By DeWitt Cheng
Relief printing is simple —everyone knows the potato print— but woodblock prints and moveable type made modern science and the modern world possible. Prints, pamphlets and broadsides, easily reproduced and disseminated, were the blogs of the pre-industrial era. This exhibition of approximately a hundred relief prints follows the development of modernist styles in California over the past century. Curated by Art Hazelwood (who assembled the concurrent From Hobos to Street People at the California Historical Society), California in Relief (which borrows its name from Richard Wagener’s 2009 woodcut book) illuminates left-coast politics and history as well as esthetics.
According to Hazelwood, three influences shaped relief printing in the first half of the 20th century: Japanese woodcuts, with their flattened, nonperspectival (axonometric) space, simplified compositions, and absence of modeling; the powerful symbolic figuration of Diego Rivera after his stay in San Francisco in 1930; and the 19th century illustration technique of wood engraving. After World War Two further developments in relief printing arose, the art departments set up in universities (aided by GI Bill funding) disseminated the new ideas, as did activist organizations like San Francisco’s California Labor School and its descendant, the Graphic Arts Workshop, both well represented here.
In the early Eighties Chicano artists started making relief prints the aimed at raising mainstream white-bread consciousness.
Doing their bit to raise consciousness in this show are Kathy Aoki’s satirical “Thanks Mom”; Linda Lee Boyd’s sympathetic study of a Latino laborer; Frank Cieciorka’s iconic 1960s woodcut of a clenched fist; Richard V. Correll’s 1943 “Air Raid Wardens”; Adelyne Eriksson’s commemoration of the General Strike of 1934; Antonio Frasconi’s portrait of Sacco & Vanzetti, with their moving final statement; Juan Fuentes’ portrait of Cesar Chavez; George Hibi’s reminiscences of the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah; Stanley Koppel’s “Political Demigod,” a Bible-thumping demagogue in the Grosz /Gropper style; Emmy Lou Packard’s porcine war profiteer comforting a grieving widow; Giacomo Patri’s status-blinded white-collar worker; Byron Randall’s juggernaut of war; Artemio Rodriguez’s skeletal defenders of the status quo; Rachael Bell Romero’s anti-Pinochet “Neruda Presente”; Frank Rowe’s portrait of Bobby Seale; Henry Sugimoto’s depiction of Japanese internment camp life during WW2; and Herman Volz’s expressionistic “Confrontation” between cops and crowd.
There’s more here than polemics, though. Viewers seeking calmer or more lyrical delights, like Matisses’s famous weary “mental workers” plopping into their armchairs, will find compelling, beautiful landscapes, nature studies and abstractions here.
California in Relief ran from July 25, 2009 to September 20, 2009 at Hearst Art Gallery, St. Mary’s College (1928 St Mary’s Rd., Moraga).
A slightly altered version of this review appeared in the East Bay Express, Oakland, CA.