Category: Prints - Posters

No Human Being is Illegal

 No Human Being Is Illegal - Mark Vallen ©. Offset Poster. 19.5" x 22" inches.

"No Human Being Is Illegal" - Mark Vallen © Offset Poster. 19.5" x 22" inches.

My No Human Being is Illegal artwork was originally published as a bilingual poster in 1988.

The print helped to popularize the slogan, which has become a catchphrase of today’s defenders of immigrants’ rights.

To oppose the rising tide of discrimination aimed at the undocumented in the U.S., from Arizona’s racist SB1070 anti-immigrant law, to efforts by members of the U.S. Congress to overturn the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (which guarantees citizenship to children born on U.S. soil), I republished my poster in August of 2010, and it is now once again available for distribution and purchase.

The poster’s axiom is an emphatic affirmation of the inherent rights possessed by humankind. It cautions that when individuals are stripped of humanity and designated as “illegal,” then even worse abuses cannot be far behind. Not so long ago it used to be said that a child born to unmarried parents was “illegitimate.” I am hopeful that in the future, the opinion that some people are “illegal aliens” will also become an archaic expression.

My bilingual street poster was original published in conjunction with a 1988 drive conducted by the Los Angeles based Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), to secure the rights of undocumented Central American war refugees in the United States. In the 1980s Central America was convulsed by war, revolution, and murderous state repression. Seeking to escape the carnage, hundreds of thousands of people furtively entered the United States, only to find themselves targeted for arrest and deportation back to the killing fields.

Despite well documented evidence that the military regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala were actively engaged in the extrajudicial killings of tens of thousands of civilians, the U.S. government denied political asylum to the overwhelming majority of Central Americans who applied for it. Less than 3% percent of Salvadorans and Guatemalans seeking asylum in the U.S. were granted that status in 1984.

No Human Being Is Illegal - Mark Vallen ©. Detail.

"No Human Being Is Illegal" - Mark Vallen © Detail.

Today, economic warfare is driving Mexican immigrants to the U.S. On January 1, 1994, the governments of the United States, Mexico, and Canada, signed the so-called “North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a treaty that has brought great wealth to financial elites while impoverishing workers in all three countries.

When U.S. manufacturing plants moved to Mexico, where low wages and weak environmental laws assured super profits for U.S. corporations, American workers lost millions of good paying industrial jobs that provided decent benefits. Furthermore, employers were able to drive down the wages of American workers, eliminate their benefits, and undo workplace protections, by threatening to move operations to Mexico. While big business continues to export American jobs to Mexico, Mexican workers earn no more than they did before the passage of NAFTA. This begs the question, if capital can move freely across borders, then why not workers?

Another important aspect to the NAFTA debacle is that Mexico is the birthplace of corn. Scientific evidence has established that teocintle - the forerunner of today’s corn - was first cultivated some 7,000 years ago in Central Mexico. Corn is interwoven into Mexico’s unique national character and distinctive history. Until just recently more than 60 percent of cultivated land in Mexico was planted with corn, and some 18 million Mexican campesinos made a living by growing it - that is, until NAFTA. Cheap corn produced by U.S. corporate agribusiness has been flooding Mexico, and millions of Mexican farmers, unable to compete with the imported tariff-free corn, have lost their farms and livelihood. This has caused serious economic and social dislocation within Mexico, and the crisis is one of the root causes for undocumented Mexican laborers entering the U.S. for work.

When running for president in 2008, Senator Obama won the support of large sectors of American workers by promising to renegotiate NAFTA. His supposed position was that the treaty “did not have enforceable labor agreements and environmental agreements.” His official campaign booklet, Blueprint for Change, declared that “Obama believes that NAFTA and its potential were oversold to the American people. Obama will work with the leaders of Canada and Mexico to fix NAFTA so that it works for the American workers.” After winning the presidency Mr. Obama has done nothing about NAFTA, but he has turned his eye to the U.S./Mexico border.

No Human Being Is Illegal - Mark Vallen ©. Detail.

"Ningun Ser Humano Es Ilegal" - Mark Vallen © Detail.

Senator Obama captured the Latino vote by promising to move towards implementing “comprehensive immigration reform” during his first year in office. As president, he announced to the press on April 28, 2010, that he was taking immigration reform off his agenda of major priorities, saying “I don’t want us to do something just for the sake of politics that doesn’t solve the problem.”

He went on to say, “If you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people coming in, not playing by the rules, that’s a problem, and the federal government has been abdicating on its responsibilities for a very long time on this issue.” In a widely circulated news article by Associated Press writer Suzanne Gamboa, Obama made it clear that Democratic Congressional lawmakers lacked the “appetite” to deal with immigration reform while facing elections in November. Mr. Obama’s alleged immigration reform plans were dead in the water, and as Suzanne Gamboa put it - “sounding the death knell was Obama himself.”

On July 26, 2010, the Washington Post reported that “the Obama administration is deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants.” The paper revealed that under Obama, deportations of the undocumented have gone up 25 percent higher than under the Bush administration. The paper went on to postulate that Obama was hoping “to entice Republicans” into supporting a yet to be formulated immigration reform plan. The increased deportations by Mr. Obama should not be viewed in isolation. Earlier this month he signed a $600 million dollar bill that pays for an extra 1,500 Border Patrol officers, agents that will supplement the president’s deployment of 1,200 U.S. National Guard soldiers to the U.S.-Mexico border. Obama has sent the largest number of soldiers, 524, to the State of Arizona, where the racist anti-immigrant law known as SB 1070 took effect on July 29, 2010.

In a further militarization of the border, Obama has deployed unarmed “Predator drone” surveillance vehicles to the region; the same type of remote control aircraft the president routinely uses to conduct “targeted killings” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Obama administration states the drones are currently “able to cover the southwest border from the El Centro sector in California all the way to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, providing critical aerial surveillance assistance to personal on the ground.” The Christian Science Monitor reported the White House will have six drones in operation along the border by the beginning of next year.

