Monday, November 10, 2008

Letter from L.A.

Dear friends of Philagrafika:
For those of you in the West coast or planning to go there in the coming months, there is a wonderful exhibition at the Hammer Museum. Curated by Allegra Pesenti of the Grunewald center, the exhibition, titled Gouge: the modern Woodcut 1870 to Today traces the evolution of the woodcut as a distinct art form. From Gaugin's rediscovery in the late nineteenth century to the present day, so many artists are using it because, as I have written elsewhere, its atavic associations (being arguably the oldest of the printing techniques) contrast with the visual output of the technologically-driven society we live in.

The show includes wonderful works, some of them rarely seen. They range from one of the few Matisse's woodblock prints with the only known block (a strong sculptural presence that contrasts with the seeming lightness of the resulting line) to anonymous Indian printers from the 19th century. It also includes an impressive group of artists such as Vallotton, Munch, Nolde, Picasso, Kollvitz, Beuys, Baselitz, Kiefer and, more recent artists like Terry Winters, Christiane Baumgartner or Zarina Hashmi.

The exhibition is divided into themes that address issues like the re-emergence of the medium after it had fallen into oblivion due to the developments in etching; the presence of the grain of the wood as an important component of the work; sacred imagery, a section that brings together works from India, Korea, and a series of German expressionist woodcuts; and the role of woodblock printing -accessible to anyone with a carving tool and a sheet of wood- in social struggles. Indeed, one of the most striking pieces is Carmelo González-Iglesias' The Pseudo-republic and the Revolution, an enormous seven-block woodcut done in 1960 in the wake of the Cuban revolution.

One of the most beautiful pieces is Artemio Rodríguez' The Triumph of Death, inspired equally by Brueghel's work as for Mexican calavera woodcuts. Rodríguez, who did the linocuts for Juan Devis' award-winning online video game Tropical America ( has a project called Graficomovil, which is, in his own words, "a traveling mural, a mobile cinema, gallery and print studio dedicated to promoting the graphic arts and independent filmmaking". Rodríguez's activist attitude is an example of the only thing lacking in the exhibition, namely the current activist woodcut scene better exemplified in collectives like Cannonball Press or Drive By Press and artists like Swoon. One could imagine a lively room filled with these strong works and their creators staging interactions with the public, but it would have certainly required a far bigger space and maybe would have offset the grave tone that this wonderful and tightly curated show has.


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