Pencil to Paper

(Mostly) conventional, small drawings shine at Gráficas Gallery

On a wintry night in the foothills last week, a horde of Tucsonans crammed into tiny Gráficas Gallery. It wasn't hard to pick out the three artists whose work was on view. They stood head and shoulders above the rest.

"This is a show of art by three tall white guys with sort-of blond hair," deadpanned the tallest of them, artist Joe Forkan, speaking down from his own personal stratosphere.

It's also a show by three guys who are very good at the old-fashioned art of drawing.

The Pleasures of Drawing showcases several dozen small works by Forkan, Chris Rush and Dave Brown, all artists with Tucson connections. Forkan used to live here (and paint covers and draw a comic strip for the Tucson Weekly), and Rush and Brown still do. The trio use conventional drawing materials--charcoal, conté crayon, pastel, ink and chalk--and a couple not so conventional, including foot smudges, a specialty of Brown, who likes to draw on paper he's walked all over.

The fine art of drawing is not exactly in fashion. The contemporary art world favors irony and animé over old masterly showmanship, outrageous new media over traditional materials. But for the most part, these three artists rebel against the mania for wild new materials and revel in the delicious old art of putting pencil to paper.

Rush draws--and paints--with astonishing skill. But his pictures go far beyond mere realism. Works like "Benjamin," a conté crayon on paper, are intensely emotional. This one is a profile of the head and body of a man, partially covered by a pink cloth falling from his shoulders. He's bald and fat, and his head may have some deformity (in the past, Rush made whole suites of paintings of children with disabilities), yet the artist gives him a glowing beauty. The colors are soft and intense; the lines blur into each other. The man has a slight smile playing on his lips, and his left hand is raised in a kind of blessing.

Sometimes, Rush deploys his gifts to almost surrealistic effect, in odd drawings like the ape with a human skull on its head, or the big-headed bird, both drawn in ink on found 19th-century documents. Rush likes to play with history, layering a new drawing gleaned from his imagination on an old bill of sale, say, or a police record. "Web" is a riveting portrait of a 19th-century man on a school slate, peering at us from the past through the blackboard's cracks.

Occasionally, but only occasionally, Rush indulges in pure lyricism. "Night Storm" is a whirling chalk drawing, the black of the slate it's sketched on standing in for nighttime darkness. "Monsoon," sepia ink on paper, is a lovely little skyscape, all clouds and light.

Forkan delves into the space between reality and abstraction, using color and quick gestures to conjure up, say, a woman's body or the shifting light and shadows on a building. "Dancer," one of a series of figure drawings, is a wonderfully quick rendering of a woman, her curves re-created in just a few strokes of charcoal and a few peachy shadings from the conté crayon.

A gifted painter who will exhibit a full suite of paintings at the Temple Gallery in January, Forkan often conjures up the landscape of memory in subtle, deliberately blurry oils. A pastel drawing here, "Rumour of the Ocean," is reminiscent of these paintings. Perhaps the single most beautiful work in this show, it only hints at the clear light of the sea beyond a murky stretch of land.

But in some of Forkan's lively new drawings, his palette has brightened. Transplanted from Tucson to Delaware and now to California, where he teaches at Cal State Fullerton, he's now wielding his pastels to capture the famous light of the Golden State. The luminous "Spurgeon" drawings chronicle colors changing through the day on an early 20th-century building he can see from his studio in Santa Ana.

"Spurgeon 12 noon" has the flat, blank light of midday; the pale blue shadow of the building is nearly the same shade as the sky. By "Spurgeon 4:30," a deep shadow has cut diagonally across the façade; the unshaded portion blazes lemon yellow in the sun. In "Spurgeon 6 p.m.," the color dampens down into dusk, the pinks and blues metamorphosing into tan and gray.

Brown's funny little charcoal drawings perhaps come closest to the sensibilities of contemporary art. He's got the weird material thing down, for one. When the artist was in grad school at the UA, he'd throw big sheets of drawing paper on the floor and leave them there for weeks, allowing them to accumulate footprints and coffee stains alike. Now, years later, he's cut the paper up into tiny rectangles and used their smudges as elements in his compositions.

He's also a master of contemporary irony. "My Head Is So Empty I Can Hear the Ocean" pictures a shoe-stained sky above a roiling black sea, suggested by just a few pointy waves. On the shore is a cartoon drawing of a kitty cat looking over the water. The poor thing is so empty-headed that the cartoon dialogue balloon rising over her head is a big blank.

Quite a few of the drawings pay tongue-in-cheek homage to the tools of men. Stepladders, hammers, a cinder block and a hearty cup of coffee all take center stage in dexterously drawn charcoals. "Deluge Day Dream" shows a sawhorse table, topped by the steaming coffee cup, mysteriously marooned in a puddle of water. In "Field of Dreams," a stepladder is also steeped in a pool, its legs and rungs reflected in watery ripples.

Brown offers up a couple of drawings, smeared with gashes of paint, as lessons in how not to draw. Amusingly titled "How to Ruin a Drawing" and "OK to Ruin," they have weird little pencil sketches that have gone nowhere, helped along on their journey into ignominy by the artist's impulsive upending of the paint jars.

But when one drawing fails, another quickly takes its place. In "Room With a View," Brown offers up a metaphor for art's ability to just keep going. A charming line picture of the desert, it has a shade cloth framing a view of four tiny saguaros on the horizon. Beyond the cactuses, the land rolls out like a big, empty sheet of paper, where an artist could draw and draw and draw. Above and below this landscape, Brown has printed words signaling his joy in art's infinite possibilities.

"The ideas," he writes, "just keep coming."

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