It is for all of the above reasons that I decided to reprint my No Human Being Is Illegal poster.

Levi Artists: Lay Down Your Brushes

"Face It, You're A Man: Wear the Pants" - Dockers ad campaign designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Draftfcb.

"Face It, You're A Man: Wear the Pants" - Dockers ad designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Draftfcb.

I was startled when printmaker Doug Minkler of Berkeley, California informed me that Levi Strauss & Co., one of the largest clothing manufacturers in the world, was operating an art printmaking workshop in San Francisco.

Minkler, a longtime artist and social activist, was chagrined that the corporate leviathan was whitewashing its poor labor practices by “branding” itself a champion of working people - and using the arts to do so.

This story really begins in 2003, when Levi Strauss & Co. closed the last of its U.S. manufacturing plants, eliminating thousands of good paying jobs for American workers. The company has since moved its manufacturing operations to nations like Mexico, Haiti, Bangladesh, China, and Cambodia, where wages are extremely low and workers easily exploited.

Now, through the efforts of ad firms and PR agencies, Levi Strauss & Co. is promoting itself as a conglomerate that is “a catalyst for change,” and the free printmaking workshop in San Francisco has been part of the marketing campaign. On August 26, 2010, Doug Minkler published an open letter to the arts community titled, Lay Down Your Brushes, entreating artists to reconsider their relationship to Levi Strauss, and to corporate support of the arts in general. The text of Minkler’s dispatch follows:

“Levi Strauss & Co., Wal-Mart’s largest worldwide strategic partner, is just finishing a two-month long advertising event in San Francisco via their Levi’s Free Printing Workshop. Artists from as far as Sacramento and the East Bay have made their way to the workshop to be part of the giant Levi Strauss advertisement campaign. The colorful and talented artists are not printing Levi’s logos, rather, they are printing their own art work. Most of the artists, especially the activists, would never consider creating advertising for the corporate giant, but somehow they have been seduced into helping Levi Strauss.

Some justify their advertising support by working on projects that will benefit non profits, others claim they have not been duped because they are addressing social justice issues on Levi’s tab.  A Levi’s workshop exhibit of well known activist artists titled ‘Mission Icons In Time Of Change‘ emerged from the Free Print Workshop in order to raise much needed funds for Plaza Adelante, a Mission self-help center for lower and middle class Latino families. So, what could be wrong with artists and the community finally getting a piece of the corporate pie?  I fear a lot.

Artists who accepted the free printing are tacitly saying to both the Levi Strauss corporation and the public that ‘Levi Strauss can use us for cleansing their reputation - their exploitative corporate labor and marketing practices are okay with us. Give us free printing and we will help you sell jeans and a false benevolent image.’ Levi’s co-optation of the artists’ positive image is accomplished by masking corporate advertisement with the legitimizing appearance of involvement in social justice efforts.

In Levi’s cloaked sales campaign, artists are kept far removed from the crass tactics involved in sales, consequently, artists are lulled into thinking that they have not compromised their principles. For the corporation, it is a ‘win win’ situation, but for the non-commercial artist, the ‘For Sale’ jacket they now wear is a problem.

I believe a more critical look at Levi Strauss & Co. is in order before more artists enter into a casual (or not so casual) relationship with this corporate giant.

1.  Levi Strauss & Co. is a worldwide corporation organized into three geographic divisions:  Levi Strauss Americas (LSA), based in the San Francisco headquarters; Levi Strauss Europe, Middle East and Africa (LSEMA), based in Brussels; and Asia Pacific Division (APD), based in Singapore.

2.  By the 1990s, the Levi brand, facing competition from other brands and cheaper products from overseas, began accelerating the pace of its U.S. factory closures and its use of offshore subcontracting agreements.  In 1991, Levi Strauss faced a scandal involving six subsidiary factories on the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth, where some 3% of Levi’s jeans sold annually with the Made in the U.S.A. label were shown to have been made by Chinese laborers under what the United States Department of Labor called ’slave like’ conditions.  Today, Levi jeans are made overseas.  Cited for sub-minimum wages, seven-day work weeks with 12-hour shifts, poor living conditions and other indignities, Tan Holdings Corporation, Levi Strauss’ Marianas subcontractor, was forced to pay what were then the largest fines in U.S. labor history, distributing more than $9 million in restitution to some 1,200 employees.

3.  The activist group Fuerza Unida (United Force) was formed following the January 1990 closure of a plant in San Antonio, Texas, in which 1,150 seamstresses (primarily Hispanic women), some of whom had worked for Levi Strauss for decades, saw their jobs exported to Costa Rica. During the mid and late 1990s, Fuerza Unida picketed the Levi Strauss headquarters in San Francisco and staged hunger strikes and sit-ins in protest of the company’s labor policies (The above three historical facts about Levi Strauss were resourced from Wikipedia.)

If Levi’s labor practices are not enough reason for you to end your association with them, possibly their recent sexist, homophobic DOCKERS campaign encouraging men to ‘Wear the Pants‘ and welcoming people to ‘MAN Francisco’ will, or their ‘All Asses Are Not Created Equal‘ ad emphasizing variation in butt sizes but continuing to bombard women with images of the unattainable Barbie shape will, or perhaps their ever increasing sexualization of younger and younger girls via their skin tight low rider jeans will, or all of the above will.

In the 90’s, I taught printmaking in the mission at New College of California. One day my class was asked by the administration to create a poster for SF Poetry Week. The first question the students asked me was who were the sponsors? When I informed them that the sponsors were Levi Strauss, Nestle’s and New College, they not only refused the job, but produced protest posters against their college’s involvement. Next, they produced a series of posters that exposed Levi’s U.S. plant closures, their off-shore labor practices and Nestle’s deadly infant formula peddling. These images were either wheat-pasted in San Francisco or hung in the coffee shops in which the poetry events occurred. My refusal to stifle their anger and sense of justice eventually cost me my job.

