In the lead article of this month’s Artforum art historian Pamela M. Lee discusses a work of Sam Lewitt’s, Paper Citizen: Face Forward, a large photographic print of a vintage letterpress lock-up. Lee puffs up the discussion with some skillful riffs on reading old media and the picturing of aged technology. But a small stumble, wherein she describes the handset type as “spelled backwards,” reveals a misunderstanding. Handsetting is not about spelling backwards—the technique requires the type be set in the same order as one would normally write, only the letters are upside down, thereby resulting in a mirror image composition. Reverse is the accurate descriptor. For those with experience in hand composition, the process of decoding is hardly the surreal chore Lee makes it out to be, partly because of the familiar left-to-right order of typesetting. The disorientation of the untrained eye cannot be the end-all of an aesthetically-enriched interpretation, especially considering that reversal is particular to all direct matrix printing. Lee’s interpretation leaves me wanting something else, especially as an artist who prints. The specificity of space, ie the space and location of display, can be that something else. But what kind of space?
This is NOT a printing office. The room is not really a gallery, either. It is an administrative office, an aestheticization of space at once plain, utilitarian, authoritative, and utterly contemporary. Here typographer Beatrice Warde’s famous lines would read
This is an academic manager’s office
Crossroads of all majors, calendars, and credits…
Friend, you stand on bureaucratic ground.
Being a printer descended from Warde’s trade, as bastardized through an art education approximately represented by Mr. von Zweck’s office, I have no material more appropriate for exhibition in this particular space than a selection of pieces from my overstuffed scrap files—the print run discards from when using a discarded medium, through the final years of its industrial twilight, beginning in the mid-1990s. There are some drawn, etched, and woodblock printed scraps in there for good measure.
If art school saved letterpress printing from the landfill of knowledge and the junkyards of industry, then surely an admin office in an art school might be the place to give these odd and occasionally striking fragments another several weeks at work before sending them onto their Great Recycler. A single Bankers Box enables this portable overflow. The scraps (representing the labor of dozens of projects) have their opportunity to live as art—possibly even as good art, and certainly in more than a few instances as interesting art—even if that status is only granted through the banal functionalism of the space the material finds itself in. Call it an office effect…or its reverse.
Dan S. Wang, 2012