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Between the Lines

The Unbearable Exactitude of Lightness

William Downs' drawings offer figurative pleasure at Goucher's Rosenberg Gallery

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 9/5/2001

Exactitude and Lightness

Goucher College's Rosenberg Gallery through Oct. 12

The six artists showcased in Exactitude and Lightness know their lines but vary in how rigidly they adhere to making orderly artwork. Some operate with mathematical precision, while others make light of linear order by drawing more spontaneously.

Although it isn't billed as an exhibition of drawings, those works predominate in this Goucher College show. That proves to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, drawing is an ideal medium for exploring the organizational issues raised by the exhibit's title; on the other hand, the show largely ignores the implications for other mediums.

This sparely installed exhibit generates an austere mood that seems appropriate for artists who more or less stick to gridded designs, but it has the unfortunate effect of making the more free-spirited artists' work seem just as tame. Less installational exactitude and more lightness would do wonders here.

The most rigorously exact of the artists, John Penny, has a very effective installation, "For Hoyt," in which two sculptures are complemented by two related drawings. His sculptures rely on strong materials (wooden poles, steel wire, brass fittings) and simple construction (linking the materials together in a way that emphasizes basic horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines). The accompanying graphite-and-ink drawings function as two-dimensional equivalents.

Penny's obvious exactitude makes him a prime candidate for such an exhibit. He also has the advantage of being able to demonstrate how an artist can apply the same organizational scheme to two mediums. Your eyes float from the sculptures to the drawings and back again. His corner of the art gallery is a clean, well-ordered place. It's as calmly balanced as the small brass weights he suspends from the tops of his sculptures.

Penny works variations on triangular shapes in his sculptures, but several other artists start with gridded designs. The one who follows through most satisfyingly on the show's premise, Ann Rentschler, has an untitled charcoal drawing in which a precisely drawn grid also includes looser lines climbing along and spiraling out. Evocative of a vine-covered trellis, this drawing cleverly provides both order and spontaneity. Somewhat in the same manner, Maria-Teresa Carneiro's graphite drawing "Thumbtack" places a gray-white orb against a gridded background. And the five graphite drawings in Janet Maher's series "Five Ways of Disappearing" depict tightly bound ropes surrounded by more loosely organized curvilinear shapes.

William Downs also tends to use gridded backdrops for his drawings. However, his numerous untitled mixed-media works are done on all kinds of paper: computer paper, notebook sheets, and so on. Haphazardly hung on a considerable expanse of gallery wall, all these sheets amount to chaotic wallpaper.

That unruly feeling also is conveyed by Downs' quickly executed drawings of human nudes, horses, satyrs, and even some three-headed women. Sometimes he makes direct connections between his figurative doodles and the paper on which they're drawn: Horses are drawn on actual racetrack betting sheets, and a female nude is drawn on an old document titled "Understanding Human Behavior: An Illustrated Guide to Successful Human Relationships."

Downs will have you looking up, down, and all around the drawings-covered gallery wall. You'll have fun tracking the many variations in human and equine anatomy, but individual drawings don't offer much reason to linger. The price he pays for his spontaneity is that a lot of this stuff seems like sketches one might make while talking to somebody on the phone.

Another artist with a fairly loose hand, Tamar Miller, has a series of tiny, untitled ink drawings, most of which depict isolated trees in near-barren landscapes. As with Downs, the ensemble has some impact and yet the individual and very simple drawings generally aren't impressive.

Perhaps inadvertently, this exhibit often seems to equate spontaneity with childlike directness. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it wouldn't hurt to also include more subtle and sophisticated drawings. While we're at it, let there be lightness in many methods and mediums.

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