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A Story on the Artist

A story on John McNaught's prints Alba and Parcel of Rogues, and the processes behind them. This work is featured in Highland Print Studio's show this month 'Mirror Images'.

Written by Gordon McKerrow

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John, our studio manager, is an artist living and working from Cromarty in the Black Isle where he specialises in printmaking and photography. Since working here I’ve had a chance to glance at his work, and learn the varying techniques he uses. It's clear John has a distinct and memorable style of illustration. His work depicts a story that draws the audience to reflect on the subject involved. For the most part he will use a figure within his prints to tell the story. Using text also, John directly speaks to the audience, expressing elements of dark humour combining the comedic absurd with a more solemn undertone. His work is inspired by political culture, this can be anything from government politics to the varying absurdities seen on the Saturday football terraces. This is what he likes to call his ‘pathetic contribution to our ongoing antisyzygy’. For those of you who found themselves confused by that term, Anitsyzygy is the presence of dueling polarities within one entity, thought of as typical for the Scottish psyche and literature, often being referred to as, Caledonian Antisyzygy. 

 
Alba, Linocut
For John, and many Scots last year, a sense of place was accentuated by the on going Scottish Referendum campaign. Regardless of which way you were inclined to vote, there was an overwhelming sensation sweeping the nation in September 2014. The months leading up to the Ballot Box directed the Scots to revaluate their personal stance on politics, economics and culture within Scotland, and for everyone, it seemed a truly personal affair. From viewing John’s prints we can gather his personal stance on Scotland’s past and future.
The prints I draw attention to, are Alba (seen above), which is Scotland in Gaelic, and Parcel of Rogues (seen below), both in our current exhibition, ‘Mirror Images’ running until the 4th of July.
Alba arose from a throwaway comment John heard last August from whom he believes to be Kevin Bridge’s father. The comedian’s father was aspiring to the thought that Scotland will not become ‘the nation that shat itself.’ The undesirable splodges on our figure’s rear end can be seen on Alba when examining closely. This may be the Scottish archetype relieving him self from fear at the loss of union. John sees comparisons in Alba to the everyday Scotsman. When asked in Scotland how we are, we inexplicably reply, ‘Nae bad’, rarely, ‘great’ or ‘fantastic’. This inspires John to express the innate Scottish cynicism that bides through us all that he states to be the driving force behind the no campaign.
Parcel of Rogues refers to the Robert Burn’s poem of the same name. The poem is known to ridicule the MP’s of Scotland who signed the Act of Union with England in 1707, expressing the treachery the Scottish resistance felt at that time. We now see a contemporary Parcel of Rogues in John’s work. The figure appears less fearful than Alba, and is open to interpretation. I was initially under the notion the character was due to undergo a beheading not dissimilar to something you may associate with an execution. After closer inspection it appears the figure is being knighted. The text within comes from the song In Recognition by Craig and Charlie Reid of The Proclaimers correlating with Robert Burn's message in Parcel of Rogues. McNaught states this work started with a contempt for the UK, but is now a contempt for Scotland. He has not campaigned or joined up to a party and announces himself as an armchair critic, and the two linocuts as his pathetic contribution to our ongoing Caledonian Antisyzygy.
 

 
Parcel of Rogues, Linocut
Process
 
The prints begin with a quick sketch in John’s notebook with pencil or pen (seen below), the speed and immediacy is something the artist strives as important. The sketch begins smaller than the result as John will scan this into Photoshop to print larger for tracing onto a linoleum block. Gouging then begins onto warmed linoleum, heated to ease the process. Using both U and V gouges to mark and mould into the block, John cuts away the areas he would like to keep lightest, this is known as reduction cutting. Once John has completed the gouging he is ready to ink the block for the first pressing. The red and green colours are inked initially using a small roller to contact locally. Ready to press, John chooses a Japanese paper, Kozu Shi – a very light, thin fibrous paper, a personal favourite of the artist. Another Japanese product is then used – the Baren, which is a traditional disk like device with a flat bottom and knotted handle used to hand press. A sheet of grease proof paper is placed on top of the Kozu Shi for pressing so not to damage the delicate print. John now applies pressure using this tool for around five minutes occasionally using the oil from his hair as a lubricant (pictured below) to allow the Baren to flow with ease. After this is pressed a second cutting process occurs known as suicide cutting, gouging further into the lino in areas he wants to stay the previous colour (green and red). The second and last inking then takes place which covers the dark areas as well as inking again locally with tiny rollers on the red and green areas. The Baren is used much like before for the second pressing. Materials such as newsprint and white spirit are used after inking to add textures, blotting on and off, especially on Alba for the subtle hinting at the figure’s unfortunate toilet mishap.
 
The linoleum Alba ready for inking after gouging and scraping the areas John wants lightest. 
John inking Parcel of Rogues. This is for the second pressing as it's the dark ink being rolled. 
John, resembling a catholic bishop, rubbing the Baren through his hair to press the print. The oil from his hair allows the baren to flow with ease on the paper.
The Japanese Baren is used to hand press the print. 
John revealing the print Parcel of Rogues. You can see the linoleum block beneath. 
O would, ere I had seen the day
That Treason thus could sell us,
My auld grey head had lien in clay,
Wi' Bruce and loyal Wallace!
But pith and power, till my last hour,
I'll mak this declaration;
We're bought and sold for English gold-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!
 
- Robert Burns

John McNaught's prints are available to purchase from Highland Print Studio. 
Highland Print Studio
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Highland Print Studio is funded by Creative Scotland and Highland Council.
 
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