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Graceful industry: The prints of Karel Martens

By Al Matthews
CNN Headline News

Martens art
A Karel Martens print from "Printed Matter/Drukwerk."
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(CNN) -- So much graphic design is made with a computer these days that I tend to feel more connected to art made with the artificial tools I understand. Video art, video editing, Web design, Flash: These are the media of my generation.

But the old arts are not dead. Another generation, still active, has grown up with the old tools, the old limits and works with the old materials. Many of these tools, limits and materials were mastered long ago, and their boundaries have been pushed for much longer than Flash, or even the computer, has existed.

To wit, "Counterprint" is the English title of a collection of the personal work of Dutch designer and Yale visiting lecturer Karel Martens. This edition was published in a small quantity by Hyphen Press, a small press in London that publishes books for designers and those who love them. (Another Martens book may be easier to obtain: "Printed Matter/Drukwerk" was considered the best-designed book "in the whole world" at the 1998 Leipzig book fair.)

The prints in these books are not any more "natural" compared to the work of my digital generation, and Martens admits he prefers an industrial feel. Geometry rules here, and the shapes reflect rational purpose. Also, these images were printed on heavy letterpresses, litho stones and the like -- the fruits of centuries of printing technology, machines that changed the world.

Most of the prints were made as gifts or experiments. At first glance they can seem strange, or simple, but the simplicity is misleading: They reward attention, and have a careful, formal quality reinforced by the patient processes that made them.

Printing with four colors, for example, takes four nights because each color must dry separately. And while the processes are standardized, the contents are sometimes indebted to chance -- or specifically, to the histories of lost parts.

Martens uses a variety of unorthodox objects to make his prints: industrial castoffs, random pieces, found junk, his children's Legos. He favors the strong shapes of real objects disconnected from their purpose and context, objects discarded but springing back to life when he commits them to ink, to press and to paper.

Martens builds patterns from parts. He prints textures in time, moving his objects from place to place and capturing the traces in the image, ink by ink and layer by layer. These "moving" pictures create abstraction from specific and rational shapes, while their color can be quiet or "sugary" to the eye.

By studying the prints, you can pick out the blocks he builds on. These are small pleasures, but they emerge from close viewing, and ultimately the compositions are at once careful and graceful, subtle and vivid. This is refined craft with tools reinvented as toys: precision in play. In the end, these minutiae are mesmerizing.


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