Thursday, August 6, 2020

Monumental Changes

As an artist and educator who teaches both art and art history, I have been closely observing the recent removals of statues and monuments across the United States over the past couple  months. I certainly have formed opinions about this. I may currently live in the South, but I resided in states much further north for most of my life. Some of the culture of the South has been baffling to me. It is not uncommon for me to see large pickup trucks, with full-sized Confederate flags streaming from them, driving around my neighborhood. This has always been disconcerting and somewhat sickening.

I recently asked a friend on social media—who also teaches art history and lives in the South—what he thought should be done with the statues of Confederate soldiers/leaders that are slated to be removed from Statuary Hall in the Capitol; he emphatically proclaimed that he hoped they would be destroyed. I get it. I certainly understand the sentiments that have led protestors to pull down Confederate statuary around the county as the Black Lives Matter movement has surged in the days since the killing of George Floyd. The removal, often violently, of monuments of oppressors has a long history.

When studying ancient art, the first period following prehistoric art periods is often the ancient cultures of the Middle East. The artifacts from these cultures are thousands of years old and the fact that any of them still exist is amazing. Often archaeologists have found the sculpted heads of ancient rulers with the eyes gouged out, separated from the bodies of the statues. Whether the ruler was oppressive or not, the leader who conquered would typically have statues of the former ruler destroyed. In fact, they would behead the statue (which was probably the same fate as the person it represented) as a symbol of his defeat and the end to his power. The bodies of the statues, if they were bronze, would just get melted down to become something else. And we are left with an assortment of blinded, deposed rulers. But those heads were kept as a sign to any would-be upstart who sought to challenge the new power—a powerful symbol.

During the Protestant Reformation a similar thing happened when the iconoclasts revolted against the cult of saints evident within Catholic churches and cathedrals. Taking the Second Commandment’s prohibition of graven images quite literally, the iconoclasts toppled carved statues of saints (as well as Christ and Mary) and even beheaded them in the same fashion as earlier cultures. Even the toppling of statues of Communist leaders at the end of the Cold War, in more recent decades, shows that this concept is a fundamental human reaction.

What seems to be new is a specific mania associated with statue removal. I would expect that some of the statues that have come down in 2020 were passed, day in and day out, by some of the folks who pulled them down—maybe even for years—without a second thought. Statues of lesser known figures often go unnoticed and the histories of the figures are unknown but to a handful of people. When they are suddenly demonized and destroyed by mobs it can be a shock to the collective system. From an artist’s point of view it hurts a little when anything that took so long to produce is destroyed so swiftly, whether or not I agree with what the monument stands for or represents to others.

Now, I am not saying that Confederate statues need to remain on prominent public display. They probably need to be considered on a case-by-case basis by the local municipalities with a clear plan for their removal in place. I understand that some locales do not have leaders who will willingly do this, but I applaud the ones who have understood the harmful impact of these objects on their constituents and have taken preemptive actions. Yet, we have not been satisfied with only the removal of Confederate statues and symbols. An ever increasing side eye is being given to monuments of figures who, at one time at least, seemed to be on the correct side of history.

The removal of the Emancipation Memorial (AKA Freedman’s Memorial) from public display in Boston is a prime example. Evidently the reading of the intent of this sculpture has transformed over the years. Created mainly with funds from former slaves, it likely originally reminded early viewers of the release from shackles of so many Americans, as well as the recent assassination of the leader who worked to put an end to their slavery. In light of decades of Critical Theory debate, it now elicits feelings of subjugation to some. It did fare better than the nearby statue of Christopher Columbus which got the guillotine days before.

Another U.S. presidential monument, also recently removed, was the equestrian monument of Teddy Roosevelt at the entrance to the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Two male figures of a native African and native American walking alongside the horse also brought charges of subjugation and white supremacy. Roosevelt is seen by many as the father of modern conservationism, and the national parks are indebted to him. Yet, the statue is gone. So where are we? Where do we go from this moment of so much shifting and changing?

Number one. These are cosmetics to a certain degree. You could remove every monument of every questionable figure—and guess what? they all are because we are fallible human beings. You could even replace them all with deserving African American or Native American figures.

The only problem is that you haven’t changed anyone’s heart or anyone’s mind. Taking down a statue, as a municipal government or as an act of protest, feels good and feels righteous for a moment, but has anything really changed?

