Art in Translation: Fit to Print

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Bob Schneider’s “Today You Are Alive, Tomorrow You Are Dead,” is an intaglio print rendered on Asian paper. (Photo Courtesy of Bob Schneider)
Bob Schneider’s “Today You Are Alive, Tomorrow You Are Dead,” is an intaglio print rendered on Asian paper. (Photo Courtesy of Bob Schneider)

Okay guys, this week I have something a bit different to talk about.

I went to Flatbed, a gallery and workshop for printmaking, off of East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on Monday.

What exactly is printmaking, you might ask? Technically it is the process of making art by printing an image onto paper from a matrix (that’s the technical term for the wood, copper or other material they etch the original image into) using a printing press. The style is somewhat characterized by the capability to make copies, but we aren’t just talking about photographs.

Intaglio is a printmaking process of creating incisions with a small etching tool (anything capable of carving into the matrix) on a metal plate (usually copper) and covering it with ink. The plates are then wiped clean of all excess ink, so that it remains only in the incisions. A damp paper is laid over the plate, and the print sandwich is cranked through a massive printing press, which uses pressure to transfer the image to the paper.

The use of intaglio dates back to the 15th century. The invention of the process is generally attributed to German armor decorator Daniel Hopfer, who applied his craft to printmaking. The process is still the same today, as seen in this week’s art, “Today You Are Alive, Tomorrow You Are Dead,” by Bob Schneider. The piece is a testament to the continuity of printmaking.

Although Texas musician Bob Schneider is more widely known for his music career, he has been a collaborative artist at Flatbed for 20 years. He takes prepared copper etching plates with him on tours and works on his pieces in the back of the tour bus. When he is back in Austin, he brings the plate to the studio and creates his print with the help of one of Flatbed’s master printers.

The piece is part of “The Night Way: New Etchings by Bob Schneider,” a current exhibition at Flatbed. It might appear as a simple sketch on the computer screen with the infinite number of exposed black lines (they have a sharpie quality), but I assure you it is far more complex in person. At 44 inches tall and 32 inches wide, you can see each individual incision as a purposeful, separate entity from the others, but it still comes together as a whole.

The print depicts a sharply angular electric chair. The chair itself looks so basic that at first glance, it almost seems like a blueprint or sketch of some kind. There are no spacial reference points, so the chair takes on a surreal quality, as if it is a metaphor for the inside of someone’s mind. Schneider used copper plates, which were distressed from use in previous projects to create a gritty background in his image. At the top, crooked block letters spell out the title, “Today You Are Alive, Tomorrow You Are Dead.”

This particular piece was created for the group “Chairs” show at the Austin Museum of Art few years ago in which each artist was asked to render their interpretation of a chair. Looking at the piece as a whole, there is a lot of background noise, yet it seems hauntingly quiet.

Possible political undertones about the death penalty aside, the piece seems like it could evoke a much more universal message of being present. Much like the gritty background of the print, I think I’m guilty of being swept up in the extraneous noise of past experiences. The piece proclaims “today you are alive,” something so simple, yet often forgotten.

Personally, I felt it was a sort of warning — a much harsher way of saying “you only live once.” It shows the importance of living with purpose because time is limited. The second half of that sentence, the more gruesome part, “tomorrow you are dead,” is a lofty reminder that you can’t waste today. Otherwise, you might find yourself sitting in the wrong chair.