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Eugene Weekly : Culture : 03.24.05

Visual Art:

Art of Drawing

An exhibition at the Jacobs Gallery through April 2


The Vivian Girls

An onstage home for outsider art


Art of Drawing

An exhibition at the Jacobs Gallery through April 2


What is drawing? At its most essential, drawing is the universal process of making meaningful marks on a surface. Drawing is crucial to other arts as well as to science and technology as it facilitates thinking and experimentation by giving visual form to thoughts and ideas. Whether in terms of purpose, subject matter, treatment or effect, the variety of drawing is potentially infinite, even when restricted to the domain of art.

Why Do We Cry I, pastel, charcoal & graphite drawing by Sandy Ryan

This is precisely what Drawing, an exhibition of art drawings at the Jacobs Gallery, intends to show, spurring both reflection and delight.

The exhibit was curated by Clint Brown, professor emeritus of fine arts at OSU and author of several books on art, including Drawing from Life, one of the few genuinely intelligent and well-written contemporary textbooks on the topic. Avoiding preconceived categories, Brown chose 20 Oregon artists and let them define drawing through their work, requesting simply two representative pieces, so that "the viewer might get a feel for each artist's style."

It was only in the 20th century that drawings achieved the status of independent works of art. Until the latter part of the 19th century, drawing was considered not an end in itself but a preliminary step toward another work (a painting, sculpture, building, machine, etc.).

"What I wanted to do first of all," Brown explained, "was a celebration of drawing as an art medium in its own right. Some artists take drawing to that stage where it stands on its own, and I wanted each piece here to be a work of art in its own right and not just a study. Secondly, this exhibit is a conceived as a celebration of possibilities. I wanted to try to show as much as variety as possible in the medium. I chose artists who push drawing in a number of different directions. What we're seeing is a variety of excuses to make a drawing."

Works range from monochromatic to colorful, as drawing media include charcoal, Conté crayon, sanguine, graphite, colored pencil, pastel, oil pastel, ink, ink wash, acrylic, oil, watercolor, gouache, collage — alone or in combination.

The mere presence of color begins to blur the distinction between drawing and painting, but some of the pieces push the edges of drawing toward painting even further. Combining Prismacolor pencil and acrylic paint, Bruce Dean (Eugene) created painterly landscapes with figures. In Craig Spilman's (Eugene) work, whether it serves to define areas and shapes or is allowed to drip down the surface, watercolor dominates over the subsequent additions of graphite and Prismacolor pencil. George Johanson (Portland) used oil paint on paper for his Allegory pair but considers them drawings because the forms are here delineated with a dark line rather than modeled through the representation of light and shadow. Johanson noted, however, that "the crossing of boundaries is precisely one of the things contemporary art is about."

We often think of drawings as smaller, more intimate pieces, as exemplified by Sally Cleveland's (Portland) dreamy graphite landscapes. Yet Bob Dozono's (Milwaukie) own landscapes in charcoal, ink wash and watercolor are almost mural-like in dimension, stretching through sheer size the boundaries of the medium.

Dozono and Rick Bartow (South Beach) are among the artists who underscore the drawing process itself, making their marks visible the way some painters do with brushstrokes. Highly expressive and gestural, such marks are for Brown "like the beat or pulse of the drawing."

In Robert Bibler's (Salem) classically executed pieces, the drawing process itself constitutes the subject-matter. These works represent the artist's world in its multiple phases and with its many tools: hand, pencil, compass, paper, still life elements; crumpled drawings, drawings in progress, completed studies; and references to classic artists of the past such as the Florentine Andrea del Sarto. The artist plays illusionistic tricks: his hand and pencil extend out of the picture plane. One of the drawings within the drawing starts out as a rough sketch and insensibly develops into a full-fledged landscape following the rules of perspective. Bibler simultaneously emphasizes the flatness of the paper surface and creates an illusion of depth. With exquisite craftsmanship, he sets out to represent various formal means of representation: mark-making, a delicately phrased line, cross-hatching, continuous shading to render light and model form. In a display of skill, he recreates the texture of skin, shells, plants; the sheen of metal and reflections on glass.

A number of drawings emphasizing line help showcase some of its innumerable aesthetic qualities: tactile and sensuous but also vigorous, like the human and equine figures it depicts (curator Clint Brown, Corvallis); delicate and precise as in blueprints from the use of a straight edge (Kim Hoffman, Dallas); seemingly tentative and childlike (David Nez, Portland); sharply defining stylized contours (Dennis Cunningham, Portland); directional and rhythmic (Yuji Hiratsuka, Corvallis); rich, thick, unbroken and evenly controlled as they curve, run straight and intersect in combination with pale thin intermittent ones over lightly toned areas (Bill Rades, Lakewood, Wash.); boldly gestural, at once expressive and structural (Lucinda Parker, Portland, who also incorporates writing into her drawing)…

Some artists use hatching and cross-hatching to define light and dark areas (Bibler; Jim Adams, Corvallis). Others employ continuous gradation of tone to emphasize differences in value or create volume (Bibler; Cleveland; Analee Fuentes, Coburg; Ron Graff, Eugene; Julie Martin, Salem; Sandy Ryan, Eugene).

