The gouge of the chisel


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The Carved Line is the clev­erly pun­ning name of a show of 143 block prints open­ing this week­end at the Al­bu­querque Mu­seum, in­clud­ing a di­ver­sity of wood­cuts, linocuts, and wood­block prints. The fo­cus is on New Mex­ico artists and sub­jects, with ex­am­ples from fa­mous fig­ures like Gus­tave Bau­mann and T.C. Can­non, as well as by many artists who bor­der on the ob­scure. Some of the most im­pres­sive ex­am­ples are by past and present no­ta­bles of the state’s art scene who are more of­ten en­coun­tered through other artis­tic me­dia. We take a sneak peek at the show by way of the hand­some com­pan­ion book just is­sued by the Mu­seum of New Mex­ico Press. On the cover is an un­dated color wood­cut on pa­per by David Bar­bero (1938-1999), Río Grande Gorge; cour­tesy Al­bu­querque Mu­seum.


The very name sounds in­trigu­ing! Out of the East it came cen­turies ago! Tem­ple bells of the Ori­ent, sun­light of Italy, snow-crowned moun­tains of the North, and blue skies of Zee­land clus­ter about the craft of block print­ing, giv­ing it a charm that lays hold upon our artis­tic af­fec­tion!” Thus did Ray­mond W. Perry, lec­turer at the Rhode Is­land School of De­sign, leap into his pre­sen­ta­tion in his 1938 book Block Print­ing

Craft. The copy that sits on my shelf bears the stamp of the leg­endary Vil­la­gra Book Shop in Santa Fe, and one imag­ines that the store may have sold quite a few copies back when the artis­tic im­age of the city and the sur­round­ing re­gion was be­ing de­fined, to a not in­signif­i­cant ex­tent, by the color wood­block prints of Gus­tave Bau­mann (who lived in Santa Fe from 1918 un­til his death in 1971) and the wood­cuts and wood en­grav­ings of Willard Clark (who in­tended to stop briefly in Santa Fe in 1928 but stayed put, ex­pir­ing here in 1992).

Their prints are ubiq­ui­tous here­abouts to­day, but Bau­mann and Clark were far from the only New Mex­ico artists to im­merse them­selves in the medium of block prints. The field gets its mo­ment in the spot­light with the open­ing of an ex­hi­bi­tion this week at the Al­bu­querque Mu­seum, along with the pub­li­ca­tion of a hand­some com­pan­ion book by cu­ra­tor Josie Lopez. The show and the book share the ti­tle The Carved Line: Block Print­mak­ing in New Mex­ico. The hun­dred-plus works re­pro­duced in the book largely co­in­cide with those in the show, al­though the mu­seum is in­clud­ing a fur­ther 26 prints in its ex­hi­bi­tion to pro­vide a richer ex­pe­ri­ence of sev­eral of the artists and to ex­em­plify cer­tain as­pects of block-print­ing tech­nique.

In the his­tor­i­cal sur­vey that oc­cu­pies the first chap­ter of her vol­ume, Lopez ac­knowl­edges the Asian roots of the genre (“The ear­li­est re­lief prints were pro­duced in China in 868 CE”) and notes that “while this age-old art has been prac­ticed for cen­turies, two eras — the late Edo pe­riod in Ja­pan and the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury in Europe — deeply im­pacted mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary block print­mak­ers in the United States.”

The es­sen­tial idea of block print­ing has a pop­ulist el­e­ment to it. Many peo­ple must have first en­coun­tered it by carv­ing print­ing blocks out of pota­toes in grade school, and it was long a fa­vored medium for jour­nal­is­tic il­lus­tra­tion in cheaply printed mag­a­zines and broad­sides. But at the level of artis­tic block prints, the tech­nique is usu­ally far from sim­ple and the ex­pres­sive pos­si­bil­i­ties are vast. “In­her­ent in the process of mak­ing a block print,” Lopez writes, “is the sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of form that only rarely al­lows for com­plex­ity of de­tail, and styl­iza­tion and re­duc­tion of color field” — an ob­ser­va­tion that rings gen­er­ally true when the medium is com­pared to oil paint­ing, for ex­am­ple. “They re­veal a hand and eye work­ing in con­cert to ex­press with the great­est econ­omy the world in short­hand, re­duced to the most cru­cial of in­for­ma­tion. They ap­pear sim­ple be­cause of the com­plex de­ci­sions that the artist made while de­vel­op­ing the im­age and cut­ting the block.” For an ex­am­ple of this, one might turn to the black-and­white wood­cut Christ­mas Eve, from 1926, in which the artist Bar­bara Latham pic­tures her­self and her hus­band, Howard Cook (also a no­table Santa Fe artist). They are seated at ta­ble, ap­par­ently fol­low­ing din­ner that night. We see her from the back but also re­flected in a mir­ror. Cook is placed in pro­file, play­ing an ac­cor­dion, but still­ness nonethe­less per­vades this in­ti­mate im­age, in which the sub­jects, ap­par­ently lost in pri­vate thoughts, are re­duced to their es­sen­tials in planes of black and white, and ev­ery­thing is thrown into dra­matic re­lief through the shad­ows cast by a sin­gle can­dle. It is, in its way, a per­fect ex­am­ple of a par­tic­u­lar aes­thetic of block print.

Lopez pro­vides a run-through of the var­i­ous types of block prints, each with its dis­tinct tech­ni­cal ap­proach, in­clud­ing print­ing with sin­gle or mul­ti­ple blocks of wood, linoleum block print­ing, and wood en­grav­ing. Each of­fers dif­fer­ent artis­tic pos­si­bil­i­ties. Some are within the reach of ama­teurs. Oth­ers re­quire ob­ses­sive pa­tience and at­ten­tion to de­tail — for ex­am­ple, color wood­block prints made from mul­ti­ple blocks that are each carved sep­a­rately and inked with a dif­fer­ent color, re­quir­ing ab­so­lute per­fec­tion in the over­lap­ping of one block with the next, with ev­ery step of the process, from carv­ing the blocks through the trans­fer of ink to pa­per, be­ing ac­com­plished by the in­di­vid­ual artist. The process very much stands at an in­ter­sec­tion of art and craft; even Bau­mann, for ex­am­ple, got into print­mak­ing be­cause he was a wood­carver. An­drew Con­nors, the Al­bu­querque Mu­seum’s cu­ra­tor of art, ob­serves in con­nec­tion with the show, “The hand of the carver, ex­press­ing the voice of the artist, is in­her­ent in each im­age,” he said, “re­veal­ing the choices made with each cut of the knife or gouge of the chisel.”

Lopez’s in­tro­duc­tory over­view touches on such sem­i­nal fig­ures of the field as Arthur Wes­ley Dow, Ly­onel Feininger, Frank Mor­ley Fletcher, and B.J.O. Nord­feldt. Most of this dis­cus­sion is fa­mil­iar from other books on block print­ing, and some of it seems a bit off-topic in the present con­text. Even in cases where some of these for­ma­tive artists did in­ter­sect with New Mex­ico, their block print­ing may not have. Nord­feldt, for ex­am­ple, es­tab­lished him­self in Santa Fe in 1919 and was a ma­jor fig­ure in the city’s art scene for the two decades he lived here (at least part-time). But in

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