I am not surprised by Levi’s latest marketing ploy. What I am surprised and disappointed about is how easily such a large number of artists were seduced. To my fellow artists, who oppose the capitalist/corporate model of production and who became artists for reasons other than money, I recommend that you re-evaluate your association with this corporate sponsor and then withdraw your participation.”

Something that author Naomi Klein wrote of in her book, No Logos, seems pertinent to this discussion. Klein noted the omnipresent corporate branding pervading every aspect of life in the U.S., to the point where “walking, talking, life-sized Tommy Hilfiger dolls, mummified in fully branded Tommy worlds,” can be found in all corners of the nation. Klein wrote that the conglomerates behind the marketable brands were less “the disseminators of goods or services than as collective hallucinations.” Artists working at the Levi print shop were aiding - whether they realized it or not - the corporate objective of controlling all public space.

When the Supreme Court voted in January 2010 to strike down restrictions barring corporations from showering political candidates with infinite amounts of money, a substantial number of Americans understood the decision as corruptive to the democratic process. But how is corporate patronage of elected officials all that different from big money sponsorship of the nation’s arts and culture? That is the question one needs to ask when considering the Levi-sponsored printmaking workshop.

The spectacle of Levi Strauss & Co. as a benevolent, socially responsible, and altruistic “corporate citizen” reminds me of a talk given by radical Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. His 2009 lecture, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, examines how charitable giving has become “the basic constituent” of today’s capitalist economy. Žižek contends that “In today’s capitalism, more and more, the tendency is to bring the two dimensions (charity and commerce) together in one and the same cluster, so that when you buy something - your anti-consumerist duty to do something for others, for the environment, and so on, is already included into it. If you think I’m exaggerating you have them around the corner, walk into any Starbucks Coffee, and you will see how they explicitly tell you, I quote their campaign; ‘It’s not just what you are buying - it’s what you are buying into.’ (….) You don’t just buy a coffee, you buy - in the very consumerist act - you buy your redemption from being only a consumerist.”

"We Are All Workers" - Ad campaign designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Wieden+Kennedy.

"We Are All Workers" - Ad campaign designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Wieden+Kennedy.

British artist Andrew Park has brilliantly animated Žižek’s incisive lecture for the British Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA). The First as Tragedy, Then as Farce animation is not only enthralling to watch, it offers an essential critical assessment of the type of “cultural capitalism” now being implemented at the Levi Strauss & Co. print workshop.

I have to mention the “We Are All Workers” marketing campaign launched by Levi’s for its new line of “work wear.” With the U.S. economy at a standstill, unemployment at levels not seen since the Great Depression, and millions of Americans losing their homes, Levi’s is promoting its expensive fashion line with proletarian sensibilities. Poster advertisements displaying slogans like “Everybody’s Work Is Equally Important,” “This Country Was Not Built By Men In Suits,” “Ready To Work,” and “We Are All Workers,” have appeared on city walls all across the United States.

But we are not all workers. Certainly those business executives that made the decision to close every Levis manufacturing plant in the U.S. are not workers, nor were their decisions made in the interests of working people.

Levi Strauss & Co.’s “Wear the Pants” and “All Asses Were Not Created Equal” campaigns were created by Draftfcb, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world, a firm that handles global conglomerates like Boeing, Dow, and Lilly. The “We Are All Workers” campaign was designed for Levi Strauss by the Wieden+Kennedy ad firm. Perhaps the two should be combined for a new “truth in advertising” marketing campaign - “We Are All Asses.”

Siqueiros & The Graphic Arts

Canto General - David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1968. Lithograph. 23.5 x 41 inches. This is print number 4 from the suite of lithographs created as illustrations for Pablo Neruda's epic poem, "Canto General."

"Canto General" - David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1968. Signed lithograph. 23.5 x 41 inches. This is print number 4 from the suite of lithographs created as illustrations for Pablo Neruda's epic poem, "Canto General."

On Saturday, September 18, 2010, I will be speaking about David Alfaro Siqueiros at the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock California, during a panel discussion sponsored by the Autry National Center of Los Angeles and the José Vera Gallery of L.A.

Titled A Print Dialogue: Siqueiros & The Graphic Arts, the round-table talk will be moderated by Cynthia McMullen - Senior Curator for the Museum of Latin American Art, with fellow panelists including artists Wayne Healy and Luis Ituarte. Art historian Catha Paquette and curator Lynn LaBate, who collaborated on the Autry’s momentous exhibit Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied (which opens at the Autry on Sept. 24, 2010) will also appear as panelists.

The focus of the panel discussion at the Center for the Arts will be Siqueiros “as a print maker and graphic artist advancing a populist political agenda.” Known primarily for his monumental works of public art, Siqueiros in fact produced a number of lithographs, woodcuts, silkscreens, and mono-prints. He saw in printmaking the same capacity for revolutionary art as he did in the gigantic wall paintings that he and his compañeros in the Mexican Muralist Movement created. In my presentation I will spotlight a number of Siqueiros’ prints, the stories behind their creation, and why these socially conscious prints continue to resonate in today’s world. The panel discussion is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

Later that same evening the public is invited to attend a 7:30 p.m. reception at the nearby José Vera Gallery for Confronting Revolution: A Siqueiros Aesthetic, the gallery’s showing of prints by Siqueiros that includes his remarkable suite of ten lithographs titled Canto General (General Song). Created in collaboration with the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, the prints were published as illustrations in a special 1968 art book edition of Neruda’s classic 1950 Canto General, an epic work of poetry detailing the history of Latin America. The exhibit runs at the José Vera Gallery from September 4 until October 27, 2010.

In the days subsequent to the Sept. 18th panel discussion, I will post a full assessment of the event (with photos), along with additional details concerning the prints displayed at the José Vera Gallery. The Center for the Arts is located at 2225 Colorado Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90041-1142 (map). Phone: 323-226-1617. The José Vera Gallery is located at 2012 Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles, 90041 (map). Phone: 323-258-5050.