Number two. Where do these statues go from here? Many museums do not want them, even if they are of great technical quality or by important artists, because they are now tainted. Are they now condemned to be stuck in a warehouse somewhere, next to Indiana Jones’ famed lost Ark?

Number three. Is there a way to move past this moment that is truly healing and transformative for all?

I think there are some positive steps that can be taken. One of the easiest steps is contextualization. For the remaining monuments which are typically under the care of a municipality, it is much cheaper to contextualize a statue than remove it. I do think think some statues need to be taken down, but the Lincoln and Roosevelt statues could have been recontextualized long ago. Historical societies and cities all over are making walking tours guided by smart phone apps. The locations include QR codes that can be scanned on a phone for additional information and videos about the buildings or monuments. These can easily be created to tell the good, the bad, and the ugly about any figure represented. In the case of these monuments these materials could cover how the works were perceived when they were first erected and how views have changed over time. Even when works are removed this would be an excellent, interactive way to recontextualize them in a new setting.

For the removed and disgraced works… what is their fate? These are still someone’s relative. Families might take some for their private estates, but more and more, even the families are dissociating themselves from the moral failings of their ancestors. That takes us back to the beginning, to ancient times. If Confederate generals were truly the losers of a war then should not their statues bear the same fate as the ancient Middle Eastern rulers (and for the moment I’m not even considering the fact that they were often made several decades after the Civil War as tools of the Jim Crow era)? So, like my friend stated, they might just be destroyed. However, let’s think about how the statues were used in the ancient times. They were altered (beheaded) and a portion was kept to show the regime change.

We are living in a time when many deeply desire regime change. I’m not just talking about government leaders. People want society to change. People want institutions to change. But deep down, people want hearts and minds to change. That does not and can not happen with just policy. It may start there, but there is no switch we can flip to make people act (and feel) differently overnight. It takes time.

One of the most powerful tools for change is art. Some of these monuments were created (intentionally or not) to keep the status quo, but art can start revolutions—not only in governments but in hearts. My vision for the disgraced and hidden monuments, the beheaded Christopher Columbuses of our day, is that they be resurrected. The disembodied head might be a reminder that for centuries we held onto a tale that was murkier than just a jingle (in the year of 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue). The head testifies to that. It testifies to the craftsmanship of an artist who believed in that tale, and didn’t question it. But the body of that statue… perhaps it can be reborn into a new tribute.

Is it too much to ask the cities and museums that question the appropriateness of these objects to do more than just remove them? If a city wants to remove a statue of Columbus because of its offense to native peoples then why should they not offer the material (bronze, marble, etc.) to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC? Could not a contemporary native artist use that material to create a new work in response? Who loses in this scenario? The artist gets material with which to create. The museum gets a new artwork. The Italian-American Bostonians who treasured that statue could still at least visit the head, but they would also have the opportunity to see an artwork that could perhaps open their hearts and minds to a broader view of the past. Something that would put them in another’s shoes.

The same could be done with Confederate statuary and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. There are so many inventive contemporary artists out there who could create stunning, thought provoking works if just given the materials and the chance. And these are just a couple museums. There are plenty of art museums who would likely not desire a Confederate monument, but would relish the chance to have new, reborn work by an artist of color. Let’s face it. When these statues and monuments are removed, we are not going to see them again. If they are going into a deep freeze to never be displayed again—even with recontextualization—then they should be resurrected into something new, something that acknowledges the past, the present and the future.

America is an imperfect experiment. This is my call to artists, museums, local governments, and philanthropists to work toward making their mark on this MORE perfect union.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Krishna Reddy: A Strong Impression

On August 22, 2018 one of the giants of twentieth century printmaking passed away at the age of 93. N. Krishna Reddy was instrumental in making printmaking something unique, not merely a secondary medium for creating a reproduction of an artwork in another form, as it had been perceived for much of the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. He and his mentor, Stanley William Hayter, are far from common household names, yet their impact on Modernism proved fruitful in shaping the processes and works of some of the key figures of midcentury Modernism, such as Joan Miro, Louise Nevelson, Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollock.

Reddy was born in a small town in India in 1925. He went to university in his home country and began teaching art there in the 1940s. At this point he was working primarily in sculpture and painting. After WWII, as Europe was beginning to rebuild, Reddy made his way west and first settled in London in 1949. There he studied sculpture with Henry Moore. By the next year he had moved on to Paris where he also studied sculpture with Ossip Zadkine.

