Prints, Personal and Political: Elizabeth Catlett returns to the South Side Community Art Center

The South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) is like one of those half-forgotten, yet deeply comforting places found in dreams: walking along a Bronzeville city street, you suddenly find yourself at an old, worn Edwardian house that seems to tower over the surrounding buildings. Opening the door of the distinctive little castle, you come upon a large gallery of shiny oak parquet. With luck, there may be a crowd of locals gossiping inside the main gallery, and perhaps even a man at the piano playing “When the Saints Come Marching In,” with an impromptu chorus. In short, this gallery is quite warming, memorable, and intimate.

These are some of the things that make the SSCAC an ideal gallery for an exhibition by noted print artist and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett. Her emotionally powerful portraits and politically-loaded prints demand closer attention, and reward studiers of the powerful brow of “Paulina” (2003) or the interlocked bodies of “Dancing” (2003) for a little longer. Catlett’s works seem to balance an incredible sense of detail with an almost primitive simplicity of form. “The Torture of Mother” (1970) depicts a dramatically wrought male head with the sprawling figure of a corpse overlaid on top. The detailed realistic human form evokes more emotion than a simple cutout of a dead man ever could.

Catlett creates prints that communicate a certain emotional trauma to the viewer in a highly accessible, dramatic way. This is hardly surprising, considering her past work with El Taller de Gráfica Popular (People’s Graphic Arts Workshop), a Mexican art collective founded in 1937. A brainchild of some of the most prominent artists of the time, the People’s Graphic Arts Workshop sought to create prints that would effectively communicate with the working class. Catlett herself rose to prominence in the Mexico art scene and lives there to this day. Her mixed artistic and political background has given her a fascinating view of the world that shines through in her artwork.

Interestingly enough, the pieces displayed at the SSCAC very rarely touch on politics directly, with the sole exception of the graphic political cartoon “Latin America says No” (1968). The best works are the ones that showcase Catlett’s keen wit: “The Girls” (1982) shows cheerful little faces encased in monochromatic spheres. The effect is subtly creepy, though other works are not so subtle: “Marriage” (1992) shows a wonderfully rendered image of a newlywed couple kissing, but there is an image cutting into the bottom of the picture of a man with legs spread, tied up and drowning on a red background. The clash between the green background of the marriage scene and the bloody red of the hanging is dramatic, but it seems too obvious in comparison with the pathos of “The Torture of Mother.”

Catlett’s work often seems to set out for bold, distinctive images, which means that some of the quieter pieces have a tremendous impact. Her portraits use black and white to express some kind of emotion: “Paulina” stares at the viewer with her strong brow and Roman nose, while the “Mujer Indeyna” (1973) looks away from the viewer with sadness written on her worn face. Catlett also displays a few more fantastical portraits: “African Girl” (1970) depicts a statue with a face that seems alive. It is one thing to make art that has tremendous visual power, but another thing to do so while retaining a sense of humanity. Catlett’s works step into that place–using the basic black and white of prints, she creates nuanced, thoughtful, emotional works. One might say she fits in at the unprepossessing old Edwardian home of wonders.

South Side Community Arts Center, 3831 S. Michigan Ave. Through December 20. Wednesday-Friday, noon-5pm; Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, 1-5pm.