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New Master Drawings

February 19 - April 23, 2005


Catalogue essay by Kathryn A. Wat written in conjunction with the exhibition:


Drawing is the fundamental pictorial act. It reveals the first impulses of both the artist's mind and body. New Master Drawings, the tenth installment in the Akron Art Museum's Ohio Perspectives series, reflects the heightened interest in drawing today. Here in Ohio and around the world many contemporary artists seek to reconnect with craft and handwork. Some artists featured in New Master Drawings work abstractly, covering paper and other materials with letters, loops, scrapes and scribbles. Others offer new takes on the nature sketchbook, figure studies and cartooning. I discovered in conversations with these artists that all relish drawing's power to capture, shape and transform their ideas.

In March 2004, the Akron Art Museum closed its downtown Akron location to begin an exciting expansion project. Although we are temporarily without our own galleries, we are collaborating with three area institutions to present this three-part exhibition. The Butler Institute of American Art/Salem, Summit Artspace in Akron and the Canton Museum of Art will each show works by a different group of artists. Visitors will thus experience a completely new exhibition at each part of the New Master Drawings series. This gallery guide provides information on all three venues and all artists included in the show.

In the course of organizing this exhibition, I made many studio visits to prospective artists throughout the state. During the first few meetings, I labored under an old-fashioned notion, formed in the Renaissance, that drawings can be deeply thoughtful and unquestionably beautiful but are essentially preliminary. Artists often create drawings to jot down or work out ideas and sometimes plan for work in other media. When visiting the artists, I expected to see many such "sketches." I was perplexed by how few I saw and thrilled by the originality of the artists' drawing techniques and the level of finish in their works. I wondered aloud if their decision to devote so much effort and time to drawing sprang from compulsion or even obsession. Artist Charles Kanwischer set me straight with his reply: "If by obsession you mean do I like to work, then yes."

Kanwischer's observation reminded me that many artists since the Renaissance have practiced drawing as an independent art form. Especially since the early twentieth century, artists have understood that all media and materials hold exciting possibilities for artistic expression. Cleveland artist Laurence Channing's drawings of cities and crowds of people represent not the beginning but rather the culmination of a creative process that starts with hundreds of photographs he makes. Like contemporary artists in other fields, artists who draw also build up, break down and rework their images, create expansive bodies of work and sometimes straddle the boundaries between media. Lisa Jameson collages foil and board onto her delicate ink and watercolor drawings of faces and flowers to make them a little sharper and more abstract.

I asked each artist in this exhibition why they draw. (A number of them used to work-and some still do-in other media.) All cited the "immediacy" of drawing. With a few quick strokes of a pencil or stick of charcoal, artists can realize the essential parts of their composition. Most also noted how invigorating it is to be able to touch directly-and simultaneously-the drawing medium and support. Charles Kanwischer, who builds his ethereal images of midwestern houses, barns and churches with thousands of tiny pencil strokes, observes: "When I was painting, the problem was the brush. It was like playing the piano with mittens on. For me, it all comes down to touch."

Naturally, immediacy does not imply simplicity. Kate Kern sketches out her complex drawings of imaginary plants and animals and then spends hours building up lines and adding color. She compares drawing to driving long distances: "Time passes and you don't even feel it because your mind just floats." Lowell Tolstedt chooses to draw with hard substances-colored pencils and sticks of silver, platinum and gold-because they offer him exceptional control in creating his meticulous still life drawings. Because of the hardness of the materials, it takes Tolstedt a considerable amount of time to build up his images. "People used to say to me, 'You've got to work faster.' I checked the books, and I didn't see any rules about speed," he jokes. Zena Zipporah typically eschews paper as a support for her drawings, preferring to write on objects such as dresses, eggshells and stones. Drawing on fragile and porous surfaces is challenging, but these untraditional supports heighten the visual and symbolic impact of her work.

A few artists in the exhibition draw in a "sketch" format, working quickly and creating many related drawings, but they do not limit themselves to the smaller scale associated with that style. Kirk Mangus's series of loosely drawn, comic book-inspired images are paired with his imposing mural drawn directly on the walls of Summit Artspace. Matthew Kolodziej draws architectural structures from different angles and in different lights, sometimes creating dozens of drawings based upon a single structure. In this, he harks back to Old Master draftsmen such as Leonardo da Vinci, who drew landscapes, plants, bodies, faces, animals and machines repeatedly in order to clarify his understanding of them. Like movements within a symphony, Robert Robbins's spare charcoal landscape drawings center on a few essential elements-open fields, leafless trees and overcast skies. He depends on the starkness of his palette to lend his images a spiritual, rather than sensual, quality.

The drawn line may be the most direct form of visual expression, but the artists in New Master Drawings reveal it to be an evocative tool for conveying emotions, fears and fantasies.


About the author:

Kathryn A. Wat is Curator of Exhibitions at the Akron Art Museum.


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