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Linear Thinking 

Pen and pencil are the tools of the trade at this group show

Wednesday, Jul 21 2004
Artist Phil Knoll approached Catharine Clark, the owner of the gallery where he exhibits, at last winter's "-scopeNew York" art fair. "You know what I'd like to see?" Knoll asked, as a riot of works in every conceivable medium clamored for the pair's attention. "A show of just great fucking drawing." Clark charged him with the task of assembling such an exhibition in San Francisco, and he has delivered in spades with "Finesse."

Knoll's own quirky drawings are clearly inspired by graphic artists like R. Crumb, and several of the people he's selected for this show work in the comic tradition. Chris Ware's Superman, Episode 7 depicts our aging superhero, plump and naked, going about his daily business: swimming, eating, retching ... flying to the drugstore for antacid. Sandow Birk skewers S.F.'s insularity with A View of the World From San Francisco, a rip-off of the iconic New Yorker cover: Berkeley, Oakland, and San Jose register faintly across the bay, with New York and Washington, D.C., just visible on the horizon beyond. And the incomparable Art Spiegelman contributes Lead Pipe Sunday II, a darkly surreal double-sided lithograph presenting a graveyard of defunct Sunday comic characters -- here's Nancy's spiky head, and there's Popeye with his ossified corncob pipe, still smoking.

Abstraction is a particularly strong current in "Finesse." Daniel Zeller's mesmerizing drawings suggest obscure topographies, each carefully inked line nestling into its neighbor with the biological precision of stacked vertebrae. The organic forms of Cary Smith's graphite works suggest a perversely gray-toned psychedelia, while Warren Isensee's colored-pencil geometries pursue pure compositional rhythm. A triptych by Laura Splan presents a line of spare sepia plumes, as carefully wrought as botanical illustrations. Turns out that these blossoms are drawn in blood, literalizing the sacrifice and labor that attend the artist's craft. Is it Splan's own blood or someone else's that traced these lines? And which is the more ghoulish?

Dan Fischer's careful graphite reproduction of a photograph of Belgian painter James Ensor would seem contrived were it not so exquisitely executed. The velvety tones of his rendering deliver a depth belied by the still-visible grid with which the artist lifted the image, square by square, from its source. How charming to imagine Fischer laboring over this drawing, painstakingly transferring each detail onto paper. Isn't this, after all, precisely the sort of effort that photography and other means of mass reproduction were designed to supersede?

Fischer's implicit challenge to (and ambivalent embrace of) such technologies is echoed by the pen-and-ink drawing that hangs beside his piece, Joan Linder's 2521-Kingston Pike, #1801, Knoxville, TN: TV. Here, Linder serves up a television set with pathos and poignancy, rendering its faux-wood finish and bunny-ear antennae in wobbling, staccato marks and leaving the screen itself vacant. For once, the TV is no mere conduit: It's the main event.

With a nod toward drawing's roots as a highly personal means of expression, the viewer is invited to don white gloves and flip through two of Tim Sharman's sketchbooks. Sadly, these books are about as compelling as the diary of a 12-year-old girl -- page after page of saccharine watercolors, punctuated by sappy song lyrics and hollow clichés. We may be meant to smile at their misguided idealism or wink at their irony, but the effect is unconvincing.

The medium is perhaps most unconventionally interpreted by Ray Beldner, whose contribution is a loose gestural sketch projected with flickering light onto a blank panel. Though the details are tantalizingly hazy, the subject is clearly a torso whose privates are serviced by a diddling hand. Beldner titles the work L'origine du Porn (after Gustav Courbet's still-shocking 1866 close-up of a vulva, L'origine du monde), and indeed it cleverly offers both the cheap seductions and the deferral of gratification inherent to skin flicks.

But the show is duly stolen by Josephine Taylor's luminous ink-wash drawing, Fat Pig, Garbage, and Other Epithets. This piece is so immediate, so intimate, that I felt I had intruded merely by looking at it -- and yet it's so emotionally compelling that I impolitely continued to stare. Taylor renders a trio of figures in thin washes of colored ink on a monumentally broad field of white paper -- they are irrefutably present, yet poised on the very brink of dissolving. One frail woman is engulfed in the embrace of a man, while another woman lays a comforting hand on her thigh. A fourth pair of legs (the artist's, I'm told) can be seen slinking away, stage left; somehow, we sense that devastating news has just been delivered. Taylor brings a surfeit of empathy and attention to her subjects. Though the image is suffused with a profound melancholy, she leaves us to divine the narrative.

A great drawing, like a great poem, conjures an entire world with just a few lines, lightly sidestepping the perils of excessive elaboration that can weigh down a painting or novel. This is not to imply that drawings are less careful, or less cared for, than works in other media. If anything, the opposite is true: It's far easier, after all, to cover your tracks with oil paint than with pencil or ink. But drawing tends to be a quiet medium, easily overwhelmed by its brassier brethren. "Finesse" is a rare treat because it presents such works on paper in the best of company -- their own.

About The Author

Adrienne Gagnon


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