Loom, wood engravings by Richard Wagener, poem by Alan Loney
Nawakum Press / Mixolydian Editions, 2014

Colin Martin

'I have always been attracted to the distressed fragments of textiles that have survived from distant times and cultures,' remarks Richard Wagener in his introduction to his most recent suite of 16 two-colour wood engravings, published as Loom, with a poem by Alan Loney. The abstract expressionism of these new engravings breaks with the familiar realism of his depictions of landscape and nature in earlier volumes, California in Relief (2009), Mountains & Religion (2011) and The Sierra Nevada Suite: Thirty-One Wood Engravings by Richard Wagener (2013), but they exhibit his customary reflective approach to observing the world.

In December 2012 Wagener made three small drawings based on the idea of a Loom and weaving, later engraving these images onto large end-grain blocks. 'The format didn't seem right, but the engraved lines resonated', he adds. Serendipitously, he heard Loney speak at the Codex IV Symposium in February 2013 and recognised that what the poet said and his own ideas for Loom were aligned. Reversing the usual practice, of artists waiting for publishers or authors to commission them to illustrate literary works, he asked Loney if he would consider writing 'something to go with a few prints'. Fast forward to March 2014, when Loom was launched at the inaugural Codex Australia Symposium. By then, three engravings had become 16, each progressively more complex. Narrow portrait format blocks were carved with elongated vertical lines and shorter horizontal ones, evoking the warp and weft of loosely and progressively more densely woven textile fragments. To print the images, Wagener first printed rectangles in a single colour, which he then overprinted with his engraved blocks, inked with black. The colour beneath delineates the warp and weft of each fragment of woven textile. The exception is an additional two-colour wood engraving printed for inclusion in the de luxe edition. Here Wagener first printed a rectangle in pale blue ink, which he overprinted in dark green with his engraving of a Loom with densely woven textile.

Wagener's usual artistic practice is to map out how he wants to approach each image before carving his block, but the Loom project was a game changer for him. 'While the first three engravings are based directly on drawings, the subsequent images evolved with a minimum of planning and took on a life of their own', he says. Leafing through the book's openings, each printed with an image of his on the right and text by Loney on the left, the engravings gradually become more complex. In early examples it is possible to count the numbers of warp and weft threads, but those later in the series are so densely cross-hatched that enumeration is impossible. Sparse grids comprised of a few coloured threads silhouetted against black backgrounds give way to increasingly denser grids of almost solid colour.

The Loom suite of engravings invites our contemplation of the warp and weft which comprises the fabric of human life, and offers emotional rewards not dissimilar to those accrued from the contemplation of the American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko's colour-saturated canvases. The aptness of this comparison is supported by the use of a richly coloured and textured Rothko-like Japanese cloth, with interwoven threads of dark magenta and crimson, as the covering for the clam shell boxes of the edition's de luxe state. Clearly there is also an affinity between Wagener's Loom engravings and Note IV, one of a portfolio of etchings (some with aquatint) entitled Notes IXII (1968), by Barnett Newman, which shows this American abstract expressionist artist exploring a variety of mark-making, including cross-hatching. 'A straight line is an organic thing that can contain feeling', wrote Newman, a capacity evident in his Notes etchings then, and now in Wagener's Loom suite.

'Some forty years ago I encountered the idea of a Loom in a conceptual context quite removed from the traditional application', writes Wagener. Before gaining his MFA graduate degree in painting, he gained an undergraduate degree in biology, so certain structural similarities between his Loom images and biomaterial scaffolds might not be coincidental. Analogous to Looms, these scaffolds are used in tissue engineering to provide support for cellular proliferation in regenerative medicine, to repair or replace damaged tissue.

Loney agreed with Wagener that that his accompanying poem should not strive to 'illustrate' the wood engravings with words. Describing how he approached his task, the poet writes 'they became, not things to write about or interpret, but vehicles for all the thought & feeling possible in the dual engagement I had with them both in the nervous, tenuous, fragile lines and the dense, solid, adamantine black of the slab in which the lines live'. The result is a loosely written poem whose content asks questions rather than provides answers: 'perhaps this is where nakedness disappears or / rises into gLoom as if to enter / a room that vanishes as if every / link is frayed the fabric never hemmed / as if the alphabet slid off the / earth each mirror broke each book dissolved / as if the skin had never formed'. Himself a printer, Loney's image of the alphabet sliding off the earth seems to be a recurring typographical nightmare, as he has used it before in his poem Gallipoli (Barbarian Press, 2005): 'In the middle / of everywhere a ruined sign stammers / the unintelligible, and what looks like / bullet-holes are where the alphabet / has fallen off the face of the earth'.

Loney settled on a format of seven lines of poetry per page, each line with seven words, so that his text would lie horizontally on the page. When printed, its shape is analogous to that of the wooden shuttles used by hand weavers to form the weft in woven fabric. Extending this analogy, the verticality of Wagener's images on facing pages can be seen as the warp of woven fabric. The book's typesetting was designed to incorporate Loney's irregular spacing between phrases in some lines of his poem. These form internal patterns within the poem's text when printed, which further complement the interwoven lines of Wagener's wood engravings on the facing pages.

Of the 46 copies of Loom produced, 30 are numbered 130. The binding is hand sewn on linen tapes and laced into a limp paper case. The book is housed in a Japanese cloth covered slipcase with a printed label on the spine. Each book is foil stamped on the spine. The other 16 copies are lettered AP. Identically bound, the book is housed in a Japanese cloth covered four-flap enclosure, secured by rare earth magnets. A paper chemise holds a different single print from the 16 included in the book, another print designed for the deluxe edition, and creative process remarks from both the artist and poet.

US$940, lettered copies US$1,475. Nawakum Press, www.nawakumpress.com