Drawn from Photography reviewed by Chicago Tribune

2 exhibits explore the boundaries of lines on paper, photography

By Claudine Ise, Special to the Tribune

July 11, 2012

In many ways, drawing and photography are fundamentally antithetical mediums. Drawings are made by hand, often with just a pencil and a piece of paper, while photographs are mechanically produced recordings of reflected light. But they also have a surprising amount in common: after all, a photograph is itself a kind of drawing — a drawing made with light — while drawings were used as recording devices long before the camera’s invention (and still are, in courtrooms).

A pair of vastly different, yet equally worthwhile exhibitions in Chicago show the considerable impact these two mediums continue to have on each other. The drawings in the DePaul Art Museum’s group show “Drawn From Photography” are all based on photographic images, while the photographs by James Welling at Donald Young Gallery were inspired by the drawings and paintings of Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), a tremendously popular artist whose most famous works have been countlessly reproduced as posters and prints.

“Drawn From Photography,” a traveling exhibition organized by The Drawing Center in New York and curated by Claire Gilman, features a number of drawings that look uncannily similar to photographs, like Frank Selby’s watercolor and colored pencil depictions of unidentified riot scenes, battlefields, and political demonstrations, which resemble vintage tintypes, or Richard Forster’s murky renderings of outmoded steel plants, drawn from snapshots taken from a passing train. Why do these artists go through the trouble of painstakingly copying photographs by hand? In part, to break those images down so that the artists, and their viewers, have time to really think about them.

Nowadays, images zip around the world and into our TV and computer screens at warp speeds, and we’re expected to digest them just as quickly. But drawings are slow. They take time to process, and even more time to make. It’s mind-boggling to consider, for example, the number of labor hours that must have gone into Karl Haendel’s hand-drawn copy of the front page of the Soviet newspaper Pravda from July 1, 1976, the artist’s birth date. Haendel can’t read Russian, which makes his letter-by-letter transcription less an act of translation than it is a tribute to a lost Communist ideal. (Once a beacon of radical socialism, Pravda folded in 1991.)

Then there’s Emily Prince, who since 2004 has been transcribing the photos and accompanying birth and death dates of American men and women who died in Iraq, all culled from online obituaries. Her piece here includes about 400 of the notecards, but the entire project has more than 5,000. Although Prince’s drawing skills are nothing to write home about, her lack of dexterity actually works in her favor — the awkwardness of these portraits makes each fallen soldier seem that much more human.

If the only goals of “Drawn From Photography” were to show off its artists’ drawing prowess and prove that a drawing can look as “real” as a photograph, it would be a far less compelling show than it is. But instead, its works collectively illustrate how photography frames our understanding of history, and in some cases even shapes history itself. Likewise, Welling’s photographic homage to Wyeth revisits settings from the latter’s well-known drawings and paintings, not with the aim of photographically recreating them, but as jumping-off points for a larger meditation on artistic influence.

Welling’s long-standing admiration for Wyeth is in some ways surprising. The LA-based photographer is known for his experimental approaches; many of his images are abstract, and he often uses colored filters, multiple exposures and other techniques to counter the idea that photography is inherently realistic. In contrast, Wyeth was not exactly known for his adventurousness. He was both revered and reviled for his carefully controlled style of realism and his tendency to romanticize his New England settings. But when Welling was young, he was inspired by Wyeth’s consistency and focus, and he also liked how the elder artist explored the timeless qualities of his subjects by returning to them again and again, sometimes in paintings, other times in sketches or drawings.

To make the series, Welling visited several areas in Maine and Pennsylvania where Wyeth had lived or kept studios, including the Olson House, one of several buildings seen in the background of Wyeth’s 1948 “Christina’s World” and a setting in which the painter himself often worked. (After Wyeth’s death, the Olson House was named a National Historic Landmark and is now maintained by the Farnsworth Art Museum.)

Welling photographed what remains in these places, without embellishment: We see a table setting consisting of a single plate, cup and saucer and, oddly, a lone butter knife; a bedroom with an old-fashioned canopy bed; a section of wall in a room Wyeth used as a studio. There’s a shelf of books about Albrecht Durer; a row of jars filled with dry pigment; and, hanging slightly askew in a hallway, a small black and white picture of a man and a dog sitting in a rowboat — it’s hard to tell if this is a drawing or a photograph.

There are no images of Helga Testorf, the handsome, angular-faced woman who was Wyeth’s most famous sitter. Instead, a haunting piece titled “End of the Road” makes oblique reference to a man, now deceased, who lived near Wyeth and as a teenager posed for him. A view inside the man’s abandoned car shows its windows and dashboard covered with some sort of mossy substance, as if the earth itself were consuming them. Across the room hangs a photograph imbued with similar shades of green. Part of a separate body of work made by wetting special photographic paper and exposing it, all without a camera, it looks like an abstract painting.

Although these photographs were made before longtime Chicago gallerist Young died of cancer in April 2012, one can’t help thinking of them as elegies. Drawn with little more than light, they capture something real: life’s beauty and sorrow, co-existing in equal measure.

“Drawn from Photography” runs through Aug. 19 at the DePaul Art Museum, 935 W. Fullerton Ave., 773-325-7506, museums.depaul.edu; “James Welling” runs through Aug. 19 at Donald Young Gallery, 224 S.Michigan Ave., Ste. 266, 312-322-3600, donaldyoung.com

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