Dianne Longley – Fantastic Grotesque
Wolfgang Kayser was the first writer in the modern era (1957) to chronicle the appearance of the “grotesque” in art and literature.i His work reflected an increasing awareness and connection with the artistic conceits of the Gothic era (12-13th C.), with its decorative embellishment of cathedrals and manuscript and cartographic illumination. However, its stylistic roots can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians and the ornamental and cloisonné work of the Gothic tribes and other barbarians and pagans.ii
Indeed, the term “grotesque” is aligned to the discovery of murals in the underground passages of the Baths of Titus in the ruins of Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House) by the court artist Fabullus, dating back to c.64-68 AD. These were reproduced as engravings in 1778 and then 1786 and have since fallen into decline,iii but stylistically this kind of decoration was already commonplace in the aforementioned forms. So the source of the word is “grotto” and it is related to burial places and the subterranean world; and the word “grotesque” was first used to describe an artistic style in 1502 and made its way into the cultural mainstream of Europe in Renaissance Italy.
Kayser drew on the writing of Cristoph Martin Wieland (1775), who identified three types of caricature: true caricature, exaggerated caricature and fantastic caricature, which he called “grotesques … where the painter, disregarding the verimisilitude, gives rein to unchecked fancy … with the sole intention of provoking laughter, disgust, and surprise about the daring of his monstrous creations by the unnatural and absurd products of his imagination.”iv
Dianne Longley connects with the latter form’s long history in her contemporary practice, conjuring personalized versions that are informed by an interest in illustration since the Middle Ages and contemporary, popular culture. Her references range from the aforementioned distant European origins to Japanese anime and kawaii. Such influences are particularly discernible in the intaglio and chine collé prints such as Unfolding and Steadfastness.
One fascinating aspect of her work is the continuity of its style, as her art has remained firmly grounded in a certain type of illustrative drawing, neither classical (for she avoids fastidious realism), nor modern (for she avoids recourse to the deconstructive impulses of tachism and expressionism). It centres on the fine rendering and detail offered by drypoint engraving, but in recent times she has incorporated photography as part of an expanding repertoire of tools and devices, and has transformed such source material via the electronic means of Adobe Photoshop to allow her to explore media on and off the page.
In Fantastic Grotesque, Longley’s imaginative starting point was a workshop in photopolymer printmaking in April 2008 at Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery which stemmed from the donation of Pro Hart’s etching press and a subsequent residency in July that year. The botanical settings her hybrid creatures and human figures inhabit are sourced from that arid environment, vaguely threatening to many city-dwellers and for such reasons chosen as the location for the grand-guignolesque Mad Max films.
Initially Longley selected three sites from gardens in Terowie and Silverton and recorded them as digital photographs, then transformed the photographs into a series of computer enhanced, colour-heightened prints that provided a framework for her imaginative legerdemain. Individual items were dislocated from their original contexts, isolated and then re-formed into new, surreal landscapes, in which she could situate her menagerie of grotesques.
After that beginning, Longley found more possibilities for her characters, by changing their scale and adopting new roles and forms, and by linking past explorations with these new elements of her expanding universe of formal and fictional language. This process adds to the sense of an overarching narrative or cosmology in her oeuvre.
Longley’s media here ranges from traditional intaglio prints to bronze and pewter casts of cuttlefish carvings of various succulents that are transmogrified into bansai-like three-dimensional miniatures; there are also pokerwork and hand-painted Jelutong wood panels; and an installation of five extraordinary wooden prints cut by CNC router from vector files. The largest is life-sized and features her central fantastic grotesque – Fisher of Dreams – a woman emerging from the mouth of a fish like a female Jonah. The corresponding, deftly coloured major print on paper strongly evokes the type of imagery in the embroidered edges of Fabullus’ murals. Similarly, some of the pages of the artist book, Remember to Die, Remember to Live, an autobiographical meditation inspired by a 1924 photograph of the actress Gloria Swanson, are decorated in archaic drolleries.
Experimentation with new techniques and media reinvigorates Longley’s creativity and sustains her capacity to imagine, but her respect for historical forms is deep and enduring. The fusion of all these elements is attended by her felicity of expression and feminine aesthetic. In Longley’s world the grotesque is beautiful.
i Wilson Yates, “An Introduction to the Grotesque: Theoretical and Theological Considerations” in JL Adams & W Yates (eds.) The Grotesque in Art and Literature: Theological Reflections (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 14-15.
ii Germain Bazin, A Concise History of Art: Part One – From the beginnings to the Fifteenth Century (London: Thames & Hudson, 1958), 143.
Heavy Metal (1999) is curated by printmaker Dianne Longley, who dispersed 300 kilograms of leftover lead sheeting from the local smelter, for a commission at the Port Pirie Tourism and Arts Centre, to artists of her choice. The resulting exhibition is broad in content and appeal. It is an unusual case too, for it coalesces streams of talent from both the public and private art schools, as well as from country areas. The subsequent diversity of approaches – since they include sculptors, painters, printmakers and installation artists – shows that there is no distinct type of practice specific to individual institutions or locales. Several favourite South Australian artists are represented, some of whom take the opportunity to strike out in different and unpredictable directions.
Traversing the Echo is the title of an interactive, electronic book, available soon on CD-Rom and the Internet, featuring computer-generated images from three series by South Australian printmaker Dianne Longley. It is also the title of an exhibition at Flinders University Art Museum, Adelaide, displaying the work-in-progress, along with original prints and their corresponding editions in folio and artist’s book formats.
Longley (b. 1957) was one of the first Adelaide artists to investigate new methods of etching, using ultra-violet sensitive solarplates that require no use of acid. This technique provided the production basis for the folio included in this exhibition, The Golden Rose (1995-96).
In it, Longley hand-drew, then scanned and combined these images with photographic material via Adobe Photoshop. Film negatives were exposed on polymer plates, which were then relief printed on a conventional press. In the folio, each print is separated by a page of text that informs of the history and symbolic intent of a particular rose or garland. It includes a cultured essay by Penelope Curtin.
Previously, Longley’s artist’s book, Night Sea Crossing (1994), bound in codex form (traditional western binding), won the Fremantle Artist’s Book Award. It began as black-and-white illustrations on scraperboard, which the artist scanned into computer and manipulated into distinct layers. The first layer was printed on archival paper; the second on transparent acetate using a laser printer. The images can be viewed individually or in composite.
Longley has relentlessly pursued the possibilities of computer-imaging in her recent visual practice. Her interest in desktop publishing and manuscript illumination permeates her evolving style, resulting in a seamless collage of historical illustration, state-of-the-art computer imaging and traditional printmaking techniques.
Her latest series, Compass of Change, appeals with its intense machine-colouring and density of texture. The images incorporate theatrical designs, mandalas and medieval illustration, recycling and synthesising a set of black-and-white lithographs from 1989. They were finally printed from disc on satin paper in three five metre lengths and bound as a concertina-style folded scroll, which can be viewed in codex form.
Longley’s art offers a visual summary of western civilization over the last 500 years, connecting Gutenberg’s press with the technology of the next millenium.
Published review, undated file 1990s