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The Bite of the Print

Be careful--Artemio Rodriguez's demons are alive

February 25, 2007|Ben Ehrenreich

It's easy to miss La Mano Press, hidden away as it is among the factories and warehouses that line North Main Street just east of the Los Angeles River. And inside the corrugated metal building, it's almost as easy to miss Artemio Rodriguez among the giant gray machines that crowd the studio floor.

Rodriguez is not tall. He's 34 but looks younger, despite a neatly trimmed mustache and beard. His nervousness peels off a few years. When sitting, his legs bob with agitation. When standing, his light eyes almost hum. None of this is surprising if you're at all familiar with his work--linocut and woodcut prints crammed to bursting with goats and fish and monkeys, lovers entwined, palm trees, cactuses and creeping vines, serpents and putti, crouching nudes, one-eyed deer, farting monsters and scowling suns, mushroom clouds, skeletons, endless demons. With so many worlds bubbling within, sitting idle must be an extraordinary act of containment.

By contrast, the machines that surround Rodriguez are silent, still and almost impossibly sturdy. They are Vandercook proof presses built in the 1920s. "These are some of the few that remain," he says in accented, slightly hesitant English, his pride overcoming his shyness. There are two big presses in the room, as well as a couple of small letterpresses, drying racks and a screen-printing table cluttered with books. The Vandercooks each consist of a long, flat metal bed about waist-high, topped at one end by a cluster of wide metal cylinders. A hand crank and foot pedal jut from the side. The machines bear as much resemblance to the lone Macintosh hidden away in the back room ("We use it mainly for making proofs for silk-screens," Rodriguez says apologetically) as a steam locomotive does to a Toyota Prius.

He whisks the dust off a small block of linoleum with a toothbrush and pries open a small tin of ink. It took him a single afternoon, he says, to carve the linoleum plate, which depicts a woman's grinning skull in a plumed hat and fur stole. It's a copy of Jose Guadalupe Posada's Dia de los Muertos icon "La Catrina," interpreted with a strange combination of delicacy and boldness. Even in relief, the bones look brittle, the plumage billows.

Rodriguez scrapes a little ink onto a pane of glass with a palette knife, spreads the ink over the surface of the linoleum with a small rubber roller, places a sheet of paper over the plate, trips a foot pedal and turns the hand crank. The cylinders roll out with a satisfying clank, pressing the paper tight against the linoleum. When they've rolled back into place, Rodriguez peels the paper off, revealing a perfect impression of the lines he'd carved. La Catrina's empty eyeholes beckon; her stole wriggles as if it's made of worms.

Making art this way, Rodriguez explains, "is like an invitation to look into ourselves as human beings. Do you want to keep . . . on the road of doing conceptual or digital creations that are alive only in the white box of the museum space or on the screen of your computer? Or do you want to do things that you can keep alive and feel with your own hands?"

Artemio Rodriguez was born in the small town of Tacambaro in the central Mexican state of Michoacan. His father was a farmer and construction worker who, like most of the men in the family, spent half of each year north of the border, picking tobacco and oranges in the fields and orchards of North Carolina and Florida. The U.S. meant new clothes and television sets for Rodriguez and his siblings, but it also, they knew, meant months of loneliness and toil for their fathers and uncles. "I wasn't attracted at all" to the other side, he says. "I was like, 'I don't want to go to work, to be a slave.'"

When Rodriguez was 21, his older brothers, who had migrated to Los Angeles, offered to pay a coyote to smuggle him across the border. Rodriguez was living at home; he had won a scholarship to study agronomy, but extracurricular activities--mainly politics and poetry--intervened, and he never finished his degree. He had discovered printmaking through a man named Juan Pascoe, who ran a small press out of an old adobe hacienda in the middle of a sugar-cane field at the edge of Rodriguez's hometown.

Despite Pascoe's encouragement, Rodriguez was largely self-taught. "Nobody else was doing it," he says of the traditional methods toward which Pascoe had steered him. "There was nobody to follow." The books he studied were filled with images of medieval and colonial Mexican woodcuts, and Rodriguez's early work betrays that heritage--a full cast of angels and demons, and lines so fine it's hard to believe they are carved and not drawn. Only later would he discover Posada's playful social satire, his thousands of dancing muertos and cackling calaveras, and the radical printmaking tradition he helped to spawn: the bold, almost socialist-realist broadsheets that proliferated in the decades after the Mexican Revolution.

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