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What (is) a Relief?

Relief printmaking was the first printmaking process invented, and has its origins in seals in China around 255 BCE. At its most basic, one can think of a stamp as a relief print. The artist uses tools to cut away portions of the matrix (a wood block, linoleum sheet, Styrofoam, etc.), leaving behind a raised image area, which is then printed on a substrate (paper, fabric, etc.). To this day, relief printmaking is still the most accessible form of printmaking because a press is not required to make a print – just the matrix, ink, pressure and the substrate. The process is direct, accessible and low-tech, and allows for bold graphics that can be abstract or representational.

The works in this show provide three avenues into the process, from historical and contemporary perspectives. The ukiyo-e prints provide an opportunity to study the process from a historical perspective. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints flourished in Japan between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, focusing on the pleasure districts of Edo (modern Tokyo). Each individual print was made from a number of separate blocks, starting with the key block which creates the lines of the print. This print is pasted on separate blocks, and these blocks are then carved individually, based off the lines provided by the key block, to carry a specific color. An example of the process creating a wood block print can be seen on the screen behind you. Beginning with an image of the key block, the images outline the process of making a print of Suzuki Harunobu’s Heron Maid, building up the print using the separate colors, ending with a block that is carved to provide texture to the final work.

These historical works from Augustana’s collections have been brought together with two contemporary artists using the relief process to very different ends. Janet Taylor, a contemporary fiber artist from North Carolina, creates matrices out of Styrofoam, and prints directly on silk organza, creating diaphanous, layered compositions. Joseph Lappie is a local artist and professor at St. Ambrose University. His series inspired by the Nuremberg Chronicles is on display for the first time in the Quad Cities as part of this exhibition, which combines the prints and their matrices, as a cohesive whole.

Exhibition Date

August 26 through October 30, 2015


Art and Design | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Printmaking

What a Relief! Variations on Printmaking


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