Many people have observed that the best activities are easy to learn but difficult to master—the bar for entry remains low, but achieving mastery comes at great effort. This measure seems to be particularly apt when it comes to the art of block printmaking—an age-old egalitarian art form that boasts dramatic potential and has been innovated decade after decade. Block printmaking, in its purest sense is a relief image cut into a piece of wood (and more contemporarily, linoleum). The negative space gets carved out, so that everything that will be inked is left raised on the surface. The block is then slicked with ink and pressed by hand or with a machine onto paper. This particular craft has a rich history worldwide, but in an exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum and in a corresponding book, both titled The Carved Line, the unrepressed history of block printmaking in New Mexico is articulated across timelines, cultures and in thoughtful text penned by curator Josie Lopez, as well as a host of contemporary New Mexican artists working in the medium, who describe the work in their own words.
“Gustave Baumann was famous for saying that he wanted to make beautiful things that were accessible and affordable,” Lopez explained when we spoke over the phone as she cut a line north up I-25 from El Paso on her way back to Albuquerque. Baumann, figuring prominently in both the exhibition and the book, clearly valued the workaday roots and accessibility of block printmaking. This particular medium utilizes inexpensive tools, and is relatively straightforward in its practice, critically allowing artists to make multiples of a piece relatively easily. “The democratization and making [the art] accessible is something that many block artists, and many printmakers for that matter, see as something elemental to that kind of art making,” Lopez continued. A byproduct of that, of course, is that it makes owning art all the more attainable for an average person who doesn't have thousands to drop on an original painting, for example. That doesn't mean, however, that printmaking is a less valuable or exacting art expression.
The Carved Line, in both its iteration as an exhibition and in book form, does well to illuminate the extreme technical capacity of the artists featured. “Particularly when you see them in person, you get a sense that [the artists] aren't just engaging with what they see visually, but what they feel tactilely and emotionally about these landscapes,” Lopez elucidated. She also gushed with palpable respect for artists like Howard Cook, who “when he expresses an adobe home he really takes geometric forms and creates heavy, static buildings, and uses line to bring it all to life … allowing there to be some kind of motion, like snow drifts in the alleyway.” This particular example speaks to the ways in which New Mexico distinctly lends itself to the works featured. “The visuality of the desert, the expansiveness that has always been iconic about New Mexico, and also the different groups of people … traversing those relationships between the different groups … in terms of both difficulties and the exchange of ideas, that makes a lot of the artwork interesting and unique,” said Lopez.
The interplay between cultures is something crucial to what plays out across the vast rooms in the museum and in all 200 or so pages of the book. “It doesn't shy away from the antagonism of history,” Lopez said pointedly, “and it also doesn't eradicate the fact that there were clearly relationships and friendships and the sharing of ideas. That is one example of how, through this one particular medium, it traverses both a larger dialogue around block printmaking in terms of the art historical narrative, as well as the New Mexico story.” The Carved Line puts many lenses to that story, emphasizing the expression of Native American and Hispanic artists in the broader narrative, as well as the stories of women who've spent their lives carving and pressing images into paper. “We didn't want it to be exclusive to a particular group or gender, but to talk about how all these stories intersected and continue to intersect and create the art historical narrative of New Mexico,” Lopez explained.
For Lopez and others who worked on this exhibit, those stories prominently guided their selections. “The canon is established, it has been for a long time,” she continued. “There were obvious selections and I did want to pay homage to those artists, but the interesting thing was then trying to figure out who else to include. I think it had to do with the quality of the art itself, in terms of the technical aspects of it, but also it had to do with interesting stories.” And in the process of uncovering the many connections and underlying narratives, the main themes of the show revealed themselves to Lopez: place, time and movement, “how [artists] are connecting with the past, as well as forging new ground into the future,” as Lopez put it. There are multiple venues in which to intertwine your own story with the depictions of New Mexico in its block prints—The Carved Line will play out across the walls of the Albuquerque Museum's West Gallery until April 16 and will endure long after in the pages of the book of the same title, now available through Museum of New Mexico Press.