Man of Letters: Derek Lamb and the Officina Athelstane displays local artist, Derek Lamb’s, printmaking. Lamb’s skill with this traditional artform has reached across the country and overseas. His practice originated in 2011 when he set up a workshop at the Walter Reed Cultural Centre in Rockhampton. With collected wooden and metal type, in addition to ancient printing presses, (the most iconic of which is the artist’s Alexandra Press, made in 1887), Lamb has created books, posters and cards that have touched the lives of people around the world. In Man of Letters, Lamb’s perfection of the art demonstrates persistence and an appreciation for the invention of the printing press, which revolutionised humankind. He poses political, social and personal messages to his audience.
The artist’s work is displayed in a narrow glass vitrine, separating the viewer from the art. With the gallery space fronted on one side by ceiling-length glass doors, beams of light reach for each page.
One of Lamb’s most extravagant pieces takes a quote from Hamlet. The original quote we are familiar with: “To Be or Not To Be, that is the question.” However, on closer examination, Lamb has altered to original to “That’s a question” [italics added]. So why change it? Lamb recontextualises the quote to resonate with the viewer. It contrasts with Shakespeare’s wording and poses “to be, or not to be,” as a question one should ask oneself. Lamb’s use of large, capital letters in a bold, Ariel font emphasises the message as it calls for attention. Below this, Lamb prints: “The Ministry of Equivocation,” ambiguously referring to a higher power that either avoids the truth or conceals it, diverting the question. Lamb’s politically driven piece, inspired by the literature of the past, expresses a corruption of power. The use of green supports this reading, through its associations with greed. The artist may also be expressing his longing for another time while simultaneously calling out contemporary higher powers, who twist and bend the truth.
Another work inspired by traditional typography and offering social commentary and is Lamb’s recent In Time of the Plague. Here Lamb compares the events of the Coronavirus pandemic to the European Bubonic plague (1347 to 1351). The book is clothbound and entirely handmade, from the printing to the binding of the spine. The cover text is in bold, black capital letters in a font similar to Old English Text. Within its pages, the book details the events of the pandemic in a newspaper-like style. Gold, red, and black text, occasionally capitalised and presented imperfectly, envelop the pages cover to cover. Lamb utilises symbols such as hands and eyes to imply themes of conspiracy and draw our focus. The book’s ancient appearance exemplifies the statement, “With age comes wisdom,” implying that the book holds the truth of the pandemic, rather than giving the misinformation spread during this time.
Lamb effectively utilises traditional printmaking and letterpress techniques to showcase pressing social messages. He implores the viewer-reader to appreciate traditional artforms and remain sceptical. Moreover, the artist’s labour, dedication and passion is present within every work. For those who want to share a connection to the past and uphold a love of history and literature, the exhibition is a must see. While neither immersive nor interactive, Lamb’s work commands attention, enabling us to think critically about the world appreciate the talent of old forms.
Sophie Edwards was a participant in the Visual Field: Arts Industry Insights for Teens. This three-day immersive professional development program is a partnership between Flying Arts Alliance and the Institute of Modern Art. In 2023, the program was hosted regionally for the first time at the Rockhampton Museum of Art. This review received editorial support from the Institute of Modern Art.