What a Relief!

Starting with One Time Only in 2014, every winter I've put on an exhibit that explores a specific printmaking technique. Last week we opened the latest installment in this ongoing series, What a Relief! Block Prints from the RMAC.

When I do medium-based shows at the RMAC, I have three basic objectives in mind. The first is to educate our visitors about printmaking, and explain how the prints on view were made. Printmaking isn't the most intuitive of processes, so I see these shows as an opportunity to teach our audiences about a type of art that is unlikely to be as familiar as painting or drawing.

The second goal is to demonstrate the variety of creative possibilities available within the medium. As a result, the selection in these medium-based shows tend to be eclectic in terms of subject matter and style.

Finally, and this is true of all my in-house shows, I want to get works on the wall that haven't been on view in a while. Our visitors already know the greatest hits of our collection, so I want to broaden their aesthetic horizons by bringing out some lesser-known but equally fantastic works. What I like to hear in the galleries isn't so much "oh look, here's my favorite painting again," but "wow, I haven't seen this piece before."

I'm particularly passionate about this when it comes to the paper collection. A lot of our works on paper in particular aren't directly linked to the Southwest, which can be a challenge when your primary mission and collecting focus is the Southwest, but by focusing on medium, I'm able to transcend geographic origin and broaden the selection.

Let's take a look at a few pieces:

Willard Midgette, Owls, 1957, woodcut
Willard Midgette is best known today as a realist painter, and during the 1970s in particular he achieved renown for his paintings of contemporary life on the Navajo Nation. He was also one of the earliest Roswell Artists-in-Residence, and remains one of its most esteemed. What a lot of people don't realize, however, is that he was also a talented printmaker, as this fantastic woodcut of owls demonstrates. I love how this work is naturalistic while reflecting the evidence of its creation. You can imagine the carving and gouging that Midgette did to create this piece. Sadly, he died of a brain tumor in 1978, cutting short what was shaping up to be a remarkable artistic career.

Barbara Latham, Taxco Kitchen, 1932, wood engraving

Anyone who has read this blog knows that I love Barbara Latham's work. There's a marvelous sense of fluidity and playfulness in her lines. For me, her works embody Castiglione's idea of sprezzatura: through her absolute technical mastery and dedication to her art she makes her work appear effortless. This piece was done while she and her husband, Howard Cook, were living in Taxco, Mexico on a Guggenheim fellowship.

Birger Sandzen, Sunflowers, 1933, linocut
Birger Sandzen was originally from Sweden, but spent most of his career in Kansas. He was both a printmaker and a painter, and in all his works there's this wonderful sense of energy in the compositions. Like Owls, you can imagine this work being created as Sandzen carved away the negative spaces on his linoleum block.

Kanji Suzuki, Daybreak, ca. 1960s, color woodcut
One reason why I wanted to put on a block printing show was to showcase the RMAC's Japanese prints. We've got quite a few mid 20th-century Japanese works, and while the artists who created them were not affiliated with the Southwest, at least not overtly, they're beautiful pieces that need to be seen. Most of these works are figurative, but other works, like Daybreak here, are quite abstracted.

Gustave Baumann, Cholla and Sahuaro, 1925, color woodcut
While my primary focus is to bring out lesser-known pieces, there is always room for a few perennial favorites. No relief printing show is complete without at least one Gustave Baumann, and Cholla and Sahuaro (his spelling, not mine) is exemplary of his mastery of fine detail and saturated color. It's not at all surprising that he's long been the darling of the Santa Fe art scene.

With each medium-based show I've done here, I've gotten more proactive with the education component. Last year I dedicated separate walls to specific intaglio techniques and wrote different wall panels for each process. This year, I not only did that, but also created a portfolio for the gallery that demonstrates different relief printing techniques, step-by-step.

Next week we'll embark on our own relief-printing series, so stay tuned.


  1. This is excellent, learning about relief printing and seeing these fine examples!

    1. Thanks! I'm always glad to hear that readers are learning something new while seeing some beautiful work in the process.


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