In a strip of nondescript, industrial warehouses south of downtown Los Angeles, a groundbreaking printmaking studio renders handmade cotton paper into every conceivable texture, color and shape — even imitating materials like concrete, rusted metal and wood. Known as Mixografia, it has worked with high-profile artists to create prints that have a volume, depth and level of detail similar to bas-relief sculpture.
Master printer Luis Remba, 84, founded Mixografia with his wife, Lea, 76, in Mexico City in the early 1970s, and their son Shaye continues the tradition, overseeing the production at their Los Angeles workshop.
And now, after working with some of the art world’s leading luminaries, including Alberto Burri, Helen Frankenthaler, Kiki Smith and Frank Stella, the studio is holding its debut exhibition at the new Mixografia Gallery, a 6,000-square-foot space next to the workshop that had previously sat empty. “Paper or Plastic?” a solo show of new work by L.A.-based Argentine-Jewish artist Analia Saban, began Sept. 10 and runs through Nov. 12.
Saban designed a series of eight prints of disposable plastic bags, the kind once handed out in California supermarkets. One bears the phrase “Thank You For Your Business” stamped above an American flag, while others say “Have a Nice Day” and “Gracias.” The wrinkled white bags, made out of handmade cotton paper, appear to be suspended by their handles, as though there is something inside of them. They were made using a three-dimensional printing process pioneered by Mixografia.
“Nobody else in town — and I think nobody else in the world — is doing the technique that they are doing. So it’s quite exciting for an artist to have access to the set of tools that wouldn’t be available anywhere else,” Saban said.
Saban graduated from UCLA’s MFA program and studied there under John Baldessari, who told her about Mixografia. The studio printed Baldessari’s 2005 series “Stonehenge (With Two Persons),” with six prints featuring two people standing in front of Stonehenge, with circles obscuring their faces. The colors of the two circles and the silhouette of Stonehenge change in each of the six versions. The layers of the image are printed separately, with some elements recessed while others stand out more.
Another playful Baldessari piece, “Concrete Couples,” is a grid of nine squares, each bearing the names of a famous couple (such as Frida and Diego; Bonnie and Clyde; Antony and Cleopatra). They appear to be carved into concrete, as one might see in front of the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. There are variations in the shades of gray (green, purple, blue, yellow) and the texture (polished, brushed, pockmarked, cracked) of the concrete-like paper.
“He has a fantastic sense of humor, but also he engages people,” Luis Remba said of Baldessari.
Luis and Lea are Mexican Jews, born of European immigrants. Luis’ parents were from Poland, Lea’s from Lithuania.
“They wanted to come to the United States in the ’20s after the first world war, but the quota for Jews was closed. So they came to Mexico,” Lea said.
They held on to their Jewish faith, and Lea worked as a Hebrew and Yiddish teacher in Mexico City. Shaye’s teachers were Holocaust survivors who spoke to him in Yiddish.
“In my school, they used to teach Socialist hymns from the Bund party, from Russia and Poland,” Shaye said, laughing.
Luis Remba invented the “mixografia” process in the early 1970s while working as a printer in Mexico City. Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo commissioned him to make a mural-sized, high-relief print of a scale that hadn’t been achieved before. Tamayo produced more than 80 prints with Mixografia.
The Remba family came to Los Angeles in 1984 at the invitation of Robert H. Gray, then-dean of the UCLA College of Fine Arts. The idea was to invite foreign artists to teach workshops to graduate students at UCLA, and work at Mixografia during their stay in L.A. The plan fell through when Gray left UCLA on a sabbatical, but the Remba family was soon established in the city and chose to stay.
Luis and Shaye Remba downplay the artisanship that goes into their printmaking process. Both men are trained as mechanical engineers, and Luis refers to themselves as “technicians.”
“We developed the process to solve an engineering problem,” Luis said. “We are not artists. We are a tool for the artist. We respect totally the creative part of the artist. We don’t impose or we don’t demand other things because then it will not be the artist’s work, it will be our work. This is not what it’s about.”
Mixografia has produced more than 600 editions by more than 80 artists. Often, artists deliver finished prints with specific instructions on how the work should be reproduced, while some artists prefer more step-by-step collaboration with Mixografia.
“The idea is to allow the artist to experiment in new ways in print media,” Shaye said.
In Saban’s case, she credits them with pushing her to try new approaches.
“Their enthusiasm and their excitement really contributes, you know? It just motivates me to go farther, to develop the idea farther,” Saban said.
Other artists have challenged Mixografia to reach to new levels of printmaking. L.A.-based artist Ed Ruscha’s series “Rusty Signs” look like oxidized, rusted metal signs; “New Wood, Old Wood” looks like two planks of wood, one clean while the other is weathered and broken; “Petro-Plots” looks like a map bearing the intersection of two major streets in Los Angeles, but carved into stone; and “US” shows stalks of wheat in front of the typewritten letters U and S.
Another recent challenge came from British artist Jason Martin, who makes highly textured paintings with dollops of thick paint smeared across a canvas. Not only did he want Mixografia to create a mold of the painting and reproduce it three-dimensionally, but also to re-create the color: a deep blue ultramarine, also known as International Klein Blue. Shaye had to figure out how to create a binder so the pigment would stick to the paper without losing any of its vibrancy.
A piece by Louise Bourgeois uses crocheted red yarn to make interlocking squiggles and spirals, which required Mixografia to re-create the texture of string using paper. A piece by Dario Escobar looks like a flattened and deconstructed ball, with the hexagonal shapes of a soccer ball but with the bumpy orange rubber texture of a basketball.
“He’s commenting on American influence on Latin America, you know? Being from Guatemala, it’s like a basketball and soccer ball mixed together,” Luis said. Adding the black and gold text and the UPC bar code was especially difficult, he added.
In an age of laser cutting, 3-D printing and mass production, the family is sensing a growing appreciation for the quality of their prints.
“For me, what is fundamental is the feel that you get from a handmade thing is different from an object that you get from a machine,” Shaye said. “There is something that maybe I cannot describe it or verbalize it. But it’s something that people feel and that I think makes the difference.”
Mixografia has had museum shows all over the world, and has had galleries in Santa Monica and West Hollywood, but this is its first exhibition space next to the workshop. Luis Remba said the studio wanted to open a gallery so young people could learn about its unique printmaking technique.
“We want as much as possible to educate the younger generations in this field of art.”
“Paper or Plastic?” is on display at Mixografia, 1419 E. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles, through Nov. 12. For more information, click here.