With each passing moment, how close do we come to losing valuable aspects of culture for want of attention? Are we all, as keepers of the cultural flame, resigned to a Fahrenheit 451-type existence, maintaining mere memories of the words that inspired us to great thoughts and actions? Not Lynne Avadenka. An artist and bookmaker, she absorbs the power of her readings and translates them into forms that transcend literature.
In addition to a prolific personal practice that includes book-making, prints, and mixed media; experimentation with the mechanics of typesetting as a graphic art form; and meticulously researched series connected to literature, history, and religion; Avadenka also sits at the helm of Signal Return, a community letterpress shop in Detroit, founded in 2011, and celebrating a dozen years with an impending move from its flagship location in the historic Eastern Market, to a new eastside art complex, Lantern.
“Reading is radical,” says Avadenka. Like many of her statements, it is a straightforward sentiment that carries an astonishing depth of commitment. Who truly understands the labor involved in creating readable content if not letterpress artists? Before reading can be a radical act, something must be printed; it is in seizing the means of production that Avadenka is able to disseminate ideas that hold significance for her. In this sense, her work is largely about paying attention.
What does she choose to lavish her attention upon? About half the time, Avadenka tells stories through visual and alphabetic language of her own construction, but equally as often she chooses found text by other writers, an act of engagement that she views as a kind of dialogue over time. Avadenka works at constant translation — not the literal movement from one written language to another, but the even more subjective process of translating written content to a visual medium. Often her subjects are Hebrew-language poets, including Dan Pagis. Poetry seems a natural pairing for a medium in which each letter must be painstakingly set into place, but it is content that compels Avadenka to embark upon a partnership with words written by someone else. A distinct portion of her work deals with issues of Jewish identity, particularly as connected to Germany and Israel. One body of work, (How a Poem Begins) (2015/16), focuses on influential poet Rahel Bluwstein.
The titular artwork points literally to Avadenka’s attention to process, both her own and that of Bluwstein. This non-text-based print series uses razor-scraping on the surface of a printing plate to create impressions meant to represent the moment of inspiration alluded to by the title. The marks appear in relief as tight sets of roughly parallel lines, similar to musical staffs, rising in irregular ladders across the print trying to translate the movement of the poet’s hand across paper. Like an argument heard through a motel wall, the specific content is stripped away, but the tone and the gesture remain discernible.
This is Avadenka’s gift: capturing the endless and shifting combinations at the intersection of language as content, design, and physical impact of the mark on the page. Printmaking works in relief, so mark-making may be translated directly to the plate, creating an effect that can be gestural and impulsive as often as it can be planned and methodical. Avandenka works fluidly along this continuum, sometimes translating ideas into wild gestures. “After Jabès” (2013), an intaglio monoprint with chine colle, pays tribute to the eponymous Jewish-Egyptian poet Edmond Jabès who was exiled from Egypt in 1948, via black marks that cloud across the top and bottom of the page like the murmurations of a flock of furious ravens. Sometimes her translations are more literal and painstaking, as with “A Season” (2010), wherein the poetry of the Old Testament’s Book of Ecclesiastes is arranged with ovals employed as the typeface, executed by hand over a background of powdered graphite. Avadenka’s work often incorporates elements of Jewish text, Hebrew lettering, and elements of the natural world, such as birch bark, or, in the case of (How a Poem Begins), an antique botanical specimen book that catalogs the vegetation of Bluwstein’s natural environs in Israel.
There is a sense of a real conversation between Avadenka and Bluwstein, something easily understood by anyone who has felt a connection to a real or imagined person via the medium of literature. One gets the poignant and satisfying sense that in response to the inspiration provided by Bluwstein, Avadenka has placed this poet in the happiest context imaginable for a proponent of reading as a radical act: a library of materials assembled in her memory (and by extension, ours).
Avadenka’s knack for finding solidarity amongst communities that reach back as far as the 15th-century rise of typesetting as a profession is evident in a work developed at the Rochester Institute of Technology, A Doctrine of Handy-Works, or Another Story of Printing Told in Twelve Brief Pages (2022).
“Printing with movable type transformed human civilization and profoundly influenced all aspects of Jewish life,” wrote Avadenka, in the folio’s introduction. “Jewish women were there from the very beginning. They worked in the print shops of the Renaissance and the Early Modern periods, alongside their husbands and fathers, as well as independently.”
Avadenka lays out elements from a manual from the 1600s about typesetting, phrases from Proverbs, including the conceptual lodestone of the piece, “She works willingly with her hands,” and her own composition which mirrors the aspects of the working woman praised in the Old Testament text. Imagery that accompanies the Hebrew and English phrases includes diagrams from “Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing” (originally published in 1683–84) and decorative type blocks that imitate Italian Renaissance decorative elements.
Like all of Avadenka’s work, Doctrine does many things at once, working across languages, motifs, history, and graphic balance to create something timeless and personal, adding her voice to the canon that she seeks to amplify with each letter she sets.
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