Giving away all their secrets
Publication Date: Friday Sep 29, 1995

Giving away all their secrets

An exhibit takes us into the sketchbooks--and minds--of artists from around the world

by Jessica Werner

Concept and Form: Artists' Sketchbooks and Maquettes, an exhibit opening Oct. 5 at the Palo Alto Cultural Center, comprises a lot more than still-life studies and scribbles. Signe Mayfield, the Cultural Center's curator, has brought together the personal sketches and maquettes (the small preliminary models made by sculptors and architects) of more than 40 artists from around the world.

The impressive variety of these books and models--which were primarily used by the artists for private working notes and to explore visual problems--attests to the innumerably different ways artists approach the process of their craft. Their intimate scale and intensely personal quality illuminate much about artistic expression, including the genesis of ideas and the way artists utilize their creative impulses.

Mayfield had been hoping to put on a sketchbook show for quite some time. "The idea has been germinating for at least four years," she explains. "I've wanted to exhibit works with this intimate scale and point of reference. There is a certain intrigue in prying these works from the artists' studios, especially since many artists keep their best work for themselves. This is as close as people can get into an artist's visual thinking."

Mayfield describes the sketchbooks as everything from "confidantes" to "mundane secretaries." Akin to the writer's journal, the sketchbook is privy to the artist's quiet thoughts and obsessions, reflections on the status of works-in-progress, and inspiration from models and masters from the past.

Some of the exhibit's most intriguing pieces incorporate this variety of purposes within a single page. Bali artist Henrik Drescher's "Mere Christianity" and "To Their Pleasure" sketchbooks, from the late 1970s through the late 1980s, are chaotic and exuberant explosions of color and texture. Each page has been reworked and layered with painted images, collage cutouts, postage stamps, labels and Drescher's finely penciled margin notes. Small details from cartoons are juxtaposed with more elegant renderings and soft gouache abstractions. The pages evince an obsession for detail and an attempt to make sense of a world cluttered with images and visual data.

New York graphic artist and illustrator Sue Coe has used her sketchbook as a chronicle, both jarring and horrific, of the current AIDS epidemic. Coe describes her artistic role as that of a "responsive witness" to our era. Her sketchbook is a massive compilation of personal notes and artifacts--copious sketches, photographs, an old diploma, letters and tearsheets of her work from the covers of magazines, each testament to the atrocities of the disease and the stalwart suffering of its victims.

For other artists, sketchbooks serve as strictly personal memoirs and are concerned with events of a more individual nature. Stanford resident Nathan Oliveira's travel sketchbook from a trip to Italy in 1982 is a peaceful study of a journey's significant moments. His sketches are refined and exhibit the same economy of line and focus on detail as his popular paintings. Arthur Dove, an American pioneer in abstract art who died in 1946, referred to his "Sketchbook E" pages as "excavations" rather than "abstractions," a term that reflects his exploration of his unconscious thoughts and his spontaneous painting methods.

Sketchbooks can also reveal an artist's origins, either physical or historical. Paul Harcharik has painted over photographs of a tree stump on a sketchbook page. Beside the photograph, he has rethought and redrawn the image in pencil, giving it life as an abstract form and creating an overlay that is symbolic of memory and the ravages of time.

Palo Altan turned Seattle resident Kenna Moser's delicate encaustic works on cherry wood take their impulse from sketches, both hers and those of the past. Moser incorporates vintage text and botanical renderings into her images, and they harken back to a lost era.

Experiencing the immediacy of this type of work is the supreme pleasure of this exhibit. We are afforded the chance to witness an artist's thinking process and see it unfold on the page. Mayfield notes in her exhibit essay that "artists have traditionally been reluctant to expose this working material to the public."

According to Sacramento-based artist Wayne Thiebaud, whose studies of soda bottles are also on display, "the artist wants 'to feel that these are things that will never be seen, as opposed to public drawings.'" When the artwork does find its way to the public, its intimate nature and immediacy are even more pronounced.

The primacy of the sketchbooks has its counterpart in the exhibit's three-dimensional maquettes. While maquettes are traditionally made as preliminary forms of larger planned works, most of the Cultural Center's pieces found their final forms in these small, gestural creations. The late UC Davis artist Robert Arneson's ceramic image of Modesto Lanzone is presented in the form of the traditional bust, yet true to Arneson's dry wit, Lanzone is wearing a chef's hat and the work pokes fun at more sober, reverential homages.

Figurative maquettes by sculptors Manuel Neri and Stephen DeStaebler are both emblematic of artists' studies of forms in space. DeStaebler's "Winged Guardian" is one of four pieces in the exhibit created as a public project proposal. In 1993 he cast the bronze and steel figure for the San Jose Convention Center, where the life-size version now permanently resides.

Mayfield was curious about the genesis of sculpture when she organized the exhibition, and her discoveries explain the overwhelming number of sketchbooks in the exhibit.

"I wondered whether there was a parallel outlet for sculptors exploring form that was equally as intimate to the sketchbook methods of two-dimensional artists," she remarks. "I discovered that, surprisingly, very few sculptors actually do work through maquettes. Most use sketchbooks and draw their way toward sculptural solutions. When they do make maquettes, they are often out of materials uncharacteristic of that artist's work, but the maquettes are often more gestural than the full-scale works."

The variety of media and approaches to sketching exhibited in this one show are astounding and attest to the intensely personal process of discovery in art making. "Artists have reacted to the 1980s when the focus was external," says Mayfield. "Now they have come back to more intimate work, to exploring their secrets and artistic issues. Nothing could be more direct and revealing."

Concept In Form: Artists' Sketchbooks and Maquettes

Where: Palo Alto Cultural Center, 1313 Newell Road

When: Oct. 5-Jan. 7

Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 1-5 p.m. Sunday; 7-9 p.m. Thursday

Information: 329-2366 

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