Besides traditional subject matters such as landscapes and still-lifes, sources of inspiration vary widely. Bartow, Fuentes and Hiratsuka each derive their specific intensity from their ethnicity and cross-cultural roots. Bartow's expressionistic pieces are informed by thorough knowledge of both Native American and Western art traditions, while Hoffman was inspired by the art of New Guinea. In Spilman's work, personal versions of Anubis, spirit figures, Pharaoh and his consorts are conjured up in bright, vibrant colors. John Maul (Corvallis) bases one drawing on a pun and in another transforms the floor-plan of the tomb of Tutankhamen into a ranch house, while Nez borrows from alchemy and Parker quotes Emerson.

Where Rades re-contextualizes cartoon figures and blends formal design and humor, Adams relies on imagination and a narrative penchant to create self-contained, idiosyncratic worlds peopled with playfully fantastic creatures. Martin's "icons" provide us with a delightful social satire. Ryan, on the other hand, drew from personal experience to express with powerful sobriety the anguish of cancer.

"Drawing is image-conjuring," said Brown. "There's a bit of magic to it. You start with a blank paper and you can create a world totally your own."

Brown also considers works of art as gifts to be shared. I highly recommend you partake in these particular gifts.


The Vivian Girls

An onstage home for outsider art


Choreographer Pat Graney will present The Vivian Girls, Thursday, March 31 at the Hult Center's Soreng Theater. The piece features music by Amy Denio and Martin Hayes, and works within a movement lexicon based on the imagination of outsider artist Henry Darger.

Graney, based in Seattle, has worked in dance for more than 25 years. She methodically focuses on pieces for several years at a time, and the work is smart, often quite funny, and consistently alarming in its focused commentary. And Graney's finely developed product doesn't eclipse her process: Graney also directs an ongoing project for incarcerated women, Keeping the Faith, which combines personal storytelling, theater and dance. Her commitment to dance as a means to finding home — emotional or social — is starkly uncontrived: Graney is no sentimentalist. And her latest, The Vivian Girls, stands to be the most provocative, thinking dance performance of the season.

Graney is intensely visual, and says her attraction to Darger's paintings was immediate. When a friend showed her a catalog from a gallery retrospective, Graney says she thought to herself, "I don't know what this is, but I have to use it." She found inspiration in Darger's stilted forms, their strangely limited movement and visceral formalism.

As a means into The Vivian Girls, some background about Henry Darger: A loner, he worked as a janitor and dishwasher, and was remembered by his Chicago neighbors as a rumpled, detached scavenger who was frequently seen trawling for odd bits of refuse that he brought home to the small room he rented for 40 years.

Darger's self-imposed isolation was borne of extremity: He lost his mother at 4, from complications resulting from the birth of her second child. The baby sister, whom Darger never saw, was immediately put up for adoption. As a young boy, Darger continued to live with his father, but at age 8, his father's physical infirmities rendered him unable to care for the boy, and Darger was placed in an orphanage. Here, Darger's verbal and physical tics quickly earned him the nickname "Crazy," one that stuck for the rest of his life.

Darger was clearly pained by social interactions, and never pursued relationships, or sex; perhaps for fear that he might mistakenly couple with the sister he never knew.

In old age, Darger moved to the same nursing home his father had died in, and passed away, penniless and alone. He was given a pauper's burial.

Yet here was the turning point. Darger's landlord, himself an artist, went to empty out Darger's room, and made a remarkable discovery: Amidst the piles of hoarded detritus was a manual typewriter, and the epic novel Darger had written and illustrated with hundreds of watercolor collages. Suddenly significant, Darger's workspace was preserved, and he was vaulted, posthumously, into the art world.

Darger's novel tells the story of a band of child-slaves who rise up against many arbitrary and punishing authorities. Darger's notebooks reveal anxieties over his artistic abilities, especially the human form: To depict The Vivian Girls, Darger borrowed images from advertising and magazines, even comic books. The resulting girls are all doe-eyes and baby doll dresses: they look like Campbell Soup Kids. But Darger gives each girl a small, hairless penis, as charming as the pre-pubescent nub on a rococo fountain, yet there's something unsettling about the androgynous ambiguity.

The transcendent gravity of Darger's vision walks between hyper-ideal innocence and un-gloved sadism. Critics compare Darger's work to William Blake, and both work in the "realms of the unreal," to borrow a phrase from Darger. But unlike the polemical Blake, who constantly refined and edited his works to make them more appealing, Darger shied away from the sale of his work: It is Darger's poverty, his monastic devotion, and his isolation that fuel the contemporary audience's fascination with him.

Darger miraculously uses the very stuff of exchange to build his lonely world. With an incendiary hand, his work bears witness to brutalities, and singes the very notion of attachment. Still, like a green shoot from the ashes, there is humanity: Darger's concern for the plight of the Vivian Girls comes through on every page.

Graney's performance, which includes over 50 projected slides of Darger's collages, does not attempt to tell his story. Instead, Graney says, her goal, "is to share with audiences the way I see his work, in all its beauty and horror."