Stanley Hayter had first set up his workshop (Atelier 17, but now running as Atelier Contrepoint) in the late 1920s. It was a meeting place for artists from around the world, who had come to Paris to study the evolving styles of early abstraction. Hayter’s workspace and press allowed these artists to try their hand at engraving and etching, even if their primary media were something other than printmaking. With the onset of WWII Hayter moved Atelier 17 to New York City for a period, but by the time Krishna Reddy was in Paris, Hayter had returned and was running both the American and French versions of the workshop for a period.

Reddy took to printmaking, especially engraving, right away. He shared Hayter’s enthusiasm for the direct processes of working a metal plate. Eventually, during the 1950s, Reddy was named as a co-director of Atelier 17 in Paris. It was not odd that an individual who had originally trained as a sculptor would become a director of the most significant printmaking workshop in the world. Hayter, himself, had started out as a painter and continued to paint throughout his life. Helen Phillips, Hayter’s second wife, was also primarily a sculptor before she met her husband and began working in etching and engraving processes. This was also the case for the American Shirley Witebsky, Krishna Reddy’s first wife. With this group of very physical printmakers it was no wonder that some new, experimental, and significant changes would soon be discovered at Atelier 17.

The most famous technique to come out of Atelier 17 is often called Color Viscosity Etching. It was usually called Simultaneous Color Intaglio printing by both Hayter and Reddy. The process was discovered somewhat accidentally by Reddy and his fellow countryman, Kaiko Moti, before being fully developed by Hayter and Reddy. At its root is the tendency for two oil-based inks to reject each other when one is oilier than the other. If an oilier ink is rolled onto the surface of a plate, another, tackier ink can be rolled over the first inking without disrupting that initial ink surface. This became most important when the sculptural aspects of Reddy’s (and others’) works allowed rollers of different densities to apply the inks. A hard roller would deposit an oily ink on the top surface of the etching plate, whereas a softer roller with a tackier ink could deposit ink on a lower surface, while not changing the ink from the previous roller. This discovery finally achieved the effect that Hayter had long been searching for—a way to ink an etching plate in colors so that it could be sent through the press only once.

The technique of simultaneous color printing became synonymous with the artists of Atelier 17. Hayter had his own ways of utilizing the process which changed over time, as he worked in the collaborative atmosphere of Atelier 17. Reddy, however, made the process his own. While Hayter favored engraving and the use of etching acids to develop textures and depth in his plates, Reddy was prone to work the plate in a more sculptural way. Using traditional hand engraving tools alongside electric rotary (aka Dremel) tools, Reddy produced what were essentially low relief sculptures in a metal plate. As aggressive as this method might sound, under his masterful hand, using the color viscosity method, Reddy was able to achieve incredibly nuanced inkings of his intaglio prints.

Floraison (or Blossoming) from 1965, was the first work that Reddy created entirely utilizing hand tools, without any etching techniques. It is reminiscent of many of his and Witebsky’s etchings of this period. The true print collector can relay just how interesting these works are to examine. They may look lovely framed, but are best enjoyed outside of a frame where the embossed depth of the plate can be seen on the back side of the sheet of paper. Close examination reveals that Reddy was a master of color with this technique. What first appears to be a basic inking with black and blue is discovered to be more complex. Reddy actually used a pale orange color with one of the rollers. This layer of color is made to mix with one of the lower layers of blue—instead of rejecting it—creating a richer gray than what is possible with an inking of black alone.

Hayter wrote two editions of his seminal work New Ways of Gravure that explain the process of Color Viscosity printing. They are each illustrated with works by a variety of artists—including Reddy—who passed through Atelier 17. However, Reddy’s book, Intaglio Simultaneous Color Printmaking: Significance of Materials and Processes, goes much further into the details of the process, revealing just how complex the inkings of some of his prints were. It is an essential handbook for anyone interested in learning the process. 

One of the last major exhibitions to highlight Reddy’s work was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, about two years ago. I was fortunate to see Workshop and Legacy: Stanley William Hayter, Krishna Reddy, Zarina Hashmi at the Met in February 2017. This was not a huge exhibition, but the limited works actually made it a more intimate encounter with the works. There were several very important Hayter works on display (including two works that appear in my own collection) but there were many Reddy pieces that I had never seen in person. Also included was one of Reddy’s sculptures. This exhibition was the highlight of my trip to New York. It has been instrumental as I put together an exhibition of Atelier 17 artists from my own collection.

