The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

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FEB 2022 Issue
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Planar Vessels

Kenturah Davis, <em>planar vessel I</em>, 2021. Fugitive ink photogram, hand debossed text, carbon pencil rubbing on Igarashi kozo paper in artist frame. 5 panels 59 x 39.25 in. Overall 60 x 196.75 in. © 2022 Kenturah Davis.
Kenturah Davis, planar vessel I, 2021. Fugitive ink photogram, hand debossed text, carbon pencil rubbing on Igarashi kozo paper in artist frame. 5 panels 59 x 39.25 in. Overall 60 x 196.75 in. © 2022 Kenturah Davis.

When the Rosetta Stone was uncovered in the French-occupied port of el-Rashid in 1799, the first steps toward decipherment saw this ancient stele function as a printing matrix to transfer the text to paper, for distribution among scholars who would try to unravel the threads of meaning of ancient Egyptian writing. Today, the stone represents far more than a bilingual decree of an ancient king that helped to bridge us with the distant past (the hieroglyphic and demotic scripts of ancient Egypt were accompanied by the translation in Greek, the latter serving as the key to decoding the former). It also illuminates the nature of making and disseminating meaning. I’m interested in how the earliest writing systems emerged at the intersection of text, image, and object. Those that were inscribed into more portable surfaces, like the cylindrical seals of Mesopotamia, could be rolled across soft clay to leave an impression. Whether in the form of a small stamp-like tool or monumental temple walls, the functionality of these forms as a matrix set a precedent for our modern printmaking techniques.

Understanding the nature of making prints seems to be about pursuing an understanding of surfaces. An object, like the Rosetta Stone, reveals how even the shallowest incisions into the surface of a material, can imbue and disseminate depths of information. How apropos that the term “matrix” means womb in Latin. Whether one treated the stone as an etching plate, filling the grooves with ink, or a wood block where a thin film of ink coats the surface while evading the carved incisions, or even employed a frottage technique where one simply rubs pigment against the back of a piece of paper placed atop the stone, the resulting prints emerge as the offspring of the matrix.

My own work coalesces around experiments with the physicality of language. By writing or stamping texts in repetition, figures materialize as an embodiment of the texts used to render them. I’m interested in the equivalence between writing and drawing, as what seems to have been the case in the earliest developments of hieroglyphs. My recent body of work, planar vessels, makes low-relief inscriptions into thick handmade paper, using a ball-tipped tool. As I begin to render the figures, the pencil skips over the narrow grooves, revealing the nearly invisible text embedded in the paper. Combined with other techniques, they blur the distinction between painting, printmaking, and drawing.

I teach printmaking classes at Occidental College and had to quickly adapt the coursework for remote learning last year. The accounts about the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone were my guide. I considered how we are surrounded by matrices: surfaces that can yield marks. I set the students to the task of creating rubbings, using their surroundings as their printing surface. We came to terms with the fundamental elements of printmaking: the matrix, the substrate (the surface onto which an impression of the matrix is made), pressure, and (often but not always) pigment. We looked to artists like Do Ho Suh, whose work Rubbing/Loving tenderly created a full-scale frottage/rubbings of his entire apartment in New York. Jason Moran’s exuberant works on paper that deftly records the movements of his hands across pigment-covered piano keys, helped us tease out the possibilities in monotype techniques. Similarly, David Hammons’s Untitled (Basketball Drawing) accumulates the textured impressions of a dusty basketball bounced repeatedly on large sheets of paper.

The intimate relationship I have with prints extends from my studio to the classroom and back again to the studio. Although this medium is highly technical and methodical it simultaneously offers profound insight into the poetics of our sensory experience. The print is evidence of a meaningful encounter with surfaces and a thoughtful consideration of how they meet under pressure. Creating and/or perceiving the characteristics of a surface affords the opportunity to translate them into a form that is pregnant with information, a planar vessel.


Kenturah Davis

Kenturah Davis is visual artist residing in Los Angeles and sometimes Accra.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

All Issues