[ UPDATE: Lecturer and author Gregorio Luke, was originally scheduled to moderate the panel discussion. Mr. Luke had to cancel his appearance in order to lecture in China on behalf of the Mexican government.]

LBJ, Obama & Afghanistan

On December 1, 2009, in an address to the nation delivered from the United States Military Academy at West Point, President Obama announced the sending of an additional 30,000 U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan in order to wage what he calls a “war of necessity.”

 Vietnam: An Eastern Theatre Production. – David Nordahl. 1968. Offset poster. 28 ½ x 22 5/8. Poster image supplied by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG).

"Vietnam: An Eastern Theatre Production" – David Nordahl. 1968. Offset poster. One of fifteen posters included in the "Hey, Hey, LBJ..." essay. Poster supplied by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG).

To mark the occasion I have written, “Hey, Hey, LBJ…”, an illustrated essay on the subject of U.S. protest posters from the 1960s that lambasted that other liberal Democratic President who supposedly possessed a progressive domestic social agenda - Lyndon Baines Johnson, or L.B.J. (1963-1969).

L.B.J.’s assumed intentions of wanting to implement wide-ranging social reforms in the U.S. were thwarted by his ever increasing military escalation of an unpopular war in Vietnam. President Obama has similarly opened a Pandora’s box with his sharp military escalation in Afghanistan; and while the “Hey, Hey, LBJ…” presentation examines 15 historic posters from our collective past, it also offers the reader glimpses of what the future could possibly hold for us all.

The 15 posters I have written about in my essay disparaged L.B.J.’s foreign and domestic policies with wry humor, sardonic wit, and pointed outrage. What’s more, the prints were exceptional from a design standpoint, and they continue to stand as important political and cultural documents in American history. Despite their historic value and obvious political and aesthetic significance, few of the posters I present in my essay are to be found in online collections, even though they were widely distributed and known in the 1960s. Most of the posters featured in my essay have not been seen since they were first published.

With his December 1 troop deployment announcement, President Obama has fully completed his metamorphosis into L.B.J. Less than one year after his inauguration, Mr. Obama’s promises of delivering “Hope” and “Change” have ended up being battlefield fatalities on the arid plains of Afghanistan. Rather than delivering his diktat of escalating war from the Oval Office of the White House, Mr. Obama revealed his war plans at the same service academy used in 2002 by George W. Bush when the former president explained his Orwellian “Preventative War” doctrine. West Point afforded Mr. Obama the opportunity of presenting his military strategy for Afghanistan against a backdrop of soldiers and Academy cadets – a setting conveying resolute leadership from the nation’s Commander in Chief. How ironic that Obama will next travel to Oslo, Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10.

Obama administration officials have calculated that the Afghan war will cost $1 trillion over the next 10 years – a figure most likely underestimated. The Pentagon says that annually it spends $1 billion for every 1,000 soldiers in Afghanistan; and that by the time it delivers a single gallon of fuel to the landlocked country for use by U.S. soldiers, the cost has skyrocketed to $400 per gallon. As the U.S. economy teeters, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate reached 10.2 percent in November ‘09 – that’s 15.7 million Americans without work; the New York Times noted, “If the unemployed lived in one state, it would be the country’s fifth largest.” Just prior to his West Point troop deployment announcement, President Obama boasted that he would “finish the job” in Afghanistan; if the “job” in question is to drive the U.S. further into economic collapse, then Mr. Obama may well achieve his goal.

To help finance the unpopular war in Vietnam, L.B.J. imposed a 10-percent surtax on the American people. Not to be outdone, a number of powerful Congressional Democrats are today hoping to pass the “Share the Sacrifice Act”, a surtax to be forced upon all U.S. citizens in order to help pay for Obama’s war in Afghanistan. The bill would place a 1-percent surtax on all those who earn less than $150,000, with up to 5-percent imposed on those with higher incomes.

The particulars of Obama’s odious decisions should not hinder our optimism and authentic struggle for the democratization and transformation of society. Such a project should never be reliant upon a single politician or individual – the people in motion are the true engine of history.  The publication of “Hey, Hey, LBJ…” is but a small contribution towards wiping away debilitating historical amnesia and political illusions, allowing us to thoughtfully plot a course of action for building a society where words like “Hope” and “Change” are not slogans from some clever marketing and branding campaign – but expressions of a mass democratic impulse fully implemented by a free people.

The complete “Hey, Hey, LBJ…” illustrated essay can be viewed at:

[ The Docs Populi archive and the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG) were kind enough to give me access to their archives, allowing me to select original posters from their incomparable collections as illustrations for my essay. The opinions expressed in the essay are my own and should not be attributed to either Docs Populi or CSPG. ]

Art for Health Care Reform

Blue Dogs – Michael Dal Cerro. Wood block print. 2009.

"Blue Dogs" – Michael Dal Cerro. Wood block print. 2009.

With good reason, health care reform has become a major topic in the United States. Patricia Dahlman and a number of like minded artists have created an online exhibition, Art for Health Care Reform, which addresses just some of the issues.

To Your Health – Deborah Harris. Linoleum block print. 2009.

"To Your Health" – Deborah Harris. Linoleum block print. 2009.

Sandinista Silkscreen Print

Sandinista! – Mark Vallen. Linoleum block & serigraphic print. 1985. Nine color silkscreen print created to commemorate the anniversary of Augusto César Sandino’s death.

Sandinista – Mark Vallen. Linoleum block & serigraphic print. 1986. Nine color silkscreen print created to commemorate the anniversary of Augusto César Sandino’s death.

It was in 1984 that I originally carved the linoleum block from which I would pull the black and white print titled, Sandinista.

