Medieval Modernity by James Russell
Over the past twenty-five years Clive Hicks-Jenkins has achieved renown in his native Wales and beyond as a painter of rare vision. He came to painting by an unusual route, having first enjoyed a successful career as actor, director, choreographer and stage designer. Today his paintings of figures and animals are so striking, at least in part, because of the continual dialogue between design and dance, structure and movement. Clive’s complex creative process enhances this effect, particularly his use of articulated maquettes; these allow him to pose people and animals in ways that enhance negative space and add emotional expression and a sense of suppressed movement. This dynamism suits Clive’s penchant for narrative painting, and he takes inspiration from religious stories, Welsh legends, modern dramas and medieval verse.
The 14th century verse drama ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ has haunted his imagination for years, but something about the multi-layered intricacy and artifice of the poem suggested printmaking rather than painting. Teaming up with printmaker Dan Bugg made perfect sense. Since he set up the Penfold Press more than a decade ago, Dan has worked with Mark Hearld, Emily Sutton and other creative talents to produce editioned screen prints, and he immediately saw that Clive had the right kind of approach.
‘I think that Clive has always placed an emphasis on mark making and drawing as a means of both understanding his ideas and underpinning the structure of his paintings,’ Dan explains. ‘There is a sense of investigation and playfulness within his studio practice that has led him to create mannequins, build models, decorate ceramics and make numerous sketches. I think more than anything it is this ‘playfulness’ that has opened a natural pathway for printmaking to flourish.’
‘I think I had a reasonable aptitude,’ Clive adds, ‘because the process of making stencils lends itself to drawing, which is one of my strengths. Our work together feels like a completely natural collaboration. Dan has studied my work and has an artist’s intuitive understanding of how my eye works, plus the necessary insight into the technical aspects of painting.’
The main challenge lay in the distance between Clive’s home in west Wales and Dan’s studio in Yorkshire. There was no way the collaborators could physically work together, and so the making of their first screen print, ‘Man Slain by Tiger’ (based on Clive’s pencil drawing of the Staffordshire pottery group, ‘The Death of Munrow’), became an experiment in long-distance teamwork. ‘Thanks to Instant Messaging,’ Clive says, ‘I was able to show Dan images of the stencils as I drew them. He'd come back with encouragement and when needed, suggestions. Whenever I had questions he was on hand to answer them. It was a masterclass conducted over the internet.’
This training proved invaluable when work on the ‘Gawain’ series began. Envisioned at first as a series of half a dozen screen prints it rapidly expanded to a suite of fourteen. ‘I thought Dan might balk at such an ambitious undertaking,’ Clive recalls, ‘but he didn’t hesitate for a moment.’
The division of labour was clear from the outset, with Clive tasked with the preparatory work. ‘Because of the narrative nature of the project,’ he explains, ‘and because I want the images to tell the story, I put a lot of time into building each composition and making a detailed colour study of it. These are made in a combination of gouache and coloured pencil. Next I make a simplified master-drawing, which is essentially an ‘outline’ drawing or template for the stencils.
‘Once that’s done, producing the stencils is all in the realm of mark-making and layering, and to a degree at that point I'm able to enter 'the zone', which is akin to driving at a fair lick along a clear, straight road. The stencils are rendered in dark red and black. I have to imagine how they will look when printed in colours. Each stencil represents a layer of colour. Because they’re made on transparent film, it’s possible when stacked, one over the other, to get some idea of the way a composition may look when printed in layers.
‘Once completed the stencils go to Dan, and a kind of transforming magic begins. There's a period of silence as he processes the stencils into screens, and then a slow reveal as each stencil goes through its paces on the printing-press. This is the experimental stage, when Dan posts me images of various combinations of colour.
‘Occasionally he'll return the stencils to me with his suggestions for re-working and/or making additional ones. When he gets to a stage of being able to present proofs for discussion, they come through the post for me to examine and annotate. At this stage Dan often makes suggestions for how I might make improvements. Some proofs I overwork in coloured pencil, to indicate how I'd like to better balance the images, and at this stage I occasionally rework any stencil that needs further adjustment. We have long conversations on the telephone while viewing images on our computer screens. For the last time, adjusted stencils go off to Dan for him to make a final proof or proofs for discussion. Once we have a result that we're both happy with, he begins editioning. The last stage is the formal one, when we get together to view, sign and number the edition. Job done.’
In a sense this is a straightforward process, with two expert practitioners combining their skills to achieve a shared aim. But it is not quite as simple as that. There are points in the making of each print where unexpected things happen, which leads Dan to compare the process to a journey.
‘With each new proof marking a turn in the path and offering a different outcome, it’s possible to end up somewhere unexpected,’ he explains. ‘It’s here that the trust between the artist and printer is at its strongest and Clive has made it an immensely enjoyable experience. His generosity of spirit and unshakable belief in collaboration has allowed us to experiment and place our trust in each other to find the right way.’
The completed prints offer an exciting new vision of a story written more than six hundred years ago. Both the medieval poem itself and Simon Armitage’s wonderful modern translation are supremely stylish, and style is a significant feature of these prints; they could not have been designed by anyone other than Clive Hicks-Jenkins. But they are much more than elegant illustrations of famous literary scenes. These prints ask us to reconsider Camelot and Sir Gawain, to think about medieval civilisation and its codes of chivalry, and about Gawain’s character. In particular, Clive asks to look afresh at the Green Knight, who is presented here not as an ogre or a supernatural being but as a more complex entity, at once Modern Primitive and ancient forest god, a figure as powerful and mysterious as the wooded Welsh hills, and yet vulnerable.
All text copyright James Russell 2020