David Milne and John Hartman's drypoint style is rare, difficult—and beautiful
Invention & Revival: David Milne and John Hartman
At the Burnaby Art Gallery until July 19
Summer is stereotypically the season for empty-headed entertainments, sun-streaked sports, and beachside barbecues. Inside the Burnaby Art Gallery, however, it is a time of quiet contemplation and low light levels. The exhibition of colour drypoints by David Milne and John Hartman invites us to immerse ourselves in an unusual and understated medium. It also reveals the ways in which each artist has employed that medium to express a sense of spiritual connection with the world.
The pairing of these two Canadian artists, one historic, the other contemporary, is a smart one. It also may be the only pairing possible in this context. Organized by the Carleton University Art Gallery and curated by Rosemarie Tovell, the show demonstrates the singularity of Milne’s colour drypoints, created in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and their later impact on Hartman’s artmaking. Hartman is notable among contemporary artists for embracing the difficult practice to explore similar themes and subjects to Milne’s.
Drypoint is a form of printmaking in which the artist uses a hard metal point or diamond-tipped needle to scratch a line directly into a metal plate. (In etching, the line is drawn through an acid-resistant coating and acid is then used to bite the image into the plate.) As Tovell explains in the exhibition catalogue, the “burr” or residual metal that the etching tool throws up results in the characteristically soft or fuzzy drypoint line during the printing process. It was this soft line that appealed to Milne, who sought to create a watercolourlike effect in his prints.
Tovell asserts that Milne invented the multiple-plate colour drypoint process in 1922, when he was living in rural New York state. He perfected it after his 1928 return to his native Ontario, mostly while living in the Georgian Bay area. The description of Milne’s early experiments in the medium, in which he used zinc roofing tiles, a darning needle, and a laundry wringer for a press, evokes a wonderful image of determination and resourcefulness against conditions of poverty and isolation.
The effects Milne achieved in his drypoint landscapes, cityscapes, and “fantasies” (which include religious subjects such as saints, angels, and heavenly ascensions) are preternaturally subtle and atmospheric. Standing in front of Prospect Shaft, during a recent exhibition tour led by Hartman, a colleague enthused that it appeared Milne had simply “breathed” the image onto the printing plate. Hartman emphasized how difficult—no, impossible—it is to replicate the washes of delicate colour and fine texture seen in some of Milne’s drypoints. Among the most appealing and accomplished works here are Still Water and Fish (Second Version), Blue Sky, Palgrave (Second Version), and St. Michael’s Cathedral. They beautifully demonstrate the spare but poetic nature of Milne’s art. They also reveal its utter originality.
Milne died in 1953—and his colour-drypoint process seemingly with him. As a young artist in the 1980s, however, Hartman revived it, closely studying Milne’s prints and his writing on the subject. Not only were his techniques inspiring, Hartman said, but Milne’s late-life embrace of spiritual imagery gave him the freedom to represent the Georgian Bay landscape within a historical and religious context. Missionizing, massacres, and visions of good and evil all find expression in Hartman’s early drypoints.
Although Hartman, like Milne, creates landscapes, cityscapes, and religious imagery, his style is quite different. Where Milne’s work seems to evolve from postimpressionism, Hartman’s, as seen in Adam Naming the Plants and Animals, has developed out of abstract and figurative expressionism. Still, both artists aspire to capture a sense of the numinous within the everyday.