I created the print to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Augusto César Sandino, the legendary Nicaraguan patriot who was murdered February 21, 1934. Initially I mechanically reproduced the artwork as an offset litho flyer, of which thousands of copies were distributed in Los Angeles. Two years later I would rework the black and white artwork into a full color silkscreen print.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Sandino’s death, and having only a small number of my nine-color silkscreen prints remaining, I thought it would be appropriate to offer them as rare signed and numbered prints, as well as to make known the story behind their creation.

Just who was Augusto César Sandino? My interest in him began in the early 1970s, when I commenced serious study of Latin American history and found out that he was a celebrated figure in Nicaragua and throughout Latin America – even to this day; a man often compared to Simón Bolívar and referred to as the “General de los hombres libres” (General of free men). In the United States during the late 1920s, Sandino was villainized and condemned as a “bandit”, but by the late 1930s he was almost entirely forgotten in the U.S. Augusto César Sandino should be remembered as one who dreamt of, and fought for, a united Latin America that was free, sovereign, and independent.

By the late 20th century in Nicaragua, Sandino’s visage had been transformed into a popular, almost ubiquitous symbol of freedom. His silhouette was immediately recognizable to all, and the ten gallon hat that he wore in the 1930s became an ever-present symbol. This short-hand language of rebellion was to become so conceptually abstract that by the time of the 1979 revolution Sandino’s portrait was rarely seen: instead, minimalist and highly stylized depictions of his hat were etched or spray painted onto surfaces everywhere. Likewise, Sandino’s commanding silhouette was carved, daubed, and spray painted onto every available surface.

In my silkscreen print I portrayed an anonymous individual waving a flag marked with a silhouette of Sandino, his faceless outline a ghost that will forever haunt tyrants and invaders.

Signed and number copies of this print can be purchased here.

9 color Linoleum block & serigraphic print. 1986
(c) Mark Vallen. Hand pulled by the artist
Dimensions: 11” x 17”
Signed and numbered by the artist
Edition of 50

“We do not protest against the magnitude of the intervention,
but simply against intervention.” - Augusto César Sandino

Augusto César Sandino was born May 18, 1895, in Nicaragua’s Masaya province, but his story actually began with the interventionist foreign policy of the United States. The U.S. was interested in Nicaragua as a potential site for a canal linking the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, expanding trade routes and extending U.S. control over the entire region. In order to guarantee that Nicaragua would remain under its domination, the U.S. directly intervened in the country several times starting in 1909. In 1912, Washington sent thousands of troops to wipe out a nationalist uprising – the beginning of a military occupation that continued until 1933.

When civil war broke out between Nicaraguan liberals and conservatives in 1926, Sandino joined and fought on the side of the liberals. In 1927 the U.S. intervened on the side of the conservatives “in order to protect U.S. citizens.” Initially landing some 5,000 U.S. soldiers in the city of Corinto, the Yanks then bombed the liberal-held city of Chinandega by airplane – it would be the very first air attack in U.S. military history to be conducted against a civilian population center. Liberal politicians and generals surrendered to the U.S. backed conservatives that same year, and Washington sent 800 more Marines to support the new regime, but Sandino refused to surrender. From his mountain jungle hideaway he issued a July 1st manifesto that read in part:

“My greatest honor is to have come up from the ranks of the oppressed, who are the heart and soul of our people. We have been at the mercy of those hired assassins who helped foment high treason: the Conservatives of Nicaragua who have destroyed the nation’s dream of freedom and relentlessly persecuted us as if we were not the sons and daughters of the same country. I accept the challenge to fight, and I myself am ready to initiate the struggle. My answer to the cowardly invaders and traitors to our country is my battle cry. My body and those of my soldiers will form walls against which the legions of Nicaragua’s enemies will be dashed to pieces.”

On July 16, 1927, the U.S. again used airpower against Nicaraguans, this time dropping bombs on Sandino’s forces in the city of Ocotal. It was another aviation first, the earliest known instance of U.S. ground forces directing an air attack. Five U.S. Marine biplanes managed to kill some 300 people, according to press accounts at the time. Newspaper editorial cartoons around the world expressed outrage and dismay over the carnage being inflicted by the U.S. air war. Soon after the air attacks, the U.S. worked with its client government in the capital of Managua on the creation of the National Guard – Nicaraguan troops that would be trained, armed, financed, and directed by U.S. commanders. In a March 28, 1928 article titled Expect Long Stay for Marines, the New York Times wrote about a comment then Secretary of State Charles E. Hughes made concerning the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua:

“Notwithstanding that Charles E. Hughes is quoted here as declaring at the recent Pan-American conference at Havana that the marines would be withdrawn from Nicaragua at the earliest possible time, it is improbable that any responsible person here believes they can be withdrawn for many months, perhaps for years, to come. The Nicaraguans themselves, Conservative and Liberals alike, declare unreservedly that anarchy would descend on the country again if the United States withdrew its forces.”

In November of 1932 Juan Bautista Sacasa won Nicaragua’s presidential election, and Sandino agreed to peace talks with Sacasa’s government. The U.S. Marines finally withdrew from the country in 1933, leaving their well trained and armed surrogates, the National Guard, to preserve order. On February 21, 1934, General Sandino, his father, and three aids were driven to President Sacasa’s home for dinner. By order of Anastasio Somoza García, head of the National Guard, Sandino and his party were seized by Guardsmen, taken to an open field, and fatally shot. Two years later Somoza overthrew the government of Sacasa and declared himself leader of the country. The U.S. government did not break diplomatic relations with Somoza’s regime, preferring instead to support military dictatorship in Nicaragua for the next four decades.

Street stencil of Sandino, Managua 1984

A 50 años Sandino Vive (After 50 years Sandino Lives) - Anonymous artist. 1984. Stencil artwork on the streets of Managua, Nicaragua, celebrating the nationalist hero, Augusto César Sandino.