With the loss of Reddy, there is one remaining major figure from Atelier 17 still working. Hector Saunier continues on at the Atelier. He started at Atelier 17 after Reddy moved to the U.S. Luckily, with shows like the one at the Met, and others that have been touring (such as Syracuse University’s About Prints, named after Hayter’s other major publication), the important work of these artists is not being lost. A new generation can discover just how influential these men and women were on Modernism in its early days.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Georges Rouault: A Synthesis of Tradition and Innovation

One of my artistic heroes is the French Expressionist Georges Rouault. Though he is still discussed in twentieth century and Modern art history courses, his name does not resound with most people as one of the elite Modern artists of his generation, such as Henri Matisse or Pablo Picasso. In a cursory comparison one would not find much in common between Rouault’s work and my own. His very direct and aggressive style seems at odds with my more “refined” realism. Still, Rouault’s primary work in both painting and printmaking, as well as his consistent themes of uneasy religious engagement with contemporary culture, can be aligned with my own work.

Rouault’s monumental print undertaking—one of the greatest all time achievements in printmaking—is his Miserere et Guerre. These large intaglio works, originally envisioned as two sets of fifty plates each (fifty for the Miserere segment and fifty for the Guerre), ultimately were produced as a total of fifty-eight plates. Still, that result is an enormous achievement.

The suffering of Christ is mingled amongst the suffering of humanity in these works. What first seem to be awkward juxtapositions of images are quite intentional. The images are all dark, both in value and subject. Even images of the Virgin Mary seem stained with darkness. She butts up against images of wealthy, bourgeois women, as well as haggard prostitutes. She is the deliverer of salvation to both. The sadness and brokenness of the prostitute are balanced against the detachment of an elite, whose indifference and intractable hold on resources are partly responsible for the circumstances of the former. All are in need of mercy (miserere) and all are at war (guerre) with the world and their own condition.

The themes are further explored through kings, judges, clergy as well as skeletal specters of death. All of these expose the corruption of this world in some form. Christ suffers with and for each one. While the individual images may seem desperate and despairing, there is a strand of hope running throughout the entire series.

However, it is not just Rouault’s thematic elements that have held sway over me. His process for these works, and his unswerving dedication to seeing the work completed just as he originally envisioned, have been instrumental in my own current work. It took Rouault about fifteen years to physically complete the Miserere. But it was actually a project thirty-six years in the making, from the first drawing to the final publishing of the completed prints. Of course, he was working on many other paintings and print projects during that period, but I recently took comfort in this. My own intaglio project consisting of fifty plates, originally conceived almost twenty years ago, is probably more on schedule than I would have believed.

The original designs for the Miserere prints were actually ink drawings. Since Rouault’s work was always an odd mixture of tradition and innovation, the drawings were actually transferred to copper etching plates through a photographic process. Photogravure (sometimes called heliogravure) is an early photomechanical process that allowed photographic images to be printed on paper, from a photographic negative, without the fading that happened with earlier photographic prints. The photogravure work prints like an etching but looks more like a photograph.

Rouault was not at all content with his initial photogravure plates and refused to allow them to be printed as they first existed. Instead, he meticulously reworked each of the plates with traditional forms of etching and intaglio, including hand working of the plates with mezzotint roulettes, scrapers, and burnishers. The results are far more than early photomechanical “reproduction.” Rouault did so much working and reworking of the the copper that it is often impossible to know what exactly he did to get the soft, velvety effects and deep, rich values. Many of the etchings look more like charcoal drawings than etchings. Each plate could be considered a masterwork, but considering that there are fifty-eight, it is an unfathomable achievement.

This brings me to the comparison with my own Palimpsest Portraits series. While there are many images of Jesus within this series, there are also “out-of-place” figures, just as with some of the Miserere works. I want viewers to analyze the series as a whole, much like the Miserere, to consider the unusual juxtapositions. Individual images may have a similar dark content as Rouault’s, but there is just as much similarity when it comes to the process.

The Palimpsest Portraits, likewise, mix technological innovation with more traditional modes of working. Each of these plates starts with a drawing, too. However, my drawings are completed in Photoshop and are composed completely from passages of text. The next step is quite like the photogravure process employed by Rouault. I transfer the images onto copper plates via a toner-based transparency print (these are the transparencies used for overhead projectors which are printed through a copy machine or laser printer). The plate and transparency are slowly heated so that the toner offsets (or melts) onto the plate, eventually acting as a resist in an acid bath.

