History, Unfolded

The pre-Columbian codex served as a model for a modern-day letterpress book on Chicano history.

Within the pages of the Codex Espangliensis, Superman and other comic book icons fly through a chaotic netherworld inhabited by saints and Spanish colonial engravings. Mock-Mayan hieroglyphs depict warriors battling tanks, and 19th-century woodcuts by J. G. Posada are interspersed with Spanglish poems and frenetic monologues. This newly published work, a modem telling of Chicano history designed in the form of an ancient book, is the result of an ambitious collaboration among two Mexican-born artists, Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Enrique Chagoya, and book artist Felicia Rice, founder of Moving Parts Press in Santa Cruz, California.

“My fascination with Mexican art comes from my childhood and my day-to-day experiences as a Californian,” says Rice. In this state, every other town and city has a Spanish name.” Her parents’ circle of friends included former associates and apprentices of painter Frida Kahlo and muralist Diego Rivera, and as a child, Rice recalls sneaking into her father s studio to study classic woodcuts by Posada that sensationalized fire, murder, and crime. Although Rice cites numerous childhood influences, her connection to the Latino community remains grounded in the present: “I’m a member of a hybrid community of immigrants and writers and artists.”

Rice set Moving Parts Press into motion in 1977, the same year that Gómez-Peña and Chagoya ventured to the U.S. Since then, all three have gone on to excel in their fields. Gómez-Peña’s incendiary performance art focuses on the U.S.-Mexican border and the dramatic cultural and economic differences between “north” and “south.” He is a regular contributor to National Public Radio, and his critical essays, poetry, and radio scripts have been collected into three volumes, including New World Border, which won the American Book Award in 1997. Chagoya is a printmaker, painter, and curator, and he teaches at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. His one-of-a-kind bookworks have been shown internationally and are included in the collections of the Library of Congress and the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art. Rice, a typographer and educator, is known for her exquisite, tactile book designs, many of which she prints at her letterpress studio.

In 1992, Rice initiated the border project by suggesting that the three artists work together on a book. Chagoya proposed a unique framework for the piece—one that had inspired his own work—the pre-Columbian codex. He thought that the turbulent past of the codex could provide a context for a document of Chicano history.
A journal from 1512 provides one of the earliest records of this rare book form. An English historian chronicling the treasures taken from Mayans by Spanish conquistadors described a series of box-shaped books. “Being shut,” he wrote, “they seem to differ nothing from our books.” However, once a volume was opened, he discovered that it unfolded into a seemingly endless scroll of intricate, painted hieroglyphs of beasts, snakes, kings and nobles, stars, planets, and other cryptic shapes. Codices were used to record ancient religious, medical, and genealogical texts, and even taxation records. Although pre-Columbian libraries contained thousands of these handmade books, few escaped burning by Spanish priests and soldiers. Today, only 22 original codex books remain, along with about 50 other volumes written shortly after the conquest.

“One day, I received a package with Chagoya’s art—15 boards of two-color drawings,” Rice remembers. “The challenge was huge.” Using the computer and rough scans of the art, she combined Gómez-Peña’s performance texts and poems to create page spreads. The juxtaposition of word and image evoked a sense of irony and double meaning, and Rice decided to maintain this sensibility throughout the design process. The finished book is the result of her complex choices of typography, paper, and color.

Gómez-Peña’s text is set in both modern Postscript fonts and in 19th-century wood type (still used by small commercial printers in Mexico). Rice also preserved the format of pre-Columbian codices, which were read right to left. However, within each spread, text reads left to right. This creates two momentums, as the familiar pacing of a modern book clashes with the unfamiliar rhythm of an ancient manuscript.
The book was printed by hand using a letterpress—a direct descendant of the printing presses first brought to the New World by the Spaniards. “The paper grinds through two metal surfaces,” says Rice, describing the large steel cylinder of her Vandercook proof press and the zinc engravings used to print the images. If the sheet survives the printing press, it is transformed into something new. She compares this process to the violent transformation brought to Mexico by the technology of colonialism.

Traditional Mayan codices were printed on paper made from wood bark, and accordingly, Rice selected a handmade Mexican bark paper known as amatl. The fragile, fibrous paper has been used by indigenous peoples for more than a thousand years and is still valued for spiritual and secular uses. Rice describes amatls varied surface: “It might have a human hair, a leaf, or even a cat’s paw print.”

Because the paper was coarsely textured, it made for an unpredictable and often unforgiving printing surface—coal production required nearly a year of painstaking presswork. Both image and text are deeply embossed in charcoal-black and red. Originally, Chagoya suggested a vibrant “Coca-Cola red,” but as Rice mixed inks, she decided upon a rusty vermilion, a color that resembles dried blood. The book’s most unusual feature is its binding, which was the final step in the production process. Like its pre-Columbian predecessors, the pages of the Codex were hinged together and bound with an accordion fold. The book can be opened to create a continuous work of art stretching more than 30 feet, and pages can be unfolded into seemingly endless variations.

The ability to reorder the Codex’s pages points up the theme of re-examining history. The practice of a craft links a contemporary practitioner with practitioners of the past,” Rice observes. “Using the human handing similar tools, solving the same problems, links one directly to those who came before us.” What Gómez-Peña and Chagoya explore through their artwork, Rice has eloquently assembled between the covers of a book.

This article was originally published in Print Magazine. © Philip Krayna.