Jessica Helfand: Reflections on printmaking

[Jessica Helfand] Recently, I spent 10 days as artist-in-residence at The Center for Contemporary Printmaking in Norwalk, Conn., where I worked on a series of monotypes, drypoint etchings (and one extremely labor-intensive aquatint), trying to capture some of the momentum from my residency in Rome.

In printmaking in general (and monotyping in particular), the tension between repetition and deviation is a fascinating aspect. If you are editioning —which I was not doing, by the way— there’s an implicit goal to reproduce with systematic control. But if you give in to the experimental alchemy — which I was doing — the opportunity to build a body of work feels essentially endless.

The relationship between transparency and opacity is principally governed by ink, guided by repetition, affected by timing and paper and wrist control and humidity — but maybe most of all by chance. In the meantime, there’s something alternately fascinating and frustrating about the resistance of the medium that intrigues me to no end. The paper: damp or dry? The ink: tacky or loose? Plate oil! Mineral spirits! Blanket pressure! Not to mention the endless array of tools themselves — from brushes and rollers to toothpicks and Q-tips. It’s overwhelming — yet because it’s also so fundamentally iterative, it’s also rather forgiving.

Perhaps for this reason, I mostly restricted my work to black and white — with some minor exceptions. In one case, guided by one of the master printers, I took an etching and introduced a glaze with the subtlest of tints. Pulling a second (or ghost) print from the press, the glaze lifted and softened the remaining ink in the crevices of the plate. The tint warmed the patina of the paper, softening  and, in my mind, humanizing it, too.  (This, for example, resembles what human skin looks like when enlarged under a microscope, which is leading me to a second set of prints.)

Working within a monochromatic palette also obliged me to consider what constitutes foreground versus background. A few weeks ago, I made a linoleum cut and printed it white on black. It recalled a sonogram — a ghostly inverted X-ray.  This struck me as a potentially new way of approaching portraiture, by reducing something (or more to the point, someone) to its most essential components. This made me think about cells and skin, about bone and stone — about what disintegrates and erodes over time, and what doesn’t. It made me think about abstract representations of life. And about death.

And if we think of abstraction as an interpretation of something by definition unknowable — then what is more unknowable than death?

Working from the cut-mark paintings of unearthed, architectonic spaces that I painted while in Rome, I initially saw these monotypes as abstract renderings of tombs. But after making a series of prints in which I focused my energies on defining a kind of shifting periphery for that unknown space, I felt the urge to fill it — to inhabit it.

Then something interesting happened: I sketched something, then etched it, and gradually it took shape as a series of ovals, like cells dividing.

In the negative space that is the abyss, is a changeable space of possibility — that’s the form that’s starting to take shape for me. On one hand, the literal forms I find myself investigating in the studio are the human shapes that resist atrophy: bones and hair, even bird nests, which are skeletal and inanimate yet retain a kind of dynamic presence, a shifting, linear energy. When inked, these lines become scars on the paper, shifting from alive to dormant. Over time they’re dividing, swelling, shifting and recoupling. Like life.

Or, perhaps, like death.

Jessica Helfand is a partner, with William Drenttel, in Winterhouse, a design studio in Connecticut. Their work focuses on publishing and editorial development; new media; and cultural, educational and literary institutions. She is currently senior critic at Yale School of Art and is the author of several books, including Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media and Visual Culture, Reinventing the Wheel and Paul Rand: American Modernist. For those interested in the history of visual culture, we highly recommend her Scrapbooks: An American History.

See Helfand’s previous Felt & Wire articles here and here.

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