Gouge: The Modern Woodcut 1870 to Now, is a splendid exhibition of woodcut and linoleum prints now showing until Feb. 8, 2009, at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California. On display are 100 diverse and quite extraordinary prints from the likes of Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Käthe Kollwitz, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Joseph Beuys, and many others too numerous to mention.
Divided into four thematic sections, the first presents the emergence of modern printmaking in the 1870’s, the second shows how artists used the grain of the wood to enhance their compositions, the third is devoted to prints in the arena of social activism, and the final section presents sacred and religious iconography. While I could easily wax poetic on the prints included under each theme, in this article I will focus on the prints categorized under social activism, or as the Hammer defined them - prints that are “The Voice Of The Activist”.
Without a doubt, the core of the exhibit is comprised of two monumental woodcut prints from Cuba; The Pseudo-Republic and the Revolution by Carmelo Gonzalez Iglesias, and Latin America, Unite! by Luis Peñalever Collazo - who was a student of Iglesias. In contemplating the intricate woodcut prints one is left dumbfounded by the fact that they were designed to be used as street posters!
Iglesias and Collazo are beyond reproach when it comes to superlative draftsmanship, clear narrative, and technical virtuosity. Their prints make today’s vaunted “street-art” seem feeble in comparison. Unfortunately the Hammer would not allow photography in the gallery, and the museum has not made available any decent reproductions of these extraordinary prints. The few image details I present here are woefully inadequate in conveying the beauty and power of these Cuban woodcuts.
Both Pseudo-Republic and Unite! were created in 1960, just a year after the triumph of the revolution against the U.S. backed regime of General Fulgencio Batista. Since the majority of the mural-like prints were wheat-pasted on city walls in Cuba, not many copies survived intact. However, in 1961 Che Guevara gave a set of the prints to a young foreign student in Cuba, Maurice Zeitlin (now a UCLA professor), and the gift to Zeitlin currently hangs in the Hammer exhibit. Printed from seven different woodblocks, Pseudo-Republic measures 51 by 169 inches, and like puzzle pieces, when the separate prints are brought together properly - they become one cohesive narrative. Unite! is somewhat smaller at 33 7/8 by 87 1/2 inches, but no less effective. It too was printed from several carved woodblocks.
The exhibit has a small but weighty collection of graphics produced by the Mexican collective - El Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop). Included in this grouping is a beautiful linoleum cut by African American artist, Elizabeth Catlett, who worked with the TGP when she moved to and settled in Mexico in 1946. The print on display is titled Sharecropper, and only a few black and white proofs were made by Catlett in 1952. In 1968-70 the artist would pull an edition of 60 full color prints - but it is one of the stunning black and white proofs that is on view at the Hammer. Another of the TGP associated artists shown in Gouge is Leopoldo Méndez, who surely was one of Mexico’s most impressive socially conscious printmakers. I was first introduced to his works during the 1970’s, when his fiery prints were enthusiastically circulated in Chicano arts and activist circles in the U.S. In the near future I will be writing extensively about Méndez on this web log, but for now, all that is necessary to say is that his print at the Hammer show, The Heritage of Juarez - is a marvel to behold.
Gouge also presents three woodcuts by David Alfaro Siqueiros from his 13 Grabados series. In 1930 the artist spent 6 months in a Mexican prison for having participated in a May Day demonstration. While incarcerated he created 13 grabados (engravings), cut from scrap wood, and upon his release he printed a small edition of proofs. It would not be until he came to Los Angeles as a political refugee in 1932 that he would print his woodcuts as a full portfolio in an edition of 100. In tribute to the great Mexican printmaker, José Guadalupe Posada, the prints were made on colored tissue - and three of these made their way into the Gouge exhibit. Stylistically the works are blunt, almost abstract, and not surprisingly they deal with issues of state repression and violence.
In addition, Gouge has on view an impressive collection of prints from the German Expressionists. Woodcuts by Erich Heckel, Emile Nolde, Christian Rohlfs, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Lovis Corinth, and Käthe Kollwitz - all provide consummate examples of the Expressionist school I so unwaveringly admire. But it is two woodcuts created by Conrad Felixmüller in 1921 that I find especially delightful - if for no other reason than the artist is so little known in the U.S. and rarely if at all exhibited. Felixmüller’s Factory Worker (Invalid) and Mine Engineer, are sympathetic portraits of working men, a common theme for the artist. Stylistically the brusque angular portraits explode with dynamic swirls of energy and agitated lines, while revealing considerable empathy for the men he portrayed.
The Gouge exhibition is not without its weaknesses. The contemporary prints, relying heavily on gimmickry, by and large convey little more than the detached hollowness one associates with postmodernism. The limitations of these new works, deficient in both originality and anything significant to say, is made all the more apparent when they are compared to the older works in the exhibit. Another drawback to the show is that it lacks an exhibit catalog. I could write volumes on the tour de force works of the Cuban artists alone. Given the fact that outside of Cuba virtually nothing is known about these particular artworks or the artists that produced them, it is indeed unfortunate that the Hammer has not published even a diminutive catalog. Despite these failings Gouge is a blockbuster show not to be missed.
Gouge: The Modern Woodcut 1870 to Now - at the Hammer Museum from November 9, 2008 through February 8, 2009. On Feb. 4, 2009, exhibit curators will hold a 12:30 lunchtime talk concerning Luis Peñalever Collazo and his woodcut, Latin America, Unite!