The mask made it difficult to see his smile from ear to ear, but you could see it in Miguel’s eyes. Colorful large-scale prints covered all the tables at Brandywine Workshop and Archives’ (BWA) studio in South Philadelphia. The happiness and satisfaction of the completion of a successful project was hard to miss as he stared at the project he had just completed. Growth Rings, a woodcut variable edition completed at the end of 2020, synthesizes tradition, contemporary industrial technologies, and a personal story.1
Miguel Antonio Horn is a Philadelphia based sculptor and fabricator. He is known for his large-scale, sculptural-figurative projects assembled out of precise slices of metal, acrylic, and other materials. Instruments conventionally used for industrial manufacturing processes are an indispensable component of the planning and production process for his work. Horn uses 3D computer modeling, laser scanners, water jet, and laser cutters regularly in his projects.
Growth Rings is a departure from the type of artwork Horn is known for. His usual monochromatic-neutral color schemes come from the materials he uses to fabricate his sculpture. Needless to say, the edition in front of him that day in the studio was in two-dimensions, made out of paper, and an exercise in color theory. It was created in collaboration with master printer Alexis Nutini through the artist-in-residency program at BWA. “The edition depicts my father’s portrait in profile, the contours that create his likeness mimic the growth rings of a tree that with each passing year define its character, give it strength and internalize its flaws and scars.”2 It is a project that evolved from an acrylic sculpture in the likeness of his father that was completed in 2019 called Abu. The sculpture was the first exploration of the ideas that subsequently became Growth Rings, his first large-scale experimentation with printmaking and its potential for creative expression.
This project is a direct translation of Horn’s arts-based research of the natural world. He explores the potential of the multiple and serial nature of the printed image as a vehicle to understand the figure. The raw data sets he derives from scanning natural environments and objects are then adapted to commands that equipment like a CNC machine can use for production. It is a conceptual approach that entered the discourse in the 1980s as a result of texts written by Ruth Weisberg, and elevated once again by Ruth Pelzer-Montada in Perspective on Contemporary Printmaking (2018) where she discusses the contemporary practicing artist’s approach to print.
Through the collaborative nature of the residency at BWA, Horn was allowed to dream of the possibilities of the process, and the expertise of a master printer became an essential element where this could be feasible. “The first time I went [to the studio], I was totally overwhelmed with the multitude of options,” Horn said after he and Nutini had worked on the first round of printing using a combination of woodblocks they had developed together. The colorful outcome was a direct result of their collaboration as well.
From conception to the execution, Growth Rings continues the tradition of printmaking’s adaptation of commercial techniques into the realm of visual arts. The development of printmaking has always reflected the state of surrounding technologies Miguel’s practice plays between two and three dimensions. The scans used to create the woodblock were direct translations of computer models he had created originally for the Abu piece. He took the raw data collected through three-dimensional scanners used to manufacture industrial parts. Then he broke them down into two-dimensional layers that could then be translated to printing plates, “it was actually really, really easy to translate from the topographical construction method [of Abu], because I was using a similar method to create the contours for the cutouts as I was for the print.”
The woodblocks were subsequently cut through CNC machining, a method that lends itself to precision, and faithfulness to the data. The result was a project that was not hamstrung by the laborious constraints involved in producing woodcuts, and the final edition is playful and experimental in nature. All 48 variations of the print are a result of the collaboration filled with curiosity, and the understanding of two minds of a process. This allowed them to unlock possibilities and infused more meaning into the work for both the artist and the master printer.
On the grander scheme this project was a conduit to meditate on what virtual technologies mean for our experience in the real world. It was a way to visualize and distill complex information that can connect to people’s experiences whether they come from their everyday lives or popular culture. Horn shared a story of a friend who saw the installation of the prints and told him how “amazing” it was to see the work because that is the kind of images he saw working as a radiologist every day. This is the kind of crossover that keeps him going.
Historically, technology has always played an important part in the ways printmaking defines itself. “I keep trying to find ways to connect to our natural world and just having this dialog between, how not only we’re seamlessly trying to bring our natural and digital world together, but the ways us as individuals and people fit in between there trying to navigate between those two worlds, and I think that is what’s exciting for me.” Miguel Antonio Horn is an artist who has the vision necessary in a rapidly evolving digital age where the existence of the digital and analog are one and the same.