Grainne Cuffe – the nature of seeing by Dr. Angela Griffith, Dept Art and Architecture, TCD

Grainne Cuffe – the nature of seeing  by Dr.Angela Griffith,Dept Art and Architecture,TCD

The artist Grainne Cuffe is a leading figure in contemporary Irish printmaking. Her practice is firmly placed within a long-established artistic tradition that values careful and considered observations of nature and the translation of these observations into a new visual form.  These interpretations of the natural world are made material using meticulously honed skills.     

Cuffe’s work is a consequence of a variety of experiences over the last number of decades, each providing her with direction and inspiration. As an artist Cuffe has sought - and seeks - to continuously grow and to develop her practice. Her travels have brought her to iconic centres of learning and expression in modern printmaking. 

A Fulbright scholar, Cuffe spent a period of time studying with the celebrated Tamarind Institute in New Mexico in the 1980s. Tamarind was established in 1960 and as well as training master printers in lithography, artists across the world visit the centre to learn the process and to collaborate creatively with their international peers. Following her studies with Tamarind, Cuffe completed internship programmes with Grey Arrow Press, Santa Barbara, California and Editions Limited, San Francisco. This period in the United States presented Cuffe with a number of challenges. The dry, scorched earth of New Mexico confronted Cuffe, who immediately felt a longing for the pulsating greenness of Irish grass and leaves, yet, this unfamiliar North American desert landscape, with its vibrant sunrise and sunset skies began to reveal its mysteries to the young student. It presented new horizons and new scales, new ways to see, from the macro to the micro.   

While her studies in Tamarind focused on lithography, it was her extended travels throughout America that brought Cuffe in contact with etching. An exhibition of James Abbot McNeill Whistler’s prints, including stage proofs and editions, presented Cuffe with a sense of the range of marking making possible in etching and an understanding of the visual impact of un-marked areas.  And it was an encounter with a large scale David Hockney etching, exhibited in Gemini Editions Limited, Los Angeles, that directed Cuffe to work bigger. Hockney’s image, of a stark silhouetted head, which Cuffe describes as “shockingly simple, beautifully big”, alongside the omission aesthetic of Whistler, inspired Cuffe’s resolution to make etchings, of isolated forms, on a grand scale.  

Her time studying with the print master Norman Ackroyd in St Martin’s in London was also pivotal, in perhaps surprising ways. Whilst Cuffe’s craft was enriched and informed by her time under Ackroyd, the student departed from her tutor in a significant manner. Ackroyd argued that all colours could be expressed through black and white, echoing the attitude of other much earlier masters including Whistler.  However, this view did not ring true for Cuffe. For her, colour is an essential building block in her image making as it defines form; it serves to represent the essence of the motif being described.   And it was during her time in London, that she first began to draw flowers. While she followed her classmates in recording London as an industrial metropolis, she urgently sought a different landscape, which she found in the flowers of nearby parks.  

Today Cuff is based in County Wicklow, where she has a studio. Cuffe has been associated with leading print studios in Ireland, namely the Black Church Studio and the Graphic Studio Dublin – which is her current professional base. The artist’s garden is one of her primary sources of inspiration. An essential aspect of Cuffe’s process is drawing. The preparatory work for her coloured etchings comprises careful examinations of shape and form. As a young girl, she remembers a book of Henry Moore drawings in her parent’s library. Henry’s graphic mediations of sleeping figures, his ability to essentialise elements into pure line fascinated Cuffe. 

Much of Cuffe’s work comprises botanical studies. Among her personal memories is the recollection of her mother cutting fresh flowers in the garden, every day of the year, for the family table. As noted Cuffe’s personal garden is a primary source of inspiration, and its annual visitations of tulips, clematis, sweet pea and delphiniums are eagerly anticipated by the artist. And the gardens of friends and public spaces, such as the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin’s Glasnevin, also informs her.  In history, the genre of flower painting has a strong tradition among female artists, both professional and amateur, though, as recognised by feminist art historians, the choice of botanical subject matter, and other still life subjects, was often imposed on women. Up to the early 20th century many female art students were prevented from undertaking figurative studies, studying the nude form, on moral grounds. The lower genres, including flower painting, were produced by women to serve a domestic market, they were small and intimate in scale. However, with the work of modernist Georgia O’Keefe in the twentieth century, flower and plant imagery was presented on a new monumental scale. Furthermore, the flower as object is decontextualised – its structural form is isolated and its vibrant colouring suggesting new meanings, new symbolisms and a new relevance in modern art.   

