In 2007 I reviewed an exhibition of wood block prints by students at the Government College of Fine Arts and Crafts in Chennai, India, under the instruction of Marcia Neblett, a SCAD professor, who was there teaching on a Fulbright scholarship for five months.
Those works were the first efforts of these students to master a new technique. Perhaps because of their general backgrounds in skilled crafts, the prints were technically impressive, but they seemed to me derivative in imagery, relying too much, as I stated in my review, on copying images of "Hindu gods and goddesses, and Indian genre scenes." Now, 18 months later, an exhibition of new works by these same students show that in the interim they have not only developed inventive and imaginative iconography, but it seems their desire to continue printing coupled with a shortage of the requisite materials, have also led to improvisational techniques.
When Neblett returned from Chennai, she left the students all the woodcutting tools she had brought, with her. But there were not quite enough tools for the number of interested student artists. Nonplused, Ashok Pachaiyappan cut the woodblock for his new print, "The King," using a tool he made himself from the metal skeleton of a broken umbrella. Similarly, Yuvaragan Shanmugan produced the double portrait, "Mr. Lincoln/Mr. Obama," by cutting the image into the block with a nail. The unique texture and light in these two prints would be impossible to achieve with traditional woodworking tools.
Color printing, which involves additional cutting of the block, registering and printing for each color, was something that Neblett only had time to demonstrate. However, in these intervening months, several of the young artists have mastered the technique; I note particularly Vijay Pichumani's prints of festival animal dancers. "Cow Dance," and "Dummy Horse Dance" represent well-known folk performances in which the dancers wear animal costumes. In his "Tiger Dance" the dancer has his face and body painted with the yellow and black stripes of the tiger.
Some of the most interesting and imaginative imagery in the exhibition involves cats. In "Hunting Cat," Prabu Sivalingam presents us with the face and front claws of a cat perched on top of a wall or fence. The cat has a demonic look, complete with a small horn at the top of his head and it looks straight at us as though we were the prey. Vijay Pichumani has two cat prints, one titled, "Dream," in which we see the head of the dreamer/artist from which a mass of cats is emerging, filling the whole large sheet of paper; and in "Mister Meow," he has developed a very intricate technique for his large cat portrait: he seems first to have drawn hundreds of twisty, gestural ink lines on the block, around which he then painstakingly removed the wood with an X-acto blade to produce a print that is made of seemingly infinite fine lines.
Two ideas occur to me looking at this exhibition, and both of them have to do with the pace of life. The sort of lasting relationship that Neblett was able to develop with her Indian students would be impossible, in fact discouraged, for a professor in the U.S. While in India, she spent many hours every day working with the same students, having lunch with them, cups of tea at break time. Under such conditions there is an inevitable breakdown of some of the hierarchic barriers between students and "teacher."
Probably for that very reason, here in the U.S., classes are brief and fragmentary - a dash from one unrelated course to another, one unfamiliar "teacher" to another. My other thought on looking at these prints is that the speed of life in the U.S. militates against this time-consuming printing activity, requiring such quiet attention to detail and unfettered hours to devote to it. For many contemporary artists in this country, even the computer is never fast enough.
From India With Ink
Woodblock Prints at Asa H.Gordon Library, Savannah State University, through April 24