Q+A with Nolan Preece – Double Scoop
NOTolan Preece’s current exhibition at the Stremmel Gallery, Chemigram Landscapes: The West Reinvented, can be understood as a catalog of chemical textures, mobilized to imitate the natural environment. “Chemigram” is a term coined by Belgian artist Pierre Cordier, who knows and approved of Preece’s work. The method falls under “cameraless photography”: an image is produced by painting or manipulating chemicals on the surface of the photo paper, then subjecting the paper to a developing process in which the interaction between the chemicals and the emulsion leaves visible traces. For this body of work, Preece directs the process to materialize textures that mimic cracked mountainsides, winding trees, shivering water surfaces and, in one case, a soaring flock of birds, which seem to shard into origami as they leap through the air. .
The unique chemical agent used by Preece for the majority of these rooms was acrylic flooring. I didn’t think to ask him which brand does the best job of leaving a shiny, non-slip floor, but for art purposes he recommends First Street Super–Crylic.
It seems that for the photography without a camera that you made, there is a play between the abstraction which emerges from the chemical processes on the one hand, and the images (or the figuration) on the other hand.
I’m kind of considered a pioneer with the chemigram because I started with it in 1981. And running it through a bunch of different strings, I guess you could say, to get where I’m at am now. And this whole thing with acrylic floor finish is my discovery, or my invention, or whatever you want to call it.
I derived it from work in engraving [when I was teaching], or intaglio engraving, where we used the ground finish as a hard ground on the plate, to resist the acid when we etched the plate. One day in 2011, I decided to try putting some of it on a sheet of photo paper, and I was so surprised at what happened that I said, “I really something new here. My wife didn’t see me for three or four days.
I was trying everything I could, and I don’t know anyone else who works in this acrylic floor finish. I use any of those that contain acrylic – like Mop & Glo, Quick Shine, Pledge – there’s one I really like called First Street Super-Crylic. I’m trying to push the chemigram in as many different directions as possible right now. Of course, I get up in the years and would love to see how far I can take it.
Explain to me the process of “Yosemite”– looks like the rock face and trees were created by a chemical photographic process, but the sky looks distinctly different.
[The rock face was] put there with a piece of PVC pipe, squirting it [with floor finish] and drawing it on the paper. And you can see where I may have stopped from time to time as I went through the paper, to create these crevices going down the rock.
Like using a squeegee.
Yes, you can use a puddle pusher, which is a glass rod with a handle, or you can use PVC pipe. I run it over the paper and it puts an even layer on it. Then it will start cracking in about 30 minutes to an hour.
I make trees on a separate sheet of paper and then glue them together in the picture I’m working on. But everything is only chemigram. There’s only the sky – sometimes I can find interesting clouds, but there are times when I have to do something else, with Photoshop.
Are they physically glued, or do you cut them out digitally, and ultimately your final project is a digital print that’s been pieced together in Photoshop?
I paste them using Photoshop, and each of these trees is a different layer that I can bring. I [decided] to decorate it with something other than a rock face – and so I started making trees. Trees are one of my recent inventions. I seem to be able to do it with a brush and one of those natural sponges. I can dip it into the floor finish and dab it on to make it look like a tree.
Now in this process, I hope you understand that it is necessary to go through developer and fixer, developer and fixer, back and forth, in photographic solutions to create the image. You can’t even see it [at first] on the sheet of paper. These floor finishes are clear. But once you first slip them into developer or fixer, depending on what you want to do, the image starts to show through all those cracks.
If you’ve ever done a black and white print, going developer, stopping the bath and fixing, then you kind of understand that I’m using them the way you’re not supposed to – putting them in the fixer and then put it in the developer.
I am always interested in the transfers between artistic practices and scientific practices. I’m curious how you define experimentation, which is a word used in both the arts and the sciences, where there’s some overlap—but there are also distinctions.
Well, it’s a matter of trial and error, really. I’m going to do something, and I’ll say, well, if I adjust it this way…it’s kind of a scientific methodology. That’s how science works most of the time – you try something, it doesn’t work, but you see something in there that starts to work. And you go, well, if I keep going down this path, I’ll find what I’m looking for. It’s trial and error, and you don’t have to give up. I go through 10 sheets of paper, and there’s nothing in there.
My wife is a research scientist, and we talk about it a bit. You have some sort of hypothesis, and you’re actually trying to prove it.
One of the qualities of experimentation is failure, and failure tolerance is really important for scientists and artists.
Scientists regard failure as an important thing, because they have come to some kind of conclusion, and it is something that is important for future research. And maybe there’s something in there that deserves further investigation. Failure is not necessarily considered a bad thing.
Although at the end of the day, I’m sure if you showed up to Stremmel with 27 blank sheets, they’d give you a weird look.
Well, yes, you are absolutely right. I would have learned that I couldn’t make one.
Your room “Strong“for me, operates in a register other than the “Yosemite” a. In “Yosemite”, you engage these textures in ways that suggest figurative forms. And this one seems to exist at this level of abstraction if not pure, at least in a more abstract state.
It’s acrylic, again, on a piece of photo paper. I zoomed in on a small section of about 4×5 and enlarged it with the scan. That’s what I’m looking for – those little textural things. And then I really edited the colors in Photoshop.
I started making abstractions. But then, my agent in New York, we were trying to run the abstracts for a bunch of museums across the country, and they weren’t going very well. And she asked me to send her a picture for a Christmas card, and it was a landscape of what I had done. The phone kept ringing! We had all these museums that wanted me to do an exhibition, and I said, “Is that all I have to do, do a landscape?”
That’s where I am. I use the landscape as a vehicle for me to explore anywhere I want to go with the variety of different techniques.
I was wondering if you think there’s any irony in this method where you’re using this very industrial chemical process to create images, while you’re depicting a landscape that seems devoid of industrial processes.
I never thought too much about the industrial connection there, because a lot of painting mediums are industrial stuff anyway – acrylic is plastic.
There is a room in [the Stremmel show] that’s not a chemigram, that’s etching. I don’t like using this process because it’s a highly toxic chemistry – you have to have the window open and a fan blowing behind me to get it out of there. I’m getting more picky about what I use because of my age – these things can bring you down quickly, if you get the wrong toxicant. Acrylic is no problem. It emits no smoke. It is easy to work with.
You want to leave a legacy, but not too soon.
It’s true. I want to get as much out of it as possible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Personal exhibition of Nolan Preece Chemigram Landscapes: The West Reinvented is on view at the Stremmel Gallery in Reno until December 23.
This article was funded by a grant from the City of Reno Arts + Culture Commission.