Art so perfect, it’s painful

At its best, Ronk’s advanced technique achieves drawn-up perfection

I Can Show You The World” by Grayson Ronk.

Grayson Ronk’s Draw Erase, on view at Henri & Odette, assembles a collection of graphite drawings so exacting in their faint precision, to look at them is almost painful. Photorealistic in nature, the artist’s method of rendering softens the blow of a harsh reality.

Drawing is a funny thing, and I love it almost more than chocolate. While raw and direct, it is by association a plan for something else, susceptible to erasure, impermanent and changeable. Long the site for radical developments in art, the medium has a direct connection to the conceptual and performative.

Contemporary art tells us that a work of art that replicates a real object or place is never really only about the object or image replicated. The medium of duplication, as well as context, acts as a filter, and is invariably implicated in the resulting work (see CityCenter’s “Typewriter Eraser” by Oldenburg and Van Bruggen).

"Because I Can't Write You a Love Song" by Grayson Ronk


Grayson Ronk’s Draw Erase
Three and a half stars
Through December 11, by appointment.
Henri & Odette, 124 S. 6th Street, 686-3164.

But sometimes it just bugs me. Why make a painting, drawing or sculpture look exactly the way the subject does in reality? All too often, deeper meaning falls flat, and the work slips into the realm of craft. A photograph just seems more honest. At its best, photorealism should deepen or even transcend our knowledge of the original.

Thankfully, at its best Draw Erase does just that. Toying with various art histories, Ronk appears to be the love child of artists Vija Celmins and Gerhard Richter. These drawings transcend photographic accuracy to arrive at something more truthful than a simple image.

Take “Arabi.” The field of vision is dwarfed by the back of a young man’s head, gazing into a distance obscured by both the figure and the barely there quality of mark-making. We gaze at him and with him, scanning the landscape for some trace of recognizable information. Who is he? What is he looking for? The title refers to an area in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, where the young man’s father was raised—his childhood home before Hurricane Katrina. Confusion, longing and loss haunt the image with or without this privileged information. The man’s search mimics the viewer’s.

Working from black and white images, Ronk’s rendering is exceptionally subtle, with line work that is remarkably light and spare; in a range of grays extending from a whisper to a fog, the darkest of the lot falls somewhere in the realm of a rainy day. Deep, dark tones are nowhere to be found, and evidence of the artist’s hand is barely perceptible. This technique adds a layer of complexity. The overall effect is dreamlike, and the drawings feel like impressions, or perhaps strive to be. A distance both real and desired makes for a more acceptable, or at least manageable, truth. Vision is obscured and unreliable.

While the desired gray scale is achieved by a labor-intensive progression (“Arabi” took over a year), the artist claims to be driven more by image than process. So why toil over the process?

The image/process polarity magically evaporates in “Gray Skies Are Gonna Clear Up.” Process, minimalism and pop collide in a shimmering mountain landscape of Paul Bunyan-scaled Prozac, scattered across a shiny tabletop. This theme is acutely focused in a series of tiny pill portraits called “A Week’s Worth of Happiness.” Call me crazy, but I think pharmaceuticals are the perfect update of the Campbell’s Soup can: repeatable and recognizable; everybody knows Prozac, or knows somebody who knows Prozac. In its own way, Ronk’s pristine layering mimics the mechanized production methods favored by so many minimalists, except that his precision is handmade. Warm and fuzzy, the cherry on top is the hazy reverie of the drawing … of a drug meant to neutralize sensations. Perfection.

Perfection for an exhibition whose title implies the changeability of a medium, whose drawings almost depict tragic events, and whose endgame is a safe distance from those almost-events. Maybe they are really just romantic portraits of pretty pills and billowing storm clouds. But the dreamy numbness and elaborate attention to detail suggest otherwise. There are so many realities we all wish we didn’t have to face.

Not all of the dots connect, but when they do, Draw Erase shines.


Danielle Kelly

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