A World Created With A Pencil
Portrait Society show features only drawings. It's pure pleasure.
The pencil is such a basic way of making marks on paper that it’s easy to overlook as a serious medium for art making. The beautiful range of values, from faintest gray to deep, shiny black, and the great variety of textures, lines, moods and feelings the simple graphite stick can create is often underestimated. Which is what makes “Drawn Out,” a show devoted to this humblest of tools, and now on display at The Portrait Society, so notable.
Galleries rarely show exhibits of drawings. The medium is too fragile, difficult to display and not regarded as serious enough. Drawings are often considered preparatory works for larger, more permanent and therefore, more commercially viable pieces. So it’s a risky venture for a gallery, which after all makes its money by selling art.
One enters the Portrait Society space and is immediately sucked into the very large, luscious sky drawings of Todd Mrozinski. Surprising and intriguing, these drawings change from photo-realist, black-and-white skyscapes to almost abstract studies when we get closer to the surface. Chunky textures of bark (on trees) are set against smooth grays with clouds erased to form soft white puffs and wisps.
After being confined to the little jewel box of a very public studio in the Pfister Hotel, where he was the Artist in Residence in 2015, Mrozinski is now back to working alone in his own studio. You sense the transition in his work, the feeling of freedom, space, of breathing the not-always-fresh Riverwest air from his studio in the Nut Factory.
A very different approach is offered by artist Mark Ottens, formerly based in Chicago and now in tiny Oostburg in Sheboygan County, and primarily an abstract painter. “When drawing, I am anywhere, I am nowhere. I am alone, the world is suddenly with me. I am drawing my way home,” he muses in his artist’s statement.
Perhaps there’s a freedom that comes from being anywhere. His drawings are not about capturing precious images and techniques. They can be playful, experimental, yet very beautiful in their own right. And they can sometimes feel obsessive. Otten has several, amoeba-like, highly-detailed, small drawings and a very large extended “doodle” with faces and filigree forming a fantastical web, creating a kind of “Where’s Waldo” surreal explosion in a work that’s 6 feet by 3 feet. All those works are in black pen. He is also showing some whimsical, colored sketches he did on his brother’s cancelled checks! These are super fun. They may have text, little favorite sayings, bits of poems, songs, many with faces exquisitely rendered and quite colorful.
The work of Melissa Lee Johnson is also colorful and combines delicate drawing technique with soft, brightly-colored panels reminiscent of a page from a graphic novel. Her work offers a strikingly different approach to drawing, closer to illustration, which she majored in at MIAD. The work often includes text.
Her work can be funny, thoughtful, and suggest heartache, breaking up, jealousy, being cheated on. Revenge through art? She uses her own set of symbols, referencing internet, social media, texting, etc. I got most of it, but for some of I had to ask. This feels, as you’d expect, like the work of a young artist — fresh, urgent, immediate though very well crafted, almost painstaking. It straddles fine art and Illustration, a division which is perhaps passe’, though still apparent in some gallery settings.
The fourth artist is the recently departed icon of Milwaukee, the sculptor Adolph Rosenblatt. There are five, colorful abstract drawings based on trees on black paper. Rosenblatt was always looking, always seeing and he loved trees. These were some of the last works he created before he died, and make a sweet bookend to his long career. They are intense but gentle, full of life and vitality, just like he was.
Without belaboring the point, “Drawn Out” confronts the presumed insignificance of drawing and old notions about drawing as a preparation for more important, valuable works. Drawings can achieve permanence and an incomparable quality, and even when they don’t can allow us, the viewer, in on the process of the artist.
Deb Brehmer has been longtime arts writer, has taught at MIAD and has in recent years become a key part of the gallery scene with her Portrait Society on the fifth floor of the Marshall Building in the Third Ward. Even though the gallery is a business, her passion for educating, risk-taking and sheer love of visual art comes through in the often unusual or provocative shows she’s exhibited. This one is no exception.
“Drawn Out” Gallery
“Drawn Out,” April 7- June 4, Portrait Society, 207 E. Buffalo, Fifth Floor.