As galleries and museums open up, art lovers can finally look at real paintings, sculptures, assemblage pieces, prints and many other fine artworks. For those of us who are weary of seeing art online, this new era may feel like an artistic renaissance. And as we transition from gazing at our computers to looking at real artwork and crafts, one recently installed exhibition stands out for its inimitable theme and for the long history of the tools used for the work – which goes back to the actual Renaissance.
This “Ink on Paper: A Letterpress Showcase” exhibition is composed of 20 installations describing the careers, passions and diverse work of printing artisans today. These creative individuals come from all over the United States, and from Milan, Italy and Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Yet reading about them and seeing their work reveal their profound sense of community and mutual support, transcending cultural and geographical differences.
While their work is primarily modern and contemporary in appearance, their printing method harkens back to the original letterpress press, designed and built by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century, and used to print the Gutenberg Bible in 1455. Although numerous improvements have been made to the letterpress process over the centuries, its basic function today – of relief or raised inked printing onto paper — is similar to that of the original press.
To run a letterpress printer, moveable type and pictures, made of wood or metal, are placed securely by hand into the bed of the press. A piece of paper is placed onto the type and/or pictures, and ink is applied to rollers, which are then rolled at high pressure over the paper. The paper picks up the images of the type and pictures. The same piece of paper can be imprinted in the press several times, with each successive rolling using a different color ink. Overlaid printed images with different colors of ink often result in third colors; for example a blue printing followed by a yellow one will produce green print. The completed image is far more textural in nature than any copy made on a printer. Think of wedding invitations!
The letterpress method became less popular in the 1970s due to the advent of computers and inkjet printers; yet the process has made a comeback in the past 20 years. And today, numerous artisans from around the world are making prints for handmade books, music posters, wedding invitations, art pieces and advertisements.
Indeed, letterpress printing today offers captivating work to a world inundated with digital images. And therein is the renaissance aspect of this five-century-old process. Perhaps in time, gallery visitors will become more enamored with handmade pieces, than with the ubiquitous digital images available today.
Letterpress printing is performed by artisans from a variety of backgrounds, locales, ethnicities and ages, as this “Ink on Paper” exhibition demonstrates. The 20 installations in the show – featuring large expressive photos of the printers, detailed descriptions of their methods and passions and examples of their completed work – reflect this diversity. One common feature of these individuals is their workmanlike aspects, with most artisans attired in overalls or aprons, while standing over old-fashioned printers.
Of the 20 artists’ statements on display, Jennifer Farrel’s is the most descriptive of the recent evolution of letterpress printing. She wrote, “My desire is to focus on the traditional [antique metal and wood type] tools associated with the craft developed alongside the explosion of letterpress in the early 2000’s. … Through my work, I strive to highlight some of the techniques considered dead or outdated, to connect them to modern design concepts. I hope to engage the audience with ephemera that both delights and inspires viewers to consider how contemporary approaches to traditional letterpress materials can sustain the art of the medium.” Farrell operates Starshaped Press in Chicago.
Dirk Hagner, the one local printer in the show, lives in San Juan Capistrano. Having grown up in war-scarred Essen, Germany, he was introduced to the printing press at age 15, and soon after began a life-long exploration of printing methods, including creating woodcuts of historical figures. Hagner’s dramatic contributions to the show are large handmade art books. For one of these, he imprinted images from old playing records, calling to mind a simpler time when letterpress printing was highly venerated.
Up the California coast, James Lewis Tucker led a freewheeling life until he discovered printmaking, and then received a degree and worked at apprenticeships in the field. He founded “The Aesthetic Union,” a letterpress shop and design studio in San Francisco in 2013 to produce traditional style commercial work. He also creates his own limited-edition prints there – pastel-colored reductive fictional landscapes, evoking the coastline. These minimal art pieces are shown in major galleries.
Brad Vetter, based in Louisville, Kentucky, creates prints using antique type presses and a laser engraver. “The process becomes a celebration of both its own [letterpress] history and the new context that we as makers create for it,” he explained. Vetter’s concert posters in this exhibition are retro in design, recalling work from the 1960s and 70s. “I have always really appreciated the utilitarian purpose of the poster throughout history, whether to incite a revolution, fight injustice or simply get people to a show,” he wrote.
The most ethereal prints in this exhibition are by Leslie Ross-Robertson, manager of the Laboratory Press at Otis College and founder of two Los Angeles printing venues. Each of her six colorful, complex prints of Pluto, Venus, Mars, Mercury, Earth and the Moon was created first with meticulous planning and then with multiple printings. The resulting prints, accurately depicting the planets, are striking to behold.
These are just a few of the 20 installations in “Ink on Paper,” which conveys the various artisans’ dedication to the craft of printing and detailed printing techniques, while contributing to a venerable niche industry. The exhibition, originally scheduled to open in June 2020, was prepared and mounted by a curatorial/exhibition team including Community Services Supervisor Kevin Staniec, Community Services Specialist Adam Sabolick, installer Matt May, exhibition didactics designer Gina Pirtle, and arts educator Rachelle W. Chuang.
“Ink on Paper” is on view through June 12. Great Park Gallery, Palm Court Art Complex, Orange County Great Park, Irvine; Thu. & Fri., noon-4 p.m.; Sat. & Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; free. cityofirvine.org/orange-county-great-park/arts-exhibitions.
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