Taiwan, in prints

At Highpoint show, artwork reflects the islandÂ’s complex history and cultural influences

A woodcut print by Taiwanese artist Rui-zhi Xu. Credit: Submitted image

THE WEDGE — When he first arrived in Taichung in west-central Taiwan in 2008, Jon Renzella found work teaching English in a “buxiban,” the typically for-profit cram schools where students drill in a variety of academic disciplines late into the evening.

Before leaving Minneapolis, the Jerome Residency-winning printmaker had been putting in 11-hours shifts at Punch Neapolitan Pizza in exchange for a few free days each week “to be an artist.” In that respect, Renzella’s situation at the buxiban was an improvement. He worked just 20 hours a week — enough to get by in a city with roughly half the cost-of-living as Minneapolis — and had plenty of free time for printmaking.

Five years later, Renzella is running the non-profit Lei Gallery out of a three-story house in Taichung he shares with another artist and a pair of musicians. The 2006 Minneapolis College of Art and Design graduate returned to his old stomping grounds at Highpoint Center for Printmaking in September with a clutch of prints by Taiwanese artists, mainly residents of his adopted city and nearby Miaoli.

They are prints that often reflect the island’s cocktail of cultural influences, with contributions from both China and the United States, as well Asia’s two major pop culture exporters, Japan and South Korea. For Renzella, that particularly Taiwanese flavor is best expressed in a piece by Jessica Tao, an artist who’d gone to school in the U.S. and who was one of the first printmakers he met in Taichung.

In a frenetic piece Tao described to him as a traditional Chinese god “going to America to watch (the Taiwanese-American Houston Rocket) Jeremy Lin” play basketball, Tao depicts the three-headed, six-armed deity gripping American cultural artifacts — including McDonald’s french fries, a bottle of Coke and both an iPhone and a Steve Jobs biography — while rocketing toward the viewer on flaming roller skates. The bold, hyperactive line work owes something to seinen manga, or Japanese comics for boys, but the print also incorporates decorative elements from traditional Chinese painting, like the yin-yang symbol stamped in the lower left-hand corner.

“This shows the country of Taiwan in one print,” Renzella said.

The work of Zi-wei Hong has little of that cartoon gloss, and it’s tempting to read political messages into prints like somber, scratchy “Button People,” featuring human forms as the fasteners on a jacket. Like another Hong piece depicting a colorful animal menagerie locked inside a birdcage, it seems to hint at a culture of repression, possibly during its authoritarian recent past, before a turn toward democracy in the 1990s.

From Renzella’s ex-pat perspective, it can feel like the entire island is living through an “identity crisis,” as he put it, stemming from its complex relationship with mainland China, from which Taiwan is politically distinct but not technically independent. The split dates to the end of China’s civil war, when, as communist forces were sealing their victory in 1949, millions of Chinese nationalists retreated to Taiwan.

The island’s free market economy also fed decades of fast-paced urbanization. Tao’s partner, Max Chang, also printmaker, depicts a pocket of the city not yet engulfed by the concrete jungle in “Slow Living,” featuring a cat wandering a narrow street lined by wood-framed shops.

Nothing evokes the island’s tropical climate as powerfully as Rui-zhi Xu’s ravishing garden scene in muted tones of orange, yellow and green that vibrate against patches of intense purple-blue.

Overlapping foliage creates a harmonious patchwork of texture and color, made all the more remarkable by Xu’s technique. The woodcut is a reduction print, made by carving the block a bit, then printing one layer of color, then going back to carve some more — an unforgiving process that leaves little room for error.

Renzella’s own contribution is a large woodcut that combines all of his favorite Taichung landmarks into one scene, from a gaudy karaoke bar to one of the ubiquitous 7-11s found on nearly every corner to an abandoned amusement park amid the countryside’s rice paddies. There’s a betel nut stand, where vendors hawk the stimulant wrapped up with a slice of lime, and one of the funeral tents that will occasionally take over a side street for an all-day gathering. He borrows a distant, aerial perspective on the cityscape from Chinese painting.

Renzella was enjoying a bit of anonymity during his brief return trip to Minneapolis. Unlike cosmopolitan Taipei, not many westerners make their homes in Taichung, and so he tends to stand out. But he’s also used that to his advantage, and the idea behind Lei Gallery was creating a place where foreign and Taiwanese artists could meet and mingle.

“I was trying to think of things I could do in my unique position, because I’m really lucky to be accepted,” he said.

 "Lost in Taiwan" by John Renzella

Contemporary Prints from Central Taiwan

When: Through Nov. 23

Where: Highpoint Center for Printmaking, 912 W. Lake St.

Info: highpointprintmaking.org, 871-1326