Cannonball Press’ DIY philosophy is displayed in full effect at XL Projects
Think of a cannonball: It’s a little old-fashioned, heavier than heck and jet black. It gets used when folks are done pussyfooting around. It’s an efficient and highly effective way of sending a message, especially if you aren’t concerned about people’s feelings getting hurt. When a cannonball is coming it’s as loud as it can get and some damage is inevitable. I’m guessing these are the kinds of associations Martin Mazorra and Mike Houston were aiming for 11 years ago when they named their collaborative artistic enterprise the Cannonball Press.
The wild-eyed snarling tiger on the show poster for the current exhibition at XL Projects promises a circus, and we get one replete with sexy sword swallowers, kooky calliopes, improbable beasts and bearded ladies. Even when the subject matter changes, a carnival atmosphere remains with its sense of transgression, vague menace and manic excitement charging every piece.
One thing you won’t see much is color. The Cannonball Press specializes in monochrome woodblock prints, usually black ink on paper, canvas or even cardboard. Woodblock printing has been used since the invention of paper whenever there is a desire to communicate a message widely and cheaply. The stark, hard-edged look of woodcuts suits the raw, even brutal, depictions the two favor.
Mazorra’s six-foot square “For Real?” is a gruesome masterpiece. In it a pigtailed freak-show girl has nails coming out of her ears and each nostril. Another nail is driven through her tongue into a board. The many textures in the image—wood grain, lacy collar, soft freckled skin, shiny steel, speckled tongue—all come to vivid life with carefully incised lines.
In “Pig Pickin’,” Houston jam-packs a 4-by-8-foot banner with rural characters engrossed in the barbecue experience. This lurid scene revolves around a carcass in a slow cooker, its ribcage fully exposed. Crowded cheek-by-jowl are goofy Bubbas with rubbery lips and horse teeth. Some have ball caps and others pathetic comb-overs, but everyone’s got a mushy pile of grub except a sneering granny holding out her plate.
Impressive as the individual works are, the most dramatic pieces in the show are where Mazorra and Houston join forces. Their large collaborative banners are about 20 feet wide and are as detailed throughout as a Hieronymus Bosch painting or a Diego Rivera mural. They might also remind you of a Where’s Waldo illustration bleached of color and innocence.
What looks at first like sprawling scrawling is actually the accumulation of several moments of independent inspiration, then hours of accommodation and integration, cutting and stitching to create a roiling but unified and absolutely overwhelming whole. They took this collaborative idea one step further in an ingenious meeting of medium and message when they pitched a group of tents in the middle of the gallery floor emblazoned with images of homeless and recession-stricken Americans.
As if there wasn’t enough to look at, one wall is filled with smaller prints, many by other artists whose work they have printed and are promoting. Included among these is one by Dusty Herbig, the assistant professor in the department of art at Syracuse University who instigated this visit in conjunction with his fourth annual steamrolling print event, wherein College of Visual and Performing Arts students created 18 4-by-8-foot woodcuts that were printed by driving a steamroller over them in the Quad.
In addition to working with the students to create these prints, Mazorra gave a lecture on “woodcutology,” citing inspirations from Albrecht Durer to Mike Watt of the Minutemen. He shared colorful stories: sporting a handlebar mustache during an ice cream social on a battleship; watching a 40-foot-long printed parade snake get ripped apart as South African drunks danced it into trees. Most importantly he discussed Cannonball’s philosophy, which in broad strokes is to do what you want, take no crap, do it cheap and do it yourself.
Cannonball Press Exhibition runs through Sunday, April 24, at XL Projects, 307-313 S. Clinton St. The gallery is open Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 6 p.m. For more information, call 443-8802. All prints in the show are also available through cannonballpress.com.
Steam engine: As part of a Syracuse University class on April 7, Cannonball Press assisted in creating steamrolled woodblocks.