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Tucson Weekly Making Their Marks

Dinnerware's Drawing Exhibit Stretches The Limits Of The Old Masters' Craft

By Margaret Regan

AUGUST 25, 1997:  TUCSON ARTIST MARTIN Shaver hasn't exactly declared the death of drawing, but he's come close.

In a new Dinnerware invitational exhibit called simply Drawing, Shaver's artist's statement announces that nowadays "there are really no clear boundaries between (art) disciplines...to try to define precisely what each is no longer makes sense. Drawing is part of the stew that is the creative process."

So Shaver rebelled against the show's restrictive theme. Instead of drawings, he contributed a quartet of small paintings and mixed-media works. (And rather nice paintings they are: "Above and Below" is a two-part landscape on paper, painted in Sedona-like oranges and blues in the flat, richly colored tones of gouache.) With their broad expanses of paint and color, these works certainly don't meet the conventional definition of drawing, which critic Paul J. Sachs specified as art that's created by dragging "a pen or other instrument over a surface which leaves a mark behind it."

But while Shaver has defied the traditional categories and mostly avoided the "mark-making" of the classic draftsman, most of the 23 other artists in the show eagerly celebrate the idea of drawing. In their statements, they praise the medium for its immediacy and spontaneity, not a few noting that quick, direct drawing on paper helps them break through assorted artistic blocks. Will Saunders, for instance, a Tucson painter best known in years past for his meticulous quilt-like paintings, credits drawing with helping free him of his "aesthetic constraints and taboos."

That breakthrough shows in the four very loose drawings he exhibits here, done in various combinations of pencil and India ink. In "Crucifixion Study after Francis Bacon," Saunders has rendered a crucified Christ in a single quick line that darts over the paper. Similarly, in "Pieta," a deft pencil line rapidly describes the figures, including another dead Jesus, this one dangling over the knees of a man whose bared teeth suggest lust. All Saunders' finely crafted drawings, in fact, suggest speed and fluidity and an abandonment of conscious control.

The process seems similar for Jeffrey Levitch, a UA grad student, who says he uses the medium metaphorically, "drawing" from the well of memory. If Saunders' drawings trawl though cultural and art historical archetypes, Levitch's linger on his own childhood memories. In his two charcoal works on paper, Levitch makes childlike images of a young boy playing near a bridge. But they are not lovely at all: rather, in their crudity, they inaugurate a new school of Bad Drawing, not unlike the old school of Bad Painting of the '80s. They look a lot like the "boy art" routinely inflicted in the margins of schoolboy notebooks: rough, ready and ugly.

Different as their sensibilities are, both Saunders and Levitch are using material within the Old Master mainstream. Inks have been used in China for centuries, while conte crayon and charcoal were the choice of the Renaissance artists who considered drawing a mere preliminary to the more serious work of painting. Among the other conventional media in the show are graphite and pastel (Nancy Hall Brooks has a monumental pastel triptych in the window, a sprawling "Ship of State" that seems to survey the whole of the human condition). Still others mix together these classic ingredients (Janice Pittsley combines pastel and pencil in her four finely made cerebral abstractions, strange geometric pictures that are oddly compelling.)

These artists may be going along with the conventional categories, but a lot of others would agree with the dissident Shaver that it's futile to think in such terms any longer. In fact, one thing this large exhibit does very well is to demonstrate just how broadly defined drawing is nowadays. (Thankfully, not a single artist contributed a work made by a computer instead of a human hand.) Yet not even everybody agrees that a drawing must be a work on paper. Nicole Chesney "draws" on glass and her works looks as much like sculpture as drawings. Her arresting, abstract marks are made mostly of three-dimensional wax. Chuck Hitner, a UA art prof, has worked on cheap clear plastic, creating his marks with what looks like orange magic marker.

And even the artists who stick to paper have mixed their media in other striking ways. Cyrilla Mozenter has produced some lovely, fragile-looking pictures by alternately fixing beans and rice to translucent handmade papers. "Drawing with Black Beans," a row of grains of dark wild rice, echoed by columns of graphite marks on multiple layers of paper, is a work of delicate beauty that's about nature and art all at once. Another materials pioneer, Anthony A. Manglicmot, unconventionally draws by applying gel to rice paper, making monochromatic spirals and lines that are barely detectable to the eye. Also in the Emperor's No Clothes category along with Manglicmot would be the abstract works of New Yorker Spaulding Taylor, whose shiny scribbles in silvery oil on mylar and paper don't carry anywhere near the impact of Jackson Pollock's works, which he cites as an influence.

The varying quality notwithstanding, the show makes a cogent case for drawings as works of art in their own right: They're no longer the stepchild of painting. Like the whole of the contemporary arts, these drawings differ wildly in subject--from abstraction to figuration--and in sensibility, from those rendered with loving attention to beauty and those intended to provoke. And while the medium may have lost some of the mysterious illusionary qualities it had in the hands of the Old Masters, there's at least one artist in the bunch who's trying to use some of their tricks.

Michelle La Perriere, of Maryland, covers her paper with dense strokes of graphite in "Broken Aviary," but through deft alternation of dark and light she creates the illusion of a three-dimensional room, complete with classical arches. At center, the wholly convincing head of a tousled-haired young man emerges from the gloom; his eyes gaze out at the viewer and he points his finger skyward. The artist has produced what we might call a virtual reality, evoking a room, a face and mood, all through the simple means of a few well-placed marks on a flat piece of paper.

Drawing, the 14th Biennial Invitational Exhibition, continues through September 6 at Dinnerware Artists' Cooperative Gallery, 135 E. Congress St. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with extended hours until 7 p.m. on Thursdays. For more information call 792-4503.

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