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  • Mineral Light, Journey to the Self
  • Dean Dass (bio)

The alchemists believed that nature contained an illuminating principle reminiscent of the soul’s power concealed within the elementary world stuff. Because individuals were also thought of as composed of this stuff, it was expected that this luminary could be found within them as well.” 1

Let’s say that there is a light that ascends from below as well as a light from above. Let’s believe in this light from below, a mineral light. By talking about my teaching and my own artistic production in the studios where I teach, I would like to bring into the open this mineral light, and in this way say that our enterprise is really a part of the individuation process itself, a journey to the self.

At the University of Virginia we teach art in the context of the College of Arts and Sciences. Our students typically are not preprofessionals in the field of art, although some few do go on to graduate art schools. Our students study art in the context of a liberal arts education. It is good that we discuss the liberal arts; we should do so while we still can.

Since I started teaching here in 1985 I’ve always had a significant number of my students arrive from the Architecture School, especially graduate students. There have been so many as to form a distinct and measurable point of view within my studios, a pack or contagion, Deleuze would say. 2 This is one of the interdisciplinary components of my studios. What are these architecture students looking for in an etching studio? What are the liberal arts students looking for? What do they find?

I teach printmaking. The printmaking studios are a mix of different strata. On the one hand they are like machine shops, rooms with big simple machines, the presses, ponderous machines. In the company of these big greasy machines, and as in any self-respecting machine shop, here you can also find the Go-Jo Waterless Handcleaner. What would we do without it? These dumb machines really slow us down; to make etchings, woodcuts, or lithographs is to encounter long delays, as [End Page 87] Duchamp would put it, as in “The Large Glass.” Yet it’s a sign of our maturity, isn’t it, that we can delay our gratification for so long?

The printmaking studios are also ateliers, traditional places to make art, and places to gather to discuss art, discuss novels, films, biology, and all the other components of our studies. With our copper plate in the acid bath for six hours we have all this time on our hands; we gather in the atelier to discuss things. To mention the acid bath is to indicate that these studios are also chemistry labs and are so equipped: primitive chemistry labs. To have art and architecture students setting off little reactions adds a little to the aura of the studios; I think it’s part of the attraction. We say in the print studios: experiment with the copper a little, experiment with this process a little. The word experiment comes from the sciences; it’s not until this century that we find it used in the arts.

It’s all a slightly uncomfortable mix: machine shop, atelier, lab. Yet it’s a mix with a long tradition. Little has changed in etching studios since A.D. 1600. So a chemistry lab in A.D. 1600? It may be more accurate to speak of alchemy. Alchemy, that is, chemistry that art students (and I) don’t understand. Little has changed: a major influence on my work, for instance, is the etchings of Hercules Seghers, a contemporary of Rembrandt; formally speaking, there is little that I do that Seghers hadn’t done in 1640. In printmaking we should take this kind of long view. The student making his or her first etching does little technically that differs from Rembrandt. So it’s easy to have a conversation across the centuries; we’re still speaking the same language.

But what has really changed for us is that we live in an age of mechanical reproduction, an...

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