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Universal Archetypes and the Human Touch PDF Print E-mail
Art - Reviews
Written by Johanna Welzenbach-Hilliard   
Tuesday, 21 June 2005 18:00
Artist Adrian Tio Diaz produces museum-quality work. His skillfully-executed linocut block prints are bold and forceful, with images of a primal nature – symbolic and often disturbing. His current exhibit at the Quad City Arts Center features prints from books he has illustrated. The books and the mounted prints are on display through July along with American Workers – portraits and sculptures by Nancy Plotkin & Margaret Lanterman. This particular exhibit is, hands down, the best one I’ve seen so far at Quad City Arts.

Diaz is a Puerto Rican born in the Midwest. He grew up in the suburbs speaking English, but he feels “the passionate sensitivity of my Latino heritage.” Shy of his own ethnicity, he uses his art as a way of bringing his two cultures together. Describing his prints in his artist’s statement, he writes, “The works are hybrids; they combine elements of both mainstream America and exotic Hispania.”

These unusual combinations can be seen in the prints from his book Hill of a Star/El Cerro de la Estrella. In Pagan Martyrs, Diaz mixes Christianity with paganism in the profile of what could be a Central or South American Indian, his face marked in tribal paint in the image of a cross made of bones. The Indian’s expression is fierce and his mouth is wide open, exhaling flames or spewing a torrent of angry words.

Archangel of Darkness is a gaunt, frightening figure bearing a cross, encircled in shadow, which resembles the shield of a Knight Templar. In the background is etched a wing over his right shoulder, a death’s head over his left. And in El Diablo, a man’s sad face is superimposed on the chest of the bestial/human body of the devil.

Diaz’ prints are jarring. They depict a world of universal archetypes – good, evil, the trickster, the weak, and the strong. Then Rabbit Leapt reveals the clever nature of the rabbit as it eludes an attacking serpent and a ferocious four-legged animal, and in My Twin, the moon’s wise face gazes down at the sun’s fearsome visage.

Howard McCord, Poet, whose deeply-lined face and poignant expression stares out of the frame, is like the striking prints I remember seeing in my mother’s childhood copy of Wuthering Heights – Heathcliffe looking morose or angry, Catherine suffering and in love.

Diaz’s prints, with their frightening and haunting figures, have the same nightmarish quality as the illustrations in my book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, with the original gruesome endings. (Rather than escaping the witch, children were eaten by her!) The block-print art form, with its simple and expressive images, lends itself extremely well to storytelling.

Also found in this exhibit are several mixed-media images that feature bilingual poems (in Spanish and English) illustrated by Diaz, with the layout designed by a third person. For instance, in El Manipulador and La Penumbra, the poet is Gerry Smith, the illustrator is Diaz, and the designer is Russell McKnight.

These pictures are a powerful way to embellish equally powerful poems. Diaz’s linocuts give even greater meaning to the printed words they illustrate. I was particularly drawn to the poem Counting Sheep, which compares insomnia to a wolf that eats sheep (sleep). Diaz has created the image of a tortured skull face – Yeah, that’s how I feel when I can’t sleep! – flanked by the snout of a snarling wolf on one side and the mouth of a tranquil sheep on the other. He is just as humorous as he is talented.

In their show entitled American Workers, painter Nancy Plotkin and sculptor Margaret Lanterman have collaborated to “depict people who work with their hands.” They write in their artists’ statement, “What we represent in these sculptural and painted portraits is the dignity of the individual worker ... and the sense that these hands are instruments of the mind.”

The portraits are hung along the east and north sides of the gallery and their accompanying sculptures, composed mostly of hands and arms, are mounted on pedestals – and sometimes on the wall beneath them. These three-dimensional limbs were created in a pose that the persons depicted want to be remembered by. For instance, in the portrait Signer, the woman is saying something in sign language, and the plaster sculpture mimics the position of her hands in the portrait.

Keiko, a housekeeper, is a compelling portrait of a young Japanese (maybe Japanese/American) woman. Her round face, with its full mouth and wistful eyes, tells the story of patience – a quality essential to carrying out tedious, repetitive tasks. However, her hand cradling the ankle of her calloused, wrinkled foot, tells another story, one of the aches and pains a housekeeper has to endure.

Sam, a foundry worker, has huge hands with long thick fingers and square nails. One hand grasps a tool, while the other is outstretched, as if preparing to hold something. His hands appear self-assured and confident, as if they have been doing this work for years. Sam’s face is strong with a challenging gaze. He looks serious, but one sees the inkling of a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth, like he’s always ready to laugh.

I was struck by the attitude in Rocky, a boxer. The young man is painted from the waist up, and one can partially see the tattoo “Martinez” on his stomach. He looked to me like an ancient Aztec warrior. He wears gold hoops in his ears and has small, piercing brown eyes and a long, broad nose, with deep creases around his large mouth. Lanterman teases the viewer with a sculpture of just half his torso, with one arm crossed over the other in what could be a defensive posture.

The portrait of Nina the midwife was very touching. She has expressive eyes that look as though they have seen many things, both wondrous and horrific, while she has performed her midwife’s duties. Her hand gently supports a woman’s knee as she raises it up during delivery.

I was greatly enthused by this show. I love how the sculptures complement the portraits. The plaster limbs help to flesh out (no pun intended) the lives and personalities of the many hard-working Americans featured here. I look forward to Plotkin’s and Lanterman’s next collaboration.
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