Born Pontiac, Michigan, 1955 / BFA, MFA, Wayne State University / Lives in Huntington Woods, Michigan
“Typography is what language looks like,” says a letterpress sign hanging in Lynne Avadenka’s expansive studio space, which houses the letterpress equipment, flat files, and giant cutting tables that facilitate her work of book arts and printmaking. The visualization of language is of course a key issue for an artist who deals in typesetting as an elemental force in her work, but not more so than content, Avadenka stresses, and neither more so than the exploration of the marks made available by relief printmaking. Indeed, any given work by Avadenka may fall somewhere slightly different on a Venn diagram designating the intersection of language (content), design, and physical impact.
For her part, Avadenka is both meticulous and freewheeling in her exploration of these elements, emphasizing that her mastery of book- and printmaking as arts— which she has taught at WSU, CCS, Penland School of Crafts, Center for Book Arts in New York, and Dartmouth—in no way eliminates the possibility of surprises. Her interest in printmaking lies not in replication for its own sake, but as a mechanism to explore the specific graphic qualities that emerge through working into the metal or wood substrate.
If typography is what language looks like, then surely By a Thread (2006) is very much what a conversation would look like if you managed to translate it into a physical object. The conversation in this case is between Scheherazade, mythic Persian queen and story- teller of One Thousand and One Nights, and Esther, Jewish queen in the Old Testament’s book of Esther. The exchange of the conversation is facilitated by the offset binding, which draws you through the conversation in one direction, then back through in reverse.
This points to one of Avadenka’s major sources: an exploration of Jewish identity, through examination of the Old Testament text (language/content), employment of Hebrew type (design), and multiple visits and artist residencies in Europe and Israel, which have resulted in the incorporation of found artifacts in prints or collages (physical impact). A second theme that appears across a wide range of works is the use of ovals, deployed graphically, symbolically (to represent loss), or alphabetically. In the latter case, A Season (2010) lays out the text of the Old Testament’s book of Ecclesiastes with ovals employed as the typeface, applied manually over an inchoate background of powdered graphite, another of Avadenka’s dearest mediums.
Looking over a wide cross section of Avadenka’s work, which includes dozens of original book editions, one-offs, and prints, one gets the sense of wonder at the tools in her arsenal. Nothing is off limits in her practice. A series of collages, with a graphic nod to Russian constructivism, can be shuffled and deployed in an order both random and utterly interrelated, like a deck of cards. A stunning four-season series (2010) employs a Japanese rubbing technique (Japanese print and folding screens being a second cultural wellspring for Avadenka’s sometimes quite minimalist aesthetic) to transfer the pattern of a piece of birch bark onto four sets of seven trees, each overlaid with color to reflect the four seasons and adorned with an abstracted run of text, again from Ecclesiastes. The Reunion of Broken Parts (2011), a series of monoprints that incorporate chine collé, found Avadenka dissecting an Arabic text on algebra, juxtaposing definitions of precise mathematical concepts with abstracted backgrounds. The Distance between Monuments (2006) is a drawing and collage made from slicing and recombining maps from a text that laid out monuments in Germany. The large-scale interconnected prints After Jabès (2013) utilize such a wide range of mark-making that they come to resemble the effect of twin blackbirds dissolving physically into the page through a feat of avian histrionics.
With such a diverse spread of interests, one suspects that Avadenka’s professional position as artistic director of the community letterpress printshop Signal Return is merely a gambit to gain more access to additional printing techniques. But in reality, this position fits perfectly with Avadenka’s clear mission to utilize multitudinous approaches in capturing not just what language looks like but the very boundaries of physical space and communication—especially between cultures—when captured on paper.
Sarah Rose Sharp, February 2015
Copyright Essay’d 2015