The principles and methods of Bauhausian design also informed Cuffe’s development. Introduced to her by her tutor Trevor Scott in the Dún Laoghaire School of Art, the analytical approach of Bauhaus leaders, such as Johann Itten and Joseph Albers, to line and shape freed Cuffe from a pure mimetic style of drawing.   

Cuffe also acknowledges her regard for Eastern art, in particular that of Japan and has studied the collections of the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. As in the case of the early modern movements in the West, Cuffe is drawn to the Japanese aesthetic, a visual culture that challenges the contrivance of mathematically constructed perspective to achieve a sense of space. Rather space, form, and its tactility, are presented as evocations, the Japanese artist suggests rather than empirically describes, echoing Cuffe’s own artistic ambitions.   

And while O’Keefe’s floral motifs are often abstracted, reduced, Cuffe’s depictions of geraniums, delphiniums, lilies, sweet peas, tulips, amongst other forms, retain their identifiable traits. Cuffe retains a distance from her subject. Each subject finds its suspended place within the page.  As in the case of O’Keefe and in Asian flower studies, it is important to state that Cuffe’s works are not scientific botanical studies, nor do they strive to be purely imitative.  She sustains a close engagement with each flower head, studying and drawing each again and again becoming utterly immersed. This approach frees the final resolution, the print, from representing a purely empirical recording of the botanical form. And the final print is not a facsimile of the preparatory drawing. The drawing is different. Cuffe enjoys drawing for its own sake, and relishes the feel of graphite on textured paper. She is mindful of harmonising each passage within the drawing itself, the weight of dark tones balanced with areas of light. Her process allows her to be subjective, to be innovative in her creative response.   The etching and aquatint in contrast embrace colour and are defined by it. Cuffe’s depictions of flowers are not systematic records of specimens, they are not static – they are distilled to capture the essence of a living thing and the response of another. Cuffe becomes willingly absorbed in the processes of both media; each of their design and technical challenges must be thought through.  Yet, the completion of each image, drawn or printed, is decided on intuitively, once the artist feels it is resolved. 

A remarkable feature of Cuffe’s work is the aesthetic pleasure they bring the viewer. Her prints are beautiful things. And in a time when much critical discussion of contemporary art is laden (if not overburdened) with context - it is refreshing to engage with works in a purely visual manner, to relish in the formal qualities of each print. The starkness of each colourful form against white unblemished paper is arresting, they are refined and isolated, and they are subtle yet bold. 

Comprising a myriad of grades of line and of tone, each print possesses a sense of balance and harmony. Cuffe’s floral motifs have nowhere to hide. The images confront the viewer but not aggressively, rather their natural forms seduce and entice. They can be surmised by the paradoxical phrase ‘exuberant restraint’. The monumental presence of each flower head – as seen through Cuffe’s eyes, the eye’s of an architect’s daughter – their colour, their structure, their design, their rhythmic form is carefully distilled and presented.   They are shaped - after continuous and repetitive engagement through study drawings - to Cuffe’s artistic will. The colours employed are tempered with delicate gradations and tones. The processes employed by Cuffe are not denied, the subtleties and vagaries of graphite, etching and aqua tint are controlled by a master’s hand.

Prints by Cuffe are displayed in a number of Irish social and healthcare facilities. She takes pride in the fact that they are hung in places where people are seeking well-being and wholeness. She sees her images as being about life-affirming positivity.  They are to be enjoyed; they are to create a sense of wonder, elegance and calm. 

Grainne Cuffe’s work can be seen in a number of other national and international public collections including, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council offices, Arts Council, Ireland, Office of Public Works, Ireland;  Chester Beatty Library, Dublin; Dublin City University; University College Dublin; University of Limerick; University of Santa Cruz, California and the Irish American Heritage Centre, Chicago.