"Jimmie", Marlene Steele

By: Marlene Steele

Drawing, the tool of observation and investigation employed by artists even in this technological time of electronic gadgetry, is as diversified as the number of individuals wrestling with its control. It is a fascinating opportunity to observe how another navigates their drawing process. This is insightful particularly when the exhibited work,  so tidy and cleanly framed, seems devoid of the misadventure, calamity and uncertainty that every seriously focused artist experiences in the process. What is the purpose of drawing and what is its statement relative to the trends today especially the hyper-realism that is current in the art world?

Those of us who have experienced the struggle and the joy of pursuing a good drawing seek answers to these questions either formally or subconsciously in our work.  I pursued my questions with David Kassan in response to his local exhibition and his participation at the Portrait Society of America Conference in Philadelphia where I tracked with his portrait drawing seminar.

His recent exhibition aptly titled “PROCESS” (Manifest Gallery, Cincinnati) featured  a serially stepped out piece as well as several highly finished works. Kassan’s drawn heads are rendered into continual informed surfaces that effectively records or documents the viewed for the viewer. These pieces probe the viewer intently from the illusional space of the 2-dimensional surface. Kassan admittedly articulates his surfaces with a pictorial acuity that challenges the photographic image. This exhibition was coupled with a demo evening during which one could observe David’s drawing process in the Manifest Studio.

Working from the live model, David began the work with pressed pastel pans and a sponge tipped knife, David navigated a life sized head from broad forms in bold values to an articulated finish finessed with fine modeled features very true to the model’s likeness. The support sheet was a smooth medium value grey and the medium was pastel and pastel pencils. Several times during the demo, David wiped sections of the drawing down brushing away the built up white pastel and launching a restatement over previous perceptions. This state and restate process which could also be seen as additive and subtractive was intriguing especially because the highly developed surfaces of the finished portrait betray no allusion to this process.

Kassan’s work exemplifies a technical acuity that focuses on observational accuracy, a leading trend in the current return to realism.Though these renderings are often perceived as photographic, Kassan insists that the scrim of his own personal truth is inherent in the confrontation. As an artist, he selects the person represented as well as all aspects of the act of viewing, the choice of view and the lighting. Kassan also searches the model for a defining peculiarity the recording of which will make this work unique in its statement. His professed fascination with the emotional content of the illusional image lies at the base of this pursuit. David contends that this connection is intensified by the realism of the continual tonal surface and the absence of evidence of the artist’s rendering hand. The purposeful recording of a document devoid of the artist interface intensifies the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. His pictorial emphasis on accuracy and illusion searches for emotional connection in the real world, forcing the viewer to engage in the viewing standoff.

Kassan’s passionate pursuit of verisimilitude answers his quest to be both cognizant and reflective of his time and space in the world. Kassan also allows that though he is reflecting his time and personal sensitivities, what he is saying may not be important or relevant. Which raises another question: so how does one know if what one produces accomplishes a meaningfulness or real experience of portent?

I offer in contrast the work of Burton Silverman, currently featured at the Haynes Galleries in Nashville. This show, essentially concerned with the figure and portrait, also exemplifies Silverman’s pursuit of personal truth in imagery and craft over his career of many years.

For Mr Silverman, drawing is the initial step of delving into the mystery of being. There is a restlessness and an urgency in the assembly of elements deemed relevant as a result of the artist’s probity in the confrontation. This artist also engages in a discerning sifting, a process of contrasting the trivial and superficial with the idiosyncratic and the essential. In contrast to Kassan’s seamless surfaces, evidence of this artist’s pentimenti, vacillation and restatement are apparent on an intentionally partially woven surface. Silverman’s drawing and painting process seeks a statement which resonates truth pervasively while reflecting the artist’s personal expression. The mechanisms of surface deconstruct, a hallmark of modernity associated with Degas for instance, invites the viewer to experience the emergence of the implied facts. Silverman’s drawing sensibilities are more concerned with an investigation of the character of the person portrayed than with the problem of likeness representation, though physical likeness is achieved.

Let’s explore the question of relevant message: does the artwork generate a response in peoples’ lives today?

In the Kassan pieces, the continuous tonal forms are beautifully and completely rendered. One immediately admires his craft or dismisses it as merely a document “like a photograph”.

Is it necessary for such specifically rendered pieces to be engaging beyond the entertainment level of the illusional manipulations of surface or is it sufficient to be valid on this point alone?

How do you make the contemplative/interactive aspect for the viewer come into play when  subject matter is so acutely rendered? Is what is being said communicated significantly  through the chosen visual language?

For the hyperrealist, the capturing of the ‘it-ness’ of an image, the factuality or essential being in the real world and fixing it in a certain way is ultimately satisfying and valid. Kassan’s intensity emanates from the emotional content of the image.

His message is that existent reality is sufficient as revealed through beautiful craft.

By contrast, Silverman’s process implies an interesting alternative: that a different possibility for beauty and expression exists in the ambiguity of a more open surface construct. The artist intercepts as translator not dictator, allowing spaces to exist where the viewer assembles the elements of the emerging visual experience.

Both artists use the well organized visual plane. Each explores the formal effectiveness of seeing one shape against another to dramatize the character or nature of the person portrayed, though each presents a different sense of the artist’s presence. The contemporary artist’s mission is to reflect the world around him coupled with the individual pursuit of personal truth.

This writer personally looks forward to the continuing investigations of both of these artists as they discover their personal truth while exploring the feeling and expressive content of the human image.

Referenced Shows:

Burton Silverman:  Haynes Gallery,  Nashville, Tennessee  June 4th –July 11, 2012. “The Landscape of the Human Face”

David Kassan:  Interview at the Portrait Society of America   Philly  May 25-27 2012 “Process”  Manifest Gallery Cincinnati Ohio Portrait Demo   Manifest Studios  Cincinnati Ohio

Marlene Steele: Fine Artist working in traditional media, living and teaching in Cincinnati, Ohio


4 Responses

  1. Nice article. Great to see different approaches. Wonderful results with obvious different goals.

  2. Nice article. Great to see different approaches. Wonderful results with obvious different goals.

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