By Mike Rutledge

COVINGTON – Viewing Marc Leone’s hanging artworks, one can almost see a planet being formed.

Tectonic plates collide. Mountains rise. Lava oozes from gigantic cracks on the planet’s crust. And the craters show striations from millions of years of erosion.

Crater Drawings (elliptical) #70902, by Marc Leone.

Leone, a 44-year-old associate professor at Northern Kentucky University who teaches drawing and painting, uses materials and techniques that take drawing to dimensions it has rarely seen before.

Some of his creations, in fact, capture the vitality and impact of grand earthwork sculptures of the 1960s and ‘70s such as Robert Smithson’s iconic Spiral Jetty but reduced to the size of a 6-by-6-foot canvas.

Untitled 328, by Marc Leone.

The Sharonville resident’s works now on display in the Covington Arts gallery (27 W. 7th St., in Covington) come in two distinctly different “weights.”

Leone describes his simpler, lighter “crater” drawings as “graphite on eroded paper.” With these, he might use 32 layers of museum board glued together, alternately sanding into and drawing onto the layers, and leaving surfaces that can be deeply pocked, with high relief, much like craters and canyons on a desolate yet beautiful planet.

It’s the addition of a third dimension that makes Leone’s work most interesting. Viewers can’t help but walk up close to his works and peek behind their many layers.

His more interesting “carbon and crust” works convey a much heftier, and far darker feel. That’s partly because while they hang on walls, they literally can weigh 250 pounds.

While the masters used graphite on a single sheet of paper, Leone may draw on 100 or more layers simultaneously. Other times, it’s with a buffer, a belt sander, blow dryer, or muratic acid. But always, powdered graphite is close at hand to add shadows and sheen to the surfaces.

These pieces have the look and feel of geology something like topographic maps sprung with incredible force into three dimensions.

As one would expect from an artist whose medium of choice is drawing, his works tend heavily toward the monochrome usually the colors of graphite, charcoal or silver. But the way he builds up his “canvas” separates him from most creators of art.

Leone’s two basic materials are powdered graphite and acrylic resin paint – the same inexpensive liquid that maintenance workers use to paint stripes on parking lots. He pours it on thick at times, thin at others, and then uses various tools, including oscillating fans and saws, to create ripples, rifts and other marks in what become something like topographical maps come to life.

After each layer he covers the white paint with powdered graphite so the eyes can recognize the landforms he has created. Then he decides where to add more of the paint, sometimes building dams of sand so the paint can pool into forms that may be inches thick. Such thick paint can take weeks to completely dry.

His geologic pieces can take two years to create, so he works on several simultaneously. He adds soils and rocks from various places he has visited, hoping to give them a unified home in his artwork.

Leone came upon his methods by accident while working on his master’s degree in fine art at Arizona State University. He was unhappy with a large, green-and-white abstract painting of his and decided to start completely over on it.

“I just recoated it with some old house paint,” he said. “I didn’t really care about it so I rolled it on really thick. I just thought I’d use it as an experiment. When I came back the next day in the studio it had created these cracks that I really liked.”

His non-scientific interest in the aesthetics of geology has led to 12 years of further explorations.

Three Exhibits In One

Northern Kentucky University art-appreciation lecturer and coordinator Paige Wideman curated each of TRIFECTA’s three parts, of which recent works by Leone and painter Jean Grangeon are one-third.

The Fountain Head III, IV, by Jean Grangeon.

The rest of the show is much smaller and less dramatic, making use of an array of other materials, including fabric, collage, metalwork, paper, copper, found objects, glass and ceramic.

Just as Leone’s work shows forward geologic progress, the ink drawings by Clint Woods show the quieter but just as inevitable growth and spread of nature.

The Ten Bulls, by Clint Woods.

Woods, a 33-year-old graphic artist and art director by day, uses a 005-size Micron pen to minutely conjure imaginary worlds where nature often is depicted blossoming in unexpected, geometric ways. The details are amazingly minute. It can take the Over-the-Rhine resident an hour to complete a quarter-inch square.

Among Woods’ works displayed is a large book, almost in a graphic-novel format, that tells a story of his alter ego, a young guy with sharp teeth and a prominent black triangular nose, capturing a dinosaur. The accompanying narrative is a cross between Calvin & Hobbes and the Bible.

Being/Nonbeing, by Clint Woods.

An assortment of works by Woods and his 12-year-old daughter, Lily Woods, is called “Like Mushrooms from Damp,” and show how nature ultimately prevails, against all odds.

Crushed, by Lily Woods.

The Third Collection

A difficult-to-engage-with collection is called Tripletta, made up of three works each by 44 artists. The only common theme was tininess.

“It’s a series of three by each artist that were 2½-inches-by-3½ (inches), and no thicker than a quarter of an inch,” Wideman said. “That was really the only parameter that they had, so they could work with things unfolding as long as when they folded it back up it met those specific requirements.”

Outside the Box #10, #11, #12, by Renee Harris.

Wideman chose those restrictions as a way to cut shipping costs for Tripletta, which she hopes will travel to other cities. With the down economy, the collection of artworks would be far more economical to ship.

“That’s really the only common denominator that holds that (Tripletta) show together, and I let the artists just play in their mediums,” she said. “I have metalworking artists and ceramic artists that pushed in a completely different direction because of the scale, and tried something new for them.

Stone Interior, Small House and Castle, by Barry Andersen.

“I have one ceramic artist who ended up welding and working with metal, and a metal artist who ended up doing wood-burning,” she said. “It was kind of fun to see what direction they took that in.”

While Tripletta contained some gems, its large number of artists (44) and lack of theme or focus or even variation in the sizes of the works made it unusually difficult to spend time with.

The TRIFECTA exhibit opened May 9 and will close June 20. The gallery is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For questions call 859-292-2322.

Mike Rutledge is a freelance writer and reporter living in Greater Cincinnati.

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