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Hue and Cry

Two of Current’s Young Resident Artists Work Opposite Ends of The Spectrum

DESPERATE HOUSESITTER: Zachary Thornton’s “A Mid-Suburban Night’s Dream.”

By J. Bowers | Posted 5/4/2005

Black and White Meets Color

At Current Gallery through May 15

Black and White Meets Color, the latest in the Current Gallery and Artist Cooperative’s series of exhibits showcasing new work by its 14 resident Maryland Institute College of Art grads, capitalizes on the natural contrast between painter Zachary Thornton’s lushly colored, photorealistic oil portraits and draftswoman Erin Fostel’s evocative, moody works in charcoal.

Pairing these two together creates a yin-vs.-yang effect, a sort of study in dueling media, as Thornton pushes the color envelope and Fostel deeply examines the possibilities of light and shadow inherent in black and white. However, there are obvious parallels to be found between the work of these artists, who are also close friends; both are unsatisfied with the limitations of portraiture and strive to reveal the human form in more thought-provoking, narrative terms than you might expect.

Commissioned portraits and landscapes have been Thornton’s bread-and-butter, but the works on display at Current—all painted within the past three months—represent his fascination with using the figural focus of portraiture to create more ambiguous work. Clearly inspired by the letter-box film stills, Thornton begins work by taking photographs, then blends the images together on a computer before realizing his concept on canvas. The resultant work displays his undeniable skill at rendering human faces, while striving to draw the viewer’s attention beyond the figures at the center of each piece.

To that end, three smaller works, “Rotimi Rain,” “Olivia, Scene 1,” and “Erin With Delaunay” (a portrait of Fostel), find Thornton experimenting with intriguing background elements and bright, bold colors. In “Olivia, Scene 1,” a bony woman in a spaghetti-strap tank top seems troubled by something to her right—but it is only upon very close inspection that a shadowy blue figure appears behind her shoulder, intent unknown. “Rotimi Rain” continues Thornton’s experimentation with a watery blue palette, drawing color and light into the face of its subject, a half-smiling black man. The man’s face is arresting in its realism, but despite Thornton’s considerable skill, he has a tendency to make his subjects’ eyes seem hollow, less like real, moist, and living eyes than an artist’s representation—and this shortcoming often prevents his work from achieving the pure humanity that it aspires to.

“A Mid-Suburban Night’s Dream,” by far the most successful Thornton in the show, is a rich portrait of a crouching woman in front of a house, the rest of her surroundings engulfed by a blue-black background, her eyes languid and believable, her finger seductively raised to her open mouth. The breadth of tone and texture that Thornton accomplishes here more than makes up for the other works’ shortcomings, and should be taken as an encouraging sign of things to come.

Fostel, best known for her fairy tale-inspired portraits of modern subjects posing as storybook characters, has matured by leaps and bounds in recent months, using her unique charcoal-on-cotton approach to create a series of self-portraits that are less about the human form and more about the draping, textural quality of clothing. All of Fostel’s work possesses a certain prone vulnerability—probably stemming from her tendency to marginalize the human elements in her compositions, or the piecemeal, vague way in which her narratives are created. “Figure In Kimono” depicts the artist crumpled on a floor in an elaborately patterned kimono, and “Kimono Sleeve” comments and elaborates on the former image, exploring the interplay of shadows and light created by the movement of the fabric. Fostel’s decision to use cotton, instead of the more traditional paper, as a base for her charcoal drawings seems particularly astute in these works; the softness of the cotton imparts a brushed, raised texture that adds to the realism of her draftsmanship.

Her skill is most apparent in the “Bloom” series—four pieces that show various views of a woman playing dress-up with a length of floral-printed fabric in a half-lit room. “Bloom” focuses solely on the fabric, exploring the texture and pattern; “Figure in Bloom” is an elegant portrait of the young woman seated and swathed in the material, and “Bloom and Persian Rug 1 and 2” are bird’s-eye views of her knees, swaddled in the “Bloom” fabric above an equally ornate Persian rug. There’s an almost classical feel to these pieces. Though black and white, they are warm, not stark. And Fostel’s skill with charcoal, a notoriously difficult medium, is undeniable—especially because when working with cotton erasing simply isn’t an option.

Conceptually, these two young artists are not doing anything particularly ground-breaking. Still honing their craft, they stick to safe subjects and build on what they know, instead of taking grand leaps, and both Thornton and Fostel could stand to build on the uniqueness found in “Bloom” and “A Mid-Suburban Night’s Dream.” Still, what they do is done extremely well here, and they both seem to be in the right house.

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