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Legit Letter Press

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


The appropriation of outdated image-making technology, and turning the process into an artistic outlet in the face of the digital revolution, can be seen in both photography and letterpress printing. In the former, the antiquated dark room process involving chemicals, large amounts of space, and what seems in comparison as an incredible amount of time, is constantly chosen by fine art photographers because the indelible quality differences make an image which can be seen as more powerful, more authentic. Similarly in the latter, letter press printing has constantly been used by designers looking for that authentic quality. This search for authenticity appeared even though wood type letterpress began to wane in the 1920's, and letterpress printing nearly disappeared at the end of the 20th century with the advent of electronic printing and graphic design. Today, the majority of letterpress printing is done by small businesses and university programs, enforcing its “artisan” quality.

Outside of the academic world and small print shops exists the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The Museum is an outgrowth of Hamilton Wood Type Manufacturing, started by J. Edward Hamilton in 1880. Due to geographic advantages, as well as technical advantages, Hamilton became the major wood type producer in America, and supplier to nearly every newspaper and print shop with the means to produce our nation's printed material. This included everything from "wanted" posters, political signs or various types of literature. Hamilton wood type became a means by which the Midwest, and the rest of the country communicated with and about itself. This massive growth has lead to a multiple block long factory building, and a collection of 1.5 million pieces of wood type, both of which the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum has the use of in various degrees. Students, designers, typographers, artists, and enthusiasts take workshops and tours in the facility, learning about the history of type, and its construction. Thankfully, the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum also curates exhibitions of type and prints which can go on tour as well.

The University of Saint Francis' School of Creative Arts (SOCA) is currently presenting "Wood Type and Letterpress," an exhibition of a suite of posters printed for Hamilton's ten year anniversary, letterpress work by former SOCA student and current assistant director of Hamilton Stephanie Carpenter, as well as some work by local print shop Courier Printing Company, based in Grabill, Indiana, a sponsor of the exhibition.

As a testament to the reputation of Hamilton, the printers of the 10th anniversary pieces exhibited include artists from around the United States, each flexing their design prowess. These artists include Rick Van Holdt of Minburn Iowa, with a turn of the century Succession pairing of stark, bold, red and black lettering with ornamental bands. Nick Sherman, of Brooklyn, NY, takes a very minimalist, Richard Tuttle-like approach, with only four cerulean bands transcending the majority of the image, with type in the bottom left hand corner. While the eye quickly scans the over all image, small inconsistencies appear within the blue bands, not being actual bands, but notched in the middle, placed almost, but not quite in the same position as each other, and mirroring certain design elements but not others. This boiling down of detail is a perfect example of bringing the conceptual in the utilitarian and design worlds effectively.

Also impressive is Paul Brown's three part image which uses design elements themselves to represent type. Brown, of Bloomington, IN, uses over a dozen different bands of ornament print to construct block letters which spell out "ten" in a triptych. This maximal use of ornamentation in the creation of a simple font provides a perfect foil to Le Corbusier's old arguments against the use of ornamentation in the modern world. Also included in the exhibition are works not explicitly made for the tenth anniversary of Hamilton like Bill Moran of St. Paul, Minnesota, also a Hamilton employee, who offers a bauhaus or constructivist assemblage of letters with a paradoxical volume created from the overlapping lettering which revealed the ink buildup do to its manual printing.

In a far more fine art context, Stephanie Carpenter's section of the exhibition presents beautiful images produced as explorations of the use of letterpress in various contexts. Carpenter's pieces like "Two Rivers Travel" and "Ladies" are produced in a poster style, reminiscent of the other pieces in the exhibition. "Two Rivers" is a formal masterpiece, with Carpenter flexing her muscles multiple overlapping print passes, colors fading into each other on single passes, overlapping colors from separate passes creating desired optical effects, and an overall calm and confident image, not trying to prove anything. "Ladies", in a Warhol pop vein, is a seemingly vintage vignette image of a woman sitting at the end of a diving board, in a bikini, posing and coyly glancing down away from the viewer. Plastered across the image of the woman vertically is the word "Ladies" in a cursive script followed by an ellipsis. Carpenter's other pieces, like "Consumption", a large scale codex which visually and verbally describes the process of growing crops, or "Journey" a small paper sculptural box which is intricately printed with ornamental blocks as well as phrase fragments which describe transitory processes like "It doesn't all happen at once".

Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, and SOCA's "Wood Type and Letterpress" exhibition touches on the importance of the design world, how it interacts with the fine art world, and how these interactions are important to the overall art world as they translate ideas back and forth. The exhibition includes great examples of the potential of old methods, lost art forms, and the discipline needed to created truly inspiring design.

University of Saint Francis, School of Creative Arts
Weatherhead Gallery
"Wood Type and Letterpress"
Oct 29-Nov 27, 2011

Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum

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