Denise Hawrysio: Situational Prints

At the Simon Fraser University Gallery until June 23

Speed bumps, panel saws, and freight elevators—these are some of the means to Denise Hawrysio’s printmaking ends. So are waiters, short-order cooks, mill workers, autopsy technicians, and occupants of a San Francisco rooming house. Hawrysio, a Canadian artist based in London, England, produces imagery that is the direct result of actions and encounters far beyond her studio.

In the exhibition title, catalogue, and brochure, Simon Fraser University Gallery director Bill Jeffries describes Hawrysio’s work as “situational prints”. This term seems to fall somewhere between situationism, a European art movement that, from the late 1950s to the early ’70s, critiqued art’s role in creating a society of passive viewers and consumers, and relational art, a contemporary trend that focuses on human interactions, everyday activities, and artist-audience dialogue. There are elements here, too, of process, participatory, and performance art, in which the conditions of the work’s creation are as significant as the image itself.

In many instances, the artist has enlisted the help of strangers to draw or write directly onto her etching or offset-lithography plates. Often, such interactions occur while she is travelling through or visiting places as widespread as Perth, Ontario, Nashville, Tennessee; and Smithers, B.C. The resulting handwriting and imagery—for instance, a butcher in Kingston, Ontario, describing in words and pictures how to cut up a side of beef—possess the unschooled immediacy of naive art. These prints also, as Jeffries points out, tell “micro-histories” through the ordinary and the everyday.

Larger historical events are revealed, too, through their impact on ordinary folk. This is especially true in a couple of works that took shape in 2003 and ’04, while Hawrysio was an artist in residence in the traumatic-stress clinic at St. George’s Hospital in London. To the images spontaneously drawn by patients onto etching plates—a bombed and burning bus and building in Northern Ireland; an idealized village scene in Cameroon—Hawrysio has added her own photographic component. The resulting multilayered works reveal some of the tragic consequences of war and terrorism.

Hawrysio has also produced “landscapes” by placing her printing plates in natural settings, on highways, or beneath the wheeled feet of a bed on which she was sleeping, and then printing the resulting marks, scratches, and scrapes. Pencil Strokes (Mount Rundle), for instance, records the scree-scratched descent of an etching plate from the summit of the mountain to the tree line. Pencil Studies (Speed Bump) resulted from the placement of another plate facedown on a traffic calming device near her London home, where it was repeatedly run over by cars and trucks.

Hawrysio’s prints are remarkable for both their conceptual premise and their social engagement—and for the oddly appealing aesthetic that emerges from the process of their creation. They boost the fading fortunes of traditional etching and lithography into the postmodern present.