Nolan Preece’s current exhibition at Galerie Stremmel, Chemigram Landscapes: The West Reimagined, can be understood as a catalog of chemical textures designed to mimic the natural environment. “Chemigram” is a term coined by Belgian artist Pierre Cordier, who knows and supports Preece’s work. The method falls under the umbrella of ‘cameraless photography’ – an image is created by painting or manipulating chemicals on the surface of photographic paper, and then subjecting the paper to a development process in which the interaction of chemicals and emulsion leaves visible traces. For this work, Preece coaxes the process into materializing textures that mimic cracked mountainsides, twisting trees, trembling water surfaces — and in one case, a soaring flock of birds that appears to shatter into origami as they leap into the air.
The unique chemical medium that Preece used for most of these pieces was an acrylic floor covering. I didn’t think to ask him which brand would give the best glossy, non-slip floor, but for art purposes he recommends First Street Super–Crylic.
It seems as if in the cameraless photography you made there is a play between the abstraction resulting from the chemical processes on the one hand and images (or figurations) on the other.
I’m considered a pioneer of the chemigram because I started it in 1981. And I guess you could say I put it through a bunch of different ropes to get to where I am now. And this whole acrylic flooring thing is my discovery or invention or whatever you want to call it.
I derived it from work in printmaking [when I was teaching], or intaglio printing where we used Bodenlack as a hard base on the plate to resist the acid when etching the plate. One day in 2011 I decided to put some of this on a piece of photographic paper and I was so amazed by what happened that I said, “I really have something new here.” My wife didn’t have me for three or four days seen.
I’ve tried everything I can and I don’t know anyone working on this acrylic flooring. I use any that contain acrylic – like Mop & Glo, Quick Shine, Pledge – there’s one I really like called First Street Super-Crylic. I try to take the chemigram in as many different directions as possible. Of course I am getting on in years and I would like to see how far I can get with it.
Walk me through the process of “Yosemite”– It looks like the rock face and trees were created by a chemical photographic process, but the sky seems distinctly different.
[The rock face was] Attach it there with a piece of PVC pipe and spray at the same time [with floor finish] and drag across the paper. And you can see where I stopped occasionally as I walked across the paper to create these crevasses leading down the rock.
Like a squeegee.
Yes, you can use a puddle pusher, which is a glass stick with a handle on it, or you can use PVC pipe. I run it over the paper and it puts an even layer there. Then it starts cracking in about 30 minutes to an hour.
I make trees on a separate piece of paper and then collage them in the image I’m working on. But it’s all chemigram. The sky is the only thing I can do – sometimes I can come up with interesting clouds, but sometimes I have to do something else, with Photoshop.
Are these physically collaged or do you cut them out digitally and your final project is a digital print composited in Photoshop?
I collage them with Photoshop and each of these trees is a different layer that I can transfer. I [decided] to decorate it with something other than a rock face – and that’s how I started building trees. Trees are a new invention of mine. Seems I can do it with a brush and one of those natural sponges. I can dip it in the floor varnish and dab it there to make it look like a tree.
I hope you now understand that this process requires going through developer and fixer, developer and fixer, back and forth, in photographic solutions to create the image. You can’t even see it [at first] on the sheet of paper. These floorings are clear. But as soon as you shove them in the developer or the fixer first, whatever you want to do, the image starts to appear and goes through all these cracks.
If you’ve ever made a black and white print, away from the developer, stop bath and fix then you kind of understand that I use them the way you shouldn’t – by putting them in the fixer and then setting it in the developer.
I am always interested in transfers between art practices and scientific practices. I’m curious how you define experiment, a word used in both the arts and sciences where there is some overlap – but there are also some differences.
Well, it’s really a matter of trial and error. I’m going to do something, and I’m going to say, well, if I adapt it like this… it’s kind of a scientific methodology. That’s how science often works – you try something, it doesn’t work, but you see something that starts to work. And you say, well, if I keep going down this path, I’ll find what I’m looking for. It’s trial and error, and you mustn’t give it up. I go through 10 sheets of paper and there is nothing.
My wife is a researcher and we talk a little bit about it. They have some kind of hypothesis and are actually trying to prove it.
One quality of experimentation is failure, and tolerance for failure is very important for both scientists and artists.
Scientists consider failure an important thing because they came to some kind of conclusion and that is something important for future research. And maybe there’s something in there that might be worth investigating further. Failure is not necessarily viewed as a bad thing.
But at the end of the day, I’m sure if you showed up at Stremmel’s with 27 blank sheets, they’d give you a funny look.
Well, yes, you are absolutely right. I would have learned that I couldn’t do any.
your piece “Strength“works for me in a different register than the “Yosemite” one. In the “Yosemite‘, use these textures in a way that suggests figurative forms. And it seems to exist at this level of – if not pure abstraction then in a more abstract state.
Once again, this is acrylic on a piece of photographic paper. I enlarged a small section about 4×5 in size and enlarged it with the scan. That’s what I’m looking for – these little structural things. And then I really modified the colors in Photoshop.
I started doing abstractions. But then, my agent in New York City, we tried to get the abstracts out to a bunch of museums across the country, and they didn’t go down too well. And she asked me to send her a picture for a Christmas card and it was a landscape of what I had done. The phone kept ringing! We had all these museums that wanted me to do an exhibition and I said, “Is that all I had to do, do a landscape?”
I’m right there. I use the landscape as a vehicle to explore anywhere I want with the different techniques.
I was wondering if you thought there was any irony in this method of using this very industrial chemical process to create images while depicting a landscape that appears to be free of any industrial processes.
I never really thought much about the industrial connection because so many mediums are industrial anyway – acrylic is plastic.
There’s a piece in there [the Stremmel show] That’s not a chemigram, that’s Mordançage. I don’t like using this procedure because it’s highly toxic chemistry – you have to have the window open and blow a fan behind me to get it out. My age makes me more and more picky about what I use – these things can kill you fast if you get the wrong toxic substance. The acrylic is not a problem. It doesn’t give off any fumes. It’s easy to work with.
You want to leave a legacy, but not too soon.
That’s correct. I want to get as many kilometers out of it as possible.
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
Solo show by Nolan Preece Chemigram Landscapes: The West Reimagined is on view at the Stremmel Gallery in Reno through December 23.
This article was funded by a grant from the City of Reno Arts + Culture Commission.