If I was only printing these images in black and white, most of the work would be done at this point. Still, also like Rouault, I do extensive additional work on each of the plates after the first photomechanical etching process has been completed. To enhance the realism, I use multiple applications of soft ground etching textures to soften and darken the tones. This is tempered through much scraping and burnishing. The textual elements still remain, but may be further enhanced with traditional hard ground etching. The plates are also developed to differing levels to allow for the color printing process. This allows multiple colored inks to both separate and mix in various ways to create the final effect.

This is a time intensive process. There is no other way to achieve the effects required by the concept. Rouault has taught me that there is no need to compromise on your vision. Working and reworking these plates becomes a joy as I am surprised with each new plate. The new color combinations and alternate pairings of images continue to open the series in directions that far exceed my first thoughts about this series. I am pleased that the reception of these images by viewers will further expand how the pieces “speak” to each other.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Building a Book

Long long ago, I believe in 1999, I first started making some handmade, artist books. I participated in a weeklong book binding workshop at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA. It was a wonderful experience and it led me to organize my printmaking courses in such a way that the students would print enough etchings or linoleum prints for everyone in the class, which we would then bind into books at the end of the semester. It was the perfect way for them to learn to edition prints and trade those prints with their classmates, plus learn a new process.

I mainly just try to get my editions of prints finished these days, but I remain committed to the physical codex-style book. No ebooks for me. I like to feel the paper, smell an old book, maybe even see what someone else wrote in the margins. Some may feel that I don't actually love books, since I do tend to tear them apart and paint on them. In reality, that is part of my love for them. Turning an otherwise ruined book into artwork gives it a new life.

Recently, I finally finished a book project that first began in 2007. This involved the second generation of Cathedral Floor Plan etchings that I started at that time. I started in on the plates in 2007, got busy, moved, and then they sat in storage until the end of 2016. The intent had always been to create an edition of six books that included these five etchings. The prints stand alone as individual works, but the book actually has text that explains the concept behind these works. 

I made a video recording of the steps of binding the book together and the edited version of that can be found below. Hopefully it inspires a couple more people to take up the cause of the book in this digital age.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Ready, Set, Print

It has taken a few months to get everything aligned, but the time has finally come. The Kickstarter Campaign to make the Palimpsest Portrait Project a reality is now live. You can find out more about the particular printing process I use below, but all the specific details are available right on the Kickstarter Campaign page. The best overview is actually presented in the video shared here.

Your first question about the images you’re seeing is probably, “Why are you pairing those particular people together?” Well, the answer to that comes down to the text that actually makes up these images. That text is from the Desert Fathers, the ancient, mystic monks of the Egyptian desert. While reading of the accounts of their lives, I came across a monk who was said to have asked God to show him which of the saints he was like. God sent him to several individuals, both good and bad, with whom the monk could make this comparison. In the end the monk realized that, “no one in this world ought to be despised, let him be a thief, or an actor on the stage, or one that tilled the ground, and was bound to a wife, or was a merchant and served a trade: for in every condition of human life there are souls that please God and have their hidden deeds wherein He takes delight.” This got me thinking about how I view and treat people. Do I see that element or spirit of God in everyone? Is or was there ever a person I could not view in that way?

These figures, and more, came to my mind and I began to design this provocative project. It is meant to be seen as a whole series and not just as individual works. After years of working on the concept, on and off, it is time to finally see it made. That is why I created the Kickstarter Campaign. This project cannot happen without the help of many people coming together to make it happen. Unless artwork is specifically commissioned, it is typically up to the artist to self fund the project and hope that someone will, eventually, like it enough to buy it. Often, the sale of one artwork funds the creation of the next one. When the funds needed to obtain equipment and materials reach a certain level, turning to crowd sourcing is a wise option.

So, please take a look at the campaign. Join in if you can. Even if you can’t, please share the project on social media (you can do that right through the Kickstarter page). When many people come together around this project it can become reality. 

