Prix de Print No. 29: divining by Kelsey Stephenson

  • Kelsey Stephenson, divining (2016)

  • Print installation: monoprint, digital print, screenprint and etching, 9 x 72 feet. Unique work. Printed by the artist, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. .

Kelsey Stephenson, detail from divining (2016).

Heraclitean notions of flow and flux permeate Kelsey Stephenson’s monumental print installation, divining. The viewer enters a space made up of three modulated walls comprising individual sheets of Japanese paper, each of which has been subjected, in differing degrees, to the artistry of the printmaker. This expansive area is 9 feet in height and 70 feet long. Each sheet hangs from its upper corners, and this relative freedom allows the assembled elements to react to air currents within the space and to the turbulence created by people passing. The resulting movement across the paper walls emulates movements in nature: the flow of water, the ebbing sea, windblown long grass. The effect is soothing, yet also disconcerting; the shifting forms are at odds with the architectural order of the installation, causing the viewer to pause and engage with the entire space.

divining is a conceptual response to landscape. As a genre, landscape has attracted artists for centuries. In idealized form, it has served as a backdrop for figurative compositions and as a forum for theoretical investigation. Other artists have looked to recreate its physical appearance through acute observation. The natural environment has also provided a point of departure for modernist, subjective, formalist explorations. Stephenson took her title from a poem by Mary Pinkoski, who explores themes of self, identity and connection to place. In divining the artist invokes homeland, the Drumheller Badlands of Alberta in Canada, presenting a sense of place drawn from the mind’s eye and from personal experience. The multi-faceted composition combines digital prints of real and created survey maps, and the artist’s photographic studies, all manipulated using traditional print methods. Each component represents a different mode of experiencing place: through geographical mapping, through a viewfinder, through being on site and through memory. The installation also includes soundscapes composed by Alex Gray and Ryan Stennes, derived from the natural cadences of running water, a moving glacier and rustling wind. The soothing white noise echoes the nuanced and abstracted forms of the printed surfaces.

Stephenson felt compelled to consider the terrain she grew up with when she moved to Tennessee in 2013 to study. Like many before her, she experienced a more defined sense of “home” when viewing it from a distance—recognizing or seeing for the first time the characteristics that make it unique—which lead her to examine its meaning within her own narrative. Though she is aware of the political issues embedded in depictions of the land, this is not her focus. Her palimpsestic maps are without place names—the colonial ones removed by the artist, the ancient ones never printed.

The landscape represented in divining is not a nationalistic or patriotic emblem. Instead, the work stems from subjective explorations of identity and what it means to belong to a place. Working from personal experience, she finds the universal in the local. Viewers experience a shared consciousness with the artist, allowing them to respond through the lens of their own memories and imaginations.

Kelsey Stephenson, divining (2016).

divining is also a testament to developments in contemporary printmaking. It combines digital and analogue techniques on a scale that challenges the historical domestic culture of the print. In a variation on monotype processes, digitally printed sheets of Washi paper were laid on expansive sheets of Plexiglas, where pools of ink and water had been allowed to gather randomly, creating varying densities of diffuse color. The degree to which the pages became saturated with water and ink was difficult to control, but Stephenson welcomed the alchemistic sense of discovery. She let liquids flow unhindered, each finding their own course; then, applying paper to absorb the saturated surfaces, she controlled what appeared to be uncontrollable. As the paper became physically stressed and destabilized by fluids, it became an index for water in nature, its ability to cultivate, to destroy and, over millennia, to shape the earth itself. Stephenson exerted further control through her choice of color. Directed by memory, she sought the blues, grays and blacks of ever-changing Alberta skies; the shifting yellows, ochres and siennas of expansive prairie, and the burnt umbers and blacks of soil and coal. In the final stage, in response to the happenstance effects of the monoprinting, abstracted motifs were applied by screenprint and etching.

The natural landscape is the product of uncontrollable, often aggressive, forces. Humankind has occupied, used (and abused) it to its own ends. In art, it has been, and remains, an ideological space onto which we project our ideals and ambitions. Acknowledging these realities, divining challenges earlier large-scale landscape painting, from Albert Bierstadt to Claude Monet, and echoes the experiments of Anselm Kiefer, David Hockney and Peter Doig in reimagining and visualizing the personal landscape through the medium of print. Kelsey Stephenson has created a rich, complex and affecting aesthetic experience, and a work of imposing emotional impact.