A Handhold in the Present, an Eye on the Past
Michael Hampton, London 2010

In the catalogue to the group show Gyor 2007, Misha Goro explains how his work Voyages de Nuit (2007) ‘examines a contrast between modernity and history within one scene’.

This important structural dialectic between present and past that shapes Goro’s oeuvre both at a technical and emotional level, will be the main focus of this discussion.

Why ‘discussion’?

Here the term is apt, for Goro himself has provided extensive answers via intermittent email to probing questions about his formative influences, and his practice, as well as supplying a set of images that document it.

Voyage de Nuit, Etching, Engraving, Photogravure, 24″ x 13″

Goro’s gloss to Voyages continues:

The contrast is introduced through the juxtaposition of New York urban themes and Renaissance painting presented by manipulated photo plate depicting Piero di Cosimo’s portrait of Simonetta Vespucci.

Known as “La sans Pareille” in her own tragically brief lifetime, Vespucci had no shortage of ardent admirers, and inspired painterly representations too numerous to mention.

Birth of Venus, Etching, Engraving, Photogravure, 36″ x 24″

What purpose does she serve though in Goro’s recontextualisation?

Post Marcel Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa L.H.O.O.Q. it would be trite to call Vespucci a muse, nevertheless despite what has been her over-exposure in both pop graphics and consumer packaging. Goro has enough chutzpah to recycle her image one more time in his own Birth of Venus (2010), as an unnoticed household icon, and perhaps one hinting darkly at the fate of Russian Orthodox religion too.

The crop succeeds.

For whilst the catalogue statement goes on to describe how ‘the print provides the full spectrum of techniques which include etching, engraving, aquatint, mezzotint and photogravure’, Goro has made it quite clear that despite such a vocabulary of skills, to which can be added:

..drypoint, spit-biting, sugar-lift, soft ground, mezzotint and so on. Occasionally I use chine-colle as well. (email 24/3/10)

he chooses to avoid fetishising expertise, as despite the importance of the individual mark (both a carrier of force and a signature of time), indeed the choreography of marks that goes into the production of dense texture, his methods are hardly traditional:

The reason that I use copper is that metal can take a beating. As it comes to mark making I get pretty aggressive with my plates some times. This is my way of putting energy into my work. Hitting, throwing, driving over it with a truck… I remember shooting one of the plats with UZI… anything goes. I like to let things happen. Then I regain some control through use of the techniques that a have mentioned above. It is a give and take process. I all ways look for the right proportion of control and chaos. I like to work on the backs of old plats that already have marks that are accidental. I use the same spontaneous approach applying chemicals. (email 24/3/10)

Such a working philosophy is more reminiscent of Jackson Pollock, the Viennese Aktionists, or heavy metal music, a far cry from the set of academic disciplines generally seen as integral to the print-maker’s art since the Renaissance, in which accidental, unauthored scuffs, scratches and abrasions, or worse still ugly scarification are taboo.

Nevertheless such contingency by itself is insufficient, and therefore has to be assimilated and absorbed into the laborious artisanship of making a print.

Here, a combination of youthful influence and professional training guide his hand, and inform creative decisions.

Besides having ‘pretty high quality reproductions’ of works by Cranach, Holbein, Leonardo etc in the flat where he grew up, Goro recalls weekly childhood visits to the Hermitage Art Museum, and the mark made on his unconscious by Renaissance imagery.
He acknowledges the use of quotation in the painterly films of Andrey Tarkovsky too, and notes the director’s several references to Pieter Bruegel the elder’s Return of the Hunters, and how Tarkovsky:

..made iconic images from art history books look relevant and contemporary. I could also relate to the idea of memory being a kaleidoscope of images and situations from the past that are projected into the present. It is the kind of memory that reaches far before childhood. (email 9/10/09)

Goro has spoken of the strong influence of Durer too without any trace of anxiety or embarrassment:

In my opinion Durer could capture the very essence of things in the most direct way like no one else could before or after. I consider him to be my teacher. There were two steps in my education. First I had to learn to imitate Durer, and second I had to get away from imitating Durer and find my own language. The second part is more challenging. The first part took about five years, the second takes a lifetime. (9/10/09)

Self-imposed isolation and practical study of Durer’s techniques in a monastery in Galilee was an important phase in this evolution towards a definite Goro style. Visits to print holdings at major international libraries were also instrumental, allowing him to:

