This is one of a suite of etchings, entitled 5 photo etchings, that Latham produced in collaboration with artHester Editions. The suite of prints refers to two series of works. The first four images – Tadpole-Taffrail, Boy-Girl (Tate P79063), Ben (P79064) and Presumed Level of Abstraction (P79065) – derive from Review of a Dictionary, a long-term project that Latham began in the mid-sixties. For this project, Latham photographed illustrated pages from a dictionary, and subjected the photographs to various experiments in the dark-room. Developer thrown on the exposed printing paper, or a match lit to over-expose a part of the print, resulted in blob-like forms appearing on the photographic surface, partly concealing and partly highlighting the original text. Latham used these altered prints as the basis of silkscreens and screenprints on a variety of media including canvas. He preferred mostly sombre, saturated colours but in some instances he utilised fluorescent printing inks which, in combination with the organic forms on the photographs, recall the psychedelic art and design of the decade. In contrast to this, the etchings in this suite have been printed with strong, dynamic colours: red, yellow and two blues, with additional silvery, grey and white tones where the burning and splashes of liquid occurred.
The print Tadpole-Taffrail is, as its title suggests, based on a section of text describing a tadpole. The image is dominated by an illustration of a tadpole that has grown its hind legs, swimming in a sea of text. The title combines the tadpole with a nonsense word perhaps suggested to the artist by the work ‘fish’ next to the illustration combined with the word ‘handrail’ visible lower down in the text. Latham was fond of nonsense words, linking them to childrens’ play. He included a series of nonsense words, stencilled by his son, in the text on the canvas parts of his Time Base Roller 1972 (see Tate T11975). The original Tadpole-Taffrail image was screenprinted, in red and white, on a square canvas in an edition of eight in 1974 as part of the Review of a Dictionary series. The 5 photo etchings version of the image is also dominantly red, with a silvery patch where the developing fluid hit the paper.
Books are central to Latham’s practice, representing systems of knowledge and belief on which society is founded. In the 1960s he built towers of such books as encyclopedias and art history books, which he called Skoob Towers (reversing the word ‘book’ in an indication of the reversal of cultural knowledge involved), and ritualistically set fire to them. In his most famous act against the authority of the printed word, undertaken when he was teaching at Saint Martin’s School of Art in 1966, he invited a group of artists, students and critics to chew and spit out pages of Clement Greenberg’s authoritative collection of critical essays, Art and Culture (published Boston, 1961). The masticated pages were subsequently distilled and bottled, resulting in the work Still and Chew 1966-7 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). More recently he has brought together the holy books of the three great monotheistic faiths – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – in his God is Great series of sculptural works (see Tate T11969). For Latham books have a particular ability to bridge time and space through their dual nature as static objects, perceivable in an instant and, through the time required to read them, as triggers to the vast space of imagination and memory potentially contained by the human mind. Latham was fascinated with the ways in which we perceive and understand language; the series 5 photo etchings are an expression of this.
5 photo etchings is the only set of limited edition prints that the artist made. The portfolio was created in an edition of thirty, plus six artist’s proofs. Tate’s copy is the sixth in the edition. The etchings were printed and proofed by Hugh Stoneman of Stoneman Graphics (west Cornwall). They are printed on mingei paper and printed chine appliqué on 400gsm velin arches. The portfolio was published by artHester Editions, Cambridge and London. The etchings may be exhibited together or separately.
John Latham: Art after Physics, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford and Staatsgalerie Stuttgart 1991, p.28
John A. Walker, John Latham: the Incidental Person: His Art and Ideas, London 1995, pp.103-4