Art review: 'White on Black: The Modernist Prints of Paul Landacre'
The Pasadena Museum of California Art displays Landacre's work from the 1930s and '40s.
Paul Landacre, American, 1893-1963, "Children's Carnival," 1940. (Courtesy of Joseph and Elayne Landacre collection / November 9, 2012)
Few dates are supplied to the two dozen or so prints (none bigger than a sheet of computer paper) that hang in the side gallery, adjacent to and concurrent with the overview of designer Greta Magnusson Grossman. It's well worth the effort to walk past the larger area, tune out the mid-century moderne, and immerse in the little enclave of Landacre's Depression-era modernism. Quaintness clings to the some of the black and white pictorialism that dates much of the work. But the images often use semi-geometric shapes for organic items (people, landscapes) and brilliant chiaroscuro that are the work of a fine graphic designer.
Engraving is reductive: digging into wood or metal surfaces in a focused manner to produce an image. The engraved area reads as white space, the unmarked portion takes the ink and prints. Landacre drew his preliminary sketch onto a carefully selected and prepared wood block, then meticulously cut away his white areas up to where the black lines or shapes would be. In effect, he reversed the process, making it twice as difficult. He achieved highlights, shadings and gradations by engraving the white lines and crosshatches into dark areas.
Though there's no record of a connection between the two (Landacre lived and worked in Echo Park and taught at the Otis Art Institute), that motif lay dormant until South Bay artist Rick Griffin created his own stylization of white striations to light the darks of his drawings for the rock posters, album covers and Zap Comix of the late 1960s. Griffin used the markedly easier Rapidograph pen.
Though these Landacre pieces were largely the product of the Great Depression, his depictions are often optimistic. A downtrodden woman dominates the shantytown scene of “Monday,” offset by the celebratory “Children's Carnival” and the lush jungle exotica of “Reina” and “Forest Girl.” A populist depiction of farm workers that could have been the antecedent of Whole Foods murals contrasts an idyllic reclining nude (“Sultry Day”) and a girl gathering berries in a clearing (“June A.M.”).
“Storm” brings to mind the Eastern Seaboard modernism of Rockwell Kent, but the latter was under the sway of art deco and streamline modern. Not so Landacre. He stylized landforms in “Dark Mountain” and “Demeter,” melding them with female shapes. The sensual rolling configurations are gently suggestive, rather than starkly literal. For all of the laborious process of Landacre's work, his images often have a light touch.
A touch of gravitas to the installation is the 19th Century cast-iron printing press that Landacre used. The decorative relief filament that festoons the frame of the unit, the scratched and smudged bed where the paper sat, and the smooth, ink-stained wooden handles give an idea of the physicality of the printing process. It contrasts what must have been a solitary, delicate, painstaking procedure to engraving the blocks. It doesn't take much imagination to consider how the exactness of his detail work could easily have been turned to counterfeiting. His triumph was using minutiae to serve images that often dance and exalt the human condition.
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.
What: White on Black: The Modernist Prints of Paul Landacre
Where: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 East Union St., Pasadena.
When: Through Feb. 24, 2013. Open noon to 5 p.m. Wed.-Sun.
Contact: (626) 568-3665, www.pmcaonline.org