Enchanted forest: new gothic storytellers

Jazmina Cininas

Melbourne-based printmaker, Jazmina Cininas was born in 1965. Her work has been exhibited locally and internationally and is represented in numerous public and private collections. She is currently undertaking a PhD at RMIT University.

Cininas’ reduction linocuts explore the female werewolf as social barometer. Her hirsute heroines are drawn from folklore, medieval werewolf trials, psychiatric literature, eco-feminist writings and popular culture. Recently her lycanthropes have begun taking on the blonde pelt of the dingo, acknowledging the dual cultures – Australian and Lithuanian – that make up Cininas’ identity.

Her complex colour prints are made using the reduction linocut technique whereby the plate is systematically cut away and destroyed after each layer of colour is printed.

Interview

Melbourne-based printmaker, writer and curator Jazmina Cininas was born in 1965. Her work has been exhibited locally and internationally and is represented in numerous public and private collections. Jazmina currently lectures in the Fine Art Department at RMIT, where she is undertaking a PhD. Her intricate reduction linocuts chart the evolution of the werewolf myth, and the parallel histories shared by women and wolves in the popular imagination throughout the centuries, to explore the notion of the female werewolf as social barometer. Her complex colour prints are made using the reduction linocut technique. The plate is systematically cut away and destroyed with each layer of colour printed. Cininas’ heroines are drawn from folklore, medieval werewolf trials, psychiatric literature, eco-feminist writings and popular culture.

For you was ‘becoming’ an artist a conscious decision. If so, what led to this decision?

I don’t know that it was a ‘conscious decision’ so much as a ‘giving myself permission’ to become an artist. While I’ve been a prolific drawer and ‘art maker’ since childhood, being an artist was never promoted as a valid occupation at the schools I attended, and I actually studied maths and sciences in high school, with the view to getting a ‘proper’ job and pursuing art in my spare time. Of course, that never happens. After finishing high school, I decided to defer for a year rather than go straight into a science degree, and in the meanwhile got a job with the merchandising sector of travelling blockbuster exhibitions, working in major state galleries around Australia, and having privileged access, and exposure, to some exceptional works of art. I decided to travel internationally in my twenties (based predominantly in the UK) and just seemed to end up, once again, among creative people, not scientists! Seeing others pursue their dreams gave me the courage to acknowledge that what I really wanted to do was practice art full time, and the conviction that this was indeed a valid occupation. One dear friend in particular was especially inspirational. (Thanks Ptolemy!)

Are there any artists, writers or musicians etc. whose practice and ideas have inspired your own artwork?

As part of my PhD I am creating a ‘Girlie Werewolf Hall of Fame’, so I am identifying women (both real and fictional) who may qualify as a female werewolf, and selecting a number of them to reinterpret as portraits. The female werewolf in question therefore guides the influences and inspiration for each artwork. Dürer, for example, has crept into recent portraits of women who were persecuted as werewolves in the early modern era. Cinema and television are enormously influential in the portraits of more contemporary female werewolves although I might also draw my imagery from comics, animation, advertising and other aspects of popular culture.

The Internet, with its diverse selection of images and references relating to the one theme, has been an invaluable resource. Literature can be as much an influence as visuals. Angela Carter’s collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber, for example, has had a profound influence on the way I think about my work, but I might also draw inspiration and motifs from history; werewolf fiction; psychiatric literature; criminal court trials; human-animal theory; traditional werewolf mythology and folklore; natural history; and other miscellaneous texts.

My imagery is not especially influenced by the work of other artists, but I do, naturally, have some favourites who greatly inspire me, a number of whom are in this exhibition! Others include Kiki Smith, Heather Shimmen, Rew Hanks, Rona Green, Peter Graham, and I’m keeping a close watch on rising star Sophia Szilagyi. I also find Andy Goldsworthy’s work sublime, although it is completely removed from my own practice.

The werewolf has been a recurring image in your artwork for almost a decade. What inspired your sustained investigation into the werewolf myth?

It was the Iron Wolf – emblem of Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius – that first suggested the wolf to me as a motif for my artwork. Both parents being Lithuanian, the Iron Wolf (or Geležinis Vilkas) seemed an appropriate vehicle for investigations of personal identity. Further research into the wolf, however, revealed the much broader social significance of the animal. We seem determined to claim the wolf as inherently human – at the very least existing on the borders of humanity. This is most readily illustrated in the almost universal phenomenon of lycanthropy, or ‘werewolfery’, where the changeling often serves as a cautionary model against heresy, depravity or just about anything that exists outside the parameters of ‘acceptable’ society. While I initially ‘resisted’ the werewolf in my art (considering myself too serious an artist for such a subject!) my research kept leading me back to the gothic shape-shifter, and it was very liberating indeed once I finally gave myself permission (once again) to embrace the werewolf. I am now well and truly hooked.

