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January 22 - April 29, 2005, at Judson Gallery, Highland Park

by Roberta Carasso

Dan McCleary, "Wilbur Urbina in Hooded
Jacket," 2002, oil on canvas, 36 x 28".

Dan McCleary, "Study for Wilbur
Urbina in Hooded Jacket," 2002,
pencil on paper, 19 1/4 x 14 3/4".

Before Impressionism, before paint was applied directly to canvas or hands impulsively manipulated sculptural media, it was routine for artists to prepare their final work by beginning with numerous well-thought out drawings using a variety of media. Much like an architect who slowly predetermines the nuts and bolts of a structure, the artist would draft the “blueprint” using the initial drawing to work out aesthetic possibilities.

Transitioning, however, from one art form to another is not simple. The fundamental essence of drawing is two-dimensional marks and lines, from which emerge such elements as composition, and the illusion of shapes, texture, color, light, shadows, and space. If the artist chooses to shift from drawing to paint, then there is the additional consideration of edge and layering of edge. And if the artist uses drawing, or a series of renderings as preparation for sculpture, then a mark becomes form and a line becomes a plane existing in a three-dimensional space. Add to this transformative process the individual vision of each artist’s commitment to particular artistic elements and methods of arriving at a finished work. Therefore, no matter how an artist prepares in one expression, transposition requires a fresh perception within the context of a different medium, as well as the ability to render with at least equal success in more than one art form.

Throughout the modern era, many artists, particularly those who work in an intuitive mode, discarded drawing as preparation in favor of attacking the blank canvas or sculptural material directly: expression trumps contemplation. This exhibition, titled ”Contemporary Drawing as Preparation,“ presents the work of 18 accomplished contemporary artists, all disciplined in traditional preparation: Wes Christensen, John Frame. D.J. Hall, F. Scott Hess, Tom Knechtel, Laura Lasworth, David Ligare, Dan McCleary, Jim Morphesis, Deni Ponty, Toni Rodriguez, Aaron Smith, John Swihart, Masami Teraoka, Ruth Weisberg, Patty Wickman, Jerome Witkin, and Peter Zokosky.

The exhibition curator, Professor Ron E. Steen, established a selection process that restricted the list to Southern California artists who focus primarily on representation of the human figure, and by default, are not considered abstractionists. It is easy to see that all the artists display virtuosity with several media and follow the more academic tradition, where skill in rendering is critical. Committed to the perfection of craft, their idealized imagery is largely of familiar themes, but with thought-provoking twists. Hence, planning is critical.

One of the more interesting aspects of the exhibition is what comprises preparation. Some artists intuitively know their direction in only a few drawings, while others need to come up with a variety of solutions in several media before they tackle the final work.

Teraoka, known for his magically erotic and sensually humorous depictions of contemporary life expressed through the traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e format, displays only one watercolor sketch on paper. This is not an indication of his process, but of the availability of his work. However, the drawing provides several clues. Teraoka seems to map out the flow of the story rather than work through details. The quick, decisive, and lyrical quality of his “Fish Woman and Artist” gives the impression that Teraoka already knows what he wants to achieve in subject and does not have to dwell on referencing what is certain to emerge.

Jon Swihart, "Untitled," 1998,
oil on canvas, 38 x 20.

Jon Swihart, preparatory
studies for "Untitled", 1998.

Deni Ponty, “Citytattoo,” 2003,
oil on canvas, 84 x 60”

Deni Ponty, preparatory
studies for “Citytattoo,” 2003.

McCleary has a more controlled but an experimental way of working. He creates his path from drawing to painting to drawing to print. In his preparatory work, McCleary alters slightly the position of a soulful young man in a navy blue pullover, positioning him to the right, then to the left, capturing him in close-up and in a t-shirt. McCleary’s concerns lie in graphic expression, as his drawings, paintings, and prints are treated as aesthetic equals.

One of the most intense portraits is Ponty’s “City Tattoo.” In it, Ponty captures the intimacy of two young men and the inner and outer lives they lead. The gang members are positioned in front of a colorful but staccato street mural. Its oversized marks on the wall echo the masculine and sexual symbolism of the minute tattoo seen on the central character’s chest. Ponty first sketches with colored pencils, portraying one boy in solitude; then he renders the two on black, then tan, then white paper, each time trying for different effects. Because youthful eroticism is key, Ponty renders a study of muscular arms, and a close-up of the intimate moment when their youthful body movements overlap. In this way Ponty works out the essential elements that merge into an impressive whole.

Hall not only creates rapidly drawn sketches, but also writes notes to herself as if she were putting her thoughts on paper along with her plans. She creates a very California portrait of a fashionably dressed mother standing with her wet daughter wrapped in a towel near their luxurious swimming pool. Instinctively, our eye is also drawn through their contemporary living room window, which gives a fuller picture of the family. Hall, known for her observations of California life, tells much through her depiction of the two people, and through a composition that is composed of feminine rounded shapes outside the home contrasted against the sharp angular forms within.Certainly, exhibiting initial drawings alongside finished art is a most engaging idea, as it illustrates art’s evolutionary process and reveals the distinction between varying artistic expressions. Kudos to these artists. By exposing their intimate thoughts while preparing exemplary portraits, they give us a richer understanding of who they are and how they create.

Masami Teraoka, "Los Angeles Sushi Ghost Tales/Fish Woman
and the Artist," 1979, watercolor on paper, 13 1/4 x 55".

Masami Teraoka, preparatory study for "Los Angeles Sushi Ghost Tales/
Fish Woman and the Artist," 1979, watercolor on paper, 13 1/4 x 45".