Martha Alf, "Three Pears Neptune"
Through December 1, 2012 at Santa Monica College, Barrett Art Gallery, Santa Monica
by Jeanne Willette
Among artists, there are those who draw and those who paint. Some of these individuals are painters who paint, while others are draftsmen who paint, such as Martha Alf. Alf, in fact, entered the Los Angeles art scene about forty years ago as someone who made art with a pencil and during a period in which technique was being sloughed off, dazzled with her rendering skills.
Martha Alf, "Three Pears Neptune", color pencil drawing.
Oddly, there are almost no synonyms for “drawing.” “Tracing” is not right, “sketching” is completely off the mark, “rendering” comes closest if only in the sense of “bringing into being.” Drawing, as Alf does it, is an exercise in deep contemplation in which the artist gazes upon and becomes one with the object under scrutiny. But drawing is more than the simple act of seeing and transcribing. Drawing is a physical act, moving a pencil point softly over the fibers of the Arches paper, seeking the tooth and finding the texture, layering hard lead over soft lead, building the apple of "Apple #9" (1996) into existence as an object in its own right, complete with a crisply curling leaf contrasting to the fruit's lush roundness. When Alf paints, as in her homage to Josef Albers and his squares, the pears of her "Inner Square Series" (1980s) come alive in vivid color with gentle touches of a deliberating paintbrush. In this series the pears stand alone, but in an earlier series of "Pears" (1980s) in pastel pencil, Alf, like van Gogh and Cézanne, shows elongated bulging triangles nestling together, communing in a neutralized space. As with Giorgio Morandi, Alf’s respectful attention to ordinary objects, bestows them with distinct personalities.
Alf is, to be sure, nearly unsurpassed at “looking at the overlooked,” as art historian Norman Bryson famously stated. Her superstars are “overlooked” rolls of toilet paper, which have never looked so edgy as in her 1975 series of oils. But the stars of the exhibition are colored rolls of toilet paper lined up in a vitrine. Real rolls of real paper, made of hundreds of squares, each of which were hand tinted with colored pencil - pink, red, blood-red, lavender, black, yellow and aqua - each drawn as beautifully as their cousins imprisoned in paint strokes on canvas or caught within the weaves of the paper, captured under glass and held fast in frames. The inversion of object and drawing is deeply satisfying and one can only marvel at how careful Alf had to be when she rendered royal the most disposable paper of all.