A quality of incision, Megan Dunn

Lateral Inversions: The Prints of Barry Cleavin 
Melinda Johnston
Canterbury University Press, $55.00,
ISBN 9781927145470

Lateral Inversions: The Prints of Barry Cleavin contains over 120 colour plates and is a beautifully produced book that affords serious consideration to Barry Cleavin’s artwork. In the introduction, Melinda Johnston foregrounds Cleavin’s status as a major printmaker within New Zealand, noting that a book surveying his work is long overdue. Cleavin’s career spans five decades: he graduated from Ilam in 1966, was senior lecturer in printmaking at the University of Canterbury from 1978 to 1990, and made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2000 for services to the arts.

Canterbury University Press is thus the natural fit as publisher. Lateral Inversions is a piece of scholarship; that’s its great strength and also its weakness. Johnston completed her MA in Art History at the University of Canterbury in 2005, and this book has clearly grown out of her thesis on parody, irony and satire in the prints of Barry Cleavin. Lateral Inversions is a survey of Cleavin’s prints arranged chronologically from 1966-2012. The emphasis is kept on the image. Each print is laid out on the right hand page, accompanied by a short text on the left. The benefits of Johnston’s art historical approach are a book that is comprehensively researched and will retain its factual value over time. Her short texts combine a range of quotations from Cleavin, art historians, artists and reviewers that convey the origins of each print, and the evolution of Cleavin’s art. The disadvantages of Johnston’s studious approach are that her writing is often dry and must be read dutifully.

Johnston’s opening essay contextualises Cleavin’s printmaking within a centuries-old European tradition of satire, referencing a wide range of artists and influences, from Francisco de Goya and Honoré Daumier to the anatomical treatise of Andreas Vesalius and the photographic works of Eadweard Muybridge. She dissects the origins and meaning of satire and irony in art, applying their relevance to Cleavin’s often politically charged imagery. Her research is apt, but I didn’t require – or enjoy – this amount of exegesis. Flayed open, the anatomy of satire has little sting. And there’s something ironic about reading such a complete vivisection of irony. But Johnston’s right: “In Cleavin’s work irony functions both as a technique and as a broad attitude that prompts viewers to reconsider the meanings assigned to words and images.”

Many of Cleavin’s images are instantly gettable: Childsplay 1 (1984) features the shadow of a Stuka bomber; from beneath its wing, babies drop instead of bombs. Johnston writes of the Childsplay suite: “Cleavin’s intention is to shock his viewers into rethinking their concept of war by exaggerating the notion of expediency.” However, I imagine that Cleavin’s social and political conscience is likely to be one shared by many of his viewers. They won’t need to rethink their concept of war. Instead, the moral pulse of Cleavin’s imagery resonates. Perhaps the pathos in some of Cleavin’s prints now comes from the fact that his images are not shocking or hard hitting, but endemic, a sign of our times. Firearm (1976) is an early etching of an arm-bone connected to a handgun. The image is a literal translation of the word; Cleavin revels in this kind of literal bloody-mindedness illustrating words and phrases to a T, like a soldier following orders through to their logical conclusions.

Cleavin doesn’t expose the gap between appearance and reality, as Johnston occasionally argues, instead he closes it. Columbine, mass mall shootings, Aramoana, We Need to Talk About Kevin: Cleavin’s Offensive Weapons suite (1976) operates in a world where war and guns are commonplace. Undressed of skin, the human body becomes the skeleton. The skeleton is at the centre of Cleavin’s iconography. From the Series of Allegations (1988) to the dark still lives depicted in his A Shadow of Doubt prints (1995), Cleavin has captured the intricate form of the skeleton with grim and grinning fascination. His technical control in drawing and printmaking is suited to depicting the contours of bones. His prints are often lean. Cleavin’s stark backgrounds act as a foil, focussing the viewer’s attention on the central image.

Lateral Inversions locates Cleavin’s practice outside the concerns of New Zealand identity and regionalism and in issues of “distance looking our way”. This assessment is fair, but there’s also a case to be made for Cleavin’s skeletal imagery as an example of New Zealand gothic. Cleavin’s environmental concerns parallel New Zealand’s early dream of itself as clean and green. The Hungry Sheep Look Up series (1995) conjures the site of the slaughterhouse. And, in 1984, a major touring exhibition of Cleavin’s work was entitled Ewe and Eye. Sometimes the sheep has the last laugh, even after rigor mortis has set in.

“A Personal History” by Cleavin’s friend, the late T W Rodney Wilson, provides wonderful details of the development of Cleavin’s talent and technique. Wilson studied alongside Cleavin in the painting department at Canterbury University and is able to convey their education and experiences within that earlier art scene, “so very different from today”. Wilson reflects: “Looking back on that time, my most abiding debt to the school is that we were taught to draw well.” The students learnt life drawing, technical drawing and even Trajan Column roman lettering. In the “life room” of the art school hung a human skeleton. “Not a plastic one as you see today. The real McCoy,” Wilson says. His descriptions of Cleavin’s first prints, and drawing process ‒ “his line has a quality of incision” ‒ are a delight to read. In the 1960s, Cleavin had little access to artwork through exhibitions, books or magazines. Wilson highlights how much has changed: “During the last two to three decades we have been swamped with good-quality beautifully illustrated books and periodicals that keep us appraised of the contemporary.” I appreciated the rest of Lateral Inversions more after reading Wilson’s essay.

The book is an impressive piece of publishing. The weight and quality of the paper suit the gravitas of Cleavin’s prints. Occasionally, I craved larger images; some of the detail gets lost in small reproductions. Cleavin frequently works in thematic series and a fold-out could have worked well. I was not familiar with his work before Lateral Inversions and would also have liked to see some installation shots of key exhibitions. However, all these criticisms are minor. Like Cleavin’s work, this book is designed to withstand the whims of fashion.

The counter story that runs throughout Lateral Inversions is about the status of print-making as a craft. Warren Feeney noted in a recent review for art website Eyecontact: “Lateral Inversions is not a book that overtly announces the grandness of its intentions.” In comparison to other recent art publications, like Ron Sang’s Pat Hanly (2012) or the Christchurch Art Gallery’s Shane Cotton: The Hanging Sky (2013), Feeney suggests that the aspirations and physical stature of Lateral Inversions “intuitively” mirror the status of print-making in the contemporary art canon. Most New Zealand art schools have now collapsed the boundaries between departments like painting and print-making, in favour of a multi-disciplinary approach. Lateral Inversions contains a glossary of print-making terminology that covers processes including aquatint, etching, and viscosity colour printing. It’s hard to imagine how Cleavin’s skill set is fostered in students at Elam or Ilam School of Fine Arts today.

The term “lateral inversion” means the left-right reversal of an object in a mirror; it’s also an apt title for a book about a printmaker. On the cover, a murder of crows, wings outstretched, startles a semi-circle of sky. The Fan (1988) cascades from black to potent pink. After Hiroshima was bombed in 1945, survivors’ stories tell of the crows that descended on the remains of the city. Cleavin has applied the form of the crow, using a zinc stencil. Point of view is key: the viewer looks upon the darkened shadows of the crows as though lying on the ground, eyes shielded, half-open. On the back cover is another work from the same series: Crows Were Hibakusha Too (1988). In Cleavin’s world, the crows are also survivors, witnesses to human tragedy: “Where ever I send them, whatever country, it is unlikely that their message will be misunderstood. Such is the common language of crow.”

 

Megan Dunn has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and regularly reviews exhibitions for a wide range of New Zealand galleries and publications.