Friday, July 29, 2016

Colored pencil art

Photo: “Len (Roofer)” colored pencil, by John Smolko, courtesy American Art Company

Surprisingly impactful show at American Art Company

Published in the Weekly Volcano, July 28, 2016

“Len (Roofer)” colored pencil, by John Smolko, courtesy American Art Company
The Colored Pencil Society of America's 24 International Exhibition at American Art Company is surprising on many levels. For starters, the 119 works of art that crowd the gallery walls are really paintings, not drawings, by almost any criteria, despite being done with pencils. Second, the detailed technical expertise and attention to detail in each and every work is mind-boggling.

As a longtime artist, critic and former teacher, I feel obligated to point out that pretty pictures skillfully executed do not necessarily qualify as art. (I think this is what the critic Peter Plagens was referring to when he coined the phrase “wall fodder.”) Art must at least strive toward something higher — call me an elitist or a snob if you must, but art should be transformative.

These are not transformative works, but they are mind-boggling in their skill. The intensity, dedication and patience it must have taken for these artists to create these works is almost beyond comprehension.

Nearly all of the works shown are photo-realist or trompe l’oeil paintings. In most, you have to look close and hard to even see that there are pencil marks; in some, I would defy anyone to see a single pencil mark, not even with a magnifying glass.

There are a few exceptions, and I wish there were more. One of the exceptions is John Smolko's "Len (Roofer),” a portrait of a working man taking a break from his work. He sits on the peak of a roof looking out in a contemplative stare. It is a highly realistic picture, yet Smolko does not attempt to hide his pencil marks. There are definite contour lines, most noticeably on the arms. Energetic, swirling lines almost reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock painting fill the background and even overlap the figure in places. The use of these marks seems to be the artist’s way of reminding the viewer that it is, after all, a drawing. Plus, these marks unify figure and background and energize the picture.

Another exception is Jill Kline's "Cause and Effect." This is a picture of a young woman seen in an extremely foreshortened view standing on or above what looks like a landscape seen from an airplane. There is a heroic and almost unreal quality to the image, even though she too is drawn realistically. The shading is simplified and looks like it was done with pastels, and there are definite outlines around the body that, like the marks in Smolko’s drawing, announce that yes, this is a drawing.

Perhaps the most astounding of the many astoundingly hyper-realist works is Jesse Lane’s “Resolve.” This is a portrait of a dripping-wet man in extreme close-up. Water drips down his face and pours off his chin. The background is solid black, and his face glows as if under a spotlight. The luminosity and heightened contrast of this one is powerful, but may be a little too stagey for some viewers.

There are a lot of flower pictures, many portraits, a lot of old things — such as old typewriters and rusted old cars and trucks — a few landscapes and animal pictures and dreamscapes. As noted, they are all realistic in style. Most are also nicely composed. They have to be admired for their technical skill. They also have hefty price tags, ranging from around $2,000 to $20,000.

Despite what might have been implied by my earlier remarks about pretty and skillful not being sufficient to constitute art, I very much enjoyed seeing this show.

Colored Pencil Society of America's 24 International Exhibition, Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Aug. 13, American Art Company, 1126 Broadway Plaza, Tacoma, 253.272.4327,

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