Man at Work, a 2014 linoleum block print by Ronnie Goodman in the exhibition West Coast Woodcut: Contemporary Relief Prints by Regional Artists at Maryhill Museum of Art, fits a classic role of printmaking: It’s a quiet provocation, surprising the viewer with a sudden twist on familiarity. An image of a man standing on a street corner in San Francisco with two huge bags filled with cans and bottles slung over his shoulders, it fits securely into a social-realist tradition that also embraces the likes of Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz, and the American regionalists of the 1930s.
Stylistically it could be from the 1930s, and with a little jolt you realize looking at it that in a way it is, or at least it’s a contemporary echo of the Depression years. Man at Work is an image of down-and-outness, of the outsider, the possibly homeless guy sidling against the crowd, and when you see the title the whole little drama expands: Whatever you might have thought on first glance, the man’s no bum. He’s working, gathering the trash, doing a job that other people don’t want to do, scraping by with a quiet dignity that most people never take the time to see. The capper comes when you look at the wall plaque and discover that Goodman himself has led a hard-knock life: He’s homeless, and learned to make art in prison while serving a six-year sentence for burglary. “I have had my belongings confiscated ten times,” Goodman is quoted. “The city has taken my original irreplaceable linocuts – over fifty plates, all of my original artwork.” The explanatory plaque continues: “This includes works that were included in a temporary exhibition in the office of San Francisco mayor, London Breed.”
On a wall nearby, Manuel Izquierdo’s 1998 lino print Netarts Bay illustrates another theme in West Coast Woodcut: the quiet drama of the western land and seascape, spilled out in bold dashes and rough undulating shapes in black and white. It’s at once utterly familiar to anyone who knows the shapes and smells of the Pacific Northwest, and utterly stylized – a “realism” that is an abstract evocation of reality, a kind of dreamland interpretation of the everyday. It has an illustrative feel, decorative yet taut and expectant, like a frozen moment in a fairy tale. The very nature of printmaking, with its gouged-out spaces leaving a spider-web or winding plateau of lines, suggests a mapping of reality, but a mapping that is more creative than geographical; a mapping not so much of the terrain as of the artist’s hand and mind as they interpret the terrain.
Printmaking’s the king of the hill this season at Maryhill. The big story is Exquisite Gorge, a grand collaboration among eleven artists and several communities to create a stylized portrait of the land and life along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River. The project, which Friderike Heuer has been following for ArtsWatch in a series of photographic essays, will culminate August 24 when the eleven separate sections of inked plate will be laid end to end in the museum’s parking lot and a steamroller will drive over them, creating a 66-foot-long imprint.
But Exquisite Gorge is only half the tale. Inside the museum, which stands on a cliff high above the Columbia Gorge about 110 miles east of Portland on the Washington side of the river, West Coast Woodcut is one of the prime attractions of the museum’s 2019 season, which continues daily through November 15, and by itself the exhibit’s worth an amble out the Gorge. A brisk and sometimes boisterous blend of woodblock, wood engraving, and linoleum block, it’s an intriguing and accessible selection of sixty prints by artists from Oregon, California, and Washington. All of the prints in the exhibit, which has been shaped by Steven Grafe, the museum’s curator of art, are from Maryhill’s permanent collections, and several have been added within the past two or three years.
Printmaking has long been thought of as a people’s art form, not because it’s simple – it’s not – or “realistic,” but at least in part because it’s workmanlike. I don’t mean that as a putdown, but as a compliment. All art worth the name is the product of skilled labor and craft, but the evident labor that goes into printmaking – it’s a complex process that often leaves its stages of becoming in plain sight – makes it easy for viewers to compare it to the labor of their own lives, and to recognize the beauty that can rise from honest and considered work. Its relative affordability as an art form of multiples compared to single-image art of comparable quality plays a big role in its popularity. Add to that the recognizable subject matter of so much print art – from people, as in Art Hazelwood’s busily urban Taco Truck; to natural scenes, to distinguished book illustrations (Barry Moser, Rockwell Kent); to neighborhood urbanscapes, as in Alexis Babayan’s King’s Market; to moments from working life, as in Leon Gilmour’s The Treetopper – and you get a sense of an art form that connects with everyday viewers and everyday life. Even when they’re tough – think Goya’s The Disasters of War, or Kollwitz’s images of poverty and war-bred misery – or satiric, like Daumier or Hogarth or James Gilray; or sharply political and action-oriented, like Corita Kent; the connection between prints and viewers is often immediate, even though it may deepen on further engagement, and with a good print, as with a good painting, almost certainly will.
