Wednesday, July 2, 2014

NAKED JULY: "Elizabeth and Rod" by Mike Lyon
 All this July I'm featuring nudes on this blog, mostly because I'm working on some nudes in the studio and I want to look more deeply at how a diverse mix of other woodcut printmakers have tackled the timeless task of depicting the unclothed human figure.

She stands on the pedestal casually combing her hair, not looking at the audience, though she must be aware. She must realize that countless pairs of eyes are following the contours of her youthful curves, admiring her lovely face.

He stands behind her in shadow, confronting onlookers with his gaze, his hands behind his head so as to emphasize his confidence, impressive height, and powerful girth.

Mike Lyon's work is an interesting mix of humanistic subjects, historical references, and unconventional techniques that employ a high degree of math and technology.

Portraits and figures which possess profound emotional impact populate Lyon's portfolio. This woodcut depicts Lyon's long-time friend Rod and Rod's girlfriend Elizabeth. On his blog about it, Lyon writes:

This one parodies 19th century sumo images which occasionally depicted sumo in the company of beautiful women. 

In his blog post 1996 woodcuts Lyon wrote that at that time he became "fascinated by Japanese woodblock printmaking technique." That same year he enrolled in a two-week intensive workshop taught by Hiroke Morinoue. In his post The Fisherman and his Wife Lyon calls the workshop a "life changing experience." Indeed, the heavy influence of Japanese techniques are evident in the work which followed.

Elizabeth and Rod is one of Lyon's many aizuri-e or blue printed pictures, a convention also in accordance with traditional Japanese woodblock prints. Lyon's first attempt at an aizuri-e was in 2002.

What most surprised me about Elizabeth and Rod is that it was created using 24 wood blocks which were carved by a machine. The machine was first obtained and written about on Lyon's 2004 post Max, where he mentions a "new carving 'assistant'!" It turns out to be a CNC (computer numerical control) machine which he purchased from ShopBot Tools, a company which mostly sells them to sign makers.

Previous to obtaining the CNC machine, Lyon used reduction techniques in order to get so many layers of color. However, reduction is a Western, not Japanese, technique, and it seems to me from the post Sarah Reclining that this diversion from Japanese techniques perhaps stood out in a way that felt unsatisfactory for the artist:

This print is a reduction woodcut, carved and printed entirely by hand using traditional Japanese woodblock printing techniques and materials (except, of course, for the reduction part).

Lyon's use of the CNC machine strikes me as a modern incarnation of the old Japanese woodblock printmaking technique. Not only because the machine allows Lyons to use more blocks, but because the great masters of Japanese printmaking typically didn't do their own carving or even their own printing. More often they employed specially-trained craftspeople for each of those specific jobs.

Gazing at this formal-yet-fleshy image of Elizabeth and Rod I imagine that I can hear the far-off buzz of a chainsaw. Maybe it is a sentimental lumberjack carving the image of a mermaid out of a stump. I look at Elizabeth's fair skin and contemplate the fragility of a rose pedal. I blink and am reminded of the fleeting nature of any moment that happens to be captured in a camera's eye-view.



  1. Just a note to mention that Max was not a reduction print - my (unique so far as I know) approach to block design allowed no more than three printings over any area - that allowed printing to proceed continuously without over-saturating the paper - but - printing has to proceed from deepest to palest colors which is a bit unusual.

  2. Oh! One additional note: my reductive approach to Japanese woodblock printmaking technique was VERY satisfying (to me) - but it isn't a 'traditional' Japanese technique. That's all. Thanks so much for writing about my work - you explained it all very well!

  3. Mike, so glad you enjoyed it, and thank you for the clarifications in this comments section. I found your blog to be so wonderful. Originally I meant to write a single, short reflection in response to this piece, but once I started looking back at your woodcut prints over the past 18 years I just had to share what I found most interesting about your journey with my blog's readers. Thank you for sharing so much of your process.