Slugfest Gallery's sampling of the exquisitely complicated print process called mezzotint will have you gawking

<i>Type Face</i> by Carol Wax
Type Face by Carol Wax

Slugfest Gallery, 1906 Miriam
Through Feb. 15

I'm standing in the center of Slugfest Gallery's small venue on the Eastside, just down MLK from the considerably larger printing epicenter of Flatbed Press. I'm standing there with Margaret Simpson, the co-owner (with Tom Druecker) of the gallery and its adjacent printing studio, and I'm looking – almost gawking, really – at the prints arrayed on the gallery's three main walls.

This is the show's opening, in conjunction with the annual PrintAustin extravaganza of exhibits and events, and the gallery is loosely packed with people, humans moving in that particular art-gallery slow motion as they peruse the framed offerings. Among the shifting crowd, I see those offerings – mezzotints by Sean Caulfield, Robert De Groff, Francisco Souto, Carol Wax, Art Werger – complicating the walls.

The key word in that last sentence: complicating.

PrintAustin, in venues all across the city, provides examples of all manner of handmade reproduction – and it's a good chance to get lost in the beauty of the images and the technical skill required to present their iterations. But this "mezzotint" process may be the most complicated of them all – at least in the initial creation of the plate or plates the prints are pulled from.

I got a sense of this, just from looking at the things, maybe especially from the ultrafine tonal shifts in Wax's monochrome deconstructions and transmogrifications of typewriters and similar machines. So I asked Simpson, "Mezzotints seem like they'd be, ah, kind of extra hard to do? I mean, as opposed to screenprinting?"

"Oh, they're very difficult," she said, and told me a bit about the process.

Mezzotint, Wikipedia confirms, is a printmaking process of the intaglio family, technically a drypoint method ... [that] achieves tonality by roughening the plate with thousands of little dots made by a metal tool with small teeth, called a "rocker." In printing, the tiny pits in the plate hold the ink when the face of the plate is wiped clean.

In roughening metal plates via the microdentition of a rocker, Caulfield and De Groff have created what seem complementary series of darkly allegorical images, like scenes from a picture book for the haunted adult children of habitual fabulists. Souto has enlisted a diversity of objects in fabricating bold studies in balance and tone. Wax, noted above, works a subtle, compelling magic on mechanical apparatus. And Werger? His forte is architecture in context, the habitations and industrial sites of urban density and suburban excess, the complexities of light and shadow generated among the competing verticals of what deep population requires.

Another thing that deep population requires every now and then, I'd suggest, is a little urban renewal of the soul – which is where art comes in. In this case, where printmaking, where mezzotints, where the exquisitely complicated work currently on display at Slugfest Gallery comes in.

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PrintAustin, Slugfest Gallery, Margaret Simpson, Tom Druecker, Sean Caulfield, Robert De Groff, Francisco Souto, Carol Wax, Art Werger, mezzotint

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