Traditional Printmaking Meets 21st Century Tech

August 04, 2016

Matthew Letzelter, Chair, MFA in Print Media, on the innovative point of view of the program

Matthew Letzelter in the print studio at PNCA, 2016. Photo: Mario Gallucci MFA '13

Matthew Letzelter is Chair of the MFA in Print Media at PNCA. While developing his own art practice, Letzelter worked for years as a master printer with Derrière L‘Étoile Studio in New York and Stinger Editions in Montreal. When he launched the MFA in Print Media, Letzelter talked about printmaking in a radical way: to encompass objects as well as images, and multiples as well as editions. He installed 3D printers and milling machines. And he continues to advocate for and support, “an expanded notion of the print matrix.” Here, Letzelter talks about the intersection of traditional craft and new technologies in the field of print media.

LR: I know that when you first conceived of the MFA in Print Media, you were adamant about the program expanding how we think about the process and product of print. Your notion of print in the 21st century embraces traditional technique and craft but pushes it outward to embrace new methods and technologies. Can you talk about this confluence of tradition and innovation in your own work?

Matther Letzelter: My approach to making has always been informed by a wide range of practices and skills. Having a childhood shaped by a family of contractors as well as a father that designed, built, and raced cars as a weekend sport gave me a confidence to make things in many fields. I had a long detour in college pursuing science as a pathway of learning before realizing that having a career in a creative field was much more enriching and would provide me the opportunity to explore a wide range of ideas that were surfacing at the time.  

I also feel fortunate to have been in an art and design program as technology began to explode and become much more accessible to artists and the public. To be able to connect the origins of printmaking, photography, and foundational art and design skills to a rapidly changing system of digital processes has lead me on an exploration of my own practice and the way I experience life on a daily basis.  

This exploration brought me to NYC to pursue an MFA in Printmaking as well as many other things. While in NY, I had the opportunity to work with a wide range of artists and professionals that lead to a career as a fine arts printer. For years, I worked with so many talented artists developing new processes and approaches to supporting their ideas as I continued to make my own work. While gaining the confidence of my peers and professionals in the field with the traditional approaches to printmaking, I was able to begin to apply newly surfacing techniques and approaches with digital technologies with these artists and projects. At the time, I was working with professionals who were at least a decade older than me and were somewhat non-natives to these new processes, and it allowed me to take an informed position in the field and continues to help guide me as I teach and develop my creative practice.

Craft and design have always been a key components in my process as I have explored landscapes and abstractions in my work. From NYC as well as working and teaching  in Montréal, I had the opportunity to dive into digital printmaking and fabrication processes as well as other digital formats before returning to a traditional practice that becomes informed by these technologies.

Currently, I feel there is a gap between the traditional craft and technology side of making. The concept of the hand being critical in the creative practice can get lost in all of the newly developing processes. I’m focused on how these new approaches can be either extracted or applied to a traditional approach to art or how to add it into the new processes.

LR: We’ve talked about how you are exploring generative processes through coding and processing for the initial mark making that then feeds into more hands-on craft-based approaches to print. How did you begin down this path and why? And what kinds of coding are you engaging with to generate marks?

ML: I have had the opportunity to work with a handful of artists that focus on generative work as a core of their practice and have always felt that there was something missing with it’s final execution or presentation. Through these experiences, I have been exploring a variety of programs and platforms that assist with mark making devices that lead to new patterns or passages that I can incorporate into my process. I’m not always sure if it needs to be fully part of the pieces, but there are definitely experiences within the processes that inform the final works.

LR: To go back a bit, can you talk briefly about your collaboration at Anderson Ranch last year and how it feeds your current thinking?

ML: Yes, I have had the opportunity to join the wonderful faculty, staff, and students at Anderson Ranch a few times in the recent past. During my last visit, I worked on a collaboration with Casey Reas on a series of editions. He came to the printmaking process from a much more limited experience of digital output options including plotters, inkjet devices, and photo/video processes to express his work. We were able to take these approaches and explore different traditional techniques such as lithography and relief printing as a way to transform his intricate ideas in a more traditional format. We were carving large woodblocks with a CNC router as he developed his code in the studio on the spot. As the dust was flowing out the machine, I watched him continue to develop and write new code for each layer as we proofed and worked through processes that would best support these new approaches. It was an eye-opening experience to pair up and spend multiple days on a  series of projects that were developing as we moved forward that combined two completely different ways of making. This really started to solidify my previous ideas that I was working on with my newly developed MFA program… Print Media as well as a project that was creating a fabrication lab for artists and designers. This idea of craft, hand, tradition, and technology existing in the same realm.

LR: And I know that you worked at Derrière L‘Étoile Studio as a fine art printer with artists such as Raymond Pettibon and James Rosenquist and were Master Printer at Stinger Editions. How did that experience feed your current practice?

ML: Every experience that I had with these artists has developed or shown up in my own practice. I felt there was always a passing on of information… some days it was technique and some days it would be an odd story that might fill in a bit of history that was never written down.  It was always filled with experiences that continue to bubble up as I teach and make.  Being able to collaborate on such a high level also pushed me to come up with new ideas and expand boundaries in an amazing setting.  Having a chance to make with one of your heros and get paid for it was an incredible opportunity that informs everything I do today.  It developed a level of confidence and experience that provides a foundation to the way I research and explore my own practice. During the SGCI conference that PNCA co-hosted last spring, I was able to briefly reconnect with Rosenquist and his family as we were giving him a lifetime achievement award. It was a gratifying experience to honor someone that has given in many ways to my own practice and validated some of the ideas that I have been working through over the years.  

These are invaluable experiences that are difficult to replicate or teach, but provide a point of view that cannot come from a written or visual textbook point of view. I strive to incorporate these in both my practice and the MFA program. It’s one thing to see a piece of work or a project, but it’s definitely a whole different level of experience when you can say you were part of the process.  It’s what guides our commitment to running Watershed, our internal fine art publishing program on campus.  

Matthew Letzelter is a Portland, Oregon artist who explores his practice through works on paper, paintings and photography, with a focus on abstracted landscapes. Matthew is currently an Associate Professor at PNCA and is the MF Ain Print Media Chair. Prior to moving to Portland, Letzelter was the Master Printer at Stinger Editions and Visiting Professor at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, where he taught at the graduate and undergraduate level in Print Media while also focusing research on digital print mediums.

Before moving to Canada, Letzelter worked for Derrière L‘Étoile Studio in New York City as a professional fine art printer. During his time at Derrière L’Étoile, he collaborated on many large-scale projects including Raymond Pettibon’s 72-page, limited edition lithographic book Plots on Loan; James Rosenquist’s lithograph Stars and Stripes at the Speed of Light for the US Embassy/State Department Art Program; as well as numerous printed editions for international galleries, museums and artists. While living in New York City, he also worked for Petersburg Press and Suitcase Press.

Matthew received his BFA in Printmaking from University of Florida, College of Fine Arts and his MFA from MFA 2003 Pratt Institute.

Learn more about theMFA in Print Media at PNCA.