Art Review Archives:
Heartland Cafe (Restaurant)
Even before Gutenberg's Bible, artists cut images into wood and metal blocks for the printing of multiple copies. In the Renaissance, when art split into the categories of Fine and Applied, 'Graphic Art,' such as the woodcut, came to shoulder the task of 'meaning.' Even today, 'graphic' is often used as a synonym for 'overt,' 'communicative.' Which is not to belie its aesthetic potential: from Albrecht Durer and Ruebens, through the French Impressionists and German Expressionists, into the current century, the woodcut has a distinguished legacy and displays a surprising versatility for artistic expression and for effective social impact.
Chicago artist Carlos Cortez has over many years produced an impressive contribution to art as engagee communication -- woodcuts for a cause, paintings with a purpose. His motivations range from love -- for people, for places, for beliefs, to anger and outrage -- at injustice, suffering, human folly. Carlos Cortez is his art, and both are outspoken. They declare much of lasting importance, and since they declare well and with honest conviction, "Last Stand of the Millennium," now on exhibit at Chicago's Heartland Cafe, is well worth taking in. The paintings and woodcut/linoleum prints of Carlos Cortez will be displayed until January 16, 2000.
Carlos Cortez began as a painter and turned to linoleum prints in the late 1950s. The artist recalls that in the 1970s and 1980s the price of linoleum kept rising, and it was then that he turned to woodcuts using any type of wood available, even discarded cabinet doors and desktops. Wood has a character of its own, complete with knots and flaws as well as serendipitous fine grains and suggestive flows. The difficulties and rewards are multiplied when the wood has been previously fashioned or set by a prior use. Although art and message are foremost for Cortez, he has developed a rapport with wood. His woodcuts display a finer, more concentrated working than materials such as linoleum. The linoleum prints often show a greater economy of image; direct, strong and more stylized. He has been described as self-taught, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that over many years his materials and his talent have taught him, and given him the language for his beliefs and feelings. The art and man are one; at times advocate and at times observer. They contain both manifesto and poetry, in short, language.
First and foremost, the artist is a gentle man, one whose beliefs arise out of love and compassion, rather than doctrinaire constructs. John Pittman Weber summarizes Cortez's career in his foreword to Bold Images, the catalogue for Cortez's September 1998 exhibition at the Elmhurst Art Museum, Illinois. In Bold Images, Weber notes that "In 1965, Cortez went to Greece and returned with Marianna, his lifelong companion." Cold is the Night, Warm is Our Bed (Woodcut: 1992) was created from a sketch Cortez did of his wife. A deep empathy for an all too human partner pervades the work; warm fellowship -- at peace, sleeping, secure in bed... what the artist indeed reveres and wishes for all. The white contours are formed on the black ground by graceful, well balanced line relief. The composition, in its formal, almost decorative arrangement recalls the Tahitian woodcuts of Paul Gauguin. The artist's initials in block are accompanied by a coyote, a personal signature symbol which Cortez has taken on.
In much of his social sympathies, Cortez is very much kindred soul to the anti-authoritarianism of artists such as Camille Pissaro, Paul Signac, Jean Francois Millet. But, in style and execution, Cortez's work clearly places him at the populist legacy of Mexican artists, beginning with Jose Gaudalupe Posada, and expanded upon at the Taller de Grafica Popular of the 1930s and 1940s (Mexico City). One sees the themes and the direct imagery which add impact to so much of the graphics of David Alfaro Siqueiros and Leopoldo Mendez. Affinities with, and divergencies from these traditions are what has formed Carlos Cortez as a painter and as a printmaker.
Art historian, Ralph E. Shikes, in The Indignant Eye notes: "Many of the Neo-Impressionists were diehard anarchists, with a compassionate feeling for the poor and an idealistic attachment to a socialist society organized along community lines." Shikes quotes Pissaro -- "I firmly believe that something of our ideas ... passes into our works which are thus antipathetic to the current trend," -- and comments: "By their understatement, the Neo-Impressionist anarchists were not so much protesting against as speaking up for the dignity of the workingman and especially the peasant." In content, many of Cortez's images, for example Field Workers (Linocut: 1966) or Miners from New Mexico (Woodcut: 1991), would be hailed by Pissaro, Millet, Signac. Cortez celebrates human lives: His art is so very often 'for,' an advocacy, rather than 'against,' an opposition. The 'Neo-Impressionists' had weathered failed revolution and reaction. The Taller's experience was different...
