Diverse, unpredictable works make for ‘striking’ show

Melissa Kuntz | Guest Critic

What is a drawing? Aside from being one of the oldest forms of human expression, and one of the most rudimentary, a drawing is a largely unmediated index of the maker. In very few other art forms is the mark made by the artist’s hand so immediate and direct; a cave painting, a child making lines in the sand or an Old-Master drawing all share this quality, leaving little room for indecision or hesitation on the part of the creator. The title of this exhibition clearly references the grouping of seven artists whose work can be “gathered” under the umbrella term “drawing.” Yet synonyms for “gather,” such as assembling and collecting, accumulating and amassing, indisputably describe activities that are part of creating a contemporary drawing and often become more integral to the work than the residual hand of the artist.

The artists in this show, curated by Judy Barie, galleries director, aim to expand the definition of drawing, while staying true to some of its conventions. Jay Kelly, whose work is represented in collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, began as a photorealist painter and shifted his focus to abstraction in the 1990s. The work on display at the Fowler-Kellogg Art Center is indicative of his oeuvre, comprised of small drawings on vellum and miniature abstract sculptures. The beauty of the pieces is the play of scale; Lilliputian metal, cage-like forms are like small “drawings in space” or shrunken abstract-expressionist monoliths. The finely crafted vellum works display a mastery of form and color that only result from a hand with the paint, pastel and graphite he utilizes to craft the tiny masterpieces.

Also detail-oriented are Mark Franchino’s works on wood and paper, which push boundaries of drawing by encouraging us to focus on the “structure” of the work. In drawings on paper, “Tree House 2 and 4,” buildings are plucked from their backdrop and context, leaving the viewer to contemplate the basic form, line and design in these meticulous graphite illustrations. In the four works on birch panel, the wood of the surface itself becomes a player, standing in for the “sky” in “Untitled (Sky and Sea)” and “Stumps.” In “Untitled (Up and Down)” the wood grain pattern cleverly becomes the wooden texture of a graphite-rendered cedar-planked structure.

Two artists who work more strictly within the confines of drawing, but who represent most the act of collecting and assembling materials as part of contemporary drawing are Norbert Freese and Amy Schissel. Like Franchino’s work, Freese’s collages are fragments extracted from a whole, where walls of buildings seem to float in space and trees root from nowhere. Unifying each of his collage-and-gouache works are fragmented birds, painstakingly rendered in tiny dots of ink. Elements seemingly collected from Renaissance etchings are trimmed to parallelograms and diamond shapes, attached to the surface, and suggest perspective. Adding to the magic of these whimsical works are subtle additions of three-dimension in the form of thick card-stock cut and glued to replicate windows and doors into the disjointed spaces Freese creates.

Most notably in two large-scale, mixed-medium works on paper, Schissel creates imagery that oscillates between abstraction and representation. Obsessive layers of lines, like filament, float above intensely layered areas of forms possibly taken from technology or science, suggesting complex maps or schematics of the artist’s imagination at work. Textural elements, created with dots of white correction fluid add interest to the impressive black and white drawings.

Finally, three of the artists take tropes familiar to drawing — line, the artists’ hand, collecting and amassing — and express them using novel materials. Jason Forck literally transforms glass into drawing. On a drafting table sit pencils made of glass, and on the walls are drawings turned 3-D. Glass forms, such as a cylinder and a pyramid, rendered like studies from an introductory drawing course, protrude from real clipboards. The glass is layered, and color was added to make the predominately white objects look as though they have been shaded in graphite. Nearby sits a stunning vase that appears to have had a landscape drawn on it, when in actuality the lines have been created with contrasting glass. A white glass vase, cup and light bulb, have “contour drawings” of themselves, in miniature, on each. These lines have also been made from threads of glass. Forck’s pieces brilliantly straddle the line between drawing and sculpture, as though drawing studies have come to life in a glassmaker’s studio.

The other two artists who bring new materials to drawing are Rena Wood and Terry Boyd. Two of Wood’s works started with a drawing on silk, which was then filled in with small, hand-stitched lines. Titled “Nucleus Part I and II,” these pieces appear like high-contrast charcoal renderings from a distance, and only up close is the handiwork evident. Boyd makes ink-on-paper drawings, digitizes them, and then processes them through a custom image compression program, pixelating the image. It is then sent to embroidery formatting software that translates the digital file into a sewn picture on linen. The images have a painterly quality, with “drips” of thread hanging from the surface, but the repetition of lines speak to the original ink drawing. More than one image is made from each digital file; color choices and Boyd’s manipulation of the linen as it is being sewn account for the uniqueness of each in a series. Textural inconsistencies and varied surfaces are curious results from something created with logic and by a machine.

As a whole, this excellent exhibition asks us to open up to the idea that making a drawing might only be the artists’ jumping-off point, and the result can be as diverse and unpredictable as the striking works on view in “Gatherings.”

Melissa Kuntz has written reviews for Art in America and the Pittsburgh City Paper while also maintaining a studio practice. She is currently professor of painting at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.