Prix de Print No. 3: J.X.E. 358 by James S. Janecek

  • James Janecek, J.X.E. 358 (2013)

  • Intaglio with chine collé, image 22 x 22 inches, paper 30 x 42 inches. Variable edition. Printed and published by the artist, Providence, RI. $1000.

If I could curate an exhibition from this round of Prix de Print entries, I would concentrate on the large group of abstract prints found among the applications—works that exploit the materials, processes and historical implications of printmaking to carve out distinctive territory for abstraction.

All prints display the characteristics of their making, but in abstract works we are not peering through imagery to get to the facture. In the 20th century Stanley William Hayter created ways of making images that were possible only in his chosen medium of intaglio, juxtaposing the sharp, clean and highly willed engraved line with the process-based improvisations of open bite and soft ground. Brice Marden’s prints of the 1970s do not attempt to replicate the qualities of his encaustic paintings though they explore similar ideas and forms, emphasizing the physicality of the plate and considering the full sheet of paper as an object. The sensuality of his painted surfaces is here manifested in the miniaturizing grain of aquatint or sheer black layers of lithographic ink.

James S. Janecek, J.X.E. 358 (2013).

James S. Janecek, J.X.E. 358 (2013).

Alas, my job was not to curate a show of contemporary abstract prints, but to select one compelling work from several dozen entries, digital files of physical prints, identified only by an entry number and whatever details of technique and intent the artist chose to include. In looking through the images many times, I was continually arrested by the power of entry #1154. Crisply outlined forms articulate a square sheet to create a masterfully balanced composition. Ambiguity is introduced by rich chiaroscuro that evokes the sheen of metal seen in a flash of light or of highly polished stone glinting in the sun. Evidence of the platemaking process in the streaks of black at the lower left serves to undermine this illusionism, while a strange shadow appears attached to the triangle at the top left, suggesting spatial representation. Is it really even a shadow? It has hard edges on two sides and fades into the sparkling texture of the ground. Even the ground reinforces this pattern of controlled contradictions: one is tempted to read the composition in terms of landscape, with the upper part further in the distance, but the rough granular texture at the top makes that plane feel closer, while the fine grain in the lower part of the image suggests an atmospheric distance, giving the large shape a mysterious buoyancy.

Clearly the artist has mastered the language of abstract composition and the repertory of intaglio platemaking and printing techniques. If this were all the work evoked, it would be an accomplished performance in a classic mode, but it also conveys a complex, tense and unsettling quality. It does not offer the surrealistic effect that we might find in Hayter, nor does it partake in the stable formal and material properties of Marden’s prints. Instead it brings to mind digital ways of seeing that are utterly contemporary. Admittedly my only experience of the print is on a computer screen, but the abrupt juxtaposition of varied textures bounded by a very fine line seems to me to have as much to do with Photoshop as with Constructivism.

While it may refer to a virtual world, the work being discussed is a material object. I began by positing a special relationship between abstraction and prints. In this case, the vigorous textures transferred by means of a machine, the cut pieces unified through printing as they are glued, and the dynamic between the square plate and the oblong sheet heighten the contrast between the print’s physical presence and the elusive, indirectly made skin that holds the image.

As it turns out, it will not be difficult for me to examine the actual print and find out whether the aquatint textures applied with chine collé indeed evoke computer-aided ways of seeing and making. It is part of a varied edition made by my fellow Rhode Islander James Janacek. In the interest of full disclosure, I have seen Janacek’s work occasionally over the years but am not familiar with his newest projects. J.X.E. 358 is an exciting development in the work of a mature and respected artist printmaker. I look forward to seeing the entire series.

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