Note: The full funding goal for this project was not reached through Kickstarter, however, several generous individuals did fulfill their pledges directly To Tyrus so that he could begin a portion of the etching portraits. If you would like to give toward the completion of the funding goal, to see this project fully completed, you can do that through his website.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Palimpsest Portraits: A Resurrection

In 2006 and 2007 I first began serious work on a project that was not yet named. Conceptually, it was to consist of twenty-five portrait pairs—fifty total portraits. Each pairing would situate an image of Jesus, from art history, with another individual. The other person might be historical, from popular culture, or even relatively unknown. He or she may be generally acknowledged as good or bad or somewhere in between. The idea was based in my understanding of a story I read from the Desert Fathers and has been mentioned here before. (for an explanation of “Palimpsest,” refer to the previous posting)

For various reasons the project was not completed a decade ago. Mainly, it was an expensive venture. I did acquire some of the materials needed to complete it, but the process was also quite time consuming and my job at the time left little available time to devote to the task. And, quite a daunting task this was. The color viscosity printing technique planned for the series is technical and complex, too. And I added the complication that the images were to be “drawn” from text—just to complicate matters more.

I had wanted to utilize this printing technique since I first came across the works of Stanley William Hayter and Dick Swift in the university art collection when I was in graduate school. The intensity of the colors used and the complexity of the color mixings enticed me. Hayter’s work tends to be on the more abstract side, though some of Swift’s includes a good amount of representational imagery. I wanted that element of representation, but desired to make it my own. The use of text, running through all forms of my artwork, was my distinctive take on the technique. 

The major pause in the project came when I moved in 2008 and no longer had access to the large rubber ink rollers of varying density that are required for the printing process. Over the past few years I have further experimented with the technique on a limited scale, with the small ink rollers I do possess. They are not large enough to complete the project as planned, but I have been determined to perfect the technique and seek funding for the equipment and materials needed to complete the project as originally envisioned. The images here reveal two of those experiments.

The digital “drawings” of the images are first composed from text in Photoshop. When the values have been sufficiently produced, the image is transferred to a copper plate. However, much traditional etching work still needs to be completed at that point. At least three distinct levels need to be developed into the copper plate (this is for color separation and mixing with the various inks and rollers). Surfaces need to be bitten in acid or smoothed with tools so that colors and values print clearly. Here, I show the multiple states of a self portrait and an image of Martin Luther King. The first tests of each can be somewhat unrecognizable, but over time, the development of the plates reveals both the images and the tiny textual elements that compose them.

These are still only trial images, to give prospective funders an idea of what I’m attempting to produce. The comparison between the first images from a decade ago and these newer versions shows how my process has changed—and improved—over that period. I feel that I am finally ready to complete these works as they first existed in my imagination. The larger images allow for much greater complexity with the text as it relates to the design. Hopefully, new larger works will find their way into future posts later this year.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Love Letter: Foundations of a Family

Anyone browsing through posts on this blog will quickly find that the presence of text and words within my artwork has been evident for about two decades. In paintings this has often taken the form of applying paint over book pages. When incorporated into printmaking techniques the combination has become increasingly integral to how the imagery is actually developed. At first, the layering of words and images was related to the concept of the incarnation of Christ—the Word made Flesh. While that idea remains in the background, I more recently have embraced the terminology of the Palimpsest for this process.

The origin of the term Palimpsest comes from an ancient practice. Before paper was developed in the West, the writing of manuscripts was often done on parchment (dried and prepared animal skins). Preparing the parchment was time consuming and expensive, so it was much more precious and less plentiful than paper would later be. If a parchment document was no longer needed or wanted, the text layer could be scraped off to erase the words from the document. This was ink, so the text was never completely erased. When a new text was written on the parchment the first layer was invariably still legible beneath. A parchment with both layers of text visible was called a palimpsest.

While I first began to develop the use of erasing and relayering texts to create an image with etching, I eventually employed the process for lithographic techniques. With both of these I actually develop the imagery in Photoshop. Portions of a page of text (often scanned as a high resolution file) are erased in Photoshop, then a new layer is added and more portions are erased, and so on. Eventually the values build up and the image is created from the words that still remain.

The images here are printed as polyester plate lithographs. These plastic plates can actually be fed through a toner-based printer or photocopier. The toner will attract the oily ink which can be offset onto another surface when run through a printing press, or even rubbed with a wooden spoon or baren to transfer the ink. The plate is wiped down with a wet sponge during the inking process, like any traditional lithographic printing. While there are multiple ways to develop a plate with this medium, I prefer to create the image in Photoshop and then print the plate through a toner-based printer and print from that matrix. 

