From the 15th century onward, artists have been carving, inking and pressing wood blocks to produce a variety of images.
To show how much variety this printing technique produces, Stephen Goddard, the curator of prints at the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, has put together a show culled from the museum's own collection, called "Woodcut: A Technical Appreciation.'' The show, which also will be shown at the Salina Arts Center, runs through Sunday.
Due to a large enrollment in his History of Prints course, Goddard mounted a series of print exhibits in the Spencer to give both students and the public to take long, hard looks at prints. In this particular show, Goddard arranged a series of woodcut prints to illustrate different techniques artists used.
"Artists turn to woodcut in almost an instinctive way," Goddard said. "It's not necessarily low-tech, but to do a woodcut, a wood block and a carving tool is really all you need. It's very direct and intimate.''
TO CREATE A woodcut print, artists carve away areas of a design that are to appear in white; the marks that are left standing out touch the ink and leave lines when the woodblock is pressed to paper. Goddard finds both medieval and modern examples of these kind of prints, including a 15th century Albrecht Durer print called "The Apocalyptic Woman" and a 20th century Max Beckmann print called "Self-Portrait.''
Variations in woodcut prints range from Asian works that incorporate the grain of the wood into the image and colored prints, which use multiple blocks for different colors.
Despite the many different ways artist use woodcut prints, some through-lines can be seen running in the exhibit. For example, many of the woodcuts prints on display lean toward a nearly iconographic form of imagery: They use the cuts and gouges of the knife to make swirling or angular depictions of old stories or feelings.
AS A RESULT, even some of the contemporary prints have a medieval feel to them. The abstract quality of these images carries through from the early Asian and European prints to the works of 20th century artists such as Richard Bosman and Jim Dine.
There are exceptions, such as Louis Auguste Lepere's "La Seine au Pont d'Austerlitz," a wood engraving that has an impressionistic quality. But brooding hints of faces, outlines of monsters and abstract, remorseless black-and-white abstractions seem to be the bill of fare for woodcut prints.
"It may be in part because of the wood," Goddard said. "Artists don't necessarily want to work against the grain, so to speak. A woodcut is going to have certain features, no matter what the personality of the artist, unless the artist is trying to override the medium and make a woodcut that doesn't look like a woodcut at all.''
Goddard selected the prints in the show both for their quality and their ability to demonstrate a particular aspect of woodcut.
"They had to illustrate something, but when I had five examples I picked one of the highest quality or one that hasn't been seen by the public in some time," he said.