August 10, 2010
text, translation and the printing process
My job at CMU Press meant I had almost unlimited access to the printing press at CMU. No, the two are not at all connected. CMU Press has never had occasion to use the almost hundred year old press. Such books are printed elsewhere. Most printed materials (usually class projects, as the press is major component of book history courses at CMU) hold the "spyTower Press" imprint. I've used the printing press for projects like the one featured above, which was the last piece I worked on while in Winnipeg. The image (which features St. Jerome, joined by a range of symbols) is cut from a linoleum block, but the red (or rubricated) text (an excerpt from what is perhaps the most famous of John Donne's Devotions) is set in various sizes of Goudy Bold, one of the many font families to which I had access.
Before this, I had mostly been cutting blocks about the quarter of this size (8.5" x 11"). Normally I'll have a specific object in mind and conceptualize the project based on it. Early on, I had my mind set on cutting out a forest but had no text in mind. I was nearly resolved to use an early passage from Dante's Inferno, which begins in a dark wood, but the image would have had to be quite complex. One day at work, I noticed this excerpt from John Donne's Devotions posted on the English department bulletin board, and I instantly fell in love with it, in part because it relies so heavily on book imagery. In this passage, death does not delete or remove us from the world; rather, it translates us "into a better language." Here, Donne presupposes the textuality and translatability (the finitude, and thus the instability) of human life -- I like to imagine that it anticipates Derrida, but it's clearly a bit of a stretch. I chose to feature St. Jerome partly because of his significance (and recognizability) as a figure associated with texts and translation. Perhaps most well-known for translating the Bible (Greek, and, in the case of the Septuagint, Hebrew) into Latin (now referred to as the Vulgate), St. Jerome also appealed to me because of the range of symbols that accompany him in most of his artistic representations (skull, lion (!), hourglass, various texts, etc.).
Before beginning this project, I'd had some experience working with lino-blocks. It started with a series of birds I cut a year and a half ago. I found the cutting process quite addictive, not least because the medium was so different from what I'm used to working with. I love how it brings together the subtractive element of sculpture and the two-dimensionality of drawing. It's a bit strange at first and requires a mental flip: you must remain conscious of the fact that you are only ever creating negative space. However, during the artistic process, I've never felt quite so connected to a medium.