South African artist and filmmaker William Kentridge is on a New York roll this spring, with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) through May 17 and his production of Dmitri Shostakovich's absurdist opera "The Nose" debuting to much acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera in March. Given his high profile and current demand, it is remarkable to find more than a dozen of Kentridge's etchings and engravings now on view at Highpoint Center for Printmaking in south Minneapolis.

The images arrived courtesy of David Krut Projects, a Johannesburg printmaker whose world-class facilities have attracted top artists for the past eight years. Krut regularly shows at international print fairs, which is where Highpoint co-founder Cole Rogers encountered him. Securing the Kentridge images for a timely Minneapolis show was a coup for Highpoint, and a perfect follow-up to the center's inaugural exhibition last fall of prints by Julie Mehretu, an equally hot property.

The Krut Project exhibit features more than 50 images by 13 Johannesburg natives or transplants whose topics range from symbolic and personal narratives to South Africa's troubled history of colonialism, apartheid and torture. Employing surrealism, whimsy and classical allusions among other styles, the prints address the pervasive discontents of contemporary life with dark humor and sometimes poignant insight.

Improvisational energy

Kentridge's 13 etchings whet the appetite for more. Blessed with a fluid hand and mordant wit, he has worked in theater, done puppetry, designed sets and costumes, and made what he calls "stone age animations." Some of the latter have been shown at Walker Art Center. They are short, hand-drawn films that he creates by making a sketch in charcoal, then erasing and modifying it many times, pausing only to record each phase as the pictorial narrative evolves.

His Krut etchings have some of the same bold, improvisational en, ergy. In "Zeno at 4 a.m.," he presents nine small images on a single sheet, each depicting a plump, surrealist alter-ego trapped in a curious state -- taking a shower, wearing a cage, morphing into a rotary phone, striding on Erector Set legs, transformed into a mechanical centaur or crouched under an umbrella. Another series, rendered in a fluid Picasso-esque hand, appears inspired by newspaper accounts of mass slaughter and includes a character whose oversized head is encased in an elephantine gas mask.

A third group of prints is based on "The Nose," a Nikolai Gogol story that inspired Shostakovich's opera about a St. Petersburg bureaucrat whose nose runs off and becomes a more important figure than the man himself. To Kentridge, the story resonated as a metaphor for the relentless, calculated absurdity of apartheid and its abuses of human dignity. Identifying with "The Nose," he drew it as a "good Johannesburg Jewish nose" vaguely like his own. He has produced many "Nose" etchings, all at least tangentially related to the opera production. The MOMA retrospective features the full set, while Highpoint displays a seven-piece excerpt including the "Nose" on horseback, passing a prostitute, climbing a tower, having sex, being a ballerina and as a chess-piece bust. All are riveting.

Conflicted history

The show's other star is Diane Victor, a prominent South African talent who uses images inspired by classical Greco-Roman mythology to skewer her homeland's conflicted history. Her incisively detailed images show a thuggish black-jacketed "Apollo" pursuing a beefy "Daphne" whose arms sprout thorns; "Leda," being raped by a grotesque vulture; the huntress "Diana" and a pack of ravenous dogs staring at "Actaeon," a black man whom the dogs will soon kill at her command, and in "The Rape of Africa (Europa)," a Chinese girl astride a dead rhinoceros whose horn is an aphrodisiac in her homeland.

The remaining images are strikingly idiosyncratic. Maja Maljevic, a Yugoslav who emigrated to South Africa after her country's civil war, depicts piles of letters and skeletons, perhaps to echo the dissolution of her homeland. In a series depicting a girl who repeatedly vomits the words "shame," Penny Siopis appears to be addressing both sexual abuse and bulimarexia.

There's a whimsical but ominous tone to Trasi Henen's images of cascading chairs and a childlike figure in perhaps a hospital setting. The six linocuts in Ryan Arneson's "Resurrection Series" are haunting. They depict a girl, modestly clothed in a rather old-fashioned dress, whose body is sequentially cut up like a children's puzzle and the pieces discarded until only her severed head remains. Political commentary? Who knows. But unforgettable.

Additional images by Deborah Bell, Wim Botha, David Koloane, Colbert Mashile, Andrzej Nowicki, Nathaniel Stern and Paul Stopforth complete the show.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431