A line, or mark, etched onto a copper plate allows for the reproduction of images by transferring the embedded ink onto handmade paper through a printing press. This skill takes years to hone, bringing to life these hatchings, acid bite marks, and thoughts rendered by another for collaboration.
Master printmaker Gregory Burnet is a native Australian from the small town of Wagga Wagga, about a five-hour drive west of Sydney. To the local Aboriginal people, Wagga Wagga means “Place of Many Crows.” Constantly curious, his early backpacking days journeying through Asia, Europe, and Africa exposed Burnet to multiple art forms, planting the seed for him to become a painter. However, while majoring in painting and printmaking at the South Australian School of Art, he developed an interest in printmaking, nurtured by his college mentor, and became enticed by the tools, inking plates, and the possibilities of the press.
Determined to be an artist, Burnet moved to the UK, where he lived in small squats in East London within a vibrant arts community. During this time, he followed a lead and was offered his first printing job, editioning “some floral engravings.” However, these were more than just old botanicals. The project turned out to be Joseph Bank’s Florilegium, 1771-1784, a collection of copper plate engravings, which the British Natural History Museum and Electo Historical Editions joined in collaboration to finally print in 1980. This series of 720 works originated from Captain James Cook’s 1768-1771 voyage aboard HMB Endeavour with renowned botanist Joseph Banks and artist Sydney Parkinson. This collaborative trio assembled the first Australian botanical records, collecting the original specimens transcribed with watercolor and flattened for preservation. One specimen, Banksia Serrata, named after Joseph Banks, only sets seeds after a forest fire. Greg’s own aged Banksia seed sits in his studio, like a memory from the origins of his work.
These detailed engravings were printed à la poupée, an intaglio printing method of painstakingly applying multiple colors to one plate using small wads of cloth, earning Greg the princely sum of £3.50 per print. Viewing the prints through a loupe reveals the intricate mark-making and minute cross-hatching along a leaf, a stamen, or seed head; it is hardly a wonder many engravers lost their sight in those early years. In this project, Burnet expressed his passion for printmaking through the crossover narrative of a love of botany and an embedded Australian history.
Next stop: America
Heading to the USA for further exploration, Burnet, a keen biker, found himself mapping the museums and galleries across the States, enjoying “his own Jack Kerouac” adventure. Ultimately landing in NY, Burnet worked for multiple small printshops, finally with Maurice Payne Print shop, where he worked alongside a unique library of artists, including David Hockney, David Salle, Robert Ryman, and Keith Haring. “I had fantastic printing experience with all the technical details of inking a plate and printing, but it was not until I went to New York that I finally interacted with living artists. Interpreting their work was the next big leap, trying to get into their heads, no longer translating the ideas of long-deceased artists.”
Burnet’s next move was a three-year stint at the University of Florida’s printshop Graphicstudio. He collaborated with Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim Dine, Chuck Close, Jim Rosenquist, and Roy Lichtenstein.
In 1991, “I took the plunge and set up my fine art publishing and printing studio Burnet Editions. Despite the financial crash erupting, I was determined to make it work and have been in business for 33 years.” During that time, Burnet has worked with numerous artists, including Glenn Ligon, Richard Tuttle, Julie Mehretu, Richard Serra, Sean Scully, Kara Walker, George Condo, Adam Pendleton, John Currin, and Rashid Johnson. Fascinatingly, Burnet recently discovered his direct ancestors were also master printers. Thomas Ryder (1746-1810) was a master printer and engraver in London. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and British Museum both own his work. Ryder’s son also became a master printer and engraver, and his daughter married into the printing business. It was her child who traveled to Australia.
Q&A with the artist:
You must perceive an artist, their process, and work within a narrow time frame before you make a print collaboration; can you talk about that process?