If Izquierdo’s Netarts Bay establishes a theme in West Coast Woodcut of considering the lay of the land in the West, it has plenty of company. Some of the artists represented simply want to convey in stylized form the beauty that surrounds them. Others dig deeper, combining a love of nature with evocations of the perils that the natural world faces or the price that taming it exerts. Álvaro Daniel Márquez’ Salinas Valley, a delicately balanced geometry of lettuce fields filled with stooping farm hands in row after cultivated row, overlays the natural world and the exploitation of labor and land in a complex blend of nostalgia and social comment. “My family worked this soil for several generations,” Márquez writes, “and this is the space where I first came into being. … In these fields, we would come to bring my dad lunch on his breaks when he worked on Saturdays, and he would let us drive his tractor while on his lap. Steinbeck wrote that the Salinas Valley exerted a telluric power over him, and I have to concur. There’s no romanticizing of the exploitative labor extraction that still fuels the local economy for me, and the attendant racial capitalism, but this soil is part of my being. It fuels me, though I never had to work it myself.”
Stirling Gorsuch’s Clear Cut, a boldly graphic evocation of the Oregon license plate with stumps lining the bottom beneath the letters CLR CUT, is the most conceptual work in the exhibition, and like a lot of conceptual art, its simplicity is both its strength and its weakness. Its message hits you like a slap in the face: The state’s policies are less environmental than extractive; when push comes to shove, money trumps nature. But once you’ve got the message, what’s left? It’s an open question. Still, in a show like this, Clear Cut acts as a fulcrum. “I am continually reminded of how ephemeral the current state of our environment can be,” Gorsuch writes. “These changes in the land that I observe are a personal reminder that we are each tethered to nature, and not separate from the forces influencing it.”
A few prints in West Coast Woodcut seem to have a bit of magic mixed into them, an evocation of myths and alternate realities just out of reach, sometimes poking through to alter our perceptions of the world around us. They suggest hyperrealities, places that transcend the ordinary, with the strange taut lushness of a story spun around a campfire at night. Leonardo Nuñez’ Near the San Andreas Fault is a gorgeously ominous landscape littered with omens: crows or ravens in a graveyard, with crosses standing and fallen, some in shadow and some in shimmering light: It’s a fault line, indeed. Erik Sandgren’s River Story – Tide Watcher, part of a series of River Watcher prints, is a riotous swirl of river, shore, town and sky, all dominated by a giant bird of prey: It has the feel of a majestic and ominous Northwest sky bearing down, down, down, ready to burst. Jonnel Covault’s Crescent Beach is a carefully cluttered view of roiled sea and sky, and driftwood so organically coiled it seems on the brink of standing up and walking away. The magic in Tom Killion’s Fin Dome from Rae Lakes comes from the altitude-thin blast of colors in its mountainscape; in Peter Nevins’ Cross the River on the Backs of the Salmon, from a fleet-footed evocation of an old Native American story of the time, long past, when the Columbia River was so thick with salmon swimming upstream you could cross from shore to shore on their backs.
Maryhill’s been doing a lot of shows in the last couple of years pulled from its own collections, which can be a prudent approach to programming but also can court overfamiliarity and limitations. Certain collections – its quirky and fascinating chess sets, its Rodins, its rotating Théâtre de la Mode, its Loie Fuller memorabilia and Queen Marie of Romania exhibit, its indigenous art and Orthodox icon paintings – have permanent pride of place. Special exhibitions ideally support what an institution already has or fill in crucial gaps, offering both novelty and the challenge and excitement of the new. Done right, going to the permanent collections can prompt fresh looks and creative ideas. In this Year of the Print, both the all-new Exquisite Gorge and the reconsidered West Coast Woodcut seem to have done just that.