Take California artist Hilary Brace - the star of the show, if one had to choose. Her astonishing, sharp-focus miniature drawings are to quick sketching what"War and Peace" is to the short story. Unlike Tolstoy’s gritty realism, Brace’s work places her in the realm of mystical visionaries, in particular those artists who use the landscape as a point of departure for flights of imaginative fancy. Brace employs charcoal on smooth, Mylar sheets the size of a large postcard to create detailed views of caves, moonscapes, forests, and plains made up of what appears to be layers of puffy white clouds. I’m told that she builds large-scale, cotton and wire models as part of her preparation for these pieces – those must be some constructions, judging by the results.
It’s one thing to produce fantasy landscapes – science fiction illustrators, for example, have been doing it for years. But Brace creates environments that defy easy categorization, with a complexity and solidity that makes them utterly convincing and yet completely mysterious, all at once. Her landscapes have a vaguely apocalyptic feeling, with a vast, cinematic sense of scale and drama. Her frothy pillars, walls, and craters seem to be spinning, billowing, and collapsing, as though caught in mid-process. I found myself wishing the drawings were much bigger, so I could completely lose myself in their strange world.
Equally obsessive, but as tied to the literal as Brace is committed to the impossible, is a huge photorealist pencil diptych by Bill Vuksanovich. It represents two views, identical except for the lighting, of a wide-eyed young woman, her skin, hair and features rendered with imperceptibly tiny strokes of graphite, a testimony to patience and precision. It brings to mind Chuck Close, but without the fractured surface and perceptual curiosity that sets his work apart.
The human figure, in fact, is a major theme of the rest of the exhibition, referenced by fourteen out of the nineteen artists on view. That’s logical – the figure is important to the work of exhibition curator and prominent local artist Norman Lundin , who was also responsible for the impressive figure drawing survey show at the Frye Museum in 2002. A number of the Frye artists make a return appearance, including two of particular note, Kim Frohsin and Fred Dalkey.
Both Frohsin and Dalkey (unlike the several photorealist artists on view) work directly from life, and both specialize in that most straightforward of subjects, the studio nude. Their temperaments and approaches are quite opposite, even if their starting place is the same. Frohsin does rapid sketches of athletic young women in energetic poses, rendered with a variety of fluid and colorful materials. The figures move in an environment that is expressed in graphically punchy, decorative shapes that seem to extend their action outwards, and each picture has a distinctive color and stylistic theme. The tiny “Vogue in Red” a real winner, a swirl of red blotches against a green grey background, with the face and legs of a stretching figure emerging almost as an afterthought, and accidents of the brush incorporated along with more deliberate strokes. Highly decorative and lacking the angst of earlier expressionism, Frohsin’s work is driven by sexual energy, exploiting as its main pictorial device the tension between the representational and the abstract.
Fred Dalkey’s work seems almost monkish by comparison. His staid, seated figures emerge from a highly calculated grainy field of red crayon dots, almost as though they were discovered rather than drawn. His shimmering, telephone pole early morning pastel landscape is also a standout, modest and brilliant at the same time.
In spirit and execution, the charcoal interiors of Portland artist Grant Hottle (one of the several non-Californians in the group) lies somewhere between the classicism of Dalkey and the flash of Frohsin. Like Dalkey and Frohsin, Hottle works from direct observation, and like Frohsin, he plays the linear against the solid. Each of the three drawings on view features a casually disheveled household scene, with a printed fabric supplying a flat, patterned field the artist contrasts with weighted, looming furnishings and walls. Unconcerned with narrative, Hottle is the most serious formalist in the group, and his eye for abstraction, and the balance he strikes between the deliberate and the spontaneous, creates striking (and for the moment, extremely affordable) results.
I’m less enamored of some of the other works on exhibit – the animal mask self-portraits of Melissa Cooke strike me as overwrought, the blurry historical vignettes of David Fertig verge on the formulaic, and D.J. Hall’s fussed-over poolside suburbanites keep us at arm’s length – but there are grace notes throughout. The monumental industrial portraits of Ira Korman pay intelligent homage to the earlier work of American precisionist Charles Sheeler, and the absurdist figure-in-landscape narratives of David Bailin have an appealing, gnarly texture, lending themselves to multiple, open-ended interpretations.
And finally, there’s Michelle Weiner’s dead fly. Legs in the air and just about actual size, it is the only occupant of its otherwise blank sheet, holding its own against all that blank white space, like an emblem of drawing’s ability to say a lot with a little – even though that’s not the strategy of much of the work on view.