Primordial Ink: Alexis Nutini’s Synthesized Worlds

Primordial Ink:  Alexis Nutini’s Synthesized Worlds

An Essay by Sophie Sanders

Today many artists rely upon digital technologies to produce their work, sacrificing the uniqueness and intimacy of the hand-made mark.  Philadelphia-based artist Alexis Nutini elaborately carves his woodcut plates to produce grandiose reduction prints and he delights in the luscious texture of oil-based ink that lays thickly on the surface of his images.  His current exhibition Primordial ink presents monumental prints that challenge our formal perception of color and space to express experiences of translation, diasporic relationships and unbounded growth.  These images transform everyday natural forms into imaginary worlds that take shape before our eyes.

Like many printmakers, Nutini is very interested in process and expert craftsmanship.  However, he is not a traditionalist.  In a sophisticated way he has perfected his own techniques that combine printmaking, sculptural and painting methods.  When he begins a plate, he never has a set image in mind.  He starts with small pen drawings of each section of the composition and projects these images to enlarge them.  He then adapts the image employing v-shaped and u-shaped gouges to cut the plates into a richly textured relief surface.   Rather than planning the reduction, he works intuitively and develops one layer at a time.  The improvisational process of this and other works represents not only his sense of freedom but also a great mastery of how to compose and plan his layers.

   Invasive Species, Stenciled wood stain on birch panel, 32” x 32” x 2.5”, 2012

Invasive Species, Stenciled wood stain on birch panel, 32” x 32” x 2.5”, 2012

In the case of the monumental print exhibited in this exhibition, Cosmic Drift (2012), he designed an uninterrupted horizon and branched out from this composition with smaller vignettes of pattern and form.  The primordial shapes of clouds, plants, and water dissolve into a network of lines.  His floating organic forms are outlined in hot and cool colors that buzz and pop against a complementary color ground of busy stripes and hatch-marks.  The multiple designs in primary colors produce an electric and optical effect.

Looking closely one can dissect the original shapes of clouds that have been reproduced and inverted to indicate the reflection of the sky in the ocean, or the shapes of tamarind pods scattered on the ground.  From a distance, these elements have become so abstracted that one has the sensation of looking out over an infinite landscape.  At once, great distance and extreme proximity collapse into a constructed view of multiple places.

Cosmic Drift (Detail), Reduction relief monoprint, 40” x 60”, 2012

Cosmic Drift (Detail), Reduction relief monoprint, 40” x 60”, 2012

In addition to his prints on paper, Nutini employs stencil and collage to stain wood panels. His print-informed process results in varnished paintings that are layered in a similar way to silk screens or woodcut prints. This translation of print media as a singular composite is reflective of a self-examination of personal and cultural identity, specifically his Mexican-American roots and frequent visits back to his hometown.

Nutini’s trans-national upbringing and scholarly family has informed both his imagery and techniques.  His father was born in Florence, Italy but raised in Chile, and he became an anthropologist in the United States. His father met his mother, also an anthropologist, on an academic endeavor in Mexico City and after Alexis was born, they settled in Veracruz, Mexico.  When Alexis was ten years old the family moved to Pennsylvania, where his father held a tenured position at the University of Pittsburgh.  Living in North America, Alexis adapted to the foreign language and culture, but his connection with Mexico remained strong as he continued to spend summers with his grandparents in Veracruz.  Amidst his parents’ combined interests of anthropology, as a young child, he accompanied his parents on their field work in rural villages and major cities all over central Mexico.

Nutini’s magnificent prints of abstracted landscapes as a result reflect his global upbringing and his experiences of traversing many societies and communities.  Nutini comments, “My work is the expression and extension of myself, and at the same time, it is a way to preserve a record of my history and the contexts that have given my identity meaning. … I have made a great effort to define these distinctive realities emotionally, intellectually and artistically.”  Layers of viscous oil-based ink produce colors that suggest the saturated light and intense hues of Mexican ceramics, painting, and textiles.  He composes forms and patterns in such a way that marries a Latin-American sensibility of color with a European landscape aesthetic.

Reverse Migration III, Multiple plate reduction woodcut, 18” x 24”, 2012

Reverse Migration III, Multiple plate reduction woodcut, 18” x 24”, 2012

Nutini’s synthesis of traditional print media with an improvisational process informs these representations that express memories and layers of cultural influence.  He observes, “I use print media to investigate the surrounding visual world and as an outlet for introspection… This visceral connection with process and problem solving has led me to make singular objects inspired by printmaking techniques.”  The multiple steps and nature of adaptation inherent in the printmaking process enables him to transform and condense the complexities of national and ethnic differences he experiences in his own life, bringing harmony to a disordered, fragmented world.  Nutini’s prints reveal something beyond the recognition of our global reality- his works convey invented worlds that link individuals across place and time.  He presents a vision of organic growth, a scene that is blossoming and sprouting into being.  It may be coincidental that he is soon to become a father, but certainly his imagery expresses a deep respect for the interconnectedness of life and a spiritual awareness.  These prints suggest the awe-inspiring power of nature, filled with vibrating patterns of stripes and swirls and volcanic colors.

Sophie Sanders is a visual artist, curator and writer who lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.  She holds an
MFA in Printmaking from the Slade School of Art of the University College of London, England and is
currently pursuing her PhD in Art History at the Tyler School of Art of Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.
She works in the Education Department for the Fabric Workshop and Museum also of Philadelphia, PA.
Please visit

To download a .pdf version of this essay, click here.

To visit the show page of Primordial Ink to get specific information, click here.

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