Sean Caulfield did not see “the whole thing” until his masterwork, The Flood, was installed in Manning Hall at the Art Gallery of Alberta in early February. At 6 X 9 metres (or two stories), The Flood is monumental in scale and concept, but as with the installation, its creation was done bit by bit. Or more correctly, block by block. This exhibition, named one of five “most anticipated shows to see in 2016” by Art Perspective blog, is unique as it displays not a print, but the carved wooden blocks that are inked and used to make the print.
While studying for his BFA in the early 1990s, the Centennial Professor in Art & Design was drawn to printmaking for aesthetic reasons, but it was his relationship with the tools of his trade, in particular the matrix (the plate or wood block) that piqued a lifelong interest. “You work with materials that have a kind of resistance,” explains Caulfield. “The wood fights you. That resistance, paradoxically, is interesting. You have to think through problems differently because the material is pushing back.”
The Flood is both sculpture and print, a duality Caulfield not only recognizes but actively courts. Working with Japanese hand-carving tools and the occasional grinding device, Caulfield credits the move toward larger, woodblock-based art to previous collaborations with sculptor Royden Mills. “I started to show the woodblocks because they felt right next to his sculptures,” he says. “Inherently, printmaking is already very close to sculpture because you’re working with reliefs or indentations. They have a physical presence. I feel fortunate to work in a medium that’s flexible in that way.”
“How do [your] questions relate to bigger social and political questions out there? It’s just a matter of negotiating that relationship.” – Printmaker Sean Caulfield
Conflict, in its myriad variations, informs Caulfield’s art. The son and brother of engineers working in the oil industry, Caulfield is conscious of the opportunities a resource-rich province affords, but is also deeply concerned by its environmental cost. According to him, the polarizing realities of living in Alberta drive his art and are referenced in the catastrophic imagery in The Flood. But Caulfield says this is only part of the story, pointing to the overall movement of the piece; a cycle of destruction and regeneration. It’s artwork in conversation with itself, and so it invites discussion, not declaration.
Stylized balls of flame consume the central ark-like dwellings in The Flood. The biblical iconography, which Caulfield says is intentional, is inspired (in part) by 15th century German printmakers such as Albrecht Dürer. “I came across these really interesting woodcuts about weather from that period,” he says. “They have an apocalyptic, almost supernatural quality, but they’re also speaking about real phenomenon. In a contemporary context, it’s interesting because we’re also in troubled times.”
The confluence of sculpture and printmaking, biomedical and mechanical, ancient and modern, internal conversation and external conflict — these are some of the intersections at play in Caulfield’s art. While he does not shy away from the type of narrative complexity that embraces contemporary issues, he is nevertheless cautious about directing his students one way or the other. “It’s always a balancing act,” he says. “I talk to my students a lot about this: how much to look inward and how much to look to the world outside. What are the questions that are important to you as an artist? But also, how do those questions relate to bigger social and political questions out there? It’s just a matter of negotiating that relationship.”
With his students or in collaboration with university colleagues Roy Mills, Sue Colberg, his brother (health policy law professor) Tim Caulfield or his wife (and fellow printmaker) Akiko Taniguchi, finding ways to push himself as an artist are integral to his practice. “It sounds cliché, but it’s true,” says Caulfield. “Being at the university has been wonderful to grow and learn and think. It fuels my work.”
Sean Caulfield’s website: http://www.seancaulfield.ca/
Upcoming Conversation with the Artist
Sean Caulfield: The Flood
Date: April 10
Time: 2 p.m.
Location: Art Gallery of Alberta
For more information see: http://www.youraga.ca/sean-caulfield