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Exploring the Physical State of the Matrix

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

By Lenka Vilhelmova, translated from Czech by Katerina Kyselica | Living in a contemporary world inundated with digital technologies, one can feel distracted by the abundance of fleeting virtual images. Consequently, traditional practices of visual art, like printmaking and book arts, seem especially distant. Printmaking involves many intricate creative processes for artists, who must learn to understand natural materials, develop the craftsmanship to mold them and perform the activities with thorough, logical thinking. Challenging practices like these seem to be fading away in contemporary visual culture. Nevertheless, many artists still embrace the printmaking process; some of them even indulge in the exploration of the physical state of the printmaking plate.

Jaromira Nemcova, Maria, Maria, 2012-2014, artist book (iron, stone, polymer), 4 x 7 7/8 x 2 inches, photograph by Lenka Vilhelmova

Printmaking is a multi-layered process in which artists work with a constant presence of anticipation as they engage with multiple components, such as the matrix, color and paper. Each step of this journey comes with specific technicalities—complicated sets of rules which must be followed in order to successfully transfer an image and ultimately communicate a message. The medium still serves as a means of communication through today. Artists may compose the messages they wish to print onto a printmaking plate, known as the matrix (a name which comes from mater, the Latin word for mother). In the past, only natural materials such as wood, clay, ceramics, stone or metal were used as matrices. Nowadays artists have adapted to incorporating other resources such as polymers, which is reflective of the ongoing development of alternative printmaking methods. As a result, the matrices themselves become independent artworks, despite the fact that they are usually not exhibited to viewers.

The Relief Matrix

The relief matrix carries its own artistic testimony to hard work and skilled craftsmanship, as well as the dialogue between the surface and the print. In this form of printmaking, the relief surface is processed, broken through or excavated using dimensional forms of low relief, such as glyptic (sunken) engraving or carving. Artists work with tools designed for printmaking and sculpting, but may also use welding devices, liquid synthetic matters and, of course, chemicals. The journeys that printmakers have taken with new technologies and techniques—particularly by adapting a looser, more exploratory approach to the creation process—have enabled them to alter many of the medium’s established norms. One such change is seen in the size of prints, which has experienced a significant increase.

Artists who practice relief printmaking go about an assortment of processes as they prepare the plates. While these printmakers can choose to apply the traditional, established relief techniques, they may also work with alternative methods. One experimental approach is integrating the sculptural practice into relief printmaking; the fusion offers new possibilities for expression. The sculptural printmaking field is often accompanied with relief and dimensional printing using two plates, the matrix and the patrix, that are formed as a dimensional positive and negative. The printmaker then presses the two forms against one another with material, such as paper, leather or canvas, sandwiched in between. Pure relief works are thus created; color is typically not used in this process.

Artists Gauge the Matrix

The physical state of a printmaking plate—which holds an image that always comes out reversed when printed—is a fascinating concept for many artists. Exploration and experimentation are the foundations for the development of an artist’s endeavors and personal signatures. I addressed these concepts when I summoned artists from Poland and the Czech Republic to participate in a time-based workshop. Their resulting works, which explored the matrix as an integral part of the artistic concept, were presented in Prague’s Hollar Gallery in an exhibition entitled On the Edge of Depicted Image. It was interesting to learn about the approaches of the participating artists, all instructors at universities: printmakers Lubomir Pribyl and Mikolas Axmann (Czech Republic), sculptor Jaromira Nemcova (Czech Republic), glass artist Vera Vejsova (Czech Republic), sculptor and ceramist Josef Lorenc (Czech Republic), printmaker Katarzyna Pietrzak and her colleague Andrzej Brzegowy (Poland), printmaker and painter Andrzej Marian Bartczak (Poland) and myself, printmaker and painter Lenka Vilhelmova (Czech Republic).

Jaromira Nemcova presented matrices (and patrices) she made from artificial stone and their respective imprints that mirrored the word, Maria. Her installation also included small artists’ books, which were an integral component and common testament to the whole exhibition. The sculptural approach pervades the entire printmaking oeuvre of Nemcova; she continuously experiments with material imprints of stone cuts, castings from artificial stone, polymer forms, metal reliefs and found objects. By exploring the printmaking process and creating multiples of a single print in endless varieties with a limited color range, Nemcova has tested the range of printmaking possibilities in her work, Maria, Maria (2012–2014). In it, the repetition of the name’s imprint and its organization into an imaginary compositional order, which seemingly constructs an image using the name Maria, evokes the act of praying.

Jaromira Nemcova, Maria, Maria (detail), 2012-14, stone and polymer prints, photograph by Lenka Vilhelmova

Josef Lorenc introduced his matrices made of plaster and ceramics. The reliefs and their imprints in the presented Man in Time (2014) tell a story of the head of a man in time, its reflection, disappearance and reappearance. The use of sculpting tools added a rather abrasive and irritating expression to the imagery, as their presence is apparent in both the intact and disturbed blocks of plaster as well as in the imprints. By using non-traditional tools and plaster matter—a rather limiting material—Lorenc sets up new possibilities for expression. Traces left in the deep relief rhythmically alternate and disrupt one another; they often literally absorb one element by the other. The subjected world seems brutally damaged and disturbed. Lorenc’s whole series is based on expression and inner experience. Time, which the artist illustrated as merciless, rotating circles, plays a hostile role. Everything is subject to deformation for the sole purpose of delivery and visibility.

Josef Lorenc, view of printing the matrix for Man in Time, 2015, photograph by Lenka Vilhelmova.

Josef Lorenc, Man in Time, 2014, ceramic cast from plaster cut.

Josef Lorenc, Man in Time, 2014, ceramic cast from plaster-cut, photograph by Lenka Vilhelmova.

Vera Vejsova showed her matrices created from slumped glass along with her glass cuts. Although the objects are not of large dimensions, Vejsova can create surprisingly large print surfaces by combining the matrices and adding paper material. The artist draws inspiration from natural forms, a theme that is evident in Poetry of Ordinary Day (2015). The three-dimensional objects she rendered represent elementary shapes, such as the sphere, cube and pyramid. She added no color; all works were all white. Blind embossing was used. Vejsova’s approach is purely constructive and analytical. She considers the visual perspective, which she breaks up into several phases, counting on different views and dynamics of light. This effect alters the conception of the form and ignites imagination. The essence of Vejsova’s abstract, pure geometric forms may emit feelings of enclosure, unity, balance, purity and calmness. They lack irritating themes, but inspire harmony. Vejsova’s matrices are works of glass art, attractive not only to other glassmakers but also to printmakers who can potentially adapt the concept of a glass matrix into their own practice...

Vera Vejsova, Poetry of Ordinary Day, 2015, view of the matrix and print installation, photograph by Lenka Vilhelmova.


A full version of this article Exploring the Physical State of the Matrix by Lenka Vilhelmova appeared in print edition of Celebrating Print, Vol. 1 No. 1, published in October 2015.

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LENKA VILHELMOVA is a visual artist, printmaker, curator and educator. She graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague (1982). Her prints, paintings, objects, and art books have been presented in numerous solo and group exhibitions in the Czech Republic and abroad. Her art is represented in private and public collections, including the National Gallery in Prague and the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. She has participated in many international workshops in printmaking and art books, such as the International Print Triennial Krakow (2013) and Continuity, (Nebraska, USA, 2010) Vilhelmova teaches printmaking at the University of South Bohemia in Ceske Budejovice. She is a member of the Hollar Association of Czech Graphic Artists.

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