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This is one of a portfolio of ten prints Austen created at Cirrus Editions in Los Angeles using a lithographic process. The artist was inspired to embark on printmaking in the famous print workshop during his solo exhibitions at the affiliated Cirrus Gallery in 1989 and 1991. The designs began as studies Austen made of plants in the gallery garden before being transferred to lithographic plates. They were printed on thin handmade paper of three different sorts: Moulin Richard de Bas (L02286; L02288; L02295); Auvergne ala Malm (L02289; L02294); and a third unknown handmade paper (L02287; L02290; L02291; L02292; L02293). For each print Austen used one of two colours – yellow ochre (L02286; L02288; L02289; L02292) and burnt sienna mixed with red (L02287; L02290; L02291; L02293; L02294; L02295). Every page has a strongly defined monochrome image set in the centre of the paper surrounded by a large blank area. The portfolio was printed at the Cirrus Editions workshop by Francesco Siquerios, assisted by Robert Dansby in an edition of thirty. Each print is signed; the date and edition number are written beneath the image in pencil. Tate’s copy is the twenty-eighth in the edition.
Lithographs characteristically exhibit a very flat, polished surface and offer perhaps the most painterly of printmaking techniques, as this series typifies. Austin’s original designs, made using watercolour, were transferred to the plate using liquid tusche (a greasy ink), replicating the application of paint associated with working in watercolour. While some of the images clearly represent such vegetal elements as single leaves, pods and fruits, others have more anthropomorphic associations. The first image in the series, L02286, depicts a fruit that has a pronounced nipple; L02288 resembles an elongated penis hanging above testicular leaves; although apparently depicting an opening pod, the form of L02291 also suggests a vagina; L02293 and L02294 evoke a human figure seen from behind that is armless and legless; in L02293 two marks may be read as the soles of feet belonging to legs that are curled, invisibly, in front of the body.
The simple structure of the prints in this Untitled portfolio is characteristic of Austen’s work. Since the early 1980s his imagery has been based on the natural world. Around 1990 Austen produced many works on paper and canvas depicting a single organic form isolated on a pale, monochrome ground. Sometimes recognizably figurative, sometimes wholly abstract and sometimes between the two, these images are characterized by a formal simplicity that emphasises the sensuous texture of the oil paint or watercolour in which they are composed. After this time, Austen began working in series of paintings on canvas or works on paper. Drawn and painted in pen, ink and watercolour, male and female figures are often represented as sexual objects or engaged in sexual acts, alone or in a couple, while plant forms, like some of those depicted in Untitled, may have ambiguously erotic attributes. Austen’s practice also incorporates geometric abstraction, repetition, quasi-tribal patterning and a play on colour. In the mid 1990s, he began to incorporate text into his paintings, which then became the main constituent of the work. Urban loneliness, disturbing dreams, death and a bleak, existential despair are predominating themes. More recently the artist has used photographic images in combination with his graphic elements. Austen’s imagery always has a strongly hand-crafted and elemental sense which allies it with tribal design; at the same time it is involved with questions about the mechanics and dynamics of expression, representation and the way images are read. The artist has curated ethnographic and natural science displays from museum collections (the British Museum and Ipswich Museum’s Collection) and has more recently made sculptures and worked with video and film.
David Austen: Paintings and Works on Paper, exhibition catalogue, Mead Art Gallery, Warwick Art Centre, University of Warwick 1997.
David Austen: Objects and Images from the Edge of the World, exhibition catalogue, Wolsey Art Gallery, Ipswich 2001.
David Austen, exhibition catalogue, Milton Keynes Gallery, 2007.