Werewolves encompass a whole slue of ‘Others’: other nationalities; other religions; other sexualities; other moralities; other mental states; other body types; other species, and – if female – other gender, the most primary ‘Other’ of them all. While it may initially seem like a narrow subject, the female werewolf encompasses a whole range of fields and histories and genres, and the fact that both werewolves and women are constantly undergoing re-evaluation means that there is always new material for me to work with. Indeed, I find I am not able to keep up with the flood of female werewolf fiction that is entering the market!

You are interested in the idea of the female werewolf as social barometer. How do you see that changing attitudes to female werewolves parallel changes in societal attitudes and beliefs?

A survey of female werewolves offers a barometer of societal fears and paranoias, and how these have been linked to popular notions of the feminine throughout the ages; indeed constructions of the lycanthrope have consistently shared more in common with popular perceptions of women than they have with men. The loup-garou’s classic identities as the diabolical heretic, the ravening man-eater and lunatic respectively mirror the witch, femme fatale and hysteric archetypes reserved for representations of the fairer sex. The place of the moon in both werewolf lore and feminist history offers an especially interesting example of this phenomenon.

In contrast to the apparently more fixed male body, the childbearing, lactating, menstruating female body has traditionally been considered a body in flux – permeable, corruptible, unstable, and this physical fluidity has been used to argue mental instability in women. In the nineteenth century an elaborate psycho-physical system was developed whereby women were categorised as wet and cold, subject to leaking fluids and bodily transformations. The waxing and waning moon – a staple motif of werewolf cinema – was also designated wet and cold, and credited with exerting especial power over women, and notions of lunacy were essentially exaggerated perceptions of hysteria in women.

Lycanthropy and moon-induced lunacy share a long history, and while witches were often believed to coordinate their shape-shifting with certain phases of the moon, cinema is chiefly responsible for routinely subjecting the werewolf to a regular, monthly cycle; favouring the full moon as a lycanthropic trigger. This, in turn, has given rise to arguably one of the most significant developments in recent werewolf lore, placing the lycanthrope firmly within the feminine domain by linking it to that other, notorious, monthly cycle. (Adding to the curious synchronicity, many hair removal products claim to last up to four weeks.) In the 1980s, Sadie Craddock made British tabloid headlines when she had her charge reduced from murder to manslaughter, arguing diminished responsibility due to severe PMS. Diaries and institutional records documenting a cyclical pattern to her violent behaviour were presented in her defense and supported her contention that PMS “turned her into a raging animal each month and forced her to act out of character”. Feminist groups remain ambivalent about the use of PMS as a defense in court, nervous about resurrecting 18th and 19th century notions of women as inherently hysterical and unstable. Nevertheless, the 28-day cycle is becoming a regular fixture in werewolf iconography, including that driven by women, and a conspicuous dormitory effect has taken hold on female lycanthropy.

To what do you credit the increasing profile and acceptance of the female werewolf in contemporary literature and film?

Greater environmental awareness is forcing the civilised world to re-evaluate its relationship with the natural world, and the results are beginning to filter down into filmic and literary portrayals of werewolves. Of all beasts, the wolf most embodies our changing attitude to the wilderness; once something to be tamed and conquered, but now endangered and in desperate need of protection, making the once maligned she-wolf a popular pin up for environmental causes. Culture has been knocked from its pedestal by accusations of wastefulness, artifice, vanity and moral degeneracy, while Nature has inversely been elevated as the embodiment of the newest virtue, sustainability – with eco-feminists championing the turnaround. Although the composite, metamorphosing, bestial and especially female lycanthrope has consistently been designated sub-human, the very qualities that were once used to condemn female loup-garous are beginning to be imagined in a more positive light. Woman’s traditional alignment with the natural world promises to serve as proof of moral superiority rather than degeneracy, and lycanthropy as the embodiment of feminine virtues, rather than vices. Apparently werewolf romance is one of the fastest growing genres in fiction.

You have developed your own rich iconography with which to chart the evolution of the werewolf myth. Can you make mention of any recurring images and symbols in your work.

One of my recurring motifs is the poisonous plant wolfsbane, also known as monkshood or aconitum napellus. The Romans used to dip their arrows in the poison when hunting wolves, and it’s this practice which gave wolfsbane its name. The plant was a common ingredient in a number of ‘recipes’ for werewolf salves and ointments throughout the early modern era (and indeed into Victorian times) and makes a reappearance in the recent Canadian film, Ginger Snaps (2000), although in this instance it is used to cure lycanthropy. (The sequel, Ginger Snaps II: Unleashed elaborates that wolfsbane can only keep the lycanthropy at bay, not eliminate it altogether).