In these works I chose to recreate photographic images of my maternal grandparents which I then printed on paper, antique textiles, and even hymnal pages. This takes a bit of experimentation since some fabrics are more receptive than others. Also, any preprinted pages (like the hymnals) require several layers of printing. The first three or four passes are with a white or cream colored ink that deadens the text already printed on the page. The final layer is in black and it is enhanced by the underlayer of text. The “white” printing produces an additional erasure to that already created digitally. 

The text that creates this image is actually from a handwritten love letter that my grandmother wrote to my grandfather in 1936, before they were married. The text that reveals their relationship materializes into a physical form in the prints. It recalls the physical manifestation of their union which was eventually my mother and her siblings, extending into future generations. While both of my grandparents have now died, the materialization of their love still exists in new generations. I believe that these works provide a unique visual metaphor—our words and their intentions are able to carry forth into the future as physical manifestations of who we ultimately are. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


During the year between my undergraduate work and my enrollment in a graduate MFA program I worked at a bookstore. That was the best job that I have ever had outside of my positions in the field of art. I had previously not thought of myself as much of a reader, but then I realized I was always reading, but it was not the typical “bookstore books.” In other words, I did not read much fiction.

I enjoy some fiction. That has never been the problem. I was just more likely to be reading art history and criticism, philosophy, or theology. A bit dry for some tastes, I admit. Most of the prose does not compel one to keep turning the pages late into the night. There are few surprising plot twists. This chasm between writing styles has meant that I typically plod through the non-fiction in my library in order to get a deeper understanding of a topic but not much enjoyment.

However, I am deeply grateful when a rare non-fiction title comes along that is written with such skill that it keeps me thoroughly engaged. If I keep getting to the end of a chapter and saying to myself, “I know I need to get up early, but just one more before I turn the lights out,” then I recognize I have an excellent book. Provenance, by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo provided this kind of experience.

Provenance read like a mystery novel. The difference was that I knew “whodunit” after the first chapter. The skill of the authors was in slowly unwinding just how the ruse was accomplished through the admission of the perpetrators and the revelations uncovered by those caught up in the hoax. Even the afterward provided a partial resolution and “happy ending” while still leaving some things open ended, almost like a Hollywood ending that leaves enough room to make the obligatory sequel.

There are many books about art forgery and forgers. It can be interesting to see how someone works to skillfully pass off a piece as that of a master. These books often divulge the secret tricks and techniques of the forger that allowed him to pull the wool over the eyes of even the elite art history scholars. Oddly, that is little of this tale. The title of Provenance provides the key to the scam laid out in the book. The forgeries were sometimes barely passable, but the documentation of what owners and exhibitions were attached to the works—the provenance—were what allowed so many to fall prey to the scheme.

While the role of the forger John Myatt is a key to the scam, he is both a likeable and sympathetic figure. Myatt is merely one of the pawns. The master manipulator is John Drewe. He is the one who convinces Myatt to paint the fakes for him; first as works for Drewe’s own collection, then—playing upon Myatt’s vanity and need—as the objects of a widespread fraud that has never been completely unwound.

Drewe is able to not only manipulate people, but to manipulate documents. After gaining the confidence of some of London’s leading museum staff he is allowed the opportunity to do some “research” in their archives. His work in the archives is permitted because of his numerous connections. Name dropping gets him far, as does his top secret military and defense connections which he can never fully divulge or verify. Regardless, with a little time at the Tate Gallery he is able to doctor paperwork enough to get his scheme the proper credentials for a full scale fraud that spans the globe. By the time the book ends it seems the museum name should be changed to Taint, as it is difficult to tell just which documents are original or not.

The cast of characters all play either a part in the scheme or in unraveling it. The reader will root for the tenacious archivists at various organizations and foundations who do not founder in their denials of authenticity of suspect works. They assist investigators who first uncover suspicious behavior through trails that also lead to arson and murder. The love and promise of money in this story are the root of all this evil. Drewe plays on this. He obtains and uses money in his frauds, but he manipulates others by the conspicuous use and promise of funds. His promises of greater sale prices to Myatt are matched by his five star dining and allusions to art and cash gifts to museum staff.

The web spun by Drewe is so tangled that the reader keeps reassessing this as fiction or truth. Once witnesses start coming forward one wonders just how Drewe could keep such a complex system of lies straight. He never falters. And the reader wonders what exactly is true about the man. His entire life, from his school days, seems to be one giant fabrication. The art forgery scam is the pinnacle of his “career.”

