Bill North is Senior Curator of the Beach Museum of Art. He has written extensively on the art and artists of Kansas and the region, producing numerous exhibitions catalogues and related publications for the museum. He curated the 2009 exhibition of Lyon’s prints and drawings and wrote the following essay for the printed catalog which accompanied the show.
Figuring It Out
by Bill North
Mike Lyon’s recent, large-scale prints and drawings are the result of his inventive adaption of digital technology and robotic machinery. The artist’s work also testifies to his keen interest in Japanese aesthetics and printmaking techniques. (Lyon has an abiding passion for Japanese art and culture and is an avid collector of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, a selection of which is included in this exhibition.) Lyon is not seduced by the bells, whistles, and whiz-bangness of digital technology. Computers and machines are among the many tools in his kit, much like paintbrushes or drawing implements. They are the means by which he seeks to realize his conceptions by moving directly from his mind to the object. Or, as he is fond of putting it, “Look Ma, no hands.”
Lyon recognized the utility of computerization long before he applied it to his art making. The artist earned a BA in architecture and fine art from the University of Pennsylvania (1973) and a BFA in painting from the Kansas City Art Institute (1975). In 1976 he went to work for the family business, a Kansas City cattle hide processing operation his great-great grandfather started. There Lyon invented a computerized system to automate the labor-intensive process of grading cattle hides. His system enabled a team of four graders to enter information about a hide’s condition using a touch-sensitive console. The data was then compiled and tabulated by computer, providing nearly instantaneous results. Prior to Lyon’s innovation, the data was recorded, compiled, and tabulated by hand, an extremely time and labor-intensive process. In 1978 Lyon founded Grading Systems, a computer hardware and software design business. Under his direction, Lyon’s company developed ROBO-PIC, a computerized system for automating order fulfillment in large warehouses. ROBOPIC worked by using remotely controlled dispensers to place items in containers moving along a large conveyor belt. Grading Systems was highly successful and counted companies such as Tupperware among its clients. Lyon sold the business in 1991 and returned to his studio the following year. For the first time in fifteen years, he dedicated himself to making art full time.
Lyon printed Jessica using a baren, a traditional Japanese tool made of bamboo leaves wrapped around a disk. Paper is placed on top of the inked block, and pressure is applied by rubbing the baren on the paper’s backside. This technique allows for a range of expressive possibilities. How the color is applied and wiped on the block, variations in the degree of pressure applied, and variations in the baren’s motion all contribute to the final printed result. For example, in printing Jessica, Lyon tipped the baren slightly to create subtle gradations of color (baren bokashi) to provide a rich backdrop for the figure.
Two aspects of Jessica’s creation are not related to traditional Japanese methods. The print, like all of Lyon’s recent figurative prints and drawings, is based on a photograph. And, unlike ukiyo-e woodcuts, which are printed from multiple blocks, Jessica was printed from a single block using a method known as reduction woodcut. This challenging technique involves creating an image by carving and printing the block in stages. Portions of the block are carved and printed. More areas are carved, and the block is printed again on top of the initial printing. This process of reprinting the successively reduced block is repeated until the accretion of printings yields the desired image.
On each successive block, the carving of the preceding block was essentially duplicated before the additional reduction. Recalling the tradition of Japanese ōkubi-e (bighead picture) images, the subject’s head is placed close to the picture plane and fills the frame. This is a format Lyon has favored in recent prints and drawings. In Anthony photographic verisimilitude is mediated by the artist’s sensitive printing, imbuing the subject with a monumental yet human presence.
In the spring of 2006 Lyon began creating large-scale, photographically-based pen and ink drawings using the ShopBot. After many unsatisfactory attempts to retrofit the router assembly with an ink pen, he was able to successfully make a giant drawing machine.
The artist and the figure
Recently, Lyon was asked “What draws you to the figure?” Below is an excerpt from his response.
This is quite natural for all of us, I think. We’re just wired that way. As infants, we nurse at our mother’s breast and gaze up at her face. We’re helpless and vulnerable and during our first years we depend entirely on our parents’ good will and love and care. We can’t survive alone. Almost immediately we become attuned to the subtlest nuance of posture and expression and quickly learn how to get what we need – attention, affection, warmth, sustenance, admiration, a wipe. We’re less likely to survive our first few years if we are insensitive. As adults, we (almost all of us) remain extremely sensitive to the moods of those around us – we know right away when someone’s angry, hurt, embarrassed, happy, available, etc. Our antennae are always unconsciously quivering.
…what draws me to the figure? I just love looking at people, I guess – simple as that.**
* Digital photographic files use a data structure known as raster graphics, which describes images in terms of pixels. When scaled to increased dimensions, raster-based images suffer a loss of resolution and quality. Vector graphics represent images using geometrical primitives such as points, lines, curves, and polygons and thus can be scaled without any loss of resolution. Lyon’s method involves converting a digital photograph to a vector file and using the vector data to instruct the machine how far to move the router bit along the X, Y, and Z axes for each cut.
** Mike Lyon, e-mail message to author, February 26, 2009.