The Taller was born in 1937, a peak of the Mexican Revolution under Cardenas, and its tradition is often darker, activist, revolutionary -- 'against.' Cortez's art does accord with much of those artists' concerns and imageries, but distance, evolution and the artist's own gentleness of spirit bring less chance for stridency, expediency... 'propaganda.' Shikes noted that "Protest Art is certainly far more effective when emotion and technical skill are in harmony." Many of Cortez's pieces harken to native traditions of Mexico, and the gifts, maize, potatoes, foods and arts, which the New World gave to mankind, a fact often glossed over in contemporary life. These treasures and their originators are themes for the artist, born, not imperatively to indite unknowing heirs of their dispossesors, but of pride and celebration, homage. Interestingly, the artist in many prints references the traditional Calaveras, skeletons and skulls a la Danse Macabre. And true to the genre, they are comic, wry, at times satiric; but not frightening or morbid. In this, Cortez's art, celebrating ideals and common humanity, achieves an attraction which is difficult for many artists today. In The Indignant Eye, Shikes observes: "... it is far easier to portray the specific evils of war than to show an abstract vision of peace. ...But when the underdog is shown in action against the villain, the art usually seems falsely heroic and does not attract our sympathy." This is not the case in the paintings and prints of Carlos Cortez.
Cortez, like his chosen symbol, the Coyote, can employ sly irony: enough to engage a viewer and prompt questioning. The Gilded Age (Linocut: 1992), with text in German, Spanish and English, portrays four immigrant sweat shop girls -- the labor upon which the Gilded Age stood. This was commissioned for an exhibition at the Near North West Art Coalition on Milwaukee Avenue. And the direct, taciturn image belies the title of Chicago's 'Reign of Money.' It throws wordless questions to the viewer; questions to elicit counterquestions in response. The link is immediate and graphic. Here, 'Gilt' becomes 'Guilt' more readily than anger can ever become curiosity. In this subtle subtext versus image, Cortez's instinctive feel for incongruities echoes the approach of artists such as Frans Masereel and Lynn Ward (kindred souls in sympathies, as well).
Carlos Cortez's has put his art to service for The Industrial Worker, United Farm Workers, and many such groups; he has exhibited in Mexico City ("A Traves de la Frontera"), and Berlin ("Das Andere Amerika"); as well as in such showings as "Committed to Print" (Museum of Modern Art, 1988). Since 1994, he is represented in the collections of the National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC. A 20-page catalogue of the 1998 "Bold Images" exhibition (Elmhurst Art Museum) devotes four large pages to his life and art, and, in what is a tribute to Cortez's dedication and sincerity, the catalogue notes: "He refuses to limit his editions or number his prints. He has provided that further copies should be pulled posthumously in order to hold down the price." True to his beliefs, and the original spirit of the print, he seeks to disseminate his art; to all and for all, for all time.
Along with his paintings and prints, Cortez is represented by three volumes of art and verse. Readers with a further interest should seek out: De Kansas a Califas & Back to Chicago: Poems and Art (Abrazo Press: 1992), and Where Are the Voices?: And Other Wobbly Poems (Charles H. Kerr: 1997), both by Chicago publishing houses. His verse is also included in Emergency Tacos: Seven Poets Con Picante (Abrazo Press: 1989), for which he did the cover art. Several Cortez prints are included as well in Second Sight: Printmaking in Chicago 1935-1995 (Mary and Leigh Block Gallery, Northwestern University: 1996).
"Last Stand of the Millennium: An Exhibition of Paintings and Woodcut Prints" by Carlos Cortez will be on exhibit until January 16, 2000 at the Heartland Cafe, 7000 North Glenwood, Chicago (Tel: 773/ 465-8005). Those wishing to purchase art may contact the artist at his Chicago studio: 733/ 935-6188. Carlos Cortez is his art, and both are outspoken. These twenty prints and four paintings offer much of lasting importance. An artist imbues his art with what he has to give; and Cortez has honest conviction, skill, a rich life. It is a show worth visiting. And Heartland Cafe offers a full restaurant menu; food for the spirit, and for the flesh.
--G. Jurek Polanski