The Artists’ Laboratory is an ongoing series of events at the Royal Academy of Arts, now in its sixth incarnation, whose goal is to offer Academicians a chance to open up their practice, take risks and explore fresh ideas, and to show the public less familiar aspects of their work. Many previous artists have used the elegant Large Weston Room galleries to present existing work in what is, after all, a prime location in the center of London; Stephen Chambers, however, a painter and experienced printmaker, took on the challenge to make a singular work specifically for the space. The aptly entitled The Big Country is a muralsized screenprint consisting of 78 individual framed sheets, each 56 x 76 cm, which together filled one whole end of the gallery and spilled onto the adjacent walls.
Chambers is not new to grand scale, having worked on backdrop designs for the Royal Opera House, but in terms of printmaking this work represents a departure from his regular practice and one with considerable risk. Rather than attempt a large print on a single sheet, Chambers chose to build the work from numerous individual sheets, following the strategy of early printmakers such as Albrecht Dürer, whose monumental woodcut The Triumphal Arch of Emperor Maximilian I (1515-1518) was made from 192 separate blocks and measures more than ten meters square.
The Big Country takes its title from William Wyler’s 1958 film starring Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck, and the allusion is key to the work’s genesis. The image owes its origin to that essential Hollywood genre, the Western, and to the theme of the opening up of America by prospectors and pioneers. It draws on journeys Chambers made across the United States, where he encountered the vast open spaces and in-between places. He talks about travelling through “a wilderness big enough to be lost in, and then somewhere would be a tumbledown cabin.” These cabins, now in various states of decay, offer evidence of the harshness of lives lived in an unforgiving landscape, where settlers were dependant on their own resources for survival and the nearest neighbor might be days away.
The Big Country was a year in the making, although one suspects the project had been slowly coming to focus over a much longer period. It brings together motifs that Chambers has explored in individual prints and paintings before, such as groups of figures beneath trees. Here, however, these vignettes are used to map an imaginary topography that embraces both time and a sense of the isolated nature of existence.
Chambers initially drew the full composition, at full scale, in ink on paper. It grew, he says, “like a coral reef” as he worked on individual pieces of paper and the drawing crossed over from one sheet to another. The final format resembles a crossword, the arrayed sheets providing a grid against which events play out. There are empty spaces that jar against the lyricism of the piece, suggesting either a story to be continued or lacunae on a map, places still to be discovered. “I like the idea that The Big Country will echo the crossword format,” Chambers said. “The invitation to fill the gaps sits well with a refusal to complete the narrative, or even acknowledge that one exists at all. Crosswords are a silent insight into the compiler’s mind….”1
This open approach, coupled with the enigmatic nature of the characters and imagery, makes it hard to assimilate the entirety on first viewing. The work benefits from repeated visits.
At the center is an image that crosses dozen of sheets and describes a neighborhood—clapboard houses and barns, some wrecked, some being built, set amongst trees. The space between the buildings creates a separateness—these are neighbors but at a distance. Silhouette figures, described by Chambers as “woodland folk,” are caught like stills in a film: a horse startled by a dog throws its rider; a woman leaps back before an open coffin; a man on horseback with his two children seems to be receiving directions. All these events unfold beneath stylized trees whose delicate foliage links each scenario to the others.
The figures exist at three different scales: small in the central area, medium toward the periphery and, framing the whole piece like bookends, a large man and woman dressed in costumes suggestive of the 19th century. The silhouettes suggest a shadow play. These various parts are knitted together through an overall delicate decorative pattern “lifted from Japanese screens,” according to Chambers, of dark and light dots that cluster in repeating bunches. This pattern shimmers across the whole surface, breaking up the silhouettes with delicate pinpricks of light and wedding the elements to the surface, as if the print were a tapestry. His use of silhouettes may seem to echo those of Kara Walker, especially given the inclusion of bodies hanging from a tree. But while Walker purposefully directs the viewer to a political reading of history and its horrors, Chambers’ intent is less programmatic—his country is big enough to incorporate the good, the bad and the ugly, and the final impression is almost one of revelry, a continent conjured through dreaming and films.
There is a further dimension to the work. Inscribed in a copperplate hand and scattered around the edges of each of the larger figures are the names of specific ports: a figure carrying a large branch is annotated with “Malmo,” “Helsinki,” “Spitzbergen” and other Scandinavian locales; a reclining woman stretches from “Sydney” to “Perth” (her dog is marked “Hobart”); other parts carry names from Amsterdam to Zanzibar. The piece thus takes the quality of an antique map, attempting to state what is known and to make a graphic representation of what is not. It references the print tradition of the illuminated map, which combined function and decoration in a pictorial image.
I have always believed printmaking to be, in its essence, a language of economy, making less do more. Chambers takes this on through his natural inclinations as a printmaker and also through the budgetary restraints of making a work on this scale. He worked closely with the printer Kip Gresham at Studio Prints in Cambridge who screenprinted each sheet in black on warm white paper. The impression, however, is not monochrome but one of soft color and a range of tones.
Opposite The Big Country at the Royal Academy hung the artist’s small colored etchings, collectively titled Trouble Meets Trouble (2012). Chambers describes it as “originating from an idle thought, imagining the combustible—and impossible—the result of a liaison between the Hindu goddess Kali and the Norse god Loki. Once that coupling had been mused, I began to consider other pairings of people…Angela Merkel and don Quixote, Marie Antoinette and Dr Foster, people from pages of fiction or differing historical eras who could never have met, but had they the couplings would have proved combustible&;it’s a dating agency from hell.”2
The etchings display a remarkably inventive range and utilize once again Chambers’ love for pattern and whimsy. The contrast between these small, richly colored portraits and the monochrome Country is intense. It is as if Chambers were deliberately subverting the balance of the gallery, or proposing that the density and intensity of these small works could offset the scale of the larger.
In a side room, Chambers showed a group of lithographs, Portrait of a Pre-Caffeinated Mind (2008), in which images are mirrored across a central axis. Saturated color and pattern, as in the etchings, break up and destabilize a simple reading of the characters in silhouette. An early potato cut also on display served as a reminder that the simple act of stamping down an image remains his central preoccupation.
The refreshing quality of this exhibition lay in the manner in which Chambers accepted the brief of the The Artists’ Laboratory and chose to fulfill it through printmaking. It was important for him that The Big Country was made as an editionable work: one copy was sold in advance to the Pera Museum in Istanbul and underwrote the project. In Chambers’ words, “It’s a contribution to the debate about what printmaking can be.”
The exhibition was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an essay by Rod Mengham and a conversation between Chambers and the sculptor Alison Wilding: Artists Laboratory 06: Stephen Chambers RA: The Big Country. Royal Academy of Arts, 2012. 48 pages, fully illustrated.
- Artists Laboratory 06: Stephen Chambers RA: The Big Country (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2012), 29.
- Ibid, 27.