Relief printmaking is perhaps one of the oldest printing techniques in the art world, first appearing in China nearly 2,500 years ago. It requires using a knife to painstakingly carve out an image, later to be rolled with ink, then pressed on paper to create prints. As time moved on, the print world heavily evolved and relief printmaking gradually became more of a lost art. When Detroit artist Michael Keum was introduced to these age-old techniques, he became passionately intrigued.
"I was initially drawn in by the whole process of making prints through relief and the attention to detail that the medium seemed to require. It was an instant obsession, I began to stay in the studio day and night for a year strictly working and learning about the process and history. Then I began to consider the historical aspects within my own work. I attempted to create imagery that was original and could speak to the calming sense I would get when working on the pieces themselves."
For centuries, the wood blocks were considered to be a means to print on paper. The block itself acted in a similar fashion as the machines that are used today to create large batches of prints. In the hands of Michael Keum the wood blocks themselves become the work of art.
"Making the blocks the pieces instead of the prints made from them changes the nature of what the piece represents. Instead of it being about a clean printed image, it is more focused on the labor of the block itself. I think it is a way for people to see the work that goes into a part of the relief printmaking process in a different way."
After creating a drawn image, each line is meticulously carved out in its realization. A 2ft x 4ft piece can take up to a week and that's from an artist who has years of practice. Today, many creatives find this work to be extremely tedious, Keum finds it to be "meditative." After doing research he found connections between printmaking and his Korean heritage that further deepened his interest in the craft.
His goal has been, and continues to be, to add his perspective while respecting the history of wood relief printmaking. By making the woodblock the focal-point rather than just part of the process, he found his voice within the practice. And while Michael loves to make modern prints digitally, nothing makes him happier than spending hours carving a new creation into wood.