The Power of Print

By Robert Taylor

If visitors walk into museums and galleries thinking that prints are lesser achievements than paintings, or not original works of art, the exhibit "California in Relief" will set them on the right path. Curated by San Francisco artist Art Hazelwood, the survey of nearly 100 works, subtitled "A History in Wood and Linocut Prints," is both a historical and contemporary revelation.

The exhibit, covering nearly a century of prints by artists working in Northern California, is on view through Sept. 20 at Hearst Art Gallery on the Saint Mary's College of California Campus in Moraga. It is installed for both high impact and intimate study by gallery director Carrie Brewster and exhibitions manager Jim Whiteaker.

What power stirs from a block of wood or a slab of linoleum and a roller wet with ink! Hazelwood has selected many works reflecting social and political causes, but the dramatic force comes from the artist's hand as well as the issue. "California in Relief" dispels any notion that a print has less presence than some other genre of art.

That dramatic impact extends from Meta Hendel's circa-1930 color wood engraving, "Hibiscus (Taormina-Sicily)," with flowers that look ready to leap out of the frame, to Anthony Ryan's 2005 color woodcut, "Unfinished Building: Mission District," an expressionistic riot of splayed residences with gaping windows under a nightmarish sky.

Other scenes that might be considered placid also come alive. Charles Surendorf's surreal "Ghost Town, Jerome," a circa-1945 linoleum engraving, seems to erupt from the ground. Henry Sugimoto's woodcut "Along a Beaten Path," circa 1965, depicts barracks and trees with bare branches reaching plaintive toward the sky. (Sugimoto often returned for his subject to the relocation camp experience he and thousands of families of Japanese extraction shared during World War II.)

Hazelwood curated an exhibit of Richard Correll and Frank Rowe's works, "Six Decades of Their Art of Social Conscience," at San Francisco's Meridian Gallery in 2005, and the two artists also take their place at the Hearst Art Gallery. Rowe's circa-1970 color woodcut of Bobby Seale is the stunning cover illustration for the exhibit brochure. Correll's 1970 woodcut, "Vineyard March" depicts a 1965 episode in the grape boycott led by Cesar Chavez, with a vineyard seeming to rise up to join the marchers.

So many works are drawn from the artists' own experiences, including Mildred Rackley's 1943 waterfront wood engraving, "Submarine Tender," and Linda Lee Boyd's 1989 color woodcut "Pouring Concrete III," based on people she worked with in construction firms and at the Port of Oakland.

Just around a corner panel in the exhibit is a 1965 woodcut modestly titled "Hand" by Frank Cieciorka, who was working with voting rights activists in that era. It is so basic, just a fist, a print not much larger than 2-by-3-inches. Yet it was one of the precursors of the fists on buttons, T-shirts and posters that launched decades of social and political activism. Among the scores of prints on display, it most depicts the power of simplicity.

Robert Taylor is the former fine arts writer of the Contra Costa Times. He has written for the San Jose Mercury News, Los Angeles Times and Southwest Art magazine.

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