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They Found a Better Method: Mixografia

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Luis and Lea Remba have become fixtures of Los Angeles’ art community since they moved here from Mexico 12 years ago--they are either on hand at the Remba Gallery in West Hollywood or mixing with the crowd at art world functions.

The enterprise they brought here--Mixografia, a technique for printing high-relief works of art--is well known in art circles too. George Segal’s “Woman Sitting on Bed,” a 21-inch-tall cast bronze and copper sculpture on view at the gallery through June 22, is only the latest of 781 limited editions by 73 artists published by the Mixografia Workshop since its inception in 1968 in Mexico City. Among half a dozen artists with works in process, John Baldessari is producing an edition of three-dimensional paper sailboats for a fund-raiser at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, and projects by Donald Sultan and Stephen Antonakos are in the offing.

Working with an international slate of artists, they have produced handmade paper prints for the late Mexican master Rufino Tamayo and New York painter Helen Frankenthaler, copper bas-reliefs for Los Angeles-based sculptor Robert Graham and paper bas-reliefs by architect Richard Meier, based on cut-up pieces of aluminum models of his buildings at the Getty Center in Brentwood. For a mysteriously haunting suite of three prints, Edward Ruscha has burnished letters, numbers and an image of a dog in a wax plate embedded with wild grasses.

Still, the Rembas’ placid demeanor and their exhibitions at the gallery tend to obscure an extraordinary effort to hone a niche in the print market. What goes on at the workshop, in a downtown industrial district, is something of a mystery to most outsiders.

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Behind the building’s undistinguished facade lies a series of rooms and a hallway leading to a cavernous space containing a paper mill and two enormous presses that can produce prints up to 20 by 8 feet.

“One thing special about our shop is that we have designed and built all of our own machinery to do the printing and papermaking,” Luis said proudly.

Behind him, racks along the walls hold thick paper pieces that are drying or awaiting further treatment. Other works in process lie on large tables. The Rembas’ son, Shaye, oversees the shop while assistants run the presses, work on printing plates or perform myriad other tasks.

It’s an impressive operation, and--as might be guessed--it hasn’t come easily. Trained as a mechanical engineer, Luis developed a commercial printing firm with his father in Mexico City. At the suggestion of Mexican artist Pablo O’Higgins, Luis began to work with artists to produce fine art prints. What started as an experimental sideline grew into a full-time occupation in 1969, when he established an open studio and concentrated on technical matters while Lea developed marketing programs.

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They moved to Los Angeles in 1984, a year after a Mixografia exhibition appeared at UCLA’s Wight Gallery.

“We like the art community and the lifestyle here,” Lea said. “We also thought we could make a fairly easy adjustment from Mexico because of the ethnicity of the city.” They continued to operate their workshop in Mexico City, but closed it a year and a half ago.

The Rembas credit Tamayo with the creation of Mixografia. They approached him about making a print in 1973, but the notion bored him. A veteran of traditional printmaking processes, he was only interested in their proposal if he could do something that had more volume and texture than standard prints. Luis responded by developing a technique in which the artist could cut or draw on a relatively soft beeswax plate rather than hard stone or metal. The wax image would then become a mold that was transferred to a copper printing plate--allowing the print to reproduce the original image rather than reversing it, as in etching and lithography. Tamayo liked the idea and the Rembas were on their way.

The Mexican master eventually produced about 80 Mixografia editions. He also played a part in naming the technique and workshop. Tamayo and Luis initially thought of “Mixtografia"--to indicate a mixture of graphics processes--but they decided it was easier to pronounce “Mixografia” and dropped the “t,” Lea said. Protected by 32 patents from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Mexico and Japan, Mixografia is officially recognized as a new printmaking process.

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Luis’ next breakthrough came in 1977, when he began to experiment with making a resilient paper of 100% cotton that could withstand the stress of printing in high relief. He developed a method of making thick slabs of paper that pick up fine textural nuances as well as sharp volumetric changes and absorb color during the printing process.

Other innovations followed. To persuade the late sculptor Henry Moore to produce work at Mixografia, Luis came up with Mixocast, a process for making metal bas-reliefs and sculptures that provides more precision than other casting methods. Another technique, Freepoint, is an alternative to drypoint that allows artists to draw on a soft surface with a variety of tools. Soft-etching, a process related to mezzotint, aquatint and engraving, simplifies the production of tones, textures, light and shadows without using chemicals or acids.

“To attract the level of artists we want, we have to offer them something different than they can get elsewhere,” Luis said. “We always try to do things that are difficult and to become a tool for the artist. We never try to influence artists. We only make technical suggestions.”

Persuasion can take a long time, however. Ten years in the case of Frankenthaler, who in 1986 finally produced prints from large slabs of wax and plaster, two materials she hadn’t previously used in her graphics.

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“I was hesitant, but then finally we hit on a date to do the work” she said. “I brought my assistant Maureen St. Onge. [The Rembas] were wonderful to work with all the way: helpful, cheerful, inventive. We had a splendid time together--very productive and enjoyable.”

Baldessari also gave the Rembas a vote of confidence by making a return visit to Mixografia. For his first project, in 1994, he produced 36 monoprints based on photographs of six ordinary table lamps and their shadows. Displayed on walls at the Remba Gallery with spotlights directed at their shades, the painted paper lamps appeared to contain an interior source of illumination, while the thick, cut-out shapes cast their own shadows.

Now Baldessari is back to produce an edition of 30 sailboats in six colors plus black. “It started with the quality of the paper,” he said, referring to his attraction to the handmade material’s translucence, texture and thickness. The finished products appear simple, but they are sandwiched together from pieces printed in color on wet paper (which takes two weeks to dry), then hand painted, glued and sanded.

Taking a long view of the workshop, Bruce Davis, curator of prints at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, praised the Rembas’ innovative approach.

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“I think they have been very creative in effecting a sort of merger of image and support, so that their prints are not a picture of something,” he said. “The object itself is the artwork. That’s not unique. Cirrus has done it for years, but Mixografia has gone even further in the marriage of image and object.”

Davis also considers the workshop a valuable component of the city’s art scene: “The fact that they relocated from Mexico exemplifies that Los Angeles is a center of printmaking today. In fact it has risen to the top of the vital centers.” Together with Cirrus Editions, Gemini G.E.L. and several small private shops, Mixografia has helped make printmaking “a continually growing and evolving art form here,” he said.

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GEORGE SEGAL, “Woman Sitting on Bed,” new sculpture in cast bronze and copper, Remba Gallery, 462 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood. Dates: Tuesdays to Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Ends June 22. Phone: (310) 657-1101.

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