The poet Rigoberto Lopez Perez assassinated Somoza in 1956, but power was immediately transferred to his eldest son, Luis Somoza Debayle. In 1961 nationalists and left-wing activists rallied behind the legacy of Augusto César Sandino to establish the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (F.S.L.N.), or the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Their intent was to bring down the Somoza dynasty. Luis Somoza Debayle would die of a heart attack in 1967, and the reins of government were then handed over to the youngest Somoza, West Point graduate Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Somoza the younger ran Nicaragua like it was his own personal fiefdom, his brutality and corruption shocking the international community, but the U.S. continued to support him until the very last moment.

Patria Libre o Morir (Free Country or Death) – Graffiti on the side of a bombed-out building in Managua, Nicaragua, 1979. A scribbled drawing of Sandino’s hat floats above the letters, F.S.L.N. (Sandinista National Liberation Front), the revolutionaries who overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Photo taken by Koen Wessing.

Patria Libre o Morir (Free Country or Death) – Graffiti on the side of a bombed-out building in Managua, Nicaragua, 1979. A scribbled drawing of Sandino’s hat floats above and below the letters, F.S.L.N. (Sandinista National Liberation Front), the revolutionaries who overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Photo taken by Koen Wessing.

By 1977 all of Nicaragua was swept up in strikes and insurrectionary violence against Somoza, and his feared National Guard unleashed a reign of terror across the nation. Pedro Chamorro, a critic of Somoza and the editor of the conservative newspaper, La Prensa, was murdered in 1978 – and the dictator was widely suspected of having ordered the newsman’s death. Sandinista rebels began to take over major towns and cities, and Somoza’s National Guard responded with the relentless aerial bombardment of civilian centers. Some 50,000 people died during this period, and since war conditions prevented burials in cemeteries, bodies were simply cremated in the streets.

On June 20, 1979, ABC news reporter Bill Stewart and his interpreter, Juan Espinosa, were stopped at a National Guard checkpoint in the capital of Managua. Troops ordered the two out of their car and escorted them a few yards from the vehicle. ABC cameraman Jack Clark remained in the car, filming the entire encounter. The soldier in charge made Stewart lie face down on the ground - moments later shooting him in the back of the head at close range. The Guardsmen then murdered Espinosa. Miraculously, Clark managed to put the car in reverse and evade the killers. That evening his film was broadcast on television news all around the world. In the U.S., there was so much public outrage over the killings that President Jimmy Carter was finally forced to cut military aid to Somoza. Less than a month later, on July 19, 1979, the dictator fled the country and the National Guard surrendered to the great-grandsons and granddaughters of Augusto César Sandino.

Mexican Prints at University of Notre Dame

Caida de Tenochtitlan (Fall of Tenochtitlan) – Angel Bracho. Linoleum block print. 1950. Detail of inside front cover for the TGP portfolio, 450 Años De Lucha.

"Caida de Tenochtitlan" (Fall of Tenochtitlan) – Angel Bracho. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail of inside front cover for the TGP portfolio, "450 Años De Lucha."

The prints of the Mexican Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop), are being presented at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana from July 12, 2009 to September 13, 2009. Titled Para la Gente: Art, Politics, and Cultural Identity of the Taller de Gráfica, the exhibition presents forty prints created by artists who worked in the TGP print collective in Mexico City from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s. Internationally known for their highly-political prints, the TGP workshop generated woodblock, linoleum, and lithographic prints that remain unparalleled to this day.

I first discovered the TGP as a teenager in Los Angeles during the late 1960s. For Chicanos, TGP prints provided an exciting touchstone with Mexican art, culture, history, and politics, but in general the artworks also offered universal insights into the human condition – revealing the hidden class dimensions behind issues of poverty, repression, and war. Sometime in the early 1970s I acquired a copy of 450 Años De Lucha: Homenaje Al Pueblo Mexicano (450 Years of Struggle: Homage to the Mexican People), a significant portfolio of prints by twenty-five TGP artists that vividly recounts the history of the Mexican people.

Hacia La Nacionalizacion de la Mineria (Towards the Nationalization of Mining) - Jesús Escobedo. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail.

"Hacia La Nacionalizacion de la Mineria" (Towards the Nationalization of Mining) - Jesús Escobedo. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail. From the TGP portfolio, "450 Años De Lucha."

Published by the collective in 1960, 450 Años De Lucha is actually a soft-cover unbound “book” that contains 140 reproductions of prints by artists such as Leopoldo Méndez, Pablo O’Higgins, Alberto Beltrán, Mariana Yampolsky, Alfredo Zalce, Luis Arenal, and Elizabeth Catlett. The prints originally served as street flyers and posters for the political instruction and edification of an illiterate population, and tens of thousands of copies were widely distributed. The free prints were literally – Para la Gente (For the People). As a radical chronicle of Mexico’s entire history, the remarkable print portfolio covers everything from the 1519 heroic Aztec resistance against the Spanish Conquistadors (Cuauhtemoc - Leopoldo Méndez), to a woodblock print celebrating the nationalization of Mexico’s mineral wealth in 1960 (Hacia La Nacionalizacion de la Mineria - Jesus Escobedo).

A focal point of the Snite Museum exhibit is a linoleum block print by Leopoldo Méndez, Paremos la Agresion a la Clase Obrera. Ayude Usted. A los Huelguistas de Palau, Nueva Rosita y Cloete. (Let us Stop the Aggression toward the Working Class. Help the Strikers of Palau, Nueva Rosita, and Cloete). Méndez created the print in 1950 as a street poster calling for solidarity with mine workers in their strike against the U.S. owned company, Mexican Zinc Co. The print is a consummate example of the combative spirit that motivated the TGP collective.

Paremos la Agresion a la Clase Obrera. Ayude Usted. A los Huelguistas de Palau, Nueva Rosita y Cloete. (Let us Stop the Aggression toward the Working Class. Help the Strikers of Palau, Nueva Rosita, and Cloete) - Leopoldo Méndez. Linoleum block print. 1950. On view at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. This street poster by Méndez called for solidarity with mine workers in their strike against the American owned company, Mexican Zinc Co.

