Along a dirt path some six miles outside of Ann Arbor sits a white-washed house. It seems to be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by a carpet of russet-colored fallen leaves. Pristine exterior withstanding, the building’s inside is lined with a clutter of items strewn about from constant use.
Crawling, reaching plants sit in the corner, looking as if they are impossibly climbing upward into the sky. One wall is covered in a flurry of rectangular sheets of paper, some colored with bright hues: blood red, royal blue; others covered in black textured dots and lines. Various drafting tables are set up along the walls, the heavy arms of drafting lights hanging over them, the surface of the desk covered in cans filled with brushes, oil pastels, measuring tape and etching tools.
Upon entering the house, immediately noticeable is a giant printing press made of gray metal. It’s about eight feet long, complete with knobs and screws and a turning wheel. The press itself is covered in metal plates with lines and images etched into them — printmaking plates.
This is the thinking space of printmaker Takeshi Takahara, former School of Art & Design Professor and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus. He faces this room every time he seeks to create a new piece, his mind perhaps as cluttered and active as his drafting desk.
Takahara employs a printmaking technique known as intaglio, using etchings in metal to produce a printable image and capture his thoughts and feelings taken from past experiences, often based on his travels.
His latest exhibition, “The Four Corners,” (on display in the Residential College Art Gallery through Dec. 4) focuses on the Southwest United States, known for its stunning red and orange rock formations and supernatural forces. It was Takahara’s goal to encapsulate the feelings of this area in his intaglio prints. The selection of this unconventional method of expression may appear to be unusual on the surface, but for Takahara, it pays off in the long run.
Intaglio, along with lithography, silkscreen and woodblock, are the four basic printmaking processes.
Growing up in Japan, Takarhara always saw woodblock as the most popular form of printmaking. Still, he always had a desire to work with other material and soon discovered he preferred a stronger, almost impenetrable surface.
“Metal is very hard and it’s very resistant,” Takahara said. “I like that dynamic between my vulnerable idea versus the solid metal.”
Although he was initially attracted to the materials of intaglio printmaking, Takahara would have to learn to be patient, for the steps of the technique are undeniably time-consuming.
In intaglio, a copper plate is coated with an acid-resistant, asphalt-like substance into which the artist scratches a design. An acid bath exposes the lines, their depth determined by how long the plate is left in the bath. These three steps are repeated multiple times on the same plate to create variations of lines. The asphalt-like substance is cleaned off, which exposes the etched lines. Ink is used to fill in the grooves. Finally, the plate is put on a press bed and paper is forced to pick up the ink from the grooves, resulting in an image.
This prolonged and meticulous process might seem excessively laborious and drawn out, but it’s the perfect medium for Takahara to fully realize the ideas in his head. The process also suits his tendency toward constant revision. He claims he’s in a perpetual state of reevaluation and correction, never truly finishing a piece.
“People assume when you have an idea, you get the result right then, but that’s not the case,” Takahara explained. “The artist is changing (his or her work) all the time before arriving at the final product. That’s exciting to me.”
Even though Takahara views the length of the procedure as an advantage now, that was not always his view.
“My instinct was to get a result very fast, which many people do when you don’t really understand the process. You just want a quick result,” Takahara explained of his early work.
Takahara acknowledges that drawing and painting may seem like more appropriate art forms for immediate artistic achievement and satisfaction. However, he prefers to meditate on and rework his concepts.
“Drawing has a limit in its own way,” he explained.
“Printmaking allows so much time to produce work. You get to rethink, revise and remake your original ideas. (It) allows you to do a number of proofs and stages. In a way, that’s a document. Very few art processes have that advantage. If you paint over something, it disappears,” he said.
“In printmaking, you can actually print images step by step and have it. By looking at that proof, you make additions or deletions and move onto another print again and compare those two and see the differences.”
“The Four Corners” exhibition showcases the impact of this reassessment and alteration. His art pieces, Two Anthropomorphs I and Two Anthropomorphs II, are variations on the same physical objects but express two distinct feelings. The two prints repeat the same images of birds and a haunting figure with an overextended appendage, holding a shield-shaped object. The most striking difference between the two is their differing color schemes. The former harnesses an intense orange while the latter seems far less threatening with its use of a chilly, light blue.
Takahara admits that color is a key element of his work. It’s also the most challenging part of the intaglio process to pinpoint. Ultimately, it’s personally rewarding when the exact shade is realized.
“Because (getting the right color) is difficult and challenging, you want to do it,” Takahara explained about the tedious precision that goes along with searching for the right color. “I didn’t invent that. That’s always been the case.”
“If you knew the result, then you wouldn’t do it,” he added.
The breathtaking hues are what attracted Takahara to the Four Corners region in the first place, but upon arrival, it was the mysteriousness of the region that intrigued him the most.
“There’s something supernatural about that place,” Takahara said. “There’s this giant, almost structure, but it naturally eroded or created cliffs and mountains. Something about that is so overwhelming to me.”
Although the Four Corners region was his predetermined destination, there was not a specific object or landscape he planned to capture. He instead opted for a more holistic approach.
“I was not interested in a particular spot to document,” Takahara said. “I (try to get) the sense of the place and recreate that sense of a place in myself and realize it. So what you see in the show is nothing particular — not such and such place. You cannot tell. But you get the sense of, ‘oh yeah, I get it’ kind of thing.”
Titles like Two Moons over Canyon and Calling the Flock of Birds in “The Four Corners” exhibit are evidence of the absence of prints recording exact geographic location.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Takahara’s work is that he doesn’t travel with his printmaking material or haul heavy equipment around to remote locales as an Impressionist painter would. Instead, he focuses on bottling up his experience of a general area, sorting out his feelings in his head. It is not until he’s back in the confines of his Ann Arbor studio that he begins to express on paper the sentiments he felt hundreds of miles away.
A piece like Whispering Echo illustrates the high degree of success Takahara has reached in his work. The time of contemplation that Takahara sets aside for himself to sort out ideas in his head allows for a full realization of the inherent forces in a region like the Four Corners.
The piece seems to capture the feeling of a sound through a thick red-orange backdrop and a series of random shapes and sweeping lines. Provoking a certain sentiment through noise that can’t be heard but, rather seen, feels like a nearly impossible achievement in visual art.
Intaglio printmaking can be viewed as a strange alternative to painting and drawing, and can also be seen as a roundabout way to fulfill an artistic endeavor. When done right, though, intaglio can express fleeting emotions and even the momentary sensation of sound through random etchings and poignant colors, no matter how long it takes to complete a print.