“Zigmunds Priede: Aggregates of Time,” Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

Zigmunds Priede: Aggregates of Time installation view, May 5 – September 25, 2022, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas. Photo: EG Schempf

The forced migration of humans across landscapes shaped by shifting tribal-cultural-political-religious borders is as old as time. Zigmunds “Zig” Priede would know. He experienced the trauma of displacement first-hand as a child of Riga, Latvia at the height of World War II. The impact of war on his refugee family was scarring, but it led him from a small Northern European country on the Baltic Sea to the United States, where he continues living out his own remarkable art history as an octogenarian artist, master printer and educator.

“Zigmunds Priede: Aggregates of Time,” in the Kansas Focus Gallery at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, marks the 60th anniversary of Priede’s career-defining move to New York following graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. Priede played a key role as a master printmaker at Universal Limited Art Editions where he collaborated with artistic peers like Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in creating a post-war print renaissance in the 1960s and ’70s. The exhibition features an interesting mix of Priede’s recent and ongoing works that demonstrate an impressive range of formal experimentation and symbolic visual language.

The magnum opus of the exhibition is appropriately front and center. “Event Horizon” is a striking horizontal woodcut print, rich in visual symbols and vivid tones of blue, black and green. The central image of four finch-like birds echoes Priede’s immediate family. He balances jagged, aggressive forms like saw blades against softer serrations of tree leaves. The blades refer to “that which was cut down,” a family, a way of life, a nation? Meanwhile, a curious mask of human culture hovers conspicuously over a circular saw blade — a persistent visual signifier of one’s origin, a remembrance of people and place.

Priede explores his painful family history in a haunting group of works titled “Narrative Suite: Part I and II” in which ghostly, skeletal figures occupy chaotic landscapes of war and migration. “Part I” graphically shows the artist’s skill in mixing media with sophisticated lithographic printing techniques.

A dramatic disembodied ear dominates the foreground of a grim Latvian forest scene. There, men like Priede’s father faced unimaginable choices fighting for independence between Nazi and Soviet occupiers — never to be seen again by their families. Priede powerfully unifies the work with a single broad gesture of red paint bridging the collaged printed ear to the lithograph landscape.

Zigmunds Priede: Aggregates of Time installation view, May 5 – September 25, 2022, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas. Photo: EG Schempf

In simpler mixed media works like “California” and “Kansas,” Priede collaged cut and torn paper over prints with restrained touches of overpainting in acrylic and watercolor. One gets the sense nothing in the studio is thrown away and that any remnant could come into play, finding its way into a larger work. His resourcefulness toward composition opens up new formal and interpretive possibilities.

Priede is known for proudly leaving the irregular outline of the printer’s litho stone as a framing device. This is visible in two related “Untitled” works, one horizontal, one vertical, that cleverly quote Jasper Johns’ famous Pop Art ale cans. Each one shares the same collage of painted and geometric forms, but when printed and oriented differently they reveal the infinite potential outcomes afforded by printmaking.

Though his work is grounded in printmaking techniques and culture, he constructively embraces expanded media, even scientific imagery, as seen in the complex, futuristic work “Out of Time,” or his densely illustrated tribute to ancient goddess forms, “Augury (Regina).”

For this writer, Priede is most captivating when working in his own brand of biomorphic abstraction. The technicolor tombstone-shaped woodcut print “Magical City #4,” inspired by a recurring dream, looks like a vision from the Land of Oz, garishly attractive but dangerous to the uninitiated. The work animates the compression and dynamism of urban space through dazzling hand-painted surface designs. It’s a nod to a young refugee’s fantasy of a post-war American Land of Plenty.

Many of the pieces displayed in “Zigmunds Priede: Aggregates of Time” are undated, indicating lengthy periods of evolution for individual works. Over his long career the artist has allowed his forms and symbols to accrue relationships and meanings that are only enhanced by time. How fortunate we are that Johnson County Community College brought him to the Kansas City area some 40 years ago. Pay heed to a contemporary master who continues exploring the mysteries of time, memory, place, and form.

Zigmunds Priede: Aggregates of Time” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art through Sept. 25. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. For more information, 913. 469.3000 or www.nermanmuseum.org.

Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an art advisor, appraiser, curator and writer interested in all things art, cave painting to contemporary.

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