There is a minimal period to interpret the artist and unearth the link of collaboration, a unique skill nurtured over the years, to immediately grasp their concept, mark-making, and the ultimate project. I gel with an artist through dialogue and their imagery, pulling on cross-pollinations of life with whomever I work with. An artistic commonality [of experience] allows the projects to remain fluid and preserves a sense of play. For example, when I interpret the prowess of Richard Tuttle, a conceptual artist, as he pushes the envelope, I pull the rigor of technical aspects within the prints. Similarly, when teaching at Yale University, Trinity College, and Rice University, my approach to instruction, alongside the technical skills, was that I perceived students as artists coming to my studio. What are your images, and what are you trying to achieve? What is your goal? These are the stepping-stones to begin a project.
Your work hangs in numerous international museum collections, including SF MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art British Museum, and The National Gallery of Australia. Can you tell us about some of the artists you work with?
The last series of prints with Kara Walker, the Resurrection Story with Patrons, was technically one of the most challenging aquatints due to scale and mark-making. It was incredible to witness Kara’s concept emerge. Equally, Richard Tuttle’s, works are understated but intense. We were forcing the boundaries within printmaking while embedding fabric, silver or gold leaf, and wood block elements, both edgy and complex, into the paper. These intricate pieces were exacting, each series taking one or more years. Tuttle’s series – Line, Gold, Cloth, and notably the Engraving series – were initially inspired by his viewing the technicality of the earlier Florilegium botanical prints, a further cross-pollination.
Navigating Richard Serra’s large prints, akin to road surfaces, while they were still emitting the essence of ink, felt exuberant. Julie Mehretu’s etched copper plates use drypoint, aquatint, and engraving. Her mapped surfaces are amassed with lines, shading, and marks, equally as detailed as her expansive paintings and as challenging. Each project brings its unique narrative.
Maintaining focus on these large projects, can be intense. We often print editions of 30 or more. The process is repetitive yet intricate, incorporating multiple color plates. Still, it goes smoothly with rock and roll and a cuppa tea.
If you could beg, borrow, or steal a piece of work from anywhere in the world, what would it be and why? I must mention Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. I love it; it is a form of religious art, otherworldly, hanging on their ancestors, stories, and dream time. I embrace the purity and abstractness of it, particularly Dorothy Napangardi’s work. It is walking work, tracing, and reliving memories through walkabout.
I admire Diego Velazquez’s Les Meniñas; however, I would settle for the Les Meniñas etching by Richard Hamilton in collaboration with Picasso’s printer Aldo Crommelynck; the aquatint has fantastic tone and quality. Rembrandt’s Hundred Guilder print is also extraordinary. Picasso’s The Weeping Women is a big, angry, dry point. Isn’t it funny that what comes to mind are prints? Also, working with any of these artists would be a dream project.
What pulled you to this area from New York City?
Owning a motorcycle in NYC, I enjoyed exploring the old roads. Eventually I found Route 7, which terminates in Canada. I would ride up to Stockbridge, MA, and back regularly. Loving this area, I rented a house near Falls Village, CT, for a few years, and I finally purchased a home in Kent, CT, with my partner Catherine Harding. This home has an adjoining log cabin built in 1907, which I knew would make a suitable print studio. This building has fantastic light and a refreshing energy. I still publish and print out of the shop in New York, which is a larger space.
The Northwest Corner is a unique area. I enjoy hiking the Appalachian Trail; my favorite book shop, House of Books; innovative restaurants; and a growing art community. Now, some artists with whom I work live too far away, so the city still works for them, but I edition prints up here as well.
Any advice you can share for future artists?
My advice for any artist: Good luck. It’s hard work. Try not to cry into your beer.
In the early days, being artist can be hand-to-mouth, but we are driven, and we love it. Our passion and motivation keep us on the road.
What is your next adventure? I want to make another road trip on my bike. Sedona in Northern Arizona is on my list for Arizona dream time, with red rocks embedded with vibrating vortex vitality and sinewy trees growing out of the rocks, picking up energy from the stone formations.
Hearing this felt akin to his walkabout, as we artists often need to be with the rock, the tree, and the place.•
To learn more about Gregory Burnet, you can visit his website burneteditions.com, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Instagram @burneteditions.