"Paremos la Agresion a la Clase Obrera. Ayude Usted. A los Huelguistas de Palau, Nueva Rosita y Cloete." (Let us Stop the Aggression toward the Working Class. Help the Strikers of Palau, Nueva Rosita, and Cloete) - Leopoldo Méndez. Linoleum block print. 1950. On view at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. This street poster by Méndez called for solidarity with mine workers in their strike against the American owned company, Mexican Zinc Co.

The workers at the Nueva Rosita, Palau, and Cloete mines in Coahuila, Mexico, organized for humane working conditions, decent pay, and union representation, and when they went on strike against Mexican Zinc, the company retaliated by firing the strikers and hiring strike breakers. The Mexican government declared the area under martial law and sent in the army. Union leaders were arrested, the union’s treasury was seized, and union activity banned. The mine company controlled the food supply stores and health care facilities in the strike area, and used that control to crush the worker’s strike by closing down vital services. Around 4,200 striking miners responded by staging a “Caravan of hunger” march, walking more than 400 miles to the capital behind a flag emblazoned with the image of the Virgin de Guadalupe. After walking for 50 days to present their case to Presidente Miguel Alemán, and rallying tens of thousands in the nation’s capital, Alemán declared the strike illegal. The defeated miners were sent back on trains to their hometowns and the strike remained unresolved.

Professor Ramón Orta del Río, assassinated in June of 1938. - Leopoldo Méndez. Lithograph. 1939. From the artist’s portpolio of seven lithographs titled: In The Name Of Christ: They Have Assassinated More Than 200 Teachers. Professor Orta del Río was murdered by religious zealots during Mexico’s so-called “Cristero War” of 1926-1929.

"Professor Ramón Orta del Río, assassinated in June of 1938." - Leopoldo Méndez. Lithograph. 1939. From the artist’s portpolio of seven lithographs titled, "In The Name Of Christ: They Have Assassinated More Than 200 Teachers." Professor Orta del Río was murdered by religious zealots during Mexico’s so-called “Cristero War” of 1926-1929.

A particularly moving and provocative series of prints by Leopoldo Méndez not displayed at the Snite Museum is the artist’s, In The Name Of Christ: They Have Assassinated More Than 200 Teachers (En Nombre De Cristo: Han Asesinado Más De 200 Maestros). The prints have to do with the counter-revolutionary “Cristero War” of 1926-1929, when fundamentalist Cristeros (“fighters for Christ”) launched an armed rebellion against the Mexican government because of the anti-clerical Mexican Constitution of 1917.

Reformists had worked for a secular democracy that would reduce the Catholic Church’s enormous land holdings as well as end their stranglehold over education; but fundamentalists took up arms in 1926 when Presidente Plutarco Calles began to strictly enforce anti-clerical provisions of the constitution. Religious zealots were vexed by enforcement of provisos like Article 3, which states - “education shall be maintained entirely apart from any religious doctrine and, based on the results of scientific progress, shall strive against ignorance and its effects, servitudes, fanaticism, and prejudices.” However, fundamentalists were most irritated by Article 130, which “States that church(es) and state are to remain separate.” By the time the conflict ended in 1929, some 90,000 people had perished in the violence.

In 1939 the administration of Presidente Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940), commissioned Méndez to create a portfolio of seven lithographic prints on the subject of educators who had been murdered by Catholic fundamentalists during the Cristero uprising. The resulting lithographs commemorated seven different teachers who had been brutally slain by religious zealots, depicting the teachers under threat, in the throes of death, or after they had been assassinated. In the lithograph shown above, Méndez portrayed the gruesome killing of Professor Ramón Orta del Río in Nayarit, one of Mexico’s 31 states. The killers doused the body of their victim in gas and set him on fire.

The strike of 50,000 Honduran workers exploited for more than 50 years by the monopoly of the United Fruit Co., is a just cause. - Alberto Beltrán. Linoleum block print. 1955.

"The strike of 50,000 Honduran workers exploited for more than 50 years by the monopoly of the United Fruit Co., is a just cause." - Alberto Beltrán. Linoleum block print. 1955.

Created in 1955, Alberto Beltrán’s original linoleum-block print (above) was reproduced as a poster expressing solidarity with striking workers in Honduras. Since the early 1900s U.S. companies totally controlled Honduran agricultural production and exports, largely based upon the cultivation of bananas, making Honduras the original “Banana Republic.” The Standard Fruit Company and the United Fruit Company – both U.S. businesses – virtually ran the country. It was the president of United Fruit, Sam Zemurray, who infamously said of Honduran officials; “A mule costs more than a deputy.” From 1903 to 1925, the U.S. Marines intervened in Honduras no less than seven times. After decades of ferocious exploitation by U.S. commercial interests, Honduran banana workers staged a historic strike for better working conditions and higher pay that began on May 1, 1954.

Beginning in the north coast town of El Progreso, the strike lasted around two months and involved over 14,000 banana company workers. The work stoppage quickly paralyzed other port towns dominated by U.S. companies, eventually spreading to the capital Tegucigalpa. Workers from other industries went on strike in solidarity with the banana workers, with some 40,000 workers eventually joining the labor action. Activists throughout the hemisphere supported the Honduran workers, and it was at the highpoint of the great strike that Alberto Beltrán created his print, which he titled: La huelga de 50,000 trabajadores hondureños explotados por más de 50 años por el monopolio de la United Fruit Co., es una causa justa (The strike of 50,000 Honduran workers exploited for more than 50 years by the monopoly of the United Fruit Co., is a just cause). Despite harsh repression from the U.S. companies and their paid-off government lackies, the striking workers were victorious and won their major demands.