Recently you have begun incorporating the blonde pelt of the dingo into your representations of female werewolves. How did this other beleaguered animal come to be incorporated into your constructed images?

While the wolf pays tribute to my Lithuanian heritage, the dingo acknowledges my Australian upbringing (and I must confess a narcissistic attraction to the blonde pelt!). The wolf and dingo shared similar bad press as ‘outlaws’ and have also been reinvented in the public consciousness in similar ways, sliding between ‘enemy’ and ‘environmental hero’. As a first generation Australian, the dingo is a particularly apt motif for explorations of personal identity, as it too is a relatively ‘new’ Australian – indeed it was only officially granted ‘native’ status in the 1990s, up until which time it was technically listed as vermin. It has also been blamed for the extinction of a raft of animals, including the Tasmanian Tiger, since it arrived on Australian shores 4,000 years ago and as such, its indigenous status still remains contentious. While the dingo initially entered my repertoire of motifs for ‘autobiographical’ purposes, it provided the lead-in point for my work on Lindy Chamberlain (not shown in this exhibition) that in turn triggered the idea of the ‘Girlie Werewolf Hall of Fame’, and of exploring other women’s histories.

Ideas of metamorphosis and transformation that are paramount to the plot of fairytales are also prevalent in your artwork. Can you discuss the way in which the concepts of metamorphosis and transformation feature in your work, particularly in relation to your work in The enchanted forest exhibition?

‘Metamorphosis’ is present in my work on a number of levels, including the technique itself. The inherently transformative nature of the reduction linocut, in which the plate is progressively cut into and destroyed while the print correspondingly becomes more complete (the printmaking equivalent to The Picture of Dorian Gray) recommends it as a particularly apt medium for explorations of lycanthropic transformations. The hybrid identity of the werewolf was initially reflective of my own hybrid, cultural identity, but has come to embrace the continually evolving perceptions of both werewolves and women throughout history – which is why I attempt to present a range of types, phases and degrees of lycanthropic transformation within my works. Newer works, such as One Wolf Girl Battles Against All Mankind, blend not only woman and wolf, but also flat, graphic areas with more photorealist elements, and linocut with woodblock, creating hybrids on multiple levels.

In recent years, I have become increasingly aware of theory that proposes the re-evaluation of ‘monsters’ in general; the hybridity and fluidity that was once considered a corruption of the ‘pure’ form is beginning to be celebrated as an indicator of multiple viewpoints and possibilities, of greater tolerance for difference. My werewolf imagery attempts to suggest a permanent state of flux, never wholly woman or wholly wolf, and encompassing a greater range of possibilities than either – the fluctuating ‘whole’ being greater than the sum of the fixed ‘parts’, so to speak.

Since 2002 various incarnations of your solo exhibition The Girlie Werewolf Project have been exhibited throughout Australia, and also in Lithuania — your ancestral homeland. How was your work received in Lithuania?

I was initially nervous about showing my work in Lithuania, worried that the locals would think me an ‘upstart’ or ‘imposter’ for making work so heavily influenced by Lithuanian culture, despite being born and growing up in Australia. To my delight (and relief!) I found the opposite to be true. The ‘native born’ Lithuanians were happy to see that I valued my (and their) ancestral heritage highly even though I’d been born on the other side of the world and they enjoyed seeing their culture celebrated in a ‘fresh’ way.

The reduction linocut process seems particularly well suited as a medium for you, and allows you to create highly detailed and complex images. Did you go through a process of experimentation with other media before finding your preferred medium for exploring the concepts and processes that interest you?

Most of my undergraduate printmaking focused on either multi-plate etchings or lithography, and I fell into reduction linocut almost by accident when I needed a bolder process for a particular work. I really loved the physical acts of carving and printing the linocut blocks (and the low toxicity of the process) and never looked back, although I do occasionally make the odd etching to ‘keep my hand in’, so to speak.

I have also dabbled with costume (incorporating hand printed cloth), photography, artists’ books and video and anticipate returning to filmic and threedimensional explorations of my theme. However the reduction linocut remains my primary love, and I just can’t go past the lush surface and colour that is possible with linocuts, and find that the process allows me to produce ‘contemporary’ looking work that nevertheless acknowledges historical printmaking techniques and aesthetics, and is able to encompass the broad historical and social range of the subject. It also visually unifies the various components of the preparatory, composite ‘drawings’ done in Photoshop, and which may utilise such disparate elements as hand drawings, original photographs, scanned images and objects, film stills, or images sourced from the Internet.

