David Musgrave’s finely wrought drawings investigate transmutation: his “plane” and “golem” drawings depict common materials—folded and torn paper, children’s string constructions—arranged and charged with figurative power. In his new set of prints, Musgrave extends the mimetic prowess of these meticulous trompe l’œils, blurring the line between abstraction and figuration. Five of the six images use nothing but the waxing and waning of tightly stacked, parallel etched lines to convey the sense of three dimensional figures; the sixth, a mezzotint, offers the illusion of an embossed scribble seen from the backside of a black sheet of paper, a trick pulled off by ink and years of labor.
The printer responsible for the portfolio—Jacob Samuel—has been profiled in this publication before [see “Springing into the Void: Jacob Samuel and the Peripatetic Printshop” in Vol. 2, No. 1]: his innovative mobile etching workshop recast the traditional printer-artist relationship by bringing the process of plate making into the artist’s own studio. This strategy, however, which Samuel employed for some 15 years, has become impractical given the past decade’s onerous, post-9/11 security procedures, and Samuel now works in his permanent shop in Santa Monica. He nonetheless continues to approach his profession in a distinctly atypical manner. His publications are characterized by clear, focused interaction with the artist and always result in suites of prints, each with its own internal coherence, a mix of artistic vision, printing prowess and the venerable aesthetics of the intaglio print.
Samuel reaches out to artists whose work he feels resonates with the small format, monochromatic intaglio process to which he is dedicated. Most often he chooses those who have not previously explored this mode of printmaking. With a few exceptions (Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari among them), Samuel works with each artist for a single, multi-print project: the newness of the process is a critical component of the endeavor.
Samuel was drawn to the delicacy and precision of Musgrave’s touch. “The only artist I’ve seen who had a touch like this,” Samuel says, “was Vija Celmins.” Having worked with Celmins on mezzotints, he suggested the medium to Musgrave. “I thought that kind of touch, that kind of patience: that could work,” Samuel says. The plate went back and forth between Santa Monica and England 12 or 13 times over the course of a couple of years. (This sounds arduous, though Samuel’s project with Celmins went through 30 such proof stages.)
After this Musgrave asked for a line plate. He had done a series of what he called “television drawings” in which objects appear through horizontal, parallel lines like the scan lines of an old tube television. Musgrave calls the images “golems,” an allusion to the clay homunculus of Jewish folklore, and a term he uses for these seemingly circumstantial agglomerations of parts that fuse into figures. The prints are “Reverse Golems” because of the left-right mirroring that occurs in the printing process.
In the line etchings the figure is made visible simply through the thinning of a continuous line, the same line that, when it thickens, provides what we see as background. The interplay between the flat line and the illusion of depth is deft and subtle, and the lines the artist drew were so close to one another that printing with standard black ink didn’t work. Samuel suggested using graphite ink, which is thinner and also echoed Musgrave’s graphite pencil line in the “Television” drawings.
On one of the plates, Musgrave chose to disrupt the tight control of his parallel lines by scattering the surface with scratches. Once again, however, the distinction between intention and accident is not what it seems: each of the scratches is hand drawn. “We get along very well that way,” Samuel observes. “This is the room where OCD reigns.”