When I stepped in The Ink Shop Printmaking Center, located on the second story of the Community School of Music and Arts building, I was welcomed by the smiling face of Judy Barringer, President of the Board of Directors. The Ink Shop, a volunteer-run non-profit founded in 1999, is an open-source printmaking facility and fine arts gallery. The shop was once based in the old airplane-manufacturing facility, but after a devastating fire and the consequential water and soot damage to art and equipment, it relocated to its current site. The organization offers about six exhibitions each year, artist presentations, and workshops. It has also exhibited worldwide, from Osaka to Berlin.
The current exhibition, the 19th Mini-Print International Exhibition, opened in early November and is expected to conclude in January 2017. Artists from around the globe have submitted 4” by 4” (or smaller) prints. “This show is biennial and has been going for about 30 years. It was passed on to us by Beverly Darling McLean, the founder of the exhibit who died this past May,” Barringer said.
I was generously given a tour of the shop and a lesson in printmaking.
Printmaking is an artform usually performed by transferring ink from a matrix to a sheet of paper or other material. The matrix can be many different things, depending on the style of printing. Common matrices and their typical uses include metal plates, usually copper or zinc, for intaglio printing; linoleum, wood, plastic, or lead for relief printing; and stone for planographic printing.
Intaglio is a family of printing techniques. The desired image is incised into a surface using metal tools so that the ink seeps into the grooves and not on smooth surfaces. The ink is wiped away and is transferred to a sheet of paper.
I found one particular style of intaglio printing, mezzotint, most fascinating. The process involves achieving tonality by roughening and smoothing a metal plate to different degrees. The tiny grooves the artist makes in the plate uses stainless steel tools to hold the ink. So the rougher the plate, the darker the print; the smoother the plate, the lighter the print. Barringer explained to me the process that went into making her own mezzotint prints: “What I’ve done is rock this rocker on this plate a hundred thousand times, in every direction. Then I went in with a burnishing tool to smooth away areas I want in a lighter shade.”
One piece in the shop, although not part of the exhibition, caught my eye. It was one done by Peter Jogo called “Walk,” a mezzotint print. It uses four colors (therefore four plates) and depicts a shoe token set atop a Monopoly board. Due to the amount of detail and the meticulous shading, the print was incredibly photorealistic. With mezzotint being such a labor-intensive process, “Walk” truly captured Jogo’s unreal work ethic and jaw-dropping precision. The thing is, I thought I was impressed until I learned that the print was one out of eighty. Mind-blowing.
The first-place winner of the exhibition was a mezzotint done by Cleo Wilkinson called “Murmur II.” It is a close-up of the face of an androgynous individual. The eyes of the subject are pointed downwards and the lips are slightly parted, as if the person wanted to utter something. The face is expressionless, which gives the print a somber and contemplative feel. The piece was printed with black ink, which allowed Wilkinson to simulate the person sitting in a dark room with a soft light pointed at the face from above. The highlights were subtly accented using smooth tone gradients, demonstrating full mastery of the art of mezzotint. The black overlay broken by tiny dots of light gave me a sense of emptiness, which left me wondering what was left unsaid by the subject. The print left my curiosity unfulfilled, yet also put me in a place of content.
Relief is another family of printmaking processes, in which the ink goes on raised surfaces on the face of a matrix after the artist cuts away uninked areas. The matrix is typically made of linoleum, wood, plastic, or lead. Many elementary students learn relief printing on rubber matrices and sliced vegetables.
Barringer showed me a colorful, elaborate relief print. The print, not part of the exhibition, was done by Jenny Pope, an Ithacan artist, who depicted a peaceful scene of goldfinches playing in a field of dandelions. The splashes of yellow, orange, and green give off a playful yet nostalgic vibe. All of the finches are positioned in different ways and honey bees are next to them, collecting pollen from the dandelions. This creates a sense of controlled hysteria. Because the print uses over five different colors, I had assumed that Pope painted on individual protrusions of the matrix. However, I learned that she used a technique called “color reduction” or “lost block,” in which a wooden block is inked, printed, carved further, inked again, etc. for each color. So after completing a set of prints, the block is no longer usable, as it is destroyed in the process.
Lastly, planographic printing is a family of printing processes that utilizes the natural tendency of oils to repel water. No grooves are cut or etched into the surface of the plate. An image is instead drawn on a smooth, wet surface using greasy substances. The oil-based ink is then applied and only sticks to the areas not covered in water. Because the grease is typically applied using a grease pencil, one can achieve a great amount of detail.
My favorite exhibit was “You Cannot Pray to Your God” by Lara Azzurra Vaienti, an artist from Montana. It was created using intaglio, specifically etching. A metal plate was first covered in an acid-resistant wax. Vaienti then carved away the wax and then dipped the plate in acid. The areas of the plate not covered by wax were exposed to the acid. The image was printed on a beige-colored paper square using two colors, gray and red. It depicts a man in a polo shirt with his eyes closed and his hands in prayer position. In the foreground are grid-like patterns in gray and red. There are also two small, red circles in the bottom right of the print, which look like drops of blood. The fuzzy, washed-out image of the man adds a sense of depersonalization and grief. In addition, the grid-like patterns look like metal wire fences, which made me feel trapped. This haunting piece gives a harsh portrayal of religious suppression and lack of freedom.
Looking around The Ink Shop from wall to wall, I was inspired by the variety of the techniques used in the prints. Not only were they pleasing to look at, the fact that they were once solid blocks of stone, wood, and metal added another dimension to the artistic experience. I urge you to experience this exhibition yourself or even attend the workshops held there, as you will find a deeper appreciation for the remarkable artisanship and processes of printmaking.
The Ink Shop: http://www.ink-shop.org/