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Close to Nature and Technique

Sidsel Helliesen

Ellen Karin Mæhlum likes to work with series. At her first exhibition as a printmaker in 1998, she displayed work from "Fabler" and "Ladybag" It was Mæhlum's first exhibition at the Norwegian Printmakers Gallery. In 2003, she exhibited "Echo" at Galleri 27. In 2006, she was back at Norwegian Printmakers with a selection from "Geoprint," and in 2010, she presented "Plankton Portraits". Now she is here with prints from the series "79° N."

Mæhlum is an active, reflective and articulated printmaker. She has held a number of solo exhibitions and participated in collective exhibitions at home and abroad. Numerous public institutions have acquired her work.

Mæhlum always dedicates her exhibitions to a selection of prints from a series she is working on. They do not necessarily denote a conclusion, but are, nevertheless, a completed stage. After a few years of concentration around a basic theme, she winds it up and approaches something new - either related or completely different; and she is happy to try out another technique. Regardless, there are some lines between the various series, lines originating from Mæhlum's multifaceted concern with nature and experimental close encounters with the technical aspects of printmaking. Prints are also well suited for presenting picture series.

Mæhlum's series are not like comic strips with a progressive story. They do not make up a strict order. Each picture has independent content and expression. The series is like a suite, with a common basic theme. The common theme is an idea-based framework - that has played a fundamental role for the artist as inspiration and specific point of departure for the work, and it is present in all of the images in the series. The pictures themselves may nevertheless have very different content. At the same time, they have clear common features in terms of content. Moreover, the individual works are related in terms of format and technique.

Ellen Karin Mæhlum started her career as an artist in textiles and drawing. Ever since her student days at the Bergen Academy of Art and Design, she was fascinated with unconventional combinations of materials and techniques. When she started her MA at SHKS in Oslo, her plan was to combine textiles and prints, but after a while, she dropped textiles to the benefit of printmaking. The first series, "Fabler," is executed with line etching and aquatint - traditional intaglio print technique in other words, where she exploited the grainy structure of the aquatint for a lush patterning of the picture surface, partly in densely colored and partly in transparent areas. In "Ladybag" she employed PVC stencils combined with etchings of large zinc plates. Both series are figurative, with recognizable figures and items; "Fabler" with poetic, surrealistic imagery; "Ladybag" emerges as collages - actually based on processed X-ray images of the contents of hand baggage. The surrealistic imagery, the collage effect, the use of plastic and stencils and the use of a kind of a photograph of something that is not visible to the naked eye, provides the direction for Mæhlum's continued printmaking work.

In terms of technique, the next series, "Ekko," represents an important step - away from traditional materials and on to new methods. This time Mæhlum employs photopolymer, a technique that combines a form of photography technique with intaglio printing. Partly by using the same elements in processing plates for different pictures and by varying the coloring of one plate, she creates variants of her images. Sections from photographs - from a family album - and manipulated shadows are prominent and meaningful components of all the prints in this series. The figurative elements are located in undefined spatial surroundings. This interaction provides the pictures with a subtle narrative content.

In the summers of 2003 and 2004, Mæhlum participated in a geological scientific expedition to Svalbard. The impressions resulted in the "Geotrykk" series. Based on sketches and various photographic material, Mæhlum depicts geological shapes and patterns, partly observed with the naked eye and partly with an electron microscope, on plates that se prints in intaglio technique. The plates are made of plastic and metal and have a grainy structure where the shapes are partly further accentuated with drypoint. In 2007, Mæhlum concluded her work on "Geotrykk". Her interest in nature's microstructures continued, however, through collaboration with marine biologists she met in New Ålesund on Svalbard. 

The object of study was plankton. Based on the scientists' water samples and photos of the single-celled organisms through an electron microscope, the artist created her pictures, this time using the silkscreen technique, partly combined with coarse drypoint on plastic film. These are not actually new or untraditional methods. An important stage in preparing the prints, however, is the digital processing - manipulation in a positive sense - in Photoshop of the original material. The intention is to make the invisible visible, not as documentation, but as an art-based experience. The prints have beautiful and fascinating artistic qualities, while also stirring our curiosity and wonder at nature's aesthetic formation of shapes. After the actual fieldwork in Svalbard, Mæhlum worked for some months with "Planktonportretter" as a project student at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. She has also combined a selection of these prints into monumental formats used for decoration. In 2013, Mæhlum considered herself finished with the plankton theme.

Not with Svalbard, though! Nor with untraditional ways of creating printing plates. In "79°N" she has employed carborundum as a painting medium on plastic plates that she prints twice, once as intaglio and once as relief. She also uses stencils that cover sections of the plates. Furthermore, she divides the plates, employs drypoint, and colors the pieces with different tones. This allows her to make variants of a basic image. This procedure is reminiscent of Rolf Nesch's so called metal print technique (where the printing plate is a collage of individually processed and colored metal pieces placed on a processed base plate), which invites the artist to create variants in that the position of the pieces and the base plate and the colors may differ from print to print. Even though the way the plates are manipulated and the opportunities this provides are related, it is however not Nesch's graphic art that has been the model. There is no pictorial relationship between the two artists' work.

In "79° N" Mæhlum has taken a departure from the invisible and moves around a landscape we can experience directly - majestic landscapes of fjord, mountain and plateau, with snow, rocks and sparse vegetation, which we both see and physically experience. In these extensive, barren surroundings, we find the artist and the natural scientists with their scientific installations. In some pictures, we also see other signs of human activity in the area: the hunters' small, weatherworn cabins, the unappealing structures of the town and the industrial facilities, a tourist vessel in the fjord. The human traces are in pictorial terms partly an integrated part of nature, but are usually expressed in a different visual language, as a silhouette or line drawing, often with a dissonant element of color, and thus emphasized as an alien component. The positioning of the figurative elements also stress the contrast between these and the landscape they are in, while at the same time creating proximity between the figures in the image and we as spectators. Mæhlum depicts a strong and unusual experience of nature and simultaneously comments on the dilemma that the presence of humans represents. For this juxtaposition - of untouched nature and human activity - the carborundum technique combined with processed pieces is well suited: the landscape's rugged and tactile pattern-forming texture against the figures shape surfaces. Other times the contrast comprises distinct use of photographic material for the figures. As previously mentioned, Mæhlum exploits the technique to create variants of the same basic subjects. This can result in different weather moods or different narratives.

Ellen Karin Mæhlum is fascinated with nature, preferably in climes and with character a long way from home at Frysja in Oslo. Barren and remote, demanding towards human presence, but with special visual qualities, such as the mountains of the far north and desert areas in southern tracts. That which we can perceive with the naked eye, and that which we can only see with the aid of technique. It is not just what she sees that fascinates the artist, though, also being there, hiking (in the Norwegian manner!), feeling the cold and heat, wind, sensing the ground and sky, silence and grandeur. She is close to the experience. Mæhlum is also close to the methods she uses to create pictures. In keeping with the Norwegian tradition, the printmaker herself is responsible for the entire production process: from the original experience and first idea, through sketches and photographs to processing the plates in different ways and with different materials to the actual printing - on Ludvig Eikaas' robust and flexible intaglio press. All steps and stages in the work determine the final product; all bring into play the artists creative insight and craftsmanship. For Ellen Karin Mæhlum this is at the core of printmaking, which she is not afraid to challenge with new, personal ideas and solutions

Sidsel Helliesen is an art historian specializing in graphic art and drawing. From 1973 to 2000, she was head of the National Gallery's Department of Prints and Drawings.

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