Friday, October 17, 2014

Interview - Baratta / Applin / Watt

The following is an interview I conducted with Carl Baratta, Isak Applin and Oli Watt over email about their collaborative woodcut prints, which are featured in the exhibition They Pass Unseen In the World at SideCar.

Isak Applin, Carl Baratta & Oli Watt • What's Time to a Disappointed God II • 2012 •
woodcut on paper • 24 x 24 inches

ERIK WENZEL: Can you tell me a little about the process, how the collaboration came about and so on?
Were there any historic precedents you were looking at or specific artists/groups? I guess it tends to be a common read with wood blocks, but the images I saw made me think of German Expressionism. Particularly with the wild nature imagery.

CARL BARATTA: I'm waiting for some paint to dry (my dog licked some of a new painting off and now it's repair city USA/ bummer city, USSR). [Baratta paints with egg tempera—dogs can’t resist.]

Anyway, to answer your questions: I can speak for the process I have with those guys but Isak and Oli can explain their collaborations. Isak and I pass wood blocks back and forth. We both draw on them and talk about ideas for moods and composition. Sometimes we draw on un-carved areas and hand it to the other guy, as a guide to what we think should go next. But we don't always follow what the other person drew. Since we both draw and carve, Isak tries to draw like me and vice versa, same with the carved drawing marks. What ends up happening is we still kind of look like ourselves when carving/drawing but it creates intermediary marks that look like both of us, so the image is unified.

With Oli, we talk a lot about what should go in [to the print] while I draw with ink. I draw things from Oli's sketchbook and my own. Then he and I fart around with the composition and what it all means, or sometimes what it doesn't mean but how crazy it is. Maybe “crazy” isn't the right word; we try to go for “unique.” While drawing we leave large areas open so when Oli gets carving he can draw with the tools. I almost never carve when collaborating with Oli. The reasoning behind that is the large areas are left open so his drawing mingles with my ink drawing to make a unified image. Plus I kind of suck at carving. I don't know how Isak puts up with me sometimes.
Carl Baratta & Oli Watt • Shut Down / Shut It Down • 2012
Woodblock print • 24 inches square

When the three of us get cracking it's a combo of the above. I draw, Isak draws, Oli draws with the knife, Isak carves and we are all together making suggestions to work towards a unified image. Then we do rubbings to see how it will look like printed and adjust and tweak until we are ready to print the suckah.

As for influences, yeah, German Expressionism. The other guys can list more sources specifically, but for me I've been looking at a lot of etchings dealing with alchemy and mysticism and Munch and Kandinsky wood blocks.

Since working with these guys I've had a huge shift in my own paintings and drawings. Getting the opportunity to see how these guys solve pictorial and subject matter problems has been amazing. Now when I get stuck I can pull from my experiences working so closely with both Isak and Oli. Then after some paintings are made, I can bring what I've learned back into the printing project. It's a back and forth thing that I'm super happy about.

Isak Applin & Carl Baratta
But Can You Take Hold of the Moon's Light in Water
2012 • woodcut on Paper • 12 x 9 inches
ISAK APPLIN: Here are a few more historical influences: The woodcuts of Lucas Cranach, Aristide Maillol, Frans Masereel, Unichi Hiratsuka and H.C. Westermann. Other sources include old botanical prints, history engravings and a book on ancient Chinese paintings that Dahlia Tulett gave Carl.

Process: Carl's description is right on. I would add that Carl and I frequently never know what the other artist will do next. We often pass the block back and forth with little or no discussion of our intended next steps (this process feels exquisite corpse-like occasionally). At other times we'll work on every stage of the process (drawing, carving, proofing and re-carving) together.

The prints made with Oli are larger, so perhaps we are more prone to sketch and draw the entire image on the block before carving. As with the Carl/Oli combo, I often transfer the sketches to the block and Oli does much of the carving. (This description makes the process sound much more normal than it actually is, in reality we are often planning a woodcut in the middle of the night in a tired, feverish state!)

We've been working on this series since 2009. Carl and I had made a couple of collaborative drawings together in 07 and 08, and at some point woodcuts seemed like a more appropriate medium. Personally, I was attracted to the fact that the printing process smoothly combines the different artist's drawing and carving styles. I could be wrong, but I don't think these woodcuts have the disjointed quality that many other collaborative projects have.

Isak Applin & Oli Watt • What's Time to a Disappointed God I
2013 • woodcut on paper • 24 inches square
Oli and Carl started collaborating around this time as well.

I find that the collaborative woodcuts are a great place to explore over-the-top mythological and romantic themes that are not as present in my personal work. For some strange reason these woodcuts seem to thrive on ideas that we might dismiss from our usual bodies of work!

CARL: Yeah what Isak said except that Sarah Mallin gave me the Chinese boneless painting book (which is amazo).

OLI WATT: I'm not sure if I can add anything that will be more interesting or accurate than what Carl said.

As far as how the collaboration started, we've all known each other since about 2002 (is that right Carl and Isak?). I was trained primarily as a printmaker and doing a lot of woodcuts back then. I was really into Carl's paintings and ink drawings of monsters and ninjas and other mythical, mystical figures. He introduced me to Isak. We talked about collaborating for years, but never acted on it. Apparently those guys were two-timing me, and collaborating all along.

We lost contact for a few years, but when we found out we all lived close to each other, we started meeting in my basement and drawing on woodblocks.

Carl and I started on some small blocks and they weren't very good. We were pretty self-conscious. We decided to work bigger in order to make us make bolder marks. We made a bunch of prints, not all successful. Carl and Isak were also working on smaller landscapes together at the same time, and achieving good results. Then to mix it up, we decided all three of us should make a couple prints.

Frans Masereel • from The Passionate Journey - A Novel in Pictures • 1925

Carl and Isak's collaborations are pretty seamless. There's an overall harmony and believability of the spaces. The ones Carl and I work on can get pretty awkward. I don't draw or paint at the level of those two guys, so I really appreciate some of the awkwardness. I learn a lot from both of those fellows about mark-making to define forms, but I feel like I have a decent background for putting together an interesting composition with black and white. We spend a lot of time talking about all of those elements. We collect imagery from various books and magazines and cartoons and then put initial drawings on woodblocks. Then we adjust and move things around. The discussion is usually very formal—and narrative is secondary at this point.

When Isak and I work together, we tend to define imagery with line more than larger forms. Isak often carves into areas, but I generally don't do much of the drawing or sketching. As Carl said, I mostly draw with the carving gouges, but the composition has already been considered and put onto the woodblock.

We mostly use birch plywood and china plywood.

Other big influences: Fletcher Hanks, Looney Toons, definitely H.C. Westermann and Rube Goldberg's drawings.

CARL: Don't let Oli fool you though, he draws like a maniac but for collaboration he prefers cutting with tools. Also I'd just like to say that every single one of our woodblocks is a god damn masterpiece! Hahahaha... Ehem. OK. Back to being a slob.

Fletcher Hanks • panels from Stardust the Super Wizard

They Pass Unseen In the World - New work by Julia Klein and Collaborative Woodcut Prints by Isak Applin, Carl Baratta and Oli Watt is on view through October 18th, 2014 at SideCar.

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