Art in Printers Trays

Old wooden printers trays (also called type cases) are readily available in a variety of styles and sizes on the Internet or in antique shops.  Although they are widely used as decorative display cases for small knic-knacs, they can also function as the basis of more serious art projects.  The divisions within these trays provide a built-in structure to the piece, and they have the added advantage of not needing an external frame.  Some of my attempts to work within the framework of printers trays are shown below.

Lamentations (1999)
10 1/2″ x 13″
The embossed letters in this case suggested the theme of the piece since the four chapters of Lamentations are each arranged as an acrostic with the opening lines beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Within this literary framework, however, there are variations so that each succeeding chapter becomes increasingly disordered, mirroring the disintegration of the nation of Israel after the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC. 
When I purchased this printers tray, it was somewhat damaged. This prompted me to actually remove additional dividing slats so as to provide larger frameworks for the most prominent collaged images.  Thus, the use of chance elements can be used to advantage by the artist even if they seem to be problems at the time. Witness Marcel Duchamp’s comment when his Great Glass masterpiece was dropped by workmen, cracking a glass panel—“Now it is complete!”
Conquering Chaos (2009)
32″ x 16 1/2″
The Book of Genesis is the theme of the above piece.  The literary structure of this book actually forms an interesting, and contrasting, counterpart to that of Lamentations.  Ten of the eleven major sections of Genesis begins with the words “This is the generation of.”  The first sections have no recognizable sub-structure, but slowly a pattern emerges. By the time the last section appears– the story of Joseph– it is seen to have a highly organized symmetrical structure. In this manner, the whole Book of Genesis is seen to reflect the creation of an ordered world from chaos and God’s choosing of one particular family over the many people on earth. This increasing symmetry can be seen by comparing the patterns of divisions in the tray going from left to right.
Type (2009)
6 3/4″ x 8″
A very unusual variety of printers box was used for the above piece. It is a hard rubber tray used for linotypes.  The title and subject were felt to be appropriate ones for the material in question.  In biblical parlance, a “type” is an Old Testament forerunner to a New Testament person or event. In a way, it is a form of hidden prophecy whose meaning is only revealed later under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  In this particular collage, the example is that of Jonah, who was a type of Jesus in that they were both “buried” for three days before being raised (see Matthew 12:38-40)

One For Many (2003)
32″ x 16 1/2″
It is hard to see much detail in the photo above, but at least one can admire the inherent artistry in the unusual tray itself.  The major divisions in the tray gave rise to the arrangement of the collage elements with the center panel representing Christ’s crucifixion and the flanking panels showing events on heaven, earth and hell (going from top to bottom) before and after, respectively, this key event in history.  The title comes from Caiaphas’ inadvertant prophecy (John 11:49-51) that one person should die on behalf of the many, who are represented in the portraits lining the bottom row.

God’s Plaything (2009)
32 1/2″ x 16 3/4″
This rather playful piece pictures the mysterious, composite sea creature called Leviathan. It is described in detail in Job 40-41 as the epitome of God’s creation in the ocean. Despite its power and invincibility, it is a mere plaything for God (Psalm 104:26).  Its immunity to man’s attempts to capture it with hooks or spears prompts the inclusion of the encapsulated objects in the upper and lower rows of the picture.  Note that I removed almost all of the wooden slats from the original type case before constructing this work.

Dubious Denouement (2009)

32″ x 16 3/4″
The strange images in the above piece are appropriate to the rather strange passage that forms the ending (chapter 16, verses 9-20) to Mark’s Gospel in some, but not all, modern translations.  The controversy over whether to include these verses arises from the fact that the majority of ancient Greek manuscripts end with this passage, but not the earliest ones.  My own studies of this gospel from a structural viewpoint have led me to the following theory: Mark ‘s original ending to his gospel was lost early in the history of its transmission but reconstructed later from memory by his associates.  Luke, but not Matthew, had access to the original edition of Mark’s Gospel when he wrote his story of Christ’s life and teachings so we can get some further idea of what was originally in Mark from the ending of The Gospel According to Luke.

Strange Water Series

In 2004 I created a series of assemblages entitled “Strange Waters” highlighting some particular, and peculiar, stories in the Old and New Testament that involved transformations of water by God’s power.  Four of them are pictured below.

Waters of Impurity (3 1/2″ x 4 1/4″ x 12 1/4″)
The regulation which this piece illustrates is found in Numbers 5.  Anyone who becomes ritually unclean by touching a dead body or coming into contact with human bones may have an uncontaminated person sprinkle a slurry of ashes on him and his house using a hyssop branch.  Such purity laws may seem foreign to us today, but they helped instill in the Jewish people the notion of God’s absolute otherness, or holiness–a concept that we tend to take too lightly today.

Waters of Testing (10 3/4″ x 5″ x 3 1/2″)
The above assemblage is based on the unusual procedure outlined in Numbers 5 by which a suspicious husband may determine his wife’s fidelity. She is to appear before the priest with her hair unloosed and holding a grain offering. After pronouncing an oath of innocence, she is then to drink from a mixture of dust, ink and water.  If she has lied, she will suffer from a fallen uterus. There are, of course, obvious spiritual and supernatural elements present in this ritual.  But, in addition, it should be noted that the trial, by its very nature, is heavily weighted in favor of the wife (unlike other trials by ordeal) and probably discouraged husbands from making baseless accusations.

Bitter Waters (8″ x 3 1/4″ x 2 1/2″)

Exodus 15 records the story of Israel in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt. At Marah, the only water they found was too bitter to drink. God revealed to Moses that the waters would be sweetened if he threw in a particular piece of wood. There have been attempts to find a naturalist explanation for this event.  For example, it is known that activated charcoal will remove impurities from water.  But at the least, the revelation to Moses of the knowledge of how to accomplish this purification should be regarded as a miracle. When this work was half completed, I decided that the inclusion of a bottle would be appropriate. I came across an antique medicine bottle in my collection with the inscription “Atwood’s Jaundice Bitters Formerly Made By Moses Atwood.”  Such “chance” happenings have occurred often enough in my various creative enterprises to convince me of the continuing guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Transformed Water (9 3/4″ x 2″ x 8 1/2″)

Moving to the New Testament, the first recorded miracle of Jesus involves water– the transformation of water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  One may safely disregard the several ludicrous attempts to explain this as a purely naturistic event.  However, as C. S. Lewis points out, this miracle (as the other New Testament miracles) is not merely arbitrary but demonstrates God’s telltale modus operandi.  It simply accomplishes in a speeded-up manner what God also carries out through natural processes in the vineyard and through fermentation.  Appropriately, this piece is constructed using materials from a water testing kit.