michael schlitz

new woodblocks
grahame galleries + editions, Brisbane

Michael Schlitz has just sent me a jpg of his studio in Canberra where he was artist-in-residence at the Australian National University Art School. Normally he lives and works out of a remote part of Tasmania and it is that context, with its unspoilt natural environment, which at the moment helps drive his work. Not surprising then to see the familiar large black and white woodcuts of figures metamorphosing into trees and boat-like vessels informally pinned up on the studio wall along with fragments of working proofs, collages, and drawings. Some he brought across from Tasmania with him, others are new. Irrespective of the different locations, all share the characteristic dark (yet playful) tenor of Schlitz’s relief prints of the past few years. It is as though his imagery has emerged from a sunken well to express our interdependent links with nature but also to convey the mystery of inner states of feeling and emotion. This artist’s imagination gives full reign to the power of symbolism and myth (almost pantheistic) as it does to convey a genuine concern with the degradation of wilderness by clear felling and logging.

The titles of the twenty relief prints at Grahame Galleries bear this out. Printed in black ink on Japanese Kozo paper, they are mostly dated 2009–2010 and confined to just one or a few words that have poetic resonance: water table/well, divinerfloat, builder, library, journey, rhizome, sisyphus end, for example. They remind me that Schlitz has also made artist’s books (such as the 2005 the nature of things) where screen-printed text is counterpoised with small engravings which reflect the spare enigmatic words. Like this show five years later, comprising strikingly large format images, the human figure dominates yet it is inextricably tied to nature’s primary elements: water, land and sky. This relationship is uneasy but indispensable. Take for instance the repeated reference to water (or lack of it) in the prints. In diviner (2009), the figure with his large feet planted on a horizontally carved ground reminiscent of sea, has delicate hands clutching a diving rod (like the traditional forked branch) which enters cavities where eyes would normally be. And with water table/well, the over-all patterning of the figure’s garment is simultaneously ‘eye-like’, wood-chip cloth, and gouging tool ‘nip’. It is a reminder of the importance of materiality in tandem with poetic sensibility that brings about these handsome woodblock prints.

In the most recent prints drought references are made in desert flower and the desert girl future, (both 2010). In the former, an umbilical cord–cum lotus seed, emerges from the nude male figure lying in a parched landscape, as though a gesture of hope. Its companion is in the form of a naked woman, Eve to the artist’s Adam. She appears to emerge from a whirlpool, with head slightly inclined and eyes cast out to the side. I enjoy the folk-art references to these deliberately simple compositions and the way that it is possible to enlarge them in one’s imagination so that they might transform into monumental wall tapestries, so tactile are they to the eye. For the moment, however, woodblock printing suits Michael Schlitz as he has matured as a practitioner of this craft who enjoys the symbiosis of hand and print matrix. In Australia, it underscores a growing commitment by many artists to organic materials and a veneration almost of the ‘handmade’ as compared to art productions that are ‘hi-tech’ or virtual and show no tactile evidence of the maker. 

Michael Schlitz, water table/well, 2009. Woodblock on Kozo paper, 62.5 x 87.5cm. Courtesy grahame galleries + editions. Photograph Carl Warner. 

Michael Schlitz, desert flower, 2009. Woodblock on Kozo paper, 62.5 x 87.5cm. Courtesy grahame galleries + editions. Photograph Carl Warner. 

Michael Schlitz, the desert girl future, 2009. Woodblock on Kozo paper, 63 x 89cm. Courtesy grahame galleries + editions. Photograph Carl Warner.