(For Tracy Michele, who always reads them first.)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Beautiful Tarnished Lines

(National Arts Club, NYC)

by Robert Edward Bullock

Drawing is the most immediate and direct of the visual arts. Held in the hand, a pencil or charcoal is a natural extension of the arm and therefor the mind. When Michelangelo said that drawing is the mother of all the arts he spoke as a draftsman of the human form and as an architect.

The National Arts Club, on the south side of Gramercy Park in Manhattan, has on display an exhibit of silverpoint drawings by more than 36 contemporary artists exploring the expressive range of this centuries-old medium. A variant of what is generally called "metal-point", silverpoint is, quite literally, drawing with a piece of silver wire on a prepared surface. The silver leaves behind lines, just as a graphite pencil does, but these lines tarnish to a beautiful, mellow effect. 

The medium itself dates back to at least the 15th-century but fell out of favor as other drawing materials were developed. Its visual quality, however, cannot be matched, as its range encompasses the evanescent traces of Jeffrey Lewis' "Bowl & House", to the shadowy depths of "Self-Portrait, Sick" by Evan Kitson.

The traditional, quiet, blue gray of the prepared surface in "Shell", further heightened by white chalk, emphasizes the beauty of silverpoint and is evocative of the sense of tradition associated with the medium. Here, the portrait of an adolescent is framed by the remains of a conch shell in a strange overlapping of human and nature, individual and archetype, youth and deterioration. In it, August Mosca captures something of the enigma of creating something new from traditional materials.

^ "Shell" by August Mosca, ca. 1980s

Color is used to great effect also in other works. Jeannine Cook's "Tillandsia Recurvate", highlighted with white on pale blue paper, uses a horizontal format to allow its serpentine plant forms to twist and curl about as flower buds trail upward. In "Natalia Sleeping", by Juliette Aristides, a soft peach orange surface envelopes the sleeping figure, whose features are softly highlighted with white.

^ "Tillandsia Recurvate" by Jeannine Cook, 2007  

Silverpoint's potential for incredible subtlety of line and tone is particularly suited to portraiture, a theme that runs through many of the works. "Innocence" by Sherry Camhy pushes the medium's range of lights and darks almost to its limits, the subject's life-like dimensions enhanced by both its size and the direct eye contact of the subject.

^ "Innocence" (detail) by Sherry Camhy, 2008

From Koo Schadler's Renaissance-inspired "Abigail in Black Hat", to the soulful gaze of Costa Vavagiakis' "Maria XXI", from Burton Silverman's "Model Resting" (from 1949, it is the earliest work in the exhibit), to Ephraim Rubenstein's "Maddie Asleep", with its sense of quiet and peace, both the individual and a momentary sense of time are captured in the tarnished lines of precious metal.

^ "Maddie Asleep" by Ephraim Rubenstein, 1990

Two works, not hung next to each other, nevertheless kept playing off each other in my mind. "Purple Hyacinth for Hendrix", a relatively small work by Margaret Krug, creates a very poetic sense of space as two small flowers, their stalks rising from the lower right quarter, almost seem to pause, overwhelmed in the light that floods around them. In contrast to this effect, the energetic, almost tense, musculature of Lea Wight's "Hand Study" fills the earth-toned picture plane. In it, two views of the human hand express the individual as well as any face ever could.

^ "Purple Hyacinth for Hendrix" by Margaret Krug, 2010

^ "Hand Study" by Lea Wight, 2013

But what makes an artist pick up a pencil or a stylus and draw, anyway? The mind is always searching curiously whatever is in front of it. Drawing is an attempt to understand how something is constructed, whether that be the human hand, the human face, a shell, or a flower. To draw, as Ruskin said, is to see, and "to see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one."

^ "Maria XXI" by Costa Vavagiakis, 2007

"The Silverpoint Exhibition" is on view through December 21 at The National Arts Club, located at 15 Gramercy Park South, New York, NY 10003. nationalartsclub.org 212-475-3424.

Technical information on silverpoint drawing can found in Bullock Online's March 2012 blog entry, "drawing and practice".

More information about Robert Edward Bullock's work can be found at BullockOnline.com

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