Saturday, January 13, 2007

Hot off the Press

Late this morning I took a drive into Maryland to begin working with printmaker Katja Oxman on a new edition of a print she had been working on. This was my first experience as her press assistant.

The last exhibition of her work I saw was in 2005 at the Chautauqua Center for the Visual Arts, where I was working for the summer (she has exhibited several times since). The gallery director, Tom Ranesses, had been a student of hers at American University and had been her press assistant on and off since the mid 1980s. The show was a mix of her prints and her husband, Mark’s, sculpture. For the better part of a year I had familiarized myself with what Katja’s work looked like on the catalogue hanging from Mark’s sculpture studio door when I was his TA during my third semester of graduate study at American, but never had I seen one in person. Then I got to install what ostensibly could be considered a retrospective (of sorts).

Katja generally completes between two and three prints in a year (size depending) and as a result the work has not changed a great deal in the last thirty years: aquatints of still life consisting of ornate carpets, museum postcards, and jewelry boxes – keepsakes if you will. Evolution within the work has consisted of the addition of insects, plants, and most recently windows. There are also variations in size and compositions involving diptychs and triptychs. After working in the studio with her today, running three prints through the press, I can see why the change has been slight and gradual.

The process of printing the piece (for example the work above) consists of inking three plates - yellow, red, and blue (the above would take nine, three for each section). This also creates an isssue of registration so all three plates align. Where wiping the plates is concerned, the copper plates can be handled much more aggressively than a zinc-alloy plate I first worked on in graduate school - copper is more forgiving and flexible. Though, this still does not give credence to rush through the process. One print took me around 45 minutes to (help) create. Maybe it’ll get faster in the coming weeks as I continue to assist her on the press to the point where accomplishing five to six in my three to four hour window of time seems possible.

What is truly certain is how enjoyable it is to be in a print studio again: watching the ink bead and roll across the surface of the plate as the ink is applied; the texture of the tarlatan in hand to wipe the plate; the reveal of the plate as the ink is removed and the luster of it returns to the surface; the give of the press as the plate rolls along the bed. I may quickly tire of the repetition in several months, but the return is welcoming.

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