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Worth a Thousand Words 

A printmaking exhibition tells short, sharp stories

Wednesday, Mar 26 2003
Prints and books have more in common than you might think. Like books, prints can be made in a series -- a limited-edition etching, a set of woodcut illustrations -- or as one-of-a-kind objects. Also like books, prints tell tales, some subtle and some obvious. Both are open to some controversy, too: There's argument about what makes a book a book and what makes a print a print, and it isn't clear where one can draw the line between the two art forms. Now a new show at the Thacher Gallery on the University of San Francisco campus, "Radical Printmaking," lands smack in the middle of this kerfuffle.

You wouldn't know there was any controversy to look at the exhibition, which is housed within the calm quiet of the Gleeson Library. Most of the prints hang on pale marble walls or sit in wooden cases below discreet lighting, and none seems especially radical -- in the sense of extreme -- on first viewing. After a little while, though, certain images start to speak, and the prints assert their radical -- in the sense of fundamental -- bookishness. The effect caught me by surprise.

It may seem odd to "read" a piece of artwork on a wall -- and, you know, it is odd. But there's no denying the storytelling behind these pieces. Sure, some of them are just plain pretty, smoothly gorgeous things you can appreciate on aesthetic terms alone. A few are atrocious, or dull, or more about the process than the content. The prints that have something to say, though, are hard to leave behind, like a novel you don't want to finish.

Most folks agree that a book has to have at least two things: sequence (a sense of one thing following another) and story (the report of an event, whether real or made up). It doesn't have to have words, or a cover, or a spot on the spinning rack at Safeway, but it does need to lead us, step by step, through an episode or experience by visual means, to explain through succession a scene we wouldn't otherwise have faced. Some of the pieces in "Radical Printmakers" truly are books -- they even have pages that follow one after the other. Karen Kunc's Offering Time, for example, reprints a restful "song" by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. A few are books without words or with words as design elements. Pax Requeis (Rest in Peace) by Maj-Britt Hilstrom, for instance, is a 9/11 memorial in the form of an accordion book, its first page mounted on the wall up near the ceiling and the rest linked end to end, flowing down to the floor like a waterfall. Each page is covered with muted colored blocks, like buildings seen from the sky (or like the craters left behind after they fall).

Most of the pieces, however, are single pages that pack a hell of a narrative punch. Jane Gregorius, based in Santa Cruz, created Twin 12 Year Old Boys using a technique called monotype -- which, as its name suggests, results in a unique print that can't be reproduced in exactly the same way twice. In bright, tropical colors reminiscent of the work of Joan Miró, Gregorius' image shows two young men standing under lush palm trees, their arms tossed over one another's shoulders, each smoking a fat cigar. In the background, a bus full of bandits holding guns cruises by; off to the left is a building full of people raising white flags; and on the right is a crowd pressed against a jailhouse door. It looks like an illustration from a sad, street-wise children's book, with thick outlines and a fat dog at the forefront, but something is terribly wrong in these kids' lives. Turns out that the picture is based on the true story of Johnny and Luther Htoo, the young leaders of the Army of God in Myanmar, who surrendered to Thai authorities in January 2001.

In her artist's statement, Gregorius explains her MO: "Underlying all my work since my own first attempts at making marks is an attempt to communicate, to share an idea and to hear back from others to see if there is an understanding of what I am saying." Maybe all art is an attempt to communicate, but I'd argue that this piece is closer to a book than to a painting. Gregorius ripped her story straight from the headlines, and rather than interpret it metaphorically (as, say, Picasso's Guernica did with a similarly newsworthy topic), she tells the tale the way an author would -- with something like an arc, from innocence to responsibility to corruption. It's not a one-off, monotype be damned. Elmore Leonard could make something of this.

Another bookish piece is Gargantua in the Vineyards by San Francisco's Art Hazelwood. His 24-foot-long scroll, strung across most of one gallery wall, looks like a combination of illuminated manuscript, World War II comic book, and -- there it is again -- Guernica. According to his artist's statement, it's based on François Rabelais' stories of the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel, a "parody of medieval heroic literature" that "takes satirical aim at Church and King, teachers and lawyers, power-mad potentates and grasping merchants." Sounds like a good day on the op-ed pages. His gruesome story is nearly matched by the techniques he uses to tell it -- etching (a metal plate bitten by acid) and linocut (thick linoleum gouged with sharp tools). Writhing characters colored blue and umber, some wearing fancy Shakespearean collars and some in gas masks and Army helmets, laugh, flee, drink, and stab each other through the throat.

"As one of the first European writers to exploit the technology of the printing press," Hazelwood writes, "Rabelais understood the power of the book and the danger contained in words and images." The 16th-century writer's outrageously bawdy humor mocked the ignorance of the Middle Ages, and Hazelwood's vicious print seems to mock the bloodthirsty idiocy of our times. It's a powerful point to make when we're all supposed to support the status quo -- and a surprising message to find in a quiet gallery, even one located on a Jesuit Catholic campus.

In an article titled "But Is It a Print?" in a giveaway newsletter available at the Thacher show, the California Society of Printmakers asked its members to figure out "what constitutes an original print." One survey respondent wrote, "I think the question of 'what is a print' is impossible to answer with yes or no answers. Without getting into the question of quality, intentionality of the artist is still important."

Even after reading a binder full of artist's statements, I don't know whether any of the printmakers in this exhibition intended to make books. Though they lack multiple sheets, many of these pieces have that sequential feel, as if they were meant to be books. You can read a lot into them, especially if you give them time. A short look tells one part of the story; a longer one the rest of it, as if the artist were standing next to you, flipping pages and reciting lines. They're like one-act plays or hardcover novellas, telling complete tales but in simpler, more urgent ways. And if this isn't the right time for quiet urgency, I don't know what is.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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