..see the nuances that I couldn’t see in the books due to the printing quality. Even if the print is well reproduced, you can’t see the depth of embossment that is essential in prints.(email 5/4/10)

The last sentence certainly leaps off the page and when pressed Goro started to come clean about his bastardisation of the print process:

I see a print as a three-dimensional object because it is an impression of the plate on paper. It reflects the depth of embossment. I am not talking just about the edges of the plate itself. I am talking about the depth of textures within the plate. (5/4/10)

Clearly the turmoil of the artist’s intellectual and emotional existence, symbolised by the extraordinary image of a goat’s head in the print Rock and Roll (2009), gets played out on and contained by the plate, the equivalent of an alchemist’s retort:

ROCK’N’ROLL, Etching, Engraving, 12.5″ x 12.5″

I apply resist (that could be the hard ground or spray paint mixed with solvents, markers and so on) to the surface. I leave the plate in the acid for a very long time. Acid deepens the open sections of the surface. I repeat this process multiple times. As a result I have another dimension. Besides just light and dark, I get deep and shallow. (5/4/10)

Such an assault creates a form of topography on the plate, reversing the conventional hierarchy that views it as a mere vehicle for the pull:

I etch the crap out of it anyway so I can erase it later. I do it so I just get the ghostly hint of texture (embossment without tonal value) that is loaded with energy. First the energy of the gesture made permanent by chemicals then the energy of physically scraping it out. I believe that all of this history of the process is encoded and present in the final print. (5/4/10)

The sculpted copper plate then can no longer be viewed as a mere substrate that enables a print to be offset, but a thing of intrinsic value itself. In fact in Goro’s highly processual practice the print becomes an INDEX of the plate and all the damage done to it in the name of art, so therefore no longer a predominantly descriptive texture as in traditional etching.

The wonder is that Goro has not descended into the infernal pit of full-blown abstraction, industrial madness which finally loses touch with consensual reality, and threatens its frame through gestural violence, or even elected to simply exhibit his copper plates themselves, leaving the offset to take place in the mind’s eye of the audience.

For now though he maintains a handhold in the unforgiving modern world by means of the narrative function, and an avoidance of what might be called the poetics of shock.

Traditional technique still has a place.

The sense of melancholy in Goro’s visual universe is undeniable though, perhaps the result of estrangement from his motherland, and the introjection of childhood memories treasured as protection against loss:

..the neighbourhood, the school, the summer house in the country.

Evidence of this recall abounds.

La Belle Feronnière, Etching, Engraving, Photogravure, 36″ x 24″

The enigmatic female figure in La Belle Feronnière (2009) stares out from an upstairs window, half accusing, half pleading, her gaze interrupted in the foreground by ugly dark criss-crossings, as if an old fashioned telephone system were in disarray.

Lady with Ermine, Etching, Engraving, Photogravure, 36″ x 24″

Lady with Ermine (2007) likewise juxtaposes iconostasis with the street, a use of Rennaissance imagery that humorously jibes at the use of glamour models in billboard slaps to advertise cigarettes, cars or cellphones.

The dystopian gloom, and sense of proximal squalor in Birth of Venus, which in spite of Goro’s dislike of the term “chernukha” or dark stuff (historically a rejection of the enforced optimism of Soviet culture), conveys a sense of the figure in transit, an isolated shopper, wrapped up in their own unfathomable struggle, far too preoccupied to stop at, let alone notice a wayside shrine:

Material Culture, Etching, Engraving, 24″ x 36″

Finally in Material Culture (2006), a souvenir of his parents dacha in the Estonian countryside, pitchforks, horsehoes, secateurs, nails and keys are presented as archaeological finds.

I’m basically a storyteller, but I want to withdraw myself from the equation. I want to depict things in the most accurate way I can. If an artist tries to put too much of his own philosophy into the work, it’s like wearing too much perfume. (interview)

Goro’s use of reflection as a trope, either in puddles or mirrors is a related function here, implying that the contemplative life has become a luxury, or a last resort in moments of breakdown, for all of these masterful prints project scenes of spatio-temporal fracture and mental crisis.

So whilst respecting both tradition and the disciplines of the studio, Misha Goro has succeeded in mutating the fine art print to express his own ends, unorthodox methods guided by a wish above all else to touch the viewer.

Michael Hampton, LONDON 2010