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Since printers began in the 1400s to carve shavings from blocks of birch, maple, and cherry and apply ink to the remaining relieved wood, they've understood, perhaps more than the rest of us, the significance of what graphic designers call "negative space," the empty areas around shapes in artwork, and around letters on a page.
So it was three years ago that San Francisco book artist Emily McVarish was toiling in her Mission District letterpress shop when the semihourly radio traffic reports she'd been listening to caused her to pause.
McVarish is a prominent local practitioner of fine-arts bookmaking. She employs old-fashioned letterpress printing, in which inked blocks of type press against paper, as distinguished from modern lithographic methods in which chemicals etch photographic images onto printing plates. McVarish's resulting limited-edition books and wall illustrations combine poetry and message-infused graphic design with text and images bearing a letterpress' hallmark embossed, crisp edges.
"I was struck by how a traffic report is so abstract, how it's all about the effect on the flow. While what's causing the effect is a horrible personal moment," McVarish says, referring to a traffic accident. "The kernel of the story in a traffic report is something with a personal consequence to someone involved."
For a radio listener, the trauma inside a given weekday auto wreck feels as immaterial as a reader might find the white space after the period ending this sentence. It occurred to McVarish that for commuters in a traffic jam, the broken limbs and ambulances of an auto crash were mere white space on a printed page.
McVarish's experience as a letterpress artist helped her take the metaphor of often-overlooked negative space even further to describe how people in a city such as San Francisco confront the world. For a printer doing old-style typesetting, characters are held in place with lead "spaces," which look just like pieces of type, except they're shorter so their ends don't get inked and, therefore, don't print. For a printer, letters, words, and sentences don't stay in place unless something carefully arranged and tightened into place keeps them there. To McVarish's mind, this pointed to another aspect of social confusion resulting from humankind's propensity to overlook the things, forces, and people around us. The stillness of characters on a printer's tray is not a natural state of affairs, nor is stasis in real life. In a city, things exist as they are because people are actively preventing one thing from taking another's place.
McVarish's exploration of negative space as it exists in real life is the theme of a multiyear project whose end result is on display until Dec. 31 at 871 Fine Arts at 49 Geary St.
The letterpress book called Flicker, whose pages are displayed across one of the gallery's walls, and a poetry-infused image series on the opposite wall called Be Still provide a wonderful guide for coming to terms with certain tragic aspects of San Francisco. Here, much civic discourse consists of expressing fear of change. And neighbors, affinity groups, and economic interests behave like automobile drivers listening to a traffic report, pressing forward oblivious to what's nearby.
These two works explore various ways in which the old commercial-artist's concept of negative space can become an allegory -- to describe the stasis and dynamism of an urban landscape such as San Francisco's, to explain how it's possible to plow through life oblivious of vital things around us, and of how nothing in life stays in place, really, unless something or somebody is nearby holding it still.
San Francisco motorists, like McVarish's narrowly focused traffic report listeners, seem blind to the world outside their cars. They're wont to run down pedestrians and bicyclists, park on sidewalks, and battle against any city improvement that impinges on parking spaces. And irrespective of automobiles, the city's most common type of political battle consists of small groups of people fighting to preserve their own privilege to the detriment of the city's overall betterment.
This city's denizens seem unaware of the moral in McVarish's parable of the type tray, which says that things remain still only when there's something pushing mightily to keep it that way. In McVarish's mind, life is always flickering, no matter how much we want it to be still.
In San Francisco, however, ossification is erroneously perceived as a natural state of affairs. As a result, any change to the city's landscape requires 100 percent consensus and perfection. Stasis -- such as an abandoned Cala Foods grocery store in the Excelsior District -- can stay that way indefinitely without stirring much political Sturm und Drang,even when, as reported recently in the Chronicle, the grocery chain extends its lease on the blighted vacant property five years. This, like so many traditions, policies, or pieces of land in the city, could change, perhaps should change, yet the city seems to lack the courage or imagination to allow such a thing.
McVarish has written and illustrated as scathing a critique as I've seen of our local culture's peculiar insularity and metathesiophobia.
Yet she's no hector. Her critique is simultaneously a tender, generous exploration of how difficult it can be to pay attention to our own narrow bands of ink on paper, and how painful it can be to accept changes in people and things around us.