The Flick of a Pen 

Masterful drawings on display at the Fine Arts Center

In yet another inventive, interesting and even delightful show, the Fine Arts Center has cleverly juxtaposed a traveling show of master drawings from the Worcester Art Museum with an exhibition of large-scale drawings from three contemporary regional artists. One of the many delights of living in Colorado Springs is that an exhibition of absolutely first-rate master drawings will be serenely uncrowded. One could rail about the cloddish philistines who don't have the sense to throng the galleries of the FAC to see Great Art, but wotthehell, as Archie said to Mehitabel. Intimate, small-scale works such as these need unhurried study in a calm and quiet place, like the Fine Arts Center on a weekday afternoon.

There's a hierarchy among collectors of fine art, just as there's a hierarchy among basketball players. Rich guys who pay millions for mediocre impressionists are at the bottom of the hierarchy; at the top are the erudite connoisseurs who collect master drawings. Since you have to be extraordinarily competent to be a player in this field (i.e., to avoid fakes, to identify artists and subjects, to make aesthetic judgments), master drawings have an undeserved reputation for being "High art" -- unapproachable unless you know a lot.

In fact, drawings, particularly from the Renaissance, are far more accessible and easy to appreciate than paintings of the same era. A fragment of an altarpiece in a museum, extensively restored, torn from its original context and obscure in its iconography is a lot more challenging to modern eyes than a simple sketch by the same hand.

The drawings on display span nearly 700 years, from a page of a medieval illustrated manuscript (scarcely a drawing!) to 19th-century masters such as Degas and Homer. Many of them are as fresh and immediate as today, even though their creators have been dead for centuries.

Consider, for example, Pierre-Paul Prud'hon's study of drapery. Simple, spare and perfect, it's the record of a masterful artist honing his skills, practicing his craft; kind of like watching Michael Jordan practice his fadeaway jumper. Or look at Sebastian Vrancx's studies of carriages and carts. Drawn from different angles and perspectives, you sense that the artist is playing with the subject, maybe to incorporate into a finished work, maybe just for fun. Beneath one of the carts, escaping the midday sun, a dog is curled up asleep; with a few simple lines, the artist has created time and place.

While most of the drawings here were created as preparatory sketches for large works, some are finished masterpieces. A depiction of the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul attributed to Charles-Francois Pierre la Traverse is one; subtle, inventive, deeply felt, and executed with dazzling technical mastery, it's a moving and extraordinary work of art. I stood next to it for a while during the opening and noted viewer reactions. They didn't vary: a quickly indrawn breath, a marveling shake of the head and respectful contemplation.

It's endlessly interesting, and unfair, to compare the large-scale drawings of Steve Wood, Dennis Dalton and Conrad Nelson with the master drawings in the next gallery. Interesting, because Wood, Dalton and Nelson, unlike many modern artists, are working in the most ancient of artistic traditions; unfair, because competence doesn't match up well with genius.

Our three regional heavyweights have at least one advantage over their predecessors. While Renaissance artists had to make do with comparatively tiny sheets of paper, modern technology means that paper of almost any size is cheap and available. That, in turn, means that Steve Wood can make enormous panoramic drawings, two of which are on cheerful display.

One of them, "Motoring Home: A portrait of Colorado Springs" is a cityscape, only partially imagined, based on the carwash at Academy and Montebello. Steve's draftsmanship -- quick, facile and unpretentious, like Steve himself -- is perfect for this Hogarthian vision.

As the owner of the carwash told Wood while he was working on the piece, "Everyone comes to the carwash -- rich, poor, everybody.They all have to get their cars washed. This is America!" Indeed, and Steve didn't leave anybody or anything out. There's a guy in a pickup with a gunrack, a girl in a bikini holding up a Free Carwash sign, and that's about one-tenth of one percent of the subject matter. (Steve, incidentally, is one of our city's certifiable good guys, who spends much of his time with kids doing community service at Workout, Ltd. Thanks to Steve, and his teams of teenage miscreants, our city is graced with a dozen sprightly murals where unsightly graffiti once bloomed.)

Dennis Dalton's complex, slightly surreal images recall Piranesi, or M.C. Escher. Space is distorted, forms swirl and twist, and you think that if you just look hard enough, suddenly it'll all make sense. You wait for the figure ground reversal, and it never quite comes. If you're a little slow, like me, it takes a few minutes of squinting before you let go and allow the drawing to be itself. That understood, Dalton can lead you into a pleasurable maze, a new and slightly trippy reality. And while, like George W., I don't want to discuss mistakes that I may or may not have made, beware of flashbacks.

Conrad Nelson's sure, strong line is closest to the masters in the adjacent galleries. Her work is fragmentary and elusive. Seen from the back, a woman with her hair up, sitting crosslegged, dressed in a jogbra and hiking shorts--sounds finished, but it's only a few quick, sparkling lines. And that, after all, is what separates the good from the merely adequate in drawing: economy of means, mastery of technique and the simple ability to create an emotional response with a few strokes of the pen.

It sounds easy, doesn't it? And Nelson's drawing, spare and minimalist, sometimes looks like nothing at all. But as every lazy or talentless amateur discovers, it ain't easy. It ain't easy at all.

Kind of like Michael's fadeaway jumper.


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