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March 14, 2004
Art Pick of the Week

Etch a sketch

Collection of prints makes laborious process look easy
By Victoria Dalkey, The Sacramento Bee Art Correspondent

"Amish Doll" by Gordon Cook is among the etchings on display at b. sakata garo through April 3.
Intaglio prints, or etchings, as they are more commonly known, have a long history dating to the medieval practice of etching designs on armor with acid. David Hopfer (1493-1536), an etcher of armor, is thought to have made the first intaglio print by inking and printing an etched iron plate. But etching didn't come into its own until the 17th century, when virtuoso etchers Rembrandt van Rijn and Hercules Seghers brought the medium to new heights of versatility and subtlety, and made etching the most popular graphic art of the time.

Over the years since Rembrandt's days, famous painter-etchers such as Francisco Goya, James McNeill Whistler, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall have made great contributions to the medium, which today is still considered by many the pre-eminent graphic arts technique. A chance to see some top-notch etchings by contemporary California artists is offered by "Made in California," a show of 24 years of prints produced at David Kelso's workshop in Oakland. It's up at the b. sakata garo gallery.

Etching is a demanding medium, one in which the artist must think forward, backward and in reverse at the same time. An etching is made by an artist drawing with a steel needle on an acid-resistant ground applied to a polished metal plate, usually copper but sometimes zinc.

The lines drawn with the needle expose areas of the plate, which is placed in an acid bath that etches the exposed metal. After a time, the plate is removed and some of the lines are stopped out with varnish to create fainter lines, while others are left untouched so that they can be etched more deeply to produce darker tones. The process is repeated until the artist is satisfied with the results. Thus a range of tonal effects may be produced in a single plate.

After the plate is etched, it is cleaned and then inked and wiped, leaving the ink in the etched lines only. Proofs are pulled by running the inked plate and sheets of damp paper through an etching press, producing a reversed image of the drawing on the plate.

Confused? Just imagine what the artist goes through to produce a complex plate, which may also employ such methods as aquatint, sugar lift, spit bite and drypoint in addition to basic line etching.

It's rare nowadays to find etcher-artists who produce their own prints as Rembrandt did. Workshops such as like Kelso's Made in California Press and Kathan Brown's Crown Point Press in San Francisco offer technical assistance to artists who want to gain a wider audience for their works through intaglio prints. These workshops produce small, limited editions of prints by artists both famous -- Wayne Thiebaud and Sol LeWitt at Crown Point -- and less well known but wonderfully talented -- Enrique Chagoya and Mark Adams at Made in California. Unlike the ubiquitous, ersatz giclée prints, these are truly rare and original artworks.

Kelso's own prints -- rich and whimsical abstractions with fleshy pink forms and brightly colored doodles -- usher you into the show. These color hard-and soft-ground etchings with aquatint, engraving and burnishing are tour-de-force prints that show off the wide range of effects available to a master etcher.

The show exhibition ranges from Gertrude Bleiberg's "Edgewood," a simple monochromatic line etching of a blowsy garden on a windy spring day, to Beth Van Hoesen's highly refined "Traci," a stunning image of a young, punk beauty with the range, depth and subtlety of a Japanese woodblock print.

With more than 60 works on view, it's impossible to point out all of the outstanding works in the show. Among them are a number of strong pieces by Bay Area abstract expressionist Jack Jefferson, an incisive self-portrait by Bay Area figurative painter Theophilus Brown and a pair of charming scenes of old Monterey by August Gay (1890-1948), who was one of the Society of Six painters who were among California's first modernists. We usually associate Gay's work with strong color, but these black-and-white etchings show the solid structure and fine drawing that anchored his work.

For me, the strongest works in the show are by Chagoya and Gordon Cook, who is represented not only by his amazingly wrought etchings but by a trio of small bronze sculptures of his iconic stick figures, which were cast at Made in California. Cook died in 1985, and some of his works, like Gay's, were posthumously printed and cast by permission of his estate.

Chagoya's postmodern takes on art history are subtle, multilayered prints full of wry humor and hints of pathos. "Artista del Hambre" is a small print that places figures in a maplike plan of modern art and political movements. It's a charming takeoff on art-world politics.

"Untitled (Velasquez Princess)" offers the crude outline of a modern girl's face laid over a ghostly image of the Spanish painter's portrait of the Infanta Margherita. Surrounding the image, in an ironic counterpoint, are small drawings of cartoon characters from Little Lulu to Olive Oyl.

The elegant Helene Fourment, the wife of 17th century Dutch painter Peter Paul Rubens, is a ghostly eminence in "Untitled (Wife of Rubens)." Her whispered image, like a faint blood stain, wears a raw, juicy T-bone steak where her heart would be. It's a jarring and disturbing image leavened with humorous drawings in the margins of figures from contemporary popular culture.

Cook was underappreciated during his lifetime, but since his death he has become widely admired for his haunting metaphysical still-life images and windswept landscapes of the Delta and marshlands around Point Richmond. He was also a powerful independent printmaker in the Rembrandt tradition, as the etchings on view at b. sakata garo demonstrate. These are incredibly rich and detailed prints, every mark made with authority and emotion, the posthumous editions printed reverently by Kelso.

"Amish Doll" is a knockout on all levels. The richness and range of tonal effects and the subtlety of color are amazing in this haunted image of a faceless doll in a cloak and bonnet. Freighted with a sense of anonymity and loss, it compels us to examine our notions of childhood, play and mortality. This emblem of lost innocence, rejected materialism and transitory pleasures packs a powerful punch.

Similarly compelling are two untitled etchings of wooden figures with heads like blocks or wood chips, homely twigs for noses and stick-like arms and legs. Again Cook chooses for an image a humble, homemade toy who stands in for our longings. A toy for the impoverished, the stick figure nevertheless speaks for simple human ingenuity and the need for play, even as it speaks of an existential loneliness and sense of despair.

The bronze stick figures -- one on ice skates, another in a boxing pose, a third walking up an incline -- seem somehow less moving than the printed images. The translation into three dimensions in a costly material makes them a bit precious, almost verging on cute, which is not what they were intended to be.

Several small etchings of watery marshes and Delta sloughs with simple structures -- a barn, a tower, a tall antenna -- give us a taste of Cook's wizardry with landscape images. These densely drawn, graphically rich prints posit a still, preternaturally lonely world cut off from the hurly-burly of modern life and its distractions.

Made in California Intaglio Editions: 24 Years of Prints

WHERE: b. sakata garo, 923 20th St.

WHEN: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through April 3

INFORMATION: (916) 447-4276