Dimensions: 210 x 210 mm
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Observing Norman Ackroyd at work, one is quick to realise that this is a man who lives and breathes his profession. He moves assuredly between solid printing presses, cupboards, tools, newspaper and poetry clippings, and the impeccably organised storage areas of his large studio in the Bermondsey Street neighbourhood. Lit cigarette firmly in hand, poised as always unsettlingly mere millimetres away from his latest pristine print, he is alert, observant and extremely perceptive. “What do you think?” he says to me, in his friendly Yorkshire accent, rooting me to the spot as I quietly take notes on the latest curatorial and organisational decisions he is making with Vincent and Rebecca Eames this summer morning. Indeed, what do I think?
‘Fragments’ gives glimpses into a collection of works that represent monumental seven decades of meticulously crafted creative output. Beginning in 1959, the eclectic mix of etchings carefully brought together here highlights the variety of subject matter and style that Norman has used throughout his extensive career as a passionate printmaker. He estimates to have produced well over 1000 artworks to date. The show is therefore, to say the least, a daunting undertaking and yet, now that it is complete, remarkably accessible and readable. This may in part be due to the fact that Norman has rigorously numbered, recorded and catalogued all his works since 1969 – an idea he gleaned from Paul Huxley after attending one of his shows. However, it is much more likely that the perceived simplicity of this show lies in the fact that Norman stays objective with his own works and can look at them afresh with a practiced eye. He is, he says, much keener to look to the future rather than dwell on the past.
The selection for ‘Fragments’ is thus varied, but poignant. Churwell - Leeds and St. Mary’s Leeds from the late 50s and early 60s are unusually heavy in style and line compared with Norman’s more fluid and tonal etchings today. The works from the 60s and early 70s on the other hand show a new direction. Abstracted shapes and forms, as well as an increased use of colour take centre stage in Landscape with a Blue Sky or Entrance to a City. Morning Story (Petrograd), even has a rare occurrence of the human figure and stems from a period which saw Norman utilising images from newspapers as a basis for his work. The selected prints from the 80s on the other hand take us back into a more monochrome and straightforward dialogue with British landscape and finally From Fanad Head and From Malin Head bring us into the well familiar territory of Norman’s atmospheric landscapes of today.
Yet the show’s title ‘Fragments’ is also misleading. It implies disjointed entities, something jagged and broken. Ultimately however it is quite the opposite. Viewing the works in the cumulative, it is apparent that all the individual pieces join seamlessly and beautifully into a body of work that is not only skilful regarding the technique, but also shares subtle use of tonality, impeccable compositions and Norman’s distinctive ability to capture an atmosphere or feeling like few other artists. And indeed, Norman confirms that these previous works are still an integral working practice for him today. The concept of doubling an image as in Morning Story (Petrograd) for example, is currently on his mind as a possibility for his next etching, linking the old with the new.
Speaking to Norman about his career to date is an oddly surreal conversation and cannot be done justice in these few short pages. It is clear that he is a well of experiences, information and anecdotes (one of which includes Marlon Brando in flip-flops). We touch on his time working in the USA, his return to the UK and the buzz of the art worlds he has experienced. It is at this point at which my head starts spinning. Yet throughout the conversation Norman is never ostentatious, even though he has long earned the right to be so if he wished. Instead he challenges: “Come on, ask me more questions”, kindly sharing his time on this month’s second visit I make to his studio in preparation for the show.
Choosing which parts of our conversation to share here has not been easy – there is too much material to pick from. Ultimately, to conclude, I have settled on a phrase Norman used in relation to his new box set of prints from this year. It unintentionally relates to the idea of ‘Fragments’ as a show and simultaneously reveals how deeply engrained landscape is to Norman’s practice and his quest to understand more about it. Looking at his latest prints, which have been preceded by six decades of hard work, Norman says simply: “They are images that keep coming back to me”.
So, what do I think, Norman? I think I have six decades ahead of me before I even dare to judge, but if I were to hazard a guess, I think I would say that you have done remarkably well.
Sophie Assouad, August 2018