Printmaker John Loane at his studio in Mitchell.

Printmaker John Loane at his studio in Mitchell. Photo: Melissa Adams

The first thing you notice when you visit John Loane in his printmaking studio is, well, the studio itself. Located behind a plumbing firm in Mitchell, in a new industrial complex, the studio is fronted by a bland, featureless facade and a standard door with a number on it. But step inside, and it’s a huge, Aladdin’s cave of a space, a cavern two storeys high with stacks of prints, paintings, a printing press, cabinets and shelves and work tables stretching out. The colour scheme is industrial and muted – white, grey, ochre, with pops of red, mustard and yellow. The whole cluttered space has an aura of productiveness and organised chaos.

Loane, a tall, lean, thoughtful figure in a grey turtleneck and a work-spattered blue apron, would scoff at this last part. He maintains that his studio, purchased only two years ago off-the-plan, is a work in progress. He can never readily find what he needs, and has grand plans for a mezzanine and built-in shelving. But it’s clear, at least from a newcomer’s perspective, that this is a place where things happen, where art gets made.

Loane has a career that has long depended on facilitating the work of other artists. But this doesn’t make him any less of an artist himself. He’s known in art circles as a master printer, with his own art practice, but, from early in his career, he has been more enthralled by working with artists to interpret, at least technically, their work in print form.

It was back in 1981, when he was appointed founding director of the Victorian Print Workshop (now the Australian Print Workshop), that he says he became interested in creating prints with other artists, to try to “empathise” with their sensibilities.

“Perhaps I felt I was making art by proxy, not being entirely sure of my own directions and having a range of skills that I could use to effect an interesting set of print works with others,” he says.

Originally from Victoria, he studied printmaking at the Victorian College of the Arts in the 1970s, and had a makeshift studio in 1976 in Melbourne, after completing his graduate diploma. He studied lithography in Canada and spent a year teaching at the School of Art in Hobart. His later work at the workshop in Melbourne, which had been set up by the Victorian government to provide accessible studios for printmakers, culminated in a commission for The Bicentennial Folio, a project involving work by 20 artists and curated by Roger Butler at the National Gallery of Australia. It was this project that led him to Mike Parr – performance artist, printmaker, provocateur.

It’s a partnership that has endured for 27 years. Parr is widely regarded as one of Australia’s great living artists, both in terms of his artwork and his performances. He didn’t emerge as a printmaker until working on the folio, and has since collaborated with Loane on hundreds of prints.

“I had previously sent him a copper plate in order to entice him into the print idea, as he had been making great large drawings for some years emanating from a radical performance-art practice,” Loane says.

“It took about one minute for him to be completely enmeshed in the process, and he has since attacked the medium with alarmingly incisive power.”

Their work together, he says, has been one 27-year-long project. At the time of our interview, he is deep in the process of collating material for a catalogue of Parr’s works, in the lead-up to Parr’s retrospective at the National Gallery in 2016. It’s a massive process, and has involved going through old proofs, what he terms “raw material”, to be transformed into works for the catalogue.

Although he’s widely known as a master printer, Loane says the description doesn’t really reflect what he does.

“I do feel I am working, in a way, as an artist rather than a master printer, as I doubt that I have the patience to be the master in the traditional sense,” he says.

“I’m not a specialist. I do a bit of everything - lithography, etching, all of the photography stuff with Mike, screenprinting occasionally - whereas most master printers tend to one discipline. So in that sense, I’m not that interested in the finesse of master printmaking, a la [New York print virtuoso] Ken Tyler, say.”

Parr is not his only printing mate, and his roster over the years has included, among other, Imants Tillers, Savanhdary Vongpoothorn, Ken Unsworth and, more recently, Sophie Cape, a former elite athlete turned painter, whose work shows at the Olsen Irwin Gallery in Sydney. But although he often struggles to find the time and space to create his own work – Parr works at a vertiginous pace, and the catalogue is a huge job – he says he never feels his artistic ambition being thwarted.

