Inside an unassuming warehouse space in Central-Alameda, Luis and Lea Remba have spent the past three decades quietly doing something radical.
Mixografia is a printmaking studio, but it's also the name of the family's patented process for creating three-dimensional, high-relief prints that rise up off flat surfaces and take on all sorts of textures. Luis first learned about printmaking from his father, the owner of a Mexico City printing studio founded in 1968. In 1984, Luis and Lea brought the studio to the United State, and they've operated their business in the same building ever since.
In 1996, the Los Angeles Times described the process Mixografia employs as “something of a mystery to most outsiders.” At the time, the studio was working on producing a series of prints for John Baldessari, one of many high-profile artists the Rembas have collaborated with over the years. Artists who avail themselves of Mixografia's services often use found objects in their pieces. The studio recently produced a print by Jacob Hashimoto that involved a table “found hidden in the shop,” Lea says.
As the Rembas prepare to open a gallery space inside the studio — with an inaugural exhibit by Analia Saban opening Sept. 10 — they're also inviting the public to understand the unique printmaking technique they've created.
“With this technique, we are coming up with a way to create three-dimensional prints. … By three-dimensional, we mean relief and also very fine detail,” says Shaye Remba, son of Luis and Lea. “We can incorporate those two elements within a print, so that gives the artist opportunities to create and conceive things that couldn’t be done otherwise.”
In the wet area of the studio, a vat holds what the Remba family calls the pulp — water and fibers that create the raw material that will eventually bind to become paper. In the studio, Shaye pours some of the pulp into a black, square mold and pushes it down to release the water. As his hands press against the material, it starts to lose some of its liquid consistency.
Eventually, this process results in a fairly pliable material, paper that can hold a deep relief. After receiving the initial concept, the studio creates a copper printing plate. This plate then gets inked with the appropriate colors and pressed into the paper.
The Mixografia technique came about after experiments with artists including Pablo O’Higgins and Rufino Tamayo. In the 1970s, Tamayo approached the Remba family and expressed his desire to get more dimensionality out of prints. What he wanted wasn’t possible with commercial paper, so the Remba family started working on creating their own process.
Over time, the process has been patented in various countries; the framed documents all line a wall near the front entrance of the studio, close to a stalk of cotton (which Shaye explains is there because most people don’t know what cotton actually looks like).
Over the decades, the studio has worked with an impressive group of artists, many of whom will be represented in the gallery space: Frank Stella, Jason Martin, Rachel Whiteread, Kiki Smith, Helen Frankenthaler and others. The pieces span several decades, from the '80s to recent years.
“We’ve always stayed focused on producing and printing [works] and being with the artists,” says Luis Remba. “We haven’t dedicated a lot of time to really exhibiting everything. But now we decided it’s not fair that we have these fantastic works of art just stored in the closet. It’s better to exhibit them and show them [to the public]."
Saban's forthcoming show, “Paper or Plastic?,” features pieces that straddle the line between the textures of those two materials. Like many pieces produced through the Mixografia process, her pieces don’t necessarily look as if they are made out of paper at first glance.
Saban received her MFA from UCLA, where she studied under Baldessari, who soon became a mentor. Through him, she found out about the studio and saw prints it produced. The idea of combining sculpture and printing especially appealed to her.
“That’s something that’s very interesting to me in my own practice, combining the practice of painting with sculpture,” Saban says. “And I just feel lucky that there is a print shop in town that shares the same interest and then the collaboration can seem endless in a way.”
At the time, Saban frequently commuted between New York and Los Angeles. Bans against plastic bags started taking effect in California and Saban started paying more attention to them in New York — especially their recurring messages, like "Thank You, Come Again."
“It became this universal symbol of the plastic bag,” Saban says. “I feel like we’re so used to saying thank you, especially in business transactions or in emails. “It’s a constant thank you — you never know how honest it is, but we keep saying thank you.”
In researching different designs for bags, she began to see the words as a “symbol of American business.” Saban recognizes that Mixografia has been used by many artists in a variety of different ways. This served as both inspiration for her work and a push to see what she could do with the medium herself — especially to challenge and tantalize viewers.
“It’s interesting because many people might walk by a print and never really realize what it takes, or how it’s made,” Saban says. “Maybe they walk by it and they see a rusted piece of metal by Ed Ruscha, but it’s actually handmade paper with an extreme amount of time and technique that went into it.”
Saban refers to “Rusty Signs,” a series of pieces Ruscha created that takes inspiration from the distinct texture of oxidized metal. Cash for Tools (2014) looks like a dirty sign forgotten in the road. The words seem stamped on the rusted sheet. As with the other Mixografia prints, they are in relief. But the entire piece is, still, made out of paper.
Upon closer examination, you start to see the true material. Saban loves this interaction between the viewer and the piece. From each step of the complex process to the final display, the magic that happens in the studio culminates in this final exchange.
“Paper is really so important that we never think it’s a three-dimensional form,” Saban says. “I think [seeing the pieces] is wonderful. Especially in this day and age where you know many people might be able to see a whole exhibition online with very good photos and an extreme amount of detail, it’s still not the same as when you see a sculpture made out of paper. … I think you really have to see it in real life.”
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“Paper or Plastic?” opens Sept. 10 and is on display through Nov. 12. An opening reception will take place Sept. 10 from 4 to 7 p.m.; 1419 E. Adams Blvd., Central-Alameda. mixografia.com.
Parts of this article were translated from Spanish by the writer.