New York

Geoffrey Young, Portal (for Nellie McKay), 2020, colored pencil on paper, 11 × 11". From “Colored Pencil Redux.”

Geoffrey Young, Portal (for Nellie McKay), 2020, colored pencil on paper, 11 × 11". From “Colored Pencil Redux.”

“Colored Pencil Redux”

Do real artists use colored pencils? Not often, I suppose—it’s something more readily associated with hobbyists, dilettantes—so when they do, there must be a good reason for it. “Colored Pencil Redux” was the follow-up to a show