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December 3, 2001 - January 18, 2002 at Michael Levy Gallery, Long Beach

by Ray Zone

In 1790 the finest pencils were made in Britain from natural graphite. At war with Britain in 1793, France was cut off from the pencil supply so it commissioned Nicholas Jacques Conte to create a substitute. Conte, a former artist, devised a way to make pencil molds from graphite and clay in 1794 and patented what became the precursor of the modern pencil a year later.

Conte himself would be surprised to see what Gary Wiethorn can do with a graphite #5 pencil on Bainbridge board. Wiethorn achieves an astonishing realism with this most humble of image-making devices. Yet, mere replication of the visual world is not what interests Wiethorn. His images yoke photographic realism to a sublimely surreal, visual poetry.

Wiethorn’s hyperrealistic images, of course, have sufficient merit to stand alone as achievements in rendition. The drawing titled Dragonfly with its photographic realism mimics the depth of field effect that an optical lens creates. One particular point in the image is sharply focused and the background imagery is increasingly blurred. We have been long accustomed to photographs and motion pictures that exploit selective focus in this way but this is rarely done with pencil drawings.

A crisply rendered dragonfly perches on a truncated branch against an extremely diffuse background of reeds at irregular angles in Wiethorn’s drawing. His mastery of the image is so comprehensive in its play between pre- and post-photographic vocabulary, that it incorporates soft focus circles in the background very similar to lens-flare in photography, a visual anomaly produced by glass optics and not the human eye.

Morgan is a large drawing of a boy standing at a window seen in close-up with a subtle use of light and shadow. The sharply rendered areas of the image are juxtaposed against softly diffused areas, underscoring the youth’s quiet mood of introspection.

A Cat and a Basket is a tour de force of light and shadow. Appearing to be backlit with a single source of light, the image seems photographed as with a wide angle lens and depicts a wicker basket with a white cat sleep-ing inside. Outside the basket another white cat sleeps with high contrast light raking its soft fur. The entire bottom half of the picture is the inverted shadow of the basket with interstellated shadows and bands of light. As a photograph the image would be remarkable, but Wiethorn goes the camera one better, reminding us of the artist’s active gesture and presence through selective acuity applied directly adjacent to softly rendered areas of light and shade.

Every one of the seven pencil drawings exhibited here is masterful. Especially notable is The Valley, a large, horizontal drawing of a serene landscape with a mission and vineyard at sunset which is overlaid with a giant bubble. The viewer is surprised at the discovery of a subliminal hidden angelic face at the top of the bubble looking down on the vista as with a silent benediction. Similar hidden surprises await the viewer in Wiethorn’s other drawings.

“The Valley,” graphite on
Bainbridge board, 36" x 28".

“A Cat and A Basket,” graphite
on Bainbridge board, 36" x 28".

no title graphite
on Bainbridge board.

“Morgan,” graphite on
Bainbridge board, 36" x 28".