"Tracing Intuitions" by Sumru Tekin

Added on by Lilly Hern-Fondation.

This essay was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Sarah Amos: Chalk Lines, curated by Barbara Takenaga, on view at CUE Art Foundation from October 16 - December 11, 2019. This text is included in the free exhibition catalogue available at CUE.

Sarah Amos,  Doves Eye , 2019. Collagraph and thread on felt 84 x 66 inches.

Sarah Amos, Doves Eye, 2019. Collagraph and thread on felt 84 x 66 inches.

“To be at home in this place means to be comfortable with unsynthesized intuitions: with unfamiliar things and happenings and states and presences that confound and silence the mind and decompose the ego...This is the state of vigilant alertness that maximizes receptivity to whatever the real strange thing has to offer.” – Adrian Piper [1]

The invented landscapes of Sarah Amos’s large-scale collagraph constructions on felt and canvas recall archaeological sites where the uncanny presence of disparate objects evokes the co-existence of multiple histories and activities. Amos describes the material and compositional makeup of the work as “layers [that] jostle over the surface, to find each other,” a palimpsest, irreducible to a single image, surface, or history. [2]

Accumulated materials, images, and processes are fields of nearly endless possibility, over which the artist navigates her intuitions and preoccupations. Time and memory are present, evidenced by the labor of her hand stitching and the receding and advancing areas of fabric and ink, suggesting architectural spaces to be entered by a viewer encountering the pieces — human scale at 78 x 64 inches each. Abstracted organic forms, figures in groups or in isolation, appear and disappear, on the verge of moving out and off the picture plane.

Luminous black, gray, and blue inks combined with lush felt fabric belie Amos’s physically demanding technique of digging, scraping, and cutting into the cardboard surface using acrylic modeling paste and carborundum to create the multiple matrices for her collagraph prints. Collagraph prints often start with the application of a variety of textures and marks to a planographic surface of either cardboard or acrylic that will be hand-inked and printed from paper, fabric, and other materials.

The gaps, disparities, and overlaps produced by the various materials and their treatment become interruptions, openings created by exclusions and concealment. They provide beginnings for new narratives that will inevitably produce further gaps. Traces of each successive mark reveal multiple images and surfaces merging and separating within the individual pieces. As viewers, we are engaged in constructing meaning from the process of making and experiencing these works. The pieces take time — time to make and time to experience.

Amos’s fine arts training in the late 1980’s in Melbourne, Australia, emphasized Eastern and Southeast Asian influences rather than Western European, looking towards Japanese, Indonesian, and Malaysian traditions in relief and woodblock printing. Introduced to ukiyo-e wood cut prints as an undergraduate, she gravitated to the works of Japanese artists. Among them, Utagawa Hiroshige’s (1797–1858) Hakone Pass from his 53 Stations of the Tokaido Pass series fascinated her. In 2007, Amos created a series of 25 large-scale collagraphs on paper referencing her own crossing from Australia to America 28 years earlier. Shortly after completing that series, in a moment of improbable coincidence, Amos came across a folder in her grandfather’s studio with an original Hiroshige — the Hakone Pass.

Objects such as the Hiroshige print can function as the physical manifestations of memories, repositories for our desires, and, however inadequate, stand-ins for the real thing. Orchestrating conversations, both imagined and real, based upon her family’s histories and artistic legacies and her training and development as a master printmaker, Amos’s compositions resonate with affinities past and present. 

Among the many seductions of collagraph printing is the freedom to effectively produce, very quickly and with little editing, image after image from the press. While the ideas and materials generated in this way are an integral part of Amos’s practice, she also finds value in what is labored over. Hand stitching, featured prominently in this current work, provides a welcome opportunity for the artist to negotiate the rhythms of thought and practice over the course of working on a single piece that can take months to finish.

Today Amos regards the physical act of printing itself as one part of how she creates an image. The process functions as a “source of information,” whether as an understated or highly visible presence in the work. The artist’s training in lithography at the Tamarind Institute continues to inform her work conceptually. Subtly layering ink and pattern to both hide and reveal an image at once, Amos can “pull apart an image to see three dimensionally what the piece would look like over seven different surfaces,” she says.

Sarah Amos,  39 Shillings , 2014. Collagraph and thread on felt 73 x 65 inches.

Sarah Amos, 39 Shillings, 2014. Collagraph and thread on felt 73 x 65 inches.

Inhabiting one perspective while visualizing the possibility for many, Amos cultivates a curiosity about what comes next. Working in opposition to the traditions of printmaking and notions of the vernacular, she pushes against fixed identities, gently rejecting the notion of a singular influence. A wide range of interests contribute to Amos’s expanding vocabulary of images informing her present production, including English portraiture, Japanese Kabuki theater, and manga illustrations. And yet, Amos’s work extends beyond cultural specificity, as the materials and visual elements carry open-ended meanings and associations. Amos uses these collected inventions to reconfigure any preconceived readings, setting them in new directions.

The product of constant experiment, Amos’s current preoccupation in the studio incorporates canvas and paint, as she imagines translating her ability to visualize three dimensions from a two-dimensional piece into sculptural objects, moving further away from conventional printing surfaces. Defining her approach in the studio as “trans-media,” Amos blurs distinctions between printmaking, painting, and sculpture. Much like her existence as an international artist, she operates between “here and there”: “The work, I guess, becomes my country, my culture, and my identity — a place where I can wander freely, explore horizons, and create a personal language that resonates to me.”

Histories and cultures comprise interwoven elements with continuous breaks and disturbances. Our lives are measured in moments at once unique and universal: daily accretions of ordinary activities punctuated by the disruptions of love and loss. Amos has chosen a visual language that holds the potential to reflect these simultaneities.

[1] Adrian Piper, “The Real Thing Strange,” in Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965 – 2016, (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2018).

[2] All quotations by the artist are from an interview conducted in the artist’s studio, June 23, 2019.

This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season. 

Sumru Tekin works within and through a range of media and collaborations, including writing about and presenting the work of other artists. With artists Kate Donnelly and Thatiana Oliveira, she is co-founder of
Snake House VT and Single Channel VT – collaborative platforms for the exchange of ideas through exhibitions, screenings, performance, and artistic research. Tekin received her MFA in Visual Art from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a BA in Art History from the University of Vermont. She has participated in residencies at Marble House Project and the MacDowell Colony. Her grants include the Barbara Smail Award, a Creation Grant from the Vermont Arts Council/National Endowment for the Arts, and an Arts Endowment Fund Grant from the Vermont Community Foundation. Her artist book Memory Device is in the permanent collection of the Iraq National Library.

Mentor Charles Desmarais, appointed art critic at the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015, received the 2017 Rabkin Prize for Visual Arts Journalism. He was awarded an Art Critic’s Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979. The years between, he spent as an avid lover of art, friend of artists, and leader of arts institutions. Desmarais has served as President of the San Francisco Art Institute (2011-2016) and Deputy Director for Art at the Brooklyn Museum (2004-2011). He was Director at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati (1995-2004); the Laguna Art Museum (1988-1994); and the California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside (1981-1988). His extensive experience as an art writer includes numerous exhibition catalogues as well as work for Afterimage, American Art, Art in America, ARTnews, California, Grand Street, and elsewhere. He authored a regular column, “On Art,” for the Riverside Press-Enterprise from 1987 to 1988.