From Mexico, inventive and independent printmakers

THE WEDGE — At the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolitans have access to the thousands of original prints that comprise one of the largest and best-regarded collections in the country.

Every year, print aficionados flock to the museum by the hundreds for its annual print and drawing sale.

This, Artemio Rodriguez would point out, is an important difference between printmaking culture in the U.S., where he lived for more than a decade, and Mexico, where he is currently building a new house and studio.

"The difference with the U.S. is, in Mexico, collecting hasn’t been as important," Rodriguez said.

With only a small group of institutional and private buyers to sell to, Mexican printmakers must branch out into animation, marketing and other areas to make ends meet. Rodriguez, for instance, incorporated printmaking into a Mexican advertising campaign he designed for Vans, the California sneaker company.

"We have to invent and find ways to apply printmaking to other things," he said, speaking by cell phone as he walked down a rainy street in Tacambaro, his hometown in the Mexican state of Michoacán.

That inventiveness is on display in "Graphic Reality: Mexican Printmaking Today," a collection of work by young Mexican printmakers Rodriguez curated last fall for the International Print Center New York. The traveling exhibition has made its way to Highpoint Center for Printmaking, where it runs through November.

"I want to show that printmaking is alive in Mexico, and it’s doing a lot of interesting stuff," he said.

Rodriguez, the co-founder of La Mano Press in Los Angeles, noted there is an upside to having fewer potential buyers: Printmakers are under less pressure to cater to the market’s tastes.

"It also keeps them independent," he said.

As Rodriguez assembled the show, he found young printmakers working in a wide variety of styles who were not afraid to experiment with, say, silk-screened skateboards. "Graphic Reality" reflects that diversity, displaying those skateboards, animation clips, and street art alongside more traditional lithographs, relief prints, and etchings.

What united the artists, though, was the ink on their hands and the long hours of labor in the studio.

"I tried to pick artists who are working with traditional printmaking techniques, who work in the studio or have worked in the studio," he said.

As Rodriguez spoke, a truck selling propane for use in home kitchens passed him on the street in Tacambaro. Blaring music and a salesman’s pitch amplified by a loudspeaker temporarily cut off the phone conversation.

When asked about the influence of Mexican culture on the prints in the show, Rodriguez said it is sometimes overt — as in Joel Redón’s 2002 woodcut, "La Cucaracha, la cucaracha" — but added the interplay between environment and art is more often subtle and complex.

Highpoint holds annual international exhibits, such as last year’s survey of contemporary prints from Japan. But this is the first exhibit to focus exclusively on Mexico, said studio director Joanne Price.

The story was similar in almost every city the exhibit has shown. It’s either the first show of Mexican prints, or the first in a long time. In fact, for a number of the artists in "Graphic Reality," this exhibition marks their U.S.

Back in Tacambaro, Rodriguez was working to make sure it wouldn’t be the last.

"Tomorrow, I have my first big class here," he said.

He was teaching about 20 young students to create prints, stencils and murals, techniques they would deploy in an upcoming political campaign.

"One of the leftist parties here," was how Rodriguez explained it.

Printmaking is a notoriously technical and labor-intensive craft. But Rodriguez said the tradition lives on because a few people, like him, are attracted to that demanding process and the remarkable results.

"Once they print the plate, they’re like, ‘This is magic!’"