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Weekly Alibi The Dance of the Pencil

MARCH 15, 1999:  It was a Parisian named Nicolas Conté who, way back in 1795, first combined graphite and clay into this thing we now call a "pencil." Like any practical invention, the pencil ranks high on the "taken-for-granted" list; it is a desk supply not unlike a stapler or ruler, occasionally necessary, but not necessarily revered. Local artist Paul Ré dares to differ and illustrates his point in The Dance of the Pencil, an exquisite showing of a pencil-virtuoso.

In what has been described as an "art-science-philosophy hybrid," Ré's outpouring of serene images is a culmination of his studies in physics, his intense love of nature and his desire to blend the two in artistic meditation. The text follows the same kind of meticulous patterning and precision as his pencil drawings. Each of the 71 full page plates is preceded with a background blurb describing not only the specific style and technique, but also the emotion or feeling upon which the drawing was based. This provides a "behind-the-scenes" peek into each drawing, conjuring childhood memory, poetic dissertation and a true love for his craft. He guides his readers, asking them to "note that the paper airplane bears a similar relationship to the rocket model" or claiming that "this work is also very nice upside down."

Ré, an Albuquerque native, studied physics at Cal Tech in the early 1970s. The language of physics he adopted there transferred well into his artistic pursuits, where he explores ideas of symmetry, scale and interconnectedness, always striving to "present the aesthetic aspect of science through the medium of art." After some deliberation, he chose the medium of pencil drawing due to its "simplicity and directness, and the precision and subtlety obtainable."

That "obtainable subtlety," as Ré refers to it, takes him up to 300 hours per drawing. As he describes it, "Every portion of the drawing surface is shaded to some degree. ... There is no flat surface depicted; all are subtly curved." Close inspection of the images, all printed on acid-free paper to exacting standards, illustrates this careful, almost meditative attention to line, smoothness and tranquility.

His underlying muse is, in fact, serenity. From his "Growth Series" to the "Animal Series" to his signature abstract works, it is Ré's hope that his collection, which has slowly evolved toward higher abstraction and outward simplicity, will serve "as a model in simplifying our own lives and elevating our thinking." Lofty ideals for a pencil artist, but Ré is not one to shy away from such pursuits. Perhaps best known for his 1981-1994 traveling show entitled Touchable Art, Ré describes in this book the process behind translating his drawings into embossings and bas-reliefs, in an attempt at "bridging the worlds of the blind and sighted." Experienced by over 100,000 blind and sighted persons in 17 North American shows, this exhibit drew attention to a worthy artist.

In both the Touchable Art exhibit and works that followed, Ré's concentration on basic shapes and closed curves has become a significant study and adherence to his principle of interconnectedness. "The more seemingly simple an image is," the artist explains, "the more perfectly it must be balanced."

This book tracks 20 years of Ré's evolution process as an artist, from the free-flowing growth of his early Cal Tech days--with elaborate concentration on bone structure, spires and portraiture--to his more recent visions of simplicity and balance. Also a poet, guitar player and nature trekker, Ré's philosophies on art seem to mirror his take on living: "My art is a kind of visual meditation. It is peaceful and pure: only the essence, no distracting or superfluous elements are presented. Its aim is to help quiet and uplift the reader." (Paul Ré Archives, cloth, $88)

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