The word "woodcut" usually evokes the art of bygone days: the stark, writhing images of Albrecht Durer's "Apocalypse" of 1498, or the exquisite 19th century landscapes of the Japanese master Hokusai. Indeed, woodcut is the most ancient of printmaking techniques; the earliest examples date to 8th century China and Japan. It's also resolutely low-tech, involving little more than a sheet of paper pressed against wood that has been carved and inked by hand.
At the Hammer Museum, though, the exhibition "Gouge: The Modern Woodcut 1870 to Now" aims to update woodcut's old-fashioned image, and it succeeds marvelously.
To begin with, the show is visually stunning. By judiciously limiting her selections to a predominant palette of black and white, curator Allegra Pesenti effectively capitalizes on woodcut's signature look -- bold and high-contrast. This aesthetic comes through even in the most modest examples. Felix Vallotton's intimate "Three Bathers" from 1894 depicts both the heft of female bodies and the shimmering surface of water with the same clear, economical strokes. Absent shading or color, it conveys the simple pleasures of nature in an equally straightforward medium.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is contemporary artist Artemio Rodriguez's "The Triumph of Death," which aspires to the grandeur of history painting. An allegorical work in the tradition of Durer and Mexican artist Jose Posada -- and based on a composition by Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel -- it's a dense, wall-sized work that's almost overwhelming in its detail and technical virtuosity. A riot of skeletons wreaks havoc on a landscape peppered with pop culture logos: McDonald's, Superman, the rock band KISS. It's a maelstrom of postmodern appropriation, and you could spend hours absorbed in it.
The chance to shine
The show includes some heavy hitters -- Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso -- but its chief pleasures are works by little-known or anonymous artists.
For instance, there are beautiful Tibetan and Indian prints by unknown artists that illustrate religious narratives or were intended as good luck charms. At first, they seem to be from an earlier era, even though some of them were created as late as 1971. As such, they display an aesthetic continuity that encourages us to rethink our definition of the "modern" as a clear break with the past.
Another gem is the work of Czech artist Joseph Vachal. A bookbinder, painter, graphic designer and writer, Vachal worked primarily in woodcut, often in series. His 1912 depiction of the seven deadly sins -- created as a book -- is thoroughly charming and completely idiosyncratic. In his representation of wrath, a bearded, vaguely Japanese demon wrestles with a black cactus-like form. The image for greed is even stranger -- a smiling orange version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon -- and jealousy is portrayed as a one-eyed figure that would be right at home on "The Simpsons." Brightly colored and executed with a crisp, decisive line, Vachal's oddly endearing images are surprisingly contemporary and seem to anticipate current comic-book and illustration styles.
Such unusual works are placed in context by the show's thoughtful, four-part organization. The first section establishes the modern woodcut's link to ancient traditions; the second focuses on prints that expose the grain of the wood; and the third details the medium's use in political activism. The fourth is dedicated to sacred and religious imagery.
Although the first section contains many older works, the show eschews chronology in favor of intriguing dialogues and unexpected similarities between otherwise disparate works.
For example, in the "wood grain" room, there's a lovely portrait of Mexican hero Emiliano Zapata that uses the swirling texture of the wood to merge his face with the contours of the surrounding landscape. The Tibetan prints to its right -- with their religious figures and mandala-like patterns -- initially seem like a non sequitur, an abrupt shift in style, culture and geography. But then you realize that the edges of the Tibetan wood blocks have been left raw, leaving a faint impression of the grain. This detail forges a surprising connection, not only with the Zapata piece but also with nearby works by Edvard Munch, Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys that also bring into play the natural properties of wood.
An enduring appeal
Woodcut's association with nature and traditional culture is a large part of its appeal to modern artists seeking a renewed clarity and honesty of form. But the exhibition also emphasizes two other important features: the medium's affordability and its expressive potential.