“I regard my own work as quite separate from the work I do with other artists and have no problem in reconciling that, and I never find it frustrating. I make my own work when I feel like it,” he says.

“It’s always been sort of in the background. I can go for long periods without doing anything because I’m in another project with Mike or whoever else, and not worry about it, because I don’t have those sorts of problems of obsessive-compulsive disorderly art-making.”

Later, when pressed, he says he doesn’t know how his style developed, but that he never “drew very well representationally”.

“I blame my scribble marks on my maternal ancestor Sir Isaac Pitman, who invented shorthand in 1830-something,” he said.

“I don’t do a lot of explaining, except to describe it as a kind of ‘fraught automatic writing’ which, when translated into the etching medium, appears crude and gritty and which I now seem to want to occlude with layers of etching ink applied directly to the print. I'll leave the psychoanalysts to deal with that, but perhaps it has something to do with a dissatisfaction with a recognised print aesthetic.”   

What suits him, it seems, is to be intuitive, rather than academic – to live in the moment, an essential ambition when working with someone like Parr, whose ideas and how to execute them would, says Loane, appal many traditional printmakers.

“I am not reinterpreting his ideas, but certainly it falls to me to interpret them technically,” he says.

“We have worked so long together we pretty much know simultaneously what is required to effect the ideas he has.”

“It’s a combination of brain, ego and sheer willpower, and astonishing knowledge, and magnificent drawing, I think. It’s just part of his practice, but it all comes out of performance.”

When they’re in the thick of a project, Loane says things speed up.

“Straight away I had to run with his obsessions - you really have to move fast, and it’s not finesse print-making, it’s about finding the right technique for the moment to let him go. And I think I twigged on that straight away, because I thought his drawing was always fantastic, and everything that it contained,” he says.

“It’s great fun. Doing all this sort of stuff – the average printer would be horrified. ‘You’re wrecking my printmaking!’”

Loane admits he is drawn to artists who are more “out there” than most, Cape being the perfect example. Her vast canvasses are gritty and visceral, and Cape herself is a certified adrenalin junkie.  

“I would describe her work as a sort of animistic expressionist - dirt and bones co-habit well with the etching pigments and carborundum grit,” he says.

“She prowls the studio all night and I leave her to it.”

And, glancing around his vast space, his “concrete bunker”, even he admits it would be creepy to spend the night in it, alone out in Mitchell. But it represents, for him, a place in which he can finally spread out his own work.

He still runs Viridian Press, a practice he set up in Collingwood after leaving the Victorian Print Studio, and later worked in a garden studio in Thornbury before moving up to the Dandenong Ranges, in the mid-1990s, with his partner, Sara Kelly and their two children, now 18 and 22. But Kelly, a native Canberran, eventually tired of driving down into the city each day, and took up a job at the National Gallery 10 years ago (today she works as a registrar at the National Museum). Loane spent two years to finally move here, travelling between the two cities, transporting his materials, before eventually settling into a studio at ANCA, a minute space in comparison. It amazes him, he says, how he managed to cram so much into it. When the six-year lease ended, he bit the bullet and bought in Mitchell.

These days, he feels completely settled in Canberra. The Dandenongs were too damp for printmaking anyway, and he is the type of artist who will be sought out no matter where he lives. There are, after all, not many people doing the kind of work he does.

“I think I’m the only one who can deal with the crazies,” he says.

In this sense, he admits he acts as the counter-balance necessary to actually create something.

“I’m pretty straight, really,” he says, glancing around at his cosy chaos, huge and draughty, but with a small electric heater that keeps him warm.

“It’s only really since I got here that I’ve gotten back into my work,” he says.  “But there’s no rush.”

On cue, Mike Parr arrives at the door. He’s quiet, like Loane, and diffident; you’d never guess at the ideas fermenting in his mind. But Loane is ready – ready for the organised chaos that reigns in his studio.