vol 22 Spring 2013

Spaces In Between
by Nancy Campbell

Julia Farrer Double Link
Double Link I & II

ARTIST Julia Farrer's exquisitely rendered geometric abstractions inhabit the dusky netherworld between light and dark. Nancy Campbell visits her in her London studio

Winter light rakes through the window of Julia Farrer’s studio and over her prints. Some of the monochrome, abstract forms it illuminates seem bold enough to cast a shadow; others, closer to grey than black, shimmer quietly. Quoting a poem by Anthony Rudolf, Farrer says, ‘There’s a wonderful French expression for dusk, that netherworld of light and dark, entre le chien et la lupe.’ Farrer’s prints inhabit this liminal space ‘between the dog and the wolf’. The viewer wants to linger in front of these geometric ambiguities to unravel their true form and meaning.

Printmaking has long been central to Farrer’s work: ‘I was taught [at London's Slade School of Art] by Anthony Gross [RA RE] and Barto dos Santos [RE].’ So great was her desire to make prints, she ‘almost stopped painting for three years’. Farrer has continued to transpose periods of painting and printmaking throughout her career and her ideas migrate freely between both. ‘I’ve just begun work on two plates that parallel two paintings,’ she tells me. She enthuses over print's power to make the painter in her ‘think differently’. She relishes the physical process. ‘It’s no good having an idea if you can’t construct it,’ she says. ‘New ideas come out of the making. There are no ideas without technique, just as there is no language without syntax.’

Julia Farrer Triple Ring
Triple Ring I & 2

On leaving the Slade, in 1972, Farrer spent two years on a Harkness Fellowship. As Visiting Scholar at the University of New Mexico, she worked as assistant to lithographer Garo Antreasian, a founder of Tamarind. Later, in New York, she lived on the 11th floor of the American Thread Building, three blocks from the World Trade Centre. Nearly three decades later, she would watch TV footage of their destruction. By 2002, distorted, oblong, tower-like forms were emerging in paintings and prints, some shown that year in her solo exhibition, Towers & Bridges, at London's Eagle Gallery.

‘At a certain point my work paralleled what Deconstructivist architects like Daniel Libeskind and Peter Eisenman were doing. But I was doing it instinctively.’ Critic Andrew Mead sees a connection between Farrer’s work and the daring designs of these architects. He describes her paintings as architectural forms ‘with their abruptly-angled walls, folded planes, cuts and disrupted grids’.1 In a visit to New York last year, Farrer visited the 9/11 Memorial: the footprint of the Towers, two empty black squares, is a resonant image for any abstract artist.

Screens and pages
Julia Farrer Twin Links I & II
Twin Links I & II

Julia Farrer Twin Links III & IV
Twin Links III & IV

Farrer’s interest in architectural form can be seen in her prints' blank spaces, which suggest a deeper dimension than ink on paper permits. Her uses of impression and cutaway paper are particularly dramatic. In Dovecot I and II (2001) a ladder-shaped skeletal impression is created by a mask of compressed polystyrene laid on top of the inked plate. The effect is an unprinted area: edges so clean and sharp they might be die-cut, giving the sensation of looking through a frame into the print's second stratum. Farrer ascribes her interest in layering to ‘the influence of Japanese printmakers: Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige... In their prints you often seem to be looking through a screen at other things: a marvellous visual device.’

In recent series such as Twin Links or Double Link, Farrer cut a hole from the etching plate, leaving an unprinted area, an empty space, at the print's centre. Not content with shaping the plate, in Les Ponts Variation I, and later in a woodcut series, Calligraphies, she cut forms from the base paper itself, leaving a window onto the shadowed mount behind. Her intention is to encourage the viewer to question their sense of perspective.

These collaged, excised elements hint at interstices between the second and third dimension. Farrer has pursued this in artist’s books under the Ki Press imprint since the 1980s. Later came a collaboration with Ian Tyson: Partworks (1995), a significant series of books and prints that arose from a light-hearted, experimental working process: ‘Ian and I posted drawings to each other, cut them up, reassembled them.’ Farrer realized that books can work as kinetic sculptures because ‘the viewer gets a surprise whenever they turn a page’. More book works followed. The concertina binding of Lo (2001), created with poet Judith Thurman, allowed Farrer to experiment with depth in new ways. In Mandorla (2006), she responded in drypoint and aquatint to poems by Anthony Rudolf, again using masked areas. ‘With etching, the problem is what to do with the back of the page. I’ve made it a feature.’ The immaculate impression on the reverse of the French-folded sheets forms a crisp line at an angle to the page edge. The quiet gesture suits Rudolf’s text, which demonstrates an interest in thresholds and margins to rival Farrer’s. His predilection for puns is matched by playful spatial allusions in her work.

Perceptual games

Julia Farrer Double Ring I & II
Double Ring I & II

'I don't think people play enough,' Farrer talks me through her work like a magician performing a card trick. ‘I cut a hole in a square piece of paper and fold it. If you fold something, you change the geometry. It’s a way of surprising yourself.’ ‘There are all sorts of puns here,’ she adds, gesturing to a recent woodcut. Farrer has been using Aeroply, in print series such as Colour, Square, Fold. Its strong grain allows her to suggest folded forms, by laying pieces on the press in contradictory directions. This material that provides geometric shapes for her woodcuts is also employed in 3-D work: steamed and curved into sculptural forms, the final shape covered with a thin layer of granite so it resembles ‘folded stone’. One work, Möbius, is almost paper-thin and the surface stone catches the light like wet ink.

Farrer’s recent work, Calligraphies in particular, is influenced by letter forms of Arabic script, especially ancient Kufic calligraphy. She shows me an image of the Old Mosque at Edirne, Turkey, where sacred words grace the walls, each letter taller than a man. Yet Farrer appreciates contemporary drawing technology. Sometimes she uses architects' 3-D software to make preliminary drawings for complex twisted helixes such as Double Ring (2011) or Twin Links (2012). She can create perfect geometric shapes on screen with a sweep of the mouse, generating illusory ‘architectural structures’. The software allows her more freedom than a pencil. ‘I can shift things around, move one thing in front of another... cut holes in things... see it from any direction.’ But the prints Farrer has created in response to images produced by calligrapher’s pen and computer pixel have a touch of the sacred and playfully profane.

Notes 1 Andrew Mead in Julia Farrer: Towers & Bridges (Eagle Gallery, 2002)

Julia Farrer


Julia Farrer Bibliography Page 1 Julia Farrer Bibliography Page 3