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“Wood Type, Evolved” at the Center for Book and Paper Arts

Columbia College Chicago highlights “Experimental Letterpress & Relief Printing in the 21st Century.”

Photograph: Courtesy of Columbia College Chicago
Dafi Kuhne, print from Wood Type Now!, 2009.

Buried among the beautifully designed gig posters, ads and art covering one vast wall of the Center for Book and Paper Arts is a small poster by Buffalo-based artist Chris Fritton. a letterpress cult? it says above a dainty skull and crossbones, i’m in!

Subtitled “Experimental Letterpress & Relief Printing in the 21st Century,” the show makes clear why so many are seduced by this kind of printmaking. Wooden type recalls 19th-century “wanted posters and theater broadsides,” curators April Sheridan and Nick Sherman explain in their exhibition brochure. But computers enable contemporary artists to combine letterpress’s historical gravitas with unlimited formal innovation.

Though many of the show’s artists prize and employ classic fonts, The Wood Engravers’ Network Alphabet, a one-sheet abecedarium produced with the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum in Wisconsin, demonstrates how spectacular letterforms can be when artists carve their own. Each letter is an intricate picture; many are puns: A bearded man peers through Joel Moline’s “O”; Leslie Evans incorporates the “T” into a tiger’s stripes.

Old Time Film (2010), a fun video produced by Portland, Oregon’s Triangular Press, also prompts viewers to recognize the myriad ways in which artists may present letters and words. Throughout the three-minute animation of letterpress prints, dancing text changes case, leading, kerning and style.

The centerpiece of “Wood Type, Evolved” is a room devoted to ten emerging printmakers and workshops in the U.S. and Europe. Examples of their work and homemade type appear next to explanations of how each artist modifies old typefaces, or makes type out of modern materials such as plexiglas, aided by laser cutters and CNC routers. Such clear, detailed information makes “Wood Type, Evolved” an excellent introduction to its subject.

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