Hand, eye, heart

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Faces in the Crowd, a show of drawings by my fellow Viridian artist, Susan Sills, opened recently in the lobby gallery at the Standard Motor Products Building in Long Island City. It’s a range of work she’s done over several decades, mostly ink drawings, but including one large painting as well.  It’s a departure from the work she shows at Viridian, her three-dimensional wooden cut-out pastiches of works from art history. This is a show that reflects how she reacts to what she sees every day, and what she notices most are faces. In earlier years, while riding the subway, she would always have a small sketchbook and capture faces sitting across from her.

“A pen was a part of my hand back then,” she told me. “Today I just look.”

She prefers working from life, though she has included portraits of family members from the past hundred years, using scrapbook photos. “I do the eyes first. I know that isn’t the way you’re supposed to do a portrait, but I have to do it that way. When you start, your sitter is really looking at you intensely. Then they start to drift. You have to get the eyes when they’re paying attention.”

If forced to choose between painting and drawing, she would prefer to draw. In his campaign against photography-based painting, David Hockney said much the same thing: that painting should essentially be more like drawing, an immediate transfer of energy from the eye, through the heart, to the hand. At the time, he switched to watercolors, which are often considered drawings, rather than paintings. Hockney built his campaign, in part, on his celebration of a single brilliant drawing by Rembrandt, A Child Being Taught to Walk, where with only a few spontaneous and irrevocable strokes of a reed pen he evoked an entire family scene helping a toddler take her first steps. It’s closer to calligraphy or Japanese sumi e than most Western art. When I mentioned how drawing often feels more alive than painting, and mentioned how Van Gogh and Brueghel’s drawings seem to breathe more than their finished paintings, she immediately said, Rembrandt. “He was a genius as a painter, but his drawings are genius-plus.”

The show runs through Nov. 25.

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