Journalists and museums love categories.
We compartmentalize everything and everyone, particularly in New Mexico, a state that boasts separate museums for Spanish, Native American, contemporary and folk art.
Albuquerque Museum curators want to shatter those boundaries with “The Carved Line: Block Printmaking in New Mexico,” which opened on Jan. 14.
The exhibition bridges gender, culture, style, subject and place, all set within the paper borders of block prints – specifically, wood and linoleum. Its 160 works span the expected (Gustave Baumann), the stars (Fritz Scholder) and relative unknowns such as the University of New Mexico’s Yoshiko Shimano. Its artists lived and live from Taos to Tesuque Pueblo to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Roswell from 1900 to the present. All of them explore experiences of place, movement and culture.
“Block prints are really about looking at color and line and how you interpret them in a medium that’s carved away,” said Josie Lopez, author, art historian and Albuquerque Academy teacher.
Some of the early 20th century artists known more for “traditional” painting experimented when it came to gouging out a surface to create an image, museum curator Andrew Connors said.
The woman in Will Shuster’s undated “Mujer Out Walking” woodcut could be treading the edge of a cliff or the desert, thanks to the flat black spaces created by the ink.
“It reveals an innate modernism,” Connors said.
That modernism surfaced within a decidedly low-tech medium often practiced by schoolchildren.
Much later, Scholder, who was one-quarter Luiseño, experimented with the natural world, abstraction and expressionism in block prints. The Picasso-esque block print “Nude,” ca. 1960s, exudes the power of line beyond the controversy normally orbiting his vibrantly painted large-format canvases.
T.C. Cannon’s 1975 woodcut “Grandmother Gestating Father and the Washita River Runs Ribbon-Like” reveals his fascination with the flat-surfaced reduction of Japanese prints, as well as the influence of Scholder, who taught him at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Instead of the stereotypical feathers and fringe, his grandmother wears a polka-dot dress. Cannon added the dots to symbolize the way Native sun dancers, who were required to stare at the sun, viewed the world, Lopez said
In the 2000s, Denver’s Leon Loughridge expanded on Baumann in capturing the broad expanse of the New Mexico landscape. Loughridge grew up near Pojoaque, and his father owned a horse ranch in Peña Blanca.
His 2015 woodcut “Acoma Sunset” revels in the mission’s flat planes and luminous sunset.
“We had the last of the tours” at the pueblo, he said in a phone interview from Denver. “It was so magical; it was so dramatic.”
Loughridge photographed the mission church and began sketching in pencil and watercolor when he returned home.
“Out of the sketches you get distortion,” he said, “you exaggerate things you like. It’s your caricature of that scene.”
“Ladders,” 2013, is geometric contrast of shadow and light. The organic shapes of the pueblo rule as the image oscillates.
“You’re not sure if the ladders are shadows,” Santa Fean Scott Parker said. “Not to be too precious, I put a cooler and a cup on top.
Parker said his image was inspired by a walk by Santa Fe’s Inn and Spa at Loretto while workmen renovated the pueblo-inspired building.
“I left seeing workers in construction gear and the ladders,” he said.
“The entire process is fun,” he said. It’s like solving a puzzle through carving the image in your mind and applying it to drawing and reversing it on the block. It’s problematic, so you’re tweaking all the way.”
In her mammoth (96 by 171 inches) “70 Years of Silence,” the Japanese-born Shimano superimposed the image of the island of Okinawa onto a map of the U.S. as part of her series “Mistreated Islands.” Originally an independent kingdom, Okinawa moved from the control of Japan, then the U.S. after World War II, returning to Japan in 1975.
“My work is not (about) getting into the political issues,” Shimano said. “It’s about the strength of the people living there. They are trying to bring harmony into their lives. There is a lot of history within their own cultures.”
The artist scattered hibiscus flowers — the island’s symbol— across the surface of the print in a celebration of its beauty within a legacy of conflict.