Preparatory work reveals the thinking processes of artists, and in the case of Luis Jiménez and his self-portrait at Austin’s Flatbed Press, the working states are quite surprising.
The current exhibition at the working gallery there showcases seven working-state prints during the process of creating and proofing plates for Jiménez’ self-portrait. The original copper plates are also on display.
The process spanned from November 27 to December 1 in 1995. Considering each plate is 45 inches tall and 32 inches wide, and there were three plates to register, it was quite amazing that all could be completed within five days.
This was only possible when Jiménez, a proficient printmaker, worked with Katherine Brimberry, a master collaborator. Plus, the soft ground etching demands a timed process as the ground has only limited time window before it loses receptivity to register texture or drawing.
What I did not know before was the similarity between soft ground etching and lithograph. A workable plate remains sensitive to any touch so that scratches, fingerprints accidentally pressured might leave permanent marks.
It appears to me that Jiménez did not have specific ideas of what the final self-portrait should look like. But he certainly knew what he did not want. The very first proof, from the initial stage of the key plate, was a close self-representation – His combed back hair reveals a receding hairline. The deep furrow lines from the forehead lead the focus to his sagging eyelids. And he made no pretense to hide the fact he was losing the vision of his left eye.
But subsequently, he added many lines, stronger, darker and denser. (He probably also burnished part of the first sketch out of the key plate.) The second proof makes a dramatic shift from a candid likelihood to a day of the dead imagery. The head, part skeleton, and part of a living human combine a reticent inward self-reflection with a daring passionate self-revelation. Jimenez began to frequent the day of the dead theme from the 80’s, such as Baile Con La Talaca in 1984, or A Veces Viene a Trote, a Veces a Galope from 1992. But to project the living onto the dead for his own self-portrait, more than ever, indicates his contemplation with his own destiny.
Two more plates were drawn in registration with the key plate. The second plate enhances the dimensionality of the skull head by supplementing more lines to facial features. The only main deviation is further deepened furrows of his forehead. The third plate was drawn to add the background values. The head left almost untouched, would stand out with its pale skin emerged from the dark.
A few more proofs were made to test different color combinations with all three plates. The background plate was always printed first and the key plate the last. The imagery became darker as Jiménez opted to add aquatint for both the second and the third plate. In the end, the artist settled with the choice of brown background, blue (muted with gray) for the second plate and black for the key plate.
The last proof, the only one framed, shows the plates in their final states and colors used in the editions. Artists tend to be unflattering in their self-portraits. But Jiménez spares no mercy on how the public should see him and his legacy, with the ultimatum of death. He had been no strangers to controversies – Determined to move his art out to the public, he worked on fiberglass monuments for many commissioned public installation by mixing high art with popular, and sometimes low, art. But here, unlike his provocative, rapturous public work, he presented himself as an aging man, frail and vulnerable and staring outward. The double imagery that blends the living with the dead is striking because it is visually uneasy. It is uneasy, because it is true, like his other public work that has been criticized as vulgar, violent or politically incorrect.
Looking at the final proof, I suddenly had a Francis Bacon moment. Bacon preferred his oil paintings behind the glass. The glass downplays the action of viewing into a casual glimpse. Yet it’s towering portrait speaks like a rhetorical question, except what has been declared in the first place stays elusive behind the glass.
And then I saw myself, imposing my own face onto the image. It gave me chills.