes, who manages the Museum’s Study Room for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. They discussed his renewed interest in printmaking and his experimentation with techniques that date back to the 18th century.

HH: You trained as a painter, and your previous solo exhibitions have primarily consisted of photography and video. What prompted you to introduce copperplate printmaking into your current practice?

MS: I’ve never really shown prints in an exhibition before, but this was the first thing I knew that I wanted to do with the Currents show. The idea was to have a print project that could arrive at the same scale as the rest of the work and that could serve as the backbone for the show. To some extent, all the work in the show has this logic of printing to it, where there is a matrix and then a result. In some way, they are all infused with something printerly.

For example, in my new paintings, I force very wet paint through the surface of this chiffon, which acts like a screen-printing material. So the paintings have a closer relationship to working on a silkscreen than to working on a canvas. At the same time, I was thinking about the copper plate as a time-based medium, because by biting the plate in the acid, you are working with time, which is analogous to the process of exposure in photography.

HH: Since you started collaborating with Niels Borch Jensen in 2014, you’ve been experimenting with a number of techniques, including aquatint etching. What attracted you to such a traditional approach to printmaking?

MS: Since I started as a printmaker in school, I already knew some of these techniques, like sugar-lift aquatint. It is what Pablo Picasso used in all of his bestiary prints. When you see an aquatint mark in one of my prints that looks like a brushstroke, that is where I used a sugar-lift.

But the most interesting thing that came out of working with Niels was using soap ground. We worked for years to perfect a soap mixture that would be stable enough to work with as a controllable drawing tool. Basically, it lets me control how deeply the acid bites into the plate. Normally, if you are making a more traditional multi-tone aquatint, you have to do it in stages. But with the soap ground, I achieve different gradations with just one acid bath, which is rare for a print.

In many of the prints, I imprinted the same chiffon fabric that I was using in my photographs and paintings into a soft ground, which adds a kind of texture. For those prints, the tonality is actually coming from that fabric weave more than the aquatint.

HH: From the perspective of process, did you find any advantages to printmaking over other media?

MS: The reason to use prints is that in a photo you expose it all at once. There is no working back into it. What interests me with a copper plate is that it can be worked endlessly. For each print, I drew a face, and then I looked at a different picture and I drew another face. So, I am making a double exposure by hand. Then we bite the plate with acid and we print it to see what it would look like. Then we spend a lot of time going back pushing and pulling it, drawing things out and working into it more.

HH: On the other side of the wall where the Ratlos / Indomitable prints are hanging is a related series that you titled Back (Ratlos / Indomitable) series, because the images were created by printing the markings on the back surfaces of their copper plates. Where did all these marks and scratches come from, and what made you decide to print them?

MS: In Niels’s print shop, I got help making the aquatints and assistance in printing the plates,  but everything else was done by me. So we took a full sheet of copper and cut it down to the largest size that I could carry without slicing my hands. That’s why the backs are so screwed up, because I did a lot of heaving them onto the table and pulling them this way and that. And then there are some marks that come from handling the plate with solvents on your hands, so you see fingerprints, too.

In the process of handling these things, I became more and more fascinated about what was happening on the other side. I asked Niels to print a record, with this idea that I would show both sides of the print. A copper printing plate is a two-sided thing and we only print on one, so what does it mean then to show both planes, both surfaces of that material?

HH: Are there any historical printmakers who have informed your approach to the medium? For students of print history, Francisco de Goya immediately comes to mind at the mention of aquatint.

MS: What’s interesting about Goya’s aquatint is how uneven it is, because he sprinkled the rosin powder by hand through a sock. Today, print shops put a premium on getting a perfect even tone so they have an aquatint box. But I love the gnarliness of Goya’s aquatints and the sense that they are marvels in their own right because he shook the powder.

The printmaker I am obsessed with now is James Ensor. If you look at a Rembrandt print, the line feels like an ink line. But Ensor’s drypoint lines are so faintly scratched that they feel like the kind of texture or quality that you would have in a painting or something with a different type of structure than the graphic arts. That is probably what’s been influencing me.

It’s your last chance to visit Currents 114: Matt Saunders before it closes February 4! The exhibition is curated by Hannah Klemm, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, with Molly Moog, research assistant.

Heather Hughes is a senior research assistant at the Saint Louis Art Museum and manages the Museum’s Study Room for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

Image Credits: Matt Saunders, American, born 1975; Ratlos / Indomitable #1, 2017; copper plate etching (soft ground etching, soap ground aquatint, spit bite aquatint, sugar lift aquatint, open bite); 60 × 40 inches; Courtesy of the artist and Niels Borch Jensen Editions © Matt Saunders || Matt Saunders, American, born 1975; Back (Ratlos / Indomitable) #1; 60 × 40 inches; copper plate etching; Courtesy of the artist and Niels Borch Jensen Editions © Matt Saunders || Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Spanish, 1746–1828; Que viene el coco (Here Comes the Bogey-Man), plate 3 from “Los Caprichos”, 1799; etching with burnished aquatint; 7 1/2 x 5 3/8 inches; Gift of Dr. Malvern B. Clopton  18:1946