Woodcuts Relief Carved and Prints: A Retrospective
February 6 to February 16, 2019
On a blustering, cold winter’s day I traveled to the Westland Gallery in old south London to view the retrospective exhibition of Helmut Becker. Inside the warm gallery which is housed inside a quaint, turn of the century building, several of Becker’s past art works were shown. The printmaking works and the woodcut blocks that they are made from were hung on the walls in the same style as most paintings. Presenting the works in this way impresses their painterly aesthetic upon the viewer as does their composition and subject matter. The importance of this exhibition is also reflected in the fact that the Westland Gallery so rarely hosts one-person shows. A local artist who has shown his work across Canada and throughout the world, Becker has had a profound influence regionally, both through his work and also as a Professor of Printmaking at Western University. It was a special privilege to have been able to see a collection of his work in person in such a lovely setting.
In this exhibition, Becker has created prints using woodcut blocks and incorporated into his work the historical meaning of the material and how it has been traditionally used. The woodcut printmaking method was developed centuries ago for the creation of textiles and later was adapted for the production of manuscripts and books. When any material such as pottery or textiles which were traditionally used for domestic or industrial purposes, is adapted for use in the creation of art, the lines between fine art and craft can become blurred. Through the method of printmaking, Becker creates work that contains strikingly painterly qualities through which the woodcut blocks themselves become a kind of relief sculpture. Ordinarily, when one thinks of printmaking, the printed final product is what comes to mind. However, as is often the case in the arts, the process is a critical and yet usually ignored aspect to the art work. Becker’s educational background and knowledge of art and art history are reflected in the different styles and eras that are evoked within the processes and imagery found in these art works.
The carved woodcut blocks are an integral part of this retrospective exhibition, not only in regards to the creation of the prints, but in themselves. The carved imagery upon these blocks, as well as the prints that were made from these blocks, are both featured. In 1963 the art critic Clement Greenberg suggested to Becker that he not destroy his woodcut blocks, as was the usual practice when an edition of prints was completed. Becker thus becomes not just a printmaker but a kind of sculptor. This exhibition not only sheds light on the process by which art is made but also raises questions about what can be considered as art. Becker has also created sculpture using paper pulp, again utilizing a material that has conventionally been used in the textile industry and presenting it as a creative expression and a work of fine art.
Upon viewing these works, whether they are the prints or the carved woodcut blocks, a tangible sensation of mass and weight was impressed upon me. This effect was accomplished through the density and perceived weight of the carved woodcut blocks on display but was also conveyed by the lines and forms of the imagery. Images are created through varying degrees of deeply and thickly carved lines. Value and depth and a range of patterns are created through various types of line. The process of carving these lines creates sharply angular lines and forms. These forms, which are often geometric and reminiscent of the style of Cubism, creates a sense of mass. The images that Becker portrays are based on traditional modernist style. In particular his subject matter tends to include portraiture, domestic environments and farm scenes. The subject matter and the composition recall the paintings of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. With Rita at Piano, the perspective and scene brings to mind Pierre-Auguste Renoir. There is a painterly, gestural esthetic to Becker’s prints which can be seen in the curvilinear lines that he uses in some of these works. In the print Father Picking Rock Becker depicts a laborer working, using very gestural lines that are reminiscent of the brushstrokes of Vincent van Gogh.
A penetrating sense of the thoughtful and contemplative is also created through the vertical axis on which the depicted imagery often rests. The lines and angles convey a sense of emotion. Another modernist style that Becker has incorporated is seen in the surrealist, dreamlike symbols found in Scissors Sharp Perception. The associations with scissors, of the cutting action of a sharp and potentially dangerous tool, create an aggressive and sinister atmosphere in the scratched-out parts of the woman’s face. Becker also uses contrasts between light and dark – or negative and positive space – to convey emotion in Perplexed.
At first glance Becker’s work might seem to be traditional imagery produced by a traditional printmaking format. However, he is not using this format traditionally but instead brings attention to the materials and process involved in printmaking and in this way presents the entire process of printmaking as a fine art. What is usually reserved for the printmaking industry thus becomes integrated into the visual arts. Choosing woodcut blocks, Becker is using an ancient material and an ancient process to create a contemporary amalgamation; merging the ancient and traditional with the modern and expressive.
Alice Plummer, Art Review for Centred.ca
All images courtesy of Westland Gallery, London, ON