Beltrán’s Honduran solidarity poster could not be timelier considering the military coup in Honduras at present. If the TGP collective were still in existence it would surely react to the current putsch with fierce condemnation. While President Obama expressed “great concerns” regarding President Zelaya being toppled by the military, the Los Angeles Times noted that:

“U.S. officials did not demand the reinstatement of Zelaya. The administration left its ambassador to Honduras in place, while several governments in the region recalled theirs. And despite control over millions of dollars in aid and massive economic clout, the administration did not threaten sanctions or penalties against Honduras for the formation of a new government the day after Zelaya was dragged from his bed and removed from the country Sunday. Before Sunday, Obama administration officials were aware of the deepening crisis and said they spoke to Honduran officials in the hope of resolving the dispute and averting a forced transfer of power.”

Morelos – Celia Calderón. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail. In this rare multi-color print the artist portrayed José María Morelos, one the illustrious revolutionary military commanders of the 1810 independence war against Spain. Morelos was eventually captured by the Spanish and executed by firing squad in 1815.

"Morelos" – Celia Calderón. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail. In this rare multi-color print from the TGP portfolio "450 Años De Lucha," the artist portrayed José María Morelos, one of the illustrious revolutionary military commanders of the 1810 independence war against Spain. Morelos was eventually captured by the Spanish and executed by firing squad in 1815.

TGP artists focused their considerable artistic skills upon real world outrages like wars and military coups, and there is hardly an offence they did not address through their art, but they also busied themselves with creating sympathetic, dignified, and evocative portrayals of the broad masses of the Mexican people; their labors, aspirations, discontents, and advancements.

In the “Declaration of Principles” published in their 450 Años De Lucha portfolio, the Taller de Gráfica Popular artists proclaimed that their works were part of the “constant struggle to help the Mexican people defend and enrich their national culture, independence, freedom, and peace.” Those principals will undoubtedly be shining through the prints exhibited at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame.

[Another excellent resource for the study of the TGP in general and the works of artist Leopoldo Méndez in particular, is the book Revolutionary Art and the Mexican Print by Deborah Caplow.]

Frank Cieciorka: RIP

On November 24, 2008, artist Frank Cieciorka (che-CHOR-ka) died from emphysema at the age of 69. Starting in the 1980s he began to be recognized for his watercolor paintings of northern California landscapes, but it would be one of his early graphic art designs that assured him a place in history.

The iconic clenched fist has long been a symbol of the international left, its usage going back at least until 1917. But the symbol was transformed and revitalized in 1965 by Cieciorka, whose rendition of the pictogram struck a cord with a new generation of activists involved in the civil rights and antiwar struggles.

Photo of Frank Cieciorka

[ Cieciorka as a young Freedom Summer volunteer in Mississippi, 1964. Photo, estate of Frank Cieciorka ©. Source - Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement website. ]

A New Yorker, Cieciorka came to California in 1957 to attend the arts program at San Jose State College. Upon graduation in 1964 he became a volunteer in Freedom Summer, the major civil rights campaign launched in ‘64 to help African Americans register to vote in Mississippi. That same year the Ku Klux Klan kidnapped, tortured, and murdered three Freedom Summer volunteers - James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. From 1964-65 Cieciorka also served as a field secretary in Mississippi and Arkansas for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC - pronounced “snick”), one of the primary civil rights organizations of the day.

Frank Cieciorka's iconic clenched fist graphic

[ Hand - Frank Cieciorka. Woodcut. 1965. "One of the most striking symbols to have come out of the turbulent 60s".]

Cieciorka returned to the San Francisco Bay area in 1965, and created a woodcut print inspired by his experiences as a civil rights activist in the deep South. His image, simply titled Hand, made its way onto posters and flyers, but according to the artist, “It wasn’t until we made it into a button and tossed thousands of them into crowds at rallies and demonstrations that it really became popular”. I wore one of Cieciorka’s buttons as a sixteen-year-old, and I still regard his woodcut print as one of the most striking symbols to have come out of the turbulent 60s.

For more on the life and times of Frank Cieciorka, visit Lincoln Cushing’s Docs Populi.

Gouge: The Modern Woodcut

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”.

Woodcut print by Iglesias

[ La Seudorepublica y la Revolucion (The Pseudo-republic and The Revolution). Carmelo Gonzalez Iglesias. Woodcut. 1960. 51 x 169 inches. Detail from the upper left of the monumental print. In the foreground sits a worker paralyzed by hunger and despair. Springing up behind him are Cuban sugarcane cutters rising in revolution with machetes in hand. They are led by Lady Liberty bearing a sword and wearing a Phrygian cap - the international icon of revolution and freedom. ]

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!

Woodcut print by Iglesias

[ The Pseudo-republic and The Revolution. Detail from the left panels of the monumental print. A revolutionary worker breaks the chains that bind him, defiantly waving a machete with the word "Independencia" emblazoned upon it. He exhorts his armed compañeros (bottom left) to join the battle against their oppressors, and they can be seen - middle left - fleeing into the arms of an eagle-faced Uncle Sam.]

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.

Woodcut print by Collazo

[ America Latina, Unete! (Latin America, Unite!) Luis Peñalever Collazo. Woodcut. 1960. 33-7/8 x 87-1/2 inches. Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum. Photo by Brian Forrest. ]

Detail of woodcut print by Collazo

[ Latin America, Unite! Detail from the left panels depicting the insurgent Cuban masses led by a woman who points the way towards revolution. A slain comrade is at the feet of marchers who carry a banner reading - "Venceremos" (We Will Win). ]

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.

Detail of woodcut print by Collazo

[ Latin America, Unite! Detail from central panels depicting combat between a Cuban patriot and a knife wielding imperialist. ]

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.

Detail of woodcut print by Collazo

[ Latin America, Unite! Detail from right panels depicting life under capitalism. Workers divided by race bludgeon each other over dwindling resources, women sell themselves into prostitution, and imperialist war planes launch attacks. ]

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!