Art Review Archives:
Ann Nathan Gallery
Robert Schultz: New Drawings
Every so often in Chicago's gallery districts, concurrent exhibitions are so directly complementary that they invite viewing as a pair. Mary Borgman at Ann Nathan Gallery and Robert Schultz: New Drawings at Printworks Gallery are two such shows. Borgman presents larger-than-life portraits in richly-worked charcoal. Schultz offers a lively precision in figure drawing in graphite. Both are well worth seeing, and they are especially enticing seen together, inviting a comparison and contrast that heightens an appreciation of both bodies of work.
Part I: Mary Borgman
"Modern tribal studies," one gallery visitor remarked, and there is indeed a sense of modern-anthropological collection in the ethnicities of Mary Borgman's large-scale charcoal portraits, whose varying physiognomies, so strongly marked, capture a flavor similar to that of the anthropological bronzes at the Field Museum: individuals, standing in for a record of types. Indian, Guatemalan, Nigerian -- Borgman records faces that are overlooked by our predominantly Anglo-Saxon-focused culture. This particular exhibition at Ann Nathan Gallery offers thirteen works. All are pleasures.
There is a voluptuous softness to Borgman's choice of medium of charcoal, mixed media on Mylar. On the smooth surface of the Mylar she works up textures and thicknesses akin to those of pastel, from thin tonal grays where the imprint of the artist's finger-strokes is seen in sketchy rhythm, to areas of velvety-deep, densely laid-on black. The artist works from photographs, and the finished pieces retain their impressions of formal black-and-white photography in the neutral backgrounds, and in the focus on masses of light and dark. In some cases, hearkening back to the 'tribal' impression, the subjects' expressions carry an almost turn-of-the-century photographic seriousness. Portrait of Rohini Reddy (charcoal, mixed media on Mylar: 64"x42":2004) presents the forbidding formality seen in early tintypes, while Portrait of Tomiwa Alabi (charcoal, mixed media on Mylar: 69"x42":2004) has a more modern, urban reticence. Others look away in deep thought or dreaming, or present faces of no-nonsense sternness.
Seeing a smiling face we react more instantly, emotionally. Here the neutral faces keep one at a distance -- at first. Their closed expressions divert engagement into an appreciation of the harmony of face and feature that forms a solid aesthetic base in these works. In Portrait of Moises Mayen (with ponytail) (charcoal, mixed media on Mylar: 65"x42":2002) the lighting is dramatically arranged, with forceful accents of deep shadow, particularly around the eyes. Shadows balance one another on the left cheek and right temple. There is a harmony of purely formal qualities: the loose waves of the hair contrasting with the bold modeling of brow, cheekbones, nose; the anchoring note of the black tee shirt. And yet... there is more. The longer one looks, the more one cannot escape the feeling that given the right circumstance -- the approach of a friend, the light phrase of a joke -- this closed face could break into a radiant smile. These works are charged with a strong suggestion of personality, and this is the height of Borgman's art. They carry a sense of depth, of the complexity and sensitivity that comprises this individual as a living soul.
That feeling of depth takes a moment to develop, just as a photograph, or an acquaintanceship, takes time; but it lingers, once realized. Borgman's portraits portray the face we offer the world, while suggesting the interior person. To answer how and why is difficult. Certainly there are external clues of dress and presentation: dreadlocks or braids, a tee shirt, workshirt, or bared chest, a necklace or a woven leather bracelet. But the answer seems to lie deeper, to be more elusive -- and that in itself makes this art intriguing.
In part, the answer lies in the artist's exquisite acuity to body language. She brings a fine, all but invisible level of sensitivity to facial expression and stance. Outside In (charcoal, mixed media on Mylar:84"x84":2004), one of several three-quarter portraits, presents two views of a young man in a white tee-shirt, the juxtaposition drawn from a chance pairing of images from the model's photo shoot. The leftmost is the one with which we are concerned: he wears a hesitant expression, and despite his youthful vigor, his well-muscled arms, there is the slightest suggestion of bodily twist, as if trying to escape the camera's eye. Compare Portrait of Nati Zohar (standing) (charcoal, mixed media on Mylar: 69"x42":2004), a similar portrait, also of a young man in three-quarter length. One would expect the figure to seem more defenseless in his half-nudity, and there is a sense of that vulnerability in the twitch of the left hand; and yet he is, indefinably, more confident in bearing as well. They are two distinct individuals, with the distinctions being more subtle, and deeper, than clothing or even physical shape.
