Drawing power

The magnificent collection on display at Donna Beam Gallery redefines what it’s possible to do with a pencil

Julie Seated with Hands Clasped” by Steven Assael.
Susanne Forestieri

When I received the invite for a group exhibition of drawings and saw the face of a young man in a baseball cap, I assumed it was a photograph of one of the artists (even though one artist is not usually singled out in a group show, and it was an exhibit of drawings, not photographs). I never questioned my illogical assumption, so I felt really foolish when I saw the work in person. It was an incredibly realistic pencil drawing, and my amazed reaction was echoed throughout the gallery as I heard “Incredible!” exclaimed over and over again. Who knew so many contemporary artists (12 to be exact) were drawing in a realistic or hyper-real style? The intense reaction I experienced gazing at these “real” faces at Not Without Form: Recent Drawings and Works on Paper was clearly shared by others. Was it the skill of the artists or the illusion of reality we found so riveting? In retrospect I think it was both—and another component as well.

The two drawings by Patrick Lee—the one on the invite, “Deadly Friends (Rock Star),” and “Deadly Friends (Head #14)”—are truly astonishing. The former depicts a young man in a baseball cap staring pugnaciously at the viewer, the latter a bald man with tattoos across his scalp and neck. Subtleties of tone and texture are rendered with superhuman skill—the distinctive look of ink-stained skin; traces of beard stubble and nicks; skin texture from fine to coarse. Every hair in the eyebrows and mustache is delineated, yet they don’t look fussy or unnatural. Lee even manages to convey through barely perceptible gradations of tone the spongy feel of the cap’s synthetic material. These are two guys you wouldn’t want to stare at if you saw them in person, but one of the pleasures of portraiture is that you can gaze intently at someone’s face with impunity.


Not Without Form: Recent Drawings and Works on Paper
Through September 20.
Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery, Alta Ham Fine Arts Building, UNLV. 895-3893
Beyond the Weekly
Steven Assael
Bill Vuksanovich

Unlike Lee’s models, Bill Vuksanovich’s people would seem nonthreatening in person. Vuksanovich’s pencil drawings, like Lee’s, are highly realistic, but larger than life. His “Two Sides of the Same Coin” is a double portrait of a young woman. She stares directly at us with eyes so alive I could swear I saw the pupils dilate. His realistic rendering of unevenly textured skin is shocking because we’ve become accustomed to cosmetics-ad versions of feminine skin. His three-quarter-length portrait of a dewy-eyed little girl is a tour-de-force of tone and texture, from the untweezed eyebrows and childishly pudgy hands capped by inexpertly manicured fingernails to the downy hair on her arms.

In Steven Assael’s two portraits of Julie, her classic profile is lovingly rendered, but her hair steals the show. I’ve never seen such magnificent depictions of hair in any medium. Typically, artists have kept their subject’s hair neatly coiffed to keep attention focused on the face, but here the long tresses are unloosed to cascade in waves of luxuriant majesty. Assael uses graphite and black crayon to capture the density of the massed hair and the fineness of individual hairs; even those stray wisps that catch the light like golden threads are delineated by scratching through the black crayon to the white of the paper (a technique called scrafitto).

Some said photography, with its ability to record reality with mechanical precision, would completely replace drawing and painting, particularly in the field of portraiture. What those prognosticators didn’t understand was the elemental power of drawing, the above-mentioned mysterious component. Children draw as soon as they’re old enough to hold a crayon, and their first drawing is usually of the human face. That initial impulse is why drawings have the power to move us. We are overcome with a childlike sense of joy when coming face to face with a lifelike depiction of the human face.

I’ve seen the exhibit three times and will go back for more, so joyful is the experience.


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