I picked up this book because the jacket promised some interesting insights into a section of the art world with which I am not as familiar. I did not expect to be so riveted by the story. I would suggest Provenance to those who actually know little about the art world, too. The story is crafted in such a way that it is a compelling read. It does not get so deep into the names of artists and galleries that it is overwhelming. If you like intrigue and twists and turns then you will enjoy Provenance.

Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art, Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, Penguin Press, New York, 2009

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Let me show you my etchings...

I often work on the carving of my relief prints in public places. If I have a particularly intricate linoleum or woodcut design that will take hours and hours to carve then I break it up over several weeks or months. The process can both be tedious and tiresome, so I keep the block in the car and work on it at Starbucks for an hour or two between appointments or classes. This provides an introduction to all sorts of conversations and I see it as an extension of my educational work with the broader public.

As annoyed as I feel inside when a stranger refers to my process of carving as “making a stamp,” I do understand that the terminology provides a way though which many people can enter the process. Most comments are made concerning the carving alone. It is only through further explanation that these casual observers recognize that the finished artwork is not the block itself, but the eventual transfer of the image onto paper.

Etching is also a form of printmaking, but it is such a foreign process to most that it takes a bit more explanation to understand. In fact, Some people assume I am “etching” when they see me carving a wood or linoleum block. Etching, by its very nature, cannot happen in such a public setting as Starbucks. It requires materials that are not quite so portable.

The main difference between the way woodcuts and etchings are produced is the way they are printed. Carved wood and linoleum blocks print from the high surface, from the areas left after the carving has been completed. Etching, one of several intaglio processes, prints the ink from the recessed areas, those lower than the top surface of the plate. Ink is pushed into those recesses and the top surface of the plate is wiped clean. The plate is then run through a press which forces paper into those recessed, inked areas to offset the image.

That is the quick explanation. Etching is different from most of the other intaglio processes because an acid actually does the work of making those recesses in the plate. That does not mean that producing an etching requires no physical labor on the part of the artist. An etching plate can be manipulated and changed in several ways as the artist works toward a final image.

The etching shown here is one I produced to show my students the processes of hard ground and soft ground etching. I find people are more familiar with the hard ground etching style. The result looks like a pen and ink line drawing. In this process the metal etching plate is coated with a material that protects it from the corrosive effects of acid. The artist takes a sharp tool and scratches a drawing or design through that protective coating. When the plate is placed in an acid bath the exposed lines are bitten into recessed areas of the plate. The acid does the work, not the scratching of the artist. The longer the lines are exposed the deeper, darker (and sometimes wider) the resulting lines will be.

While hard ground etching was used in this image, much of the gradation of tone was produced with soft ground etching. The soft ground never completely sets on a plate. You can impress your finger prints into the soft ground and they will eventually bite into the surface of the plate. Typically, artists press fabric textures into the soft ground and bite those into the plate. Dick Swift often used the textures as an integral and very obvious element within his etchings. Kathe Kollwitz also employed the textures of cloth within her soft ground etchings. She used an alternative method, additionally, in which a piece of paper is placed over the plate with soft ground applied and then a drawing is made on the paper. A soft, pencil-like line pulls some of the ground away and can then be bitten into the place, as opposed to the pen and ink-like line in hard ground etching.

I used all of those methods in this print. You can see the progression of the image through the eight different states. I did not want the fabric texture to obviously read as fabric. Several times I bit in a texture for a few minutes, then re-applied soft ground and did another fabric texture for a similar amount of time. Slowly, the values were built up in this way. Essentially, little dots of value are being bitten into the plate, not unlike what we see in a close up of a computer printout. These are like pixels.

You will also notice that some areas get lighter from one stage to the next. That happens through scraping and burnishing the plate. This is the more physical part of the process. It is like using an eraser on a drawing. Metal tools actually remove thin layers of the surface of the plate so that less ink is caught in the recesses. The recesses actually become shallower. When this is done multiple times, along with the areas being repeatedly bitten with soft ground, very delicate grays are possible that look less and less like a fabric texture.

Many of the etchings I have made over the last decade or so have either been inked in colors or have employed text in some way. My process for developing those plates is similar, but many of those prints are far less realistic. I created this print as a stand alone work, but I also wanted my students to see what possibilities are available in this process. It is fairly easy to make a bold soft ground texture, but not necessarily easy to do that well. And when “mistakes” are made in the plate there really are ways to get rid of them and totally change the image. However, as with all art making, it does take time and work.