Printing in the desert and listening to radio preachers
Recently, I had the pleasure of working with my friend Kyle Simon, who has started Farrington Press outside of Joshua Tree, California. The press is off-grid, meaning it functions on solar power, and the water and materials Kyle brings in strapped to his pickup truck.
I wanted to make works that fit with my commitment to abstraction while responding directly and materially to the surrounding landscape. Kyle and I collected slab rocks and leveled them onto boards to print them with the 2,000 pounds of pressure generated by the solar-charged hydraulic press. We cut plates out of rusty steel and printed the moon-like metal surface, pocked and scored by wind, dryness, and rare but harsh rainstorms. If it was too cloudy to generate power, we worked on something else. One cannot help but be affected by the immediacy of labor that response to and care for the desert climate requires. What it means to make an image feels heightened when performed with an awareness of the limits of natural resources, much as it feels to me when I print by hand and have to understand the limits of my body.
The house that I stayed in was about a 45-minute drive from Kyle’s. Radio stations were few and far between, except for an abundance of short-range radio preachers. I consider radio preaching to be a great performance tradition, and I love listening to it, especially when so local. I could drive for about seven minutes listening to one and then switch to the next—an abundance of exhortation. Back in Brooklyn, my husband and I have been visiting different churches on Sundays, with the hope of finding a spiritual community that comforts and inspires each of us. After one service, my husband said that he wished it had a little more fire and brimstone. I understood what he meant. Force and pressure can be dangerous and destructive when calibrated incorrectly, or when applied upon a weak foundation (if not secured properly on plates, the rocks we are printing would shatter). But there is also something aesthetically and even emotionally thrilling about the generative tension pressure can create. Radio preachers generally have fire and brimstone, and these ones out in the desert had it in spades. It didn’t matter so much if I agreed with the sermons or not—I delighted in starting my morning thinking about how the forceful use of language and belief can generate imagery, and how that flowed into a day in which the collaboration between pressure and ink can make a print.
What engages me most about printmaking, and what I take from it into other media, feels harder to articulate than an interest in a physicality of process. In a broader view, it intoxicates me to think about the impact different entities in our universe—tangible and intangible—make upon each other. For me, this is wondering about whether a landscape absorbs and is changed by the light of a particularly bright moon, as much as it is being fascinated that people who live together strongly influence the microbial communities on each other’s skin. I see this balance between togetherness, distance, and impression as a kind of holy, yet completely quotidian binding force, and I am confident it reverberates throughout our universe, as much as I am sure that every being experiences its fold.
I love how Anne Carson describes the erotic in Eros the Bittersweet—not unlike the print, the erotic depends on both distance and the yearning to close the gap. This is not to say that these universe building qualities should be the point of prints, or that printmaking is inherently erotic, but that printmaking invokes physical potencies—pressure, heat, liquid, etc.—and that is beautiful to me. To make a print is to participate in some small way with the creative energy flows of the universe, and if you accept these terms, it becomes a kind of ritual enactment of force and generation.
(Does the solidification of the process into image immediately expel eros? An open question, for any medium.)
The hardest part of finishing these prints has been the colors. My choices kept feeling strained, artificial. But recently, Kyle sent me images of desert plants after the rain. Anyone who has spent time in the desert is probably familiar with that sweet after-smell of water on dry earth, the pinkish haze of evaporating raindrops. It was instantly obvious that these images should direct our color choices. I was also reminded that force is most interesting when it calibrates, rather than eclipses, the supposedly opposite qualities of softness, fragility. Like how Farrington Press itself was built using such effort, but with the purpose of balancing with the surrounding ecosystem. Or with the radio preachers I was listening to—as forceful as their language may be, the shortness of range implies that they are not the megachurches one might associate with heavily funded evangelism. Most likely, these stations are one person with a radio transceiver who has bought up a little airtime. Vulnerable, struggling believers briefly drifting into your range. I believe that creating complex affects—and therefore complex images—requires softness and pressure equally. For instance, both the singular impact of the meteor and then the millions of years needed to soften its edges and soil are equally necessary to create a fertile landscape.