Kuch delivers Fox-Adler lecture

Posted by Kristin Travagline

Michael Kuch delivered the 2010 Fox-Adler Lecture on Sept. 23, titled, "The Annotated Image:? When Picture Precedes Text — The Books of Michael Kuch."

Kuch's artistic skills are primarily grounded in solid pen and ink craftsmanship. He is also comfortable working in ink wash, watercolor, oils, pastels, etchings, lithography and bronze sculpture. He often incorporates woodcuts and etchings into his limited edition books.

The title of the lecture was reinforced by Kuch's beginning statement. "Words are lovely, but they are not my first love. In my books the text is a concomitant, an adjunct, an afterthought," Kuch said.

Along with explaining the technical aspects of his artwork, Kuch described his close student-teacher relationship with Professor Leonard Baskin of Hampshire College.

After Kuch graduated from Hampshire, he wanted to continue printmaking and asked Baskin if he could use his studio in exchange for his assistance. Kuch half joked that his first job for Baskin was hanging sheetrock. "That wasn't what I agreed to at lunch," Kuch said.

Baskin had recently become friends with writer and civil right activist James Baldwin when he died in 1987. A limited edition book collaboration had been in the works involving Baldwin's poetry and Baskin's artwork.

After Baldwin's death, Baskin etched portraits of the writer, depicting him at different points in his life. Baskin gave Kutch his professional start by inviting him to print these etchings for the book, although Kuch had never printed an edition of etchings before. "Leonard knew that he wanted a printer with artistic sensitivity as opposed to a clean, precise and proper printer," Kuch said.

Kuch continued working as Baskin's assistant, printing etchings for Gehanna Press until Baskin's death in 2000.

In 1994, while working for Baskin, Kuch decided to start his own press. Kuch named his Double Elephant Press after the largest dimension possible for page size of a book. "In truth, the name of the press was not designed to connote anything so ambitious, I merely thought I would enjoy drawing elephants," Kuch said.

In 1996 the Double Elephant Press published "Amour and Armor." The motif for Kuch's book was the image of seashells that took on the human form in the context of a field-guide.

"There had always been something engaging about these spiraling, abandoned homes. I would be talking about human vulnerability, though this time it would be examining our defenses, that is the great shells we live in, carry around with us and how these shells can often be quite pointed," Kuch said.

Kuch continued the lecture by describing his milestone publications. In 2004 Kuch published "A Sphinx's Field-Guide to Questionable Answers." This publication in particular illustrates Kuch's newfound experimentation with wood block printing. Kuch had not worked extensively with this medium until after Baskin's death. The woodcut was Baskin's specialty and Kuch had wished to differentiate himself from his mentor. "After Leonard's death in 2000, for whatever reason, be it Freudian or a fellowship, I felt freer to explore the medium of woodcut," Kuch said.

Kuch's explained how he also creates artwork from a satirical perspective, motivated by current events. "In 2003 with the onset of the second war in the gulf, it was obvious to many of us that aside from the usual stupidity of any war, in that it attempts to resolve conflict by killing people, a new threshold of idiocy had been crossed by launching the precipitating attack," Kuch said.

In response, Kuch created the "Common Monsters of the United States" series, in which he designs beasts that depict aspects of social behavior that foster war. For example, one of Kuch's pieces in titled "Common Oilsucker" and depicts a moth with camouflage wings, wearing a gas mask.

The events of Sept. 11 also had an effect on Kuch, whose apartment is five blocks from Ground Zero and his artwork.

"At first the event seemed too raw to react to as an artist…. However, I was dismayed at the time at how the disaster was being used by the political and media establishment to whip up a frenzy to go to war or rather wars. I was struck by how little space was actually given to actually grieving this national loss," Kuch said.

For the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, Kuch produced the book "Falling to Earth."

Kuch's most recent work is titled "Waterlines" and includes a work, done with woodcut, related to the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Kuch ended the lecture by relating his artistic mission. "What does it mean, 10 years into a new millennium, when there is much talk about the death of books? Will books be killed off by the Kindle? I'm sure they will, just as photography killed portrait painting. My mission is not to mourn the death of books, but to celebrate its death because, in doing so, I celebrate the life of books," Kuch said.

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