Can you give a brief description of the reduction linocut process and the way in which you both push and extend this printmaking technique in your practice?

The reduction linocut is created using a single block of linoleum. A section of the linoleum is cut out, the block is inked up in one colour (usually the lightest) and printed, then a new section is cut out. The block is then inked up in a new colour, and re-printed over the existing print. I also use stencils to block colour from certain areas, and to allow the printing of multiple colours on a single layer. Because the plate is progressively destroyed in the process, it is not possible to add more prints to the edition after the first printing session.

Over the past decade or so I have been developing a particularly complex and involved method of reduction lino-cutting that allows for subtle shifts in tone and an almost photo-realist result, challenging conventional expectations of the medium. The process requires elaborate layering and stencilling, and is particularly labour intensive, with larger images (around 50 x 60 cm) using around 30 colours and requiring up to 600 hours per edition. I am only able to make three or four prints a year.

Were there any challenges that you faced as both the curator of The enchanted forest: new gothic storytellers, and one of the exhibiting artists?

I’m mindful of the narcissism inherent in curating oneself into an exhibition, so try very hard not to promote myself or my work above the other artists or artworks, and to make decisions that benefit the exhibition as a whole, and not just me. I actually find it a little uncomfortable if writers focus on me in their reviews, or if it’s my work that is reproduced! The greater challenge, however, is in conducting a professional relationship with artists who also happen to be friends, particularly when difficult decisions have to be made. On a more practical note, the extra time demands involved with curating often mean that I am unable to devote as much time to my own practice, and works that I had envisaged for a show just don’t get made in time. A new print that I had planned for The enchanted forest, for example, is sitting half finished on the drying racks in my studio, and will have to wait for another exhibition. It’s also tricky knowing whether to use the first or third person when writing catalogue essays!

As curator what were the logistical issues that you had to take into account, given that the exhibition will tour to a number of venues nationally?

Where to begin with this one! So many, and I’m sure more will reveal themselves as the exhibition tours. The primary concern, of course, is the security and safety of the artworks, as these will be packed and unpacked repeatedly in the course of the tour, and displayed in galleries with varying resources. A number of the works also require complicated installation or hanging. As such, the individual artworks need to be relatively robust and portable, and accompanied by very clear installation manuals and purpose built transport crates. This required a number of the artists to simplify or reconsider their display methods, or indeed their usual working practices, in order to accommodate the particular demands of a touring exhibition. Security or indemnification requirements may also restrict the placement of certain pieces within the gallery itself, so it may be necessary to reconsider original ‘visions’ of how the work will be presented.

The lead-in time, (i.e. the time from when a proposal is first submitted to the gallery until the day the exhibition actually opens), varies from venue to venue, but is necessarily longer for a touring exhibition due to the various stages of development and funding, and the large number of vested parties. I first approached the artists for The enchanted forest around two and a half years ago, and submitted my proposal to Geelong Gallery in early 2006. Geelong Gallery then had to gauge initial interest from potential touring venues before submitting a proposal to NETS Victoria for exhibition development funding. NETS Victoria, in turn, had to apply to Arts Victoria for funding to tour the exhibition, and again for indemnification (insurance), having first developed a confirmed touring program that accommodated the varying lead in times among the different tour venues. All parties have to be prepared for a lot of proposal writing, cross-checking and proofreading!

A lot can (and did) happen in two and a half years! Artists’ working practices may veer off into slightly different directions, or might halt altogether due to sudden illness or accidents or newborn babies or deaths in the family or other unforseen circumstances. As such, the curatorial premise needs to be broad and flexible enough to accommodate these various contingencies, and still to be relevant and current some years after the initial vision, and to deliver an exhibition that meets the expectations of the various host galleries.

A significant factor in organising this exhibition was the need to satisfy the requirements of a number of vested parties and individuals — not just artists but also galleries and touring and funding bodies. As more ‘levels of answerability’ are put in place, the less flexibility there is for the exhibition, and the less power the guest curator has to effect decisions or initiate developments. Certain ambitions for the show had to be surrendered or re-negotiated, however when one door closes another one opens, and some new, unexpected opportunities (such as this wonderful exhibition website) have been gained. Shifts in artists’ works open up new conceptual possibilities not considered in the original curatorial premise. The input of so many stakeholders has also meant that a lot of the logistics are overseen and orchestrated by other individuals with far greater expertise than I have in those particular areas, ensuring the highest possible quality and professionalism, and the greatest chance of success.

Enchanted forest: new gothic storytellers

A Geelong Gallery & NETS Victoria touring exhibition. Curator: Jazmina Cininas

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