A clue to the artist's keen perceptive ability may be in her prior experience as a sign-language interpreter for the deaf. Signing, Borgman noted, is not so much watching the person's hand-signs as looking keenly and intently into their eyes, to assess their comprehension of what is being communicated. Such sustained eye contact is rare in our culture, which permits a second or two of flickering glance at the most; looking deeply is reserved for close friends and lovers. As the artist affirmed of signing, "It becomes very intimate," and this seems to translate directly into her work. There is a further type of intimacy here, and that of facial closeup, seen at large scale. An object's size relates to how much of our attention it commands, and what kind: we react differently to an elephant, and an ant. But to see a human face, specifically, at such a scale charges it with a certain glamour. The cinema 'close-up' was first used in 1908; it paved the way for our awareness of the minutest details of the faces of our favorite celebrities. Like the eye contact of hand-signing, the closeup presented minute facial details formerly seen only by one's closest companions.
The size of Borgman's work is not accidental. Trying life-size or smaller pieces, she found they lacked the same presence; she noted as well a personal pleasure in the "broad gestures" and the almost painterly application of medium involved. The use of Mylar (rather than paper) allows the artist to bring the portraits to this exceptional size while retaining the lushness of the charcoal medium. The Mylar provides a surface easily reworked, giving her the ability to back off the charcoal to plain white if desired, and yields when complete a matte surface with plenty of texture. At the opening, the plexiglass on several pieces was left off at Borgman's request, allowing viewers to approach the works without an intervening layer, and to appreciate the lush textures. The artist preferred this, even though it left the work more vulnerable; noted, in fact, that she found the idea of the vulnerability exciting.
And yet, this work isn't 'about' vulnerability -- nor is it 'about' ethnicity, nor does it seem to be, really 'about' anything in the intellectualized, manifesto-driven sense. It springs from a deeper essential need, from the artist's intuitions, and her own enthusiasm for opening up the barriers, making a stranger into an acquaintance. Borgman lives and works in St. Louis, with her studio in a diverse area known as the Loop. She noted that she simply sees people who impress her as compelling subjects, and that she has ideas, almost at once, about the final work. The outgoing artist has no hesitation in striking up conversations with strangers who appeal to her as models, and inviting them to her studio. Nati Zohar was an employee at the local grocery store, Rohini Reddy a young lady just arrived from India, others were people she spotted on the street, and one or two are longtime friends. She chats with them for an hour or two, then sets up a session for the photographs that will provide source material for the finished charcoal work. The result is an art of subtlety and presence, one that rewards repeated viewing with a continued, renewing fascination. And the gallery opening held an unusual pleasure, a community joyousness as several of her subjects made the trip from St. Louis to Chicago, along with their families, to join the artist in the delight of seeing the works as an exhibition.
Mary Borgman is perceptively observant of body language in its subtlest gradations, and her intensity of feeling and observation radiate from these works. A portrait is more than mere physical likeness. Through her innate perceptiveness of character, and her ability to render it faithfully in the rich charcoal medium, Borgman captures an essential grace and depth in her subjects. Mary Borgman's thirteen large-scale portraits, in charcoal on Mylar, will be at Ann Nathan Gallery through June 12, 2004 (extended through July 3, 2004).
Part II: Robert Schultz: New Drawings
In lively contrast, Robert Schultz: New Drawings at Printworks Gallery presents the human being as an endless playground of line and form. Human figures populate these works, but it is deceptive to see Schultz's subject as the figure itself. What he sees, and brings out with such clarity, is the dance of texture, form and volume moving lightly across the human body and the inanimate settings he chooses to add.
These fourteen graphite figure drawings provide the pleasure of a breathless virtuosity. The negative spaces are pure, untouched white paper, no trace of erasures, corrections; other backgrounds are gradations of a flawless, almost luminous graphite-drawn gray. With clean precision of line and shading the artist picks up the body as a feature of veins, folds, limbs, a source of skin textures and contrasts, things lingering as well in the inanimate -- a chair, the draping of a shirt, tiny, obsessively-rendered cracks of peeling plaster. Schultz not only perceives it, he renders it all with a precision that makes us see (and seem to see more intensely, with greater clarity) the liveliness in these contrasts of flat and even, full and rounded, nubbly and silky. In Meditation (graphite on paper: 8"x21": 2004) the round, silky forms that define the body are played off against the machined linearity of wall and floor, and further yet against the random patterns they frame, trailing tails of cracked plaster and ripples of light and dark wood grain. With skilled subtlety, Schultz captures in graphite shading even the delicate nuances that this is African-American, as opposed to Caucasian, skin, both of which differ not only in tone, but in reflectivity of light -- the curation hints at, and the artist confirmed, that the model for Meditation is indeed the same is in the portrait above it, Carl (graphite on paper: 5"x4-1/4": 2004).
Even virtuoso technique requires something more to sustain interest and reward repeated looking, and the artist provides it by delighting not only in forms and textures, but in their interlocking playfulness in composition as a whole. The inspiration for Interweave (graphite on paper: 23"x10": 2004) came from a gesture drawing, with the shirt spontaneously added to the model's pose during the session. With it, the artist creates a complex interplay of line and texture, body part and balance, rising into pristine white space from the anchoring black-and-white checkerboard of the floor. The crossed arms and their freehanging counterpart, the 'arms' of the shirt; the balanced asymmetry of the crossed hands, and of the slight uneven cant of the buttocks; the overlap of the wrists versus that of the ankles -- everywhere the eye is led into new areas of counterpoint, contrast and harmony.
Schultz noted that the artists which inspired him included Jared French and Paul Cadmus, both 20th century; a catalogue of Schultz's prior work from a 2002 exhibition shares many of their qualities of magic realism. This current exhibition at Printworks presents a more straightforward fascination with the wit of form, texture and the contrasts between them -- a Renaissance pleasure of working up, from the human figure, the endless possibilities of its native musculature. Loose End IV (graphite on paper:12"x17":2004) is both an anatomical study, and a mobile composition of diagonal forms that echo the half-hanging, half-weightless gesture of the athletic male figure. The freehanging end of the rope is echoed in the tautly drawn pectoral muscle beside it, while the ribs and particularly, the muscles of the neck and shoulders are a harmony of short, slanting strokes; and all springing from a single prop -- a length of rope -- and the innate relations of muscle and bone. Loose End III (graphite on paper: 12"x18": 2003) presents a rear view of the same pose, this time capturing the muscles of the back in a composition that draws triangular shapes inward to flow down the central, subtle, almost imaginary line of the spinal column itself. It takes a knowing eye to bring out the complexity of such natural forms.
Connoisseurship is experience, not consumption: not just the act of guzzling wine, but the experience of sensation and the pleasure of making sense of it. It is this type of sensation which these works encourage, and fulfill. Robert Schultz: New Drawings presents a bravura demonstration of the artist's drawing capabilities, with endless harmonies to delight the eye. Robert Schultz has a B.A. and an M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin in 1976 and 1981 respectively. He currently teaches at The University of Chicago.
Mary Borgman and Robert Schultz show the variance of vision two artists can apply to the human figure. Borgman's focus lingers on form and personality: a portraiture large, yet deeply intimate, and richly modelled in lavish strokes of charcoal. Schultz presents a fascination with figure and detail, rendered in graphite with exceeding clarity of vision. Both exhibitions are well worth seeing, and in particular, in tandem; to compare and contrast enhances an appreciation of both artists' work. Mary Borgman will be at Ann Nathan Gallery through June 12, 2004 (extended through July 3, 2004) and Robert Schultz: New Drawings at Printworks Gallery through May 29, 2004.
--Katherine Rook Lieber
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