Prints charming

In a new SoMa location, Electric Works is building the Land of Yes

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PREVIEW If only it were prix fixe. The lamb curry wrapped in crystallized mint leaves sounds delectable, but the butternut squash ravioli catch your eye first. Then you notice that one of the items on the menu is made entirely with ingredients from the chef's garden. The choice is obvious. As you munch on homegrown multicolored heirloom tomatoes, conversation turns to how much is in our own backyards. Electric Works isn't a restaurant, but if artists' creative moods are seasons and we the adventurous diners, then this new incarnation of formerly Brisbane-based Trillium Press is the most seasonal print studio around.

Sitting in a brick-lined meeting room in the historic Buzzell Electric Works building on Eighth Street at Mission, Noah Lang recalls an article on the differences between cooking in New York and California. "In many ways, we're closer to Chez Panisse than we are to Paulson or Crown Point Press," he says. "We're more concerned with what we come up with at the end of the day than how we came up with it."

Noah's father, the visionary printer Richard Lang, who serves as the president of Electric Works, invokes Adam Gopnik's statement that the last artists in the world who really care about their patrons are the chefs. "I was trained in the art world, where the whole thing is 'it's my vision — you're a loser if you don't get it.' That always struck me as dumb, because people have willing hearts if you'll just step forward," Richard explains, imagining Electric Works as a chef saying, "Taste this! It's a little funny at first, but it's really good!"

In 1980, when Proposition 13 lost him his teaching job, Richard started doing lithographs with David Salgado, who had founded Trillium the year before. They eventually forged a 10-year formal partnership that dissolved in 2006. "We were in a boxer relationship, punching and counterpunching, and we really learned a lot about collaboration — that you really push hard and expect somebody to push back," Richard says of those early projects.

Deep collaboration became Trillium's theme. After originally only doing contract work, the press started running a publishing program around 2000. "It's a traditional system, headed by the artist, who comes in to collaborate. What we make, however, is totally untraditional," says Noah, who joined the studio in 1996 to spearhead the digital printmaking program. Electric Works' high-tech scanning and printing devices allow the shop to scan anything, and it's always eager to explore technology in order to realize and often expand an artist's vision. Electric Works partner and art collector Anthony Luzi calls this an entrepreneurial practice because the creative process always trumps protocol.

Marcel Dzama's The Cabin of Count Dracula and Stephanie Syjuco's Future Shock Nesting Boxes (both 2005) show why the print shop has become known as the Land of Yes. Dzama started by imagining Count Dracula in the artist's hometown, Winnipeg. His whimsical, bestial lithographs seemed to scream for appropriate housing, so Trillium, with considerable research, helped create a miniature log cabin complete with faux-beaver-fur rugs. The cabin simulates both hypersensitive isolation — remember Richard Barnes's Unabomber photos? — and a playful sense of rapture. Syjuco's boxes, slightly blurry folded replicas of stereo equipment, made of archival inks on laminated board, trigger similarly quirky states of mind: Is this touching me? How do you read it? Is it real? Yes.

Or nay? Working in the Land of Yes seems to tap into artists' capacity for answering questions with questions, allowing them to ask "yes" in their own way. William T. Wiley's illustrious postmodern hieroglyphics gain new life.

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