B-RAD! New Directions in Letterpress

B-RAD! New Directions in Letterpress

Brad Vetter, Victoria Bee, Dirk Fowler

Charles Adams Studio Project (CASP)

FFAT 3 April 2015

The private press movement elevated letterpress printing from a commercial enterprise to a fine art: think William Morris’s Kelmscott Press and its Canterbury Tales, or the Doves Bible of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson and Emery Walker. These artist printmakers hand-produced books and broadsides characterized by meticulous printing on fine paper, costly artifacts for wealthy collectors. They reacted to what they saw as the shoddy, soul-killing industrialized book production of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Letterpress today is something else again. The processes of the digital age—computer-to-plate offset lithography, desktop publishing software, web design—make mass production cleaner and more accurate. It seems far removed from the messy physical process of hand-setting, locking up, hand-inking, and pulling prints. Today’s letterpress resists the clean, impersonal surfaces of the digital screen by closing that distance between printer and print, process and product. Recent work by the three artists featured in the “B-RAD! New Directions in Letterpress” exhibit at CASP during April’s First Friday Art Trail—visiting printer Brad Vetter, Lubbock locals Victoria Bee and Dirk Fowler—is no exception. As Vetter explained, pulling prints off of the old Vandercook press in the Helen DeVitt Jones Print Studio at CASP, a lot of “dirty little things” happen in letterpress: happy accidents and unpredictable effects of color and texture that he calls “noise.” His, Bee’s, and Fowler’s prints all harness that noise in ways that range from subtle to startling.

Brad Vetter spent eight years at Hatch Show Print in Nashville, and now hails from DeKalb, Illinois, where he teaches letterpress, does digital design, and prints posters for local and national acts (and the occasional liquor bottle/hard cider can label). Vetter’s posters push the boundaries of the classic show poster while still staying true to its roots. The purpose of show posters has evolved in this age of digital advertising. From listing ticket prices, times, and venues in advance of the show date, posters are now merchandise for sale next to t-shirts and cds, mementoes to be taken home and framed. This has opened up the genre to experimentation with layout, image, color, and form. Vetter uses pressure printing (placing a stencil underneath the press sheet and running it over an inked surface) to layer color, pattern, and shape for effects not possible with traditional wooden type and carved blocks. He works with those too, and with laser-cut blocks and stencils. The results are deliberate and rich: a turquoise neon sign against a deep-flecked night sky; a folksy pink-and-yellow plaid chicken for the Mavericks; the phrase “I Am Where I Want To Be” glowing like stained glass against a black background. You won’t find these posters staple-gunned and moldering on telephone poles.

Victoria Bee’s work is far more text-oriented than Vetter’s, but its use of the printed letter would horrify Morris and his tribe: purposely smudged, smeared, and smutched, her prints play fast and loose with the rules of fine printing. A Raymond Carver quote spreads itself in large orange type across a sizeable square of gold-sequined mesh cloth backed with hot pink; a carefully-printed Emily Dickinson poem is partially obscured by a muzzy orange pattern (like faded flocked wallpaper on steroids) and a giant, crowded recipe text; lines of random erotica in march in blurred black ink across white paper. Bee’s work asks questions about clarity, communication, reading, and the purpose of print itself.

Dirk Fowler’s prints are the drunk-and-disorderly offspring of Vetter’s glowing show posters and Bee’s smudgy texts. Himself a master of the classic gig poster genre, for this show Fowler took the “New Directions” title seriously by exhibiting an unexpected series of muddy, layered, over-printed pieces that lay bare the very process of letterpress printing itself. Using castoffs and make readies (pages used to maintain registration) from previous print runs, Fowler’s work bears traces of barely legible venues (Cactus Café, Stubbs) and names (Tweedy, Dayton), some topped with ghostly retail text and slogans (“Dollar $ Days”/ “Clearance”/ “Give A Hoot Don’t Pollute”) in silver. These palimpsests brought to mind a campus telephone pole towards the end of the semester, encrusted with peeling and rotting event posters: meditations on the value of hand printing itself, and of the time and labor that goes into it.

Walter Benjamin, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” wrote ambivalently of how processes like printing detach works of art from their original context, from the traditions they engage with, and from the physical fact of their making. Perhaps “New Directions in Letterpress” answers that ambivalence by affirming letterpress’s relevance to an age of digital reproduction. There’s still plenty left to say (or print).

Images provided by Jennifer Snead:

Brad Vetter (1-3)

Victoria Marie Bee (4-5)

Dirk Fowler (6-7)

Jennifer Snead is an associate professor in the English department at Texas Tech, where she works on eighteenth-century British and American literature, literacy, evangelical religion, and book history. She helped to found and currently directs the Texas Tech Letterpress Studio, where she teaches workshops and classes on the history and practice of letterpress printing and bookmaking. She has also taught courses in contemporary American poetry, art, and creative writing.

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