Prix de Print No. 4: Breathing Touch by Annu Vertanen

  • Annu Vertanen, Breathing Touch (2012–13)

  • Woodcut on multiple sheets of machine-made Kozo papers, 118 x 212 in. (330 x 540 cm.) Unique image. Printed and published by the artist, Imatra, Finland. .

I made my way with great pleasure through all the submissions for the fourth Prix de Print competition. Though aware, as previous jurors have been, of the limitations of digital imagery when assessing the full sensuous worth of a print, I did not feel entirely stymied. Aesthetic strategies of formal design, expression, idea and historical resonance could be mine to judge. Success was measurable. Although an inveterate modernist, I enjoyed seeing boundaries pushed beyond the stand-alone print to the contemporary incorporation of printed images into other media and formats. I wanted to be surprised by the unfamiliar, to be told what a print could be while keeping within the realm of tradition. A Janus-faced print would do the trick. Most of all, I wanted to be moved.

Annu Vertanen, installation view of Breathing Touch (2012–13). Photo: Jussi Tiainen.

Annu Vertanen, installation view of Breathing Touch (2012–13). Photo: Jussi Tiainen.

As I worked toward a short list of contenders, I kept returning to the wallscale woodcut, Breathing Touch. Built from superimposed layers of woodblock-printed “curtains” of diaphanous Japanese paper, each layer consisting of nine separate sheets, all attached with supermagnets to a trellis-like wooden structure, the whole affair declared itself as an intricate screen of grand proportions (no less than 10 by 18 feet).

The imagery is composed of linear spirals in a rainbow of pastel colors. When vertical, these computer-generated helical springs call to mind Roman swags; when bent, they look like nothing so much as metal Slinkys. The marks are simultaneously painterly and linear; the forms are warm and cool, sweet and edgy in the delicate haze of pastels playing off the metallic feel of the geometric coils. Overlapping in three layers, these tubular patterns confound one another.

The artist wrote that she wished to suggest the physical act of inhaling and exhaling, and in an enlightened decision, she angled Breathing Touch away from the wall. Allowing air to circulate freely through the screen and light to pass through the translucent papers bring greater luminosity of color, spatial depth, and a slight rustling of the sheets that enliven the linear designs—effects that would be lost if the work were installed on or against a wall.

Eye, mind and body are caught up in the complex lyricism of this monumental woodcut. The movement of the sheets and apparent animation of design, and the tactile appeal of the fibrous papers warrant the title Breathing Touch. Yet, if base perception and bodily engagement sound the essential argument of this print, it trails art-historical associations that lend other expressive dimensions, from Shoji screens to Robert Rauschenberg’s Hoarfrost Editions of 1974, with their gauzy layers of screenprinted sheets of silk chiffon and taffeta. The meeting of geometry with organic color and light in Breathing Touch recalls the sensibilities of such artists as Agnes Martin and Terry Winters.

Detail of Breathing Touch.

Detail of Breathing Touch.

Since the Prix de Print competition judging is done blind, I knew the artist only as #1253, but from the work’s knowing blend of control and sensitivity, and its material use of woodcut and Japanese papers, I suspected it had an East Asian link. Upon declaring my choice, I learned it had been made by Annu Vertanen, who is Finnish but has studied woodblock printing in Japan. Her attraction to Japanese art strikes me as personal and cultural. Simplified graphic design, assertive color, and bold patterning characterize both Japanese and Finnish aesthetics. Describing her approach to woodcuts as “wallpapering,” she invokes in her printmaking a tradition of fine Finnish domestic design exemplified by Arabia, Iittala and Marimmeko.

In a world wired for instant communication and global awareness, it would seem that contemporary art has become a fully international language. But one may still perceive national dialects: in its allusions to Finnish design as well as to frosted glass, snowflakes and the undulating veils of the aurora borealis, Breathing Touch suggests qualities at once regional and universal. I wanted to be touched by what I discovered through the Prix de Print; the contemplative beauty of Vertanen’s remarkable woodcut is all I could have hoped for.

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