Works on Paper Never Had it So Good: Rosenthal and Hyland at Gallery Joe

There is something very intimate about drawing. A drawing says as much about the process as it does about the subject or image itself, and drawing bares the secrets of the artist’s every touch—it leaves the artist no place to hide. There is no artifice to manipulate, no way to sand mistakes off or cover them over with layers of paint. So drawings, in a poignant way, expose the ‘real’ artist.

Departing somewhat from canonized institution of oil painting, drawing and printmaking—works on paper—have taken a leading role in the art market in recent years. I am delighted that there are galleries devoted to works on paper. These galleries have taken the chance to limit their audience in order to promote a form that for a long time had, and in many peoples minds still has, only pedagogical a value: drawing is just what you do to prepare for the ‘real’ work of art, painting. I have nothing but respect for those galleries that are committed to the artists they represent and committed to a distinct aesthetic and a specific kind of visual art.

Gallery Joe in Philadelphia is one such gallery that is dedicated exclusively to works on paper. GJ’s owner, Rebecca Kerlin, consistently chooses sophisticated and compelling, cutting-edge works on paper, and the two exhibitions that are up until April 14 are must sees: Mia Rosenthal’s American Landscapes and Sharka Hyland’s show, don’t tell.

In the front gallery, Rosenthal’s drawings immediately trigger the viewer’s interest. The drawings are re-interpretations of paintings from the Hudson River School, which she constructs by juxtaposing detailed depictions of the flora and fauna typical of the Hudson River Valley. Rosenthal pays homage in these drawings to the first and second generation artists of the Hudson River School, and, at the same time, to celebrate the bountifulness of nature particular to the region. It is only appropriate, I think, that Rosenthal takes this approach when she re-interprets the landscapes of artists such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church or Albert Bierstadt, who were influenced by Romanticism and therefore tended to idealize nature, even idolize it. She depicts this sensitivity toward and reverence for nature by carefully examining and documenting the ample variety of living organisms that inhabit the Hudson River Valley, from mammals to insects, from reptiles to microorganisms. Each one is carefully drawn in a thin outline and its name marked next to it. If you are familiar with Rosenthal’s drawings, you will recognize her unique touch in this series, always full of humor. The drawings come alive as the viewer moves closer and engages with them. I was barely able to detach myself from each one. I was afraid that if I did so, I would surely miss an important detail. I was like a kid at the candy store—or better, like a kid at the zoo, enthralled with the strangeness and variety of everything I beheld. I became mesmerized by all these organisms, drawn with so much character. Rosenthal’s levity and humor came alive in each drawing through the puckered lip of a fish, the slump of a mushroom, the two very, very thin legs of a bird or the intricate name of a plant. Rosenthal’s American Landscapes, although rich in concept, are a pure delight to look at and to discover. I have always admired her work, especially the slightly sarcastic or humorous side of it, and I am happy to see that while remaining faithful to her own particular style and vision, she has taken her work to the next level, successfully guarding her originality and love for documentation while engaging an important period in the history of American art. It seems fit for a process oriented artist and “avid documenter” to refer to and re-interpret history. I only wish more artists would do so in such a unique way.

In the vault, Sharka Hyland’s show, don’t tell challenges us not only with the re-interpretation of drawing but also of narrative. Most of us use some sort of narrative in creating a work of art. What if the work of art is the narrative? What if the narrative, pure and unaltered, even the text itself, is the work of art?

Hyland shows eleven graphite drawings of passages lifted from famous novels or short stories by literary giants such as Tolstoy, Nabokov, and Flaubert. To be clear, the drawings are of the actual text—not depictions of the scene or story. All the texts are in English, with only two flanked by drawings of the same text in the original language: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. We all wait for a piece of art work to give us an image. Hyland challenges that expectation by giving us a perfect image, only written, an image of text. The texts she picked are extremely visual, and when read, envelop the imagination of the reader/viewer. Hyland gives us an image stripped of the image; it is up to the viewers to create it or re-create it, uniquely, in their minds. Apart from playing with such an engaging concept, the texts are beautifully, flawlessly drawn. For a lover of the minimal, the works stand strong aesthetically, even when not read. The text itself, its shape and texture, is pristine and perfect in its simplicity.

I could not be more excited about Hyland’s show, don’t tell. The exhibition is a must see for anyone equally pleased by such a strong engagement with concept, or anyone who might not believe that there is someone out there who has that much patience.

Yes, there is something very intimate about drawing. It invites you in, rather than screams in your face. It shows tenderness like no other medium does. The two exhibitions at Gallery Joe are great examples of unique and successful interpretations of this medium.

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