Against the Grain
By Stacy Davies
The 15th Century art of woodcutting takes a modern center stage this month at Riverside City College’s Quad Gallery in “Large Scale Prints” by Dirk Hagner and the late Patrick Merrill—and it’s an impressive sight to see. Curated by gallery director Leslie Brown and faculty member Denise Kraemer, this at once broadly awesome and intensely personal exhibit features rebellious ruminations on culture, politics and the arts depicted through angsty figures and contemplative artistic notables, and the passion they evoke is acute and palpable.
Merrill’s eight-panel series, “Resistance: Resist Privilege,” is particularly driven, and a powerful treatise on the Patriarchal system of authoritarian control that even strips men of their freedoms and sense of self. Trapped within oblong boxes, eight figures battle to break free from the forces that seek to confine and subjugate their male identity. Stripped of their clothing, and reduced by the woodcut into unrecognizable sinewy creatures of bone and muscle, the men push and pound within the boxes, surrounded by images of their masters: the Capitol (government rule), the Twin Towers (financial slavery), men and women arguing and most poignantly, biblical texts that list, like a phone book entry, the trail of “begotten” males starting from Adam. Each piece has its own proclamation—Oppose Violence as a Solution, Demand Your Voice—which, coming from a white male, can seem paradoxical, and it’s a point Merrill addresses in his artist statement: “as men . . . we are not only within the box, we are also the box.”
Most impressive is Merrill’s Whore of Babylon, a grotesquely elaborate view of capitalism as seen through Revelations mythology. In Merrill’s vision, a horde of corporate mongrels kneeling on a bed of Wall Street numbers undulate and worship the whore who sits in the center of a bed of serpents holding a chalice of nuclear power. The seven beasts are not the usual mythological animals, but recognizable creatures that represent the player nations—a lion for England, dragon for China, bear for Russia, etc. These beasts, with their serpent bodies, are also the subjects of worship and no less driven by sin than the unfortunate lady.
Scaling things down, if in theme alone, Dirk Hagner pays homage to some of the 20th Century’s most esteemed creators. Mainly consisting of Germanic artists, composers, playwrights and scientists, Hagner also includes some imitable foreigners such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Vincent Price.
Working primarily with woodcut reduction—a technique in which a wood block is cut for one level of printing and then recut for subsequent layers of color and line—Hagner’s works are dynamic and haunting. His subjects are premiere creators, often controversial and always progressive: playwright Bertolt Brecht’s portrait almost takes on a political poster quality; gay Hispanic author Richard Rodriquez is equally thoughtful, troubled even, a faint scratching of a crucifix hovering behind him like a ghost. The portrait of composer Carl Orff, in particular, is heavily lined with cuts, almost taking on a Picture of Dorian Grey quality, which seems fitting considering the soul-eroding torments that must have bored through his being as an artist who played along with the Third Reich.
Noble prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ headscarved and spectacled figure is also highly detailed, yet this weathering is belied by a pleasant expression of satisfaction—Brooks had clearly accomplished what she set out to do, and wore her struggle with distinction. Also of note is the regal portrait of scream king Vincent Price (which seems like kitsch unless you know that the actor was a great patron of the arts and the reason East L.A. College has an art gallery at all), and the emotive vision of French singer Juliette Greco, whose off-centered face is especially effective by focusing attention on the eyes, nose and mouth of the chanteuse as she peers off into the blackness above her that might very well be a darkened concert hall. Lastly, don’t miss the actual wood block of printmaker/painter/sculptor Käthe Kollwitz, a roaming, disquieting five-foot-tall cloaked figure that seems to be as lost in the perils of poverty as the less fortunate she famously championed with her art. It should be noted that this block is not the only one in the exhibition—all of Hagner’s printmaking blocks are included. It’s a deft curatorial move, and one that not only creates an additional level of fascination of the finished pieces but a greater appreciation for the intricate process of wood cutting itself; that, on top of the stunning prints, makes this a show not to be missed.
“Large Scale Prints” at Quad Gallery, Riverside Community College, 4800 Magnolia Ave., Rm 140, Riverside, (951) 222-8358; www.academic.rcc.edu/art/exhibitions.jsp. Mon-Fri, 10AM-3PM; Thurs, 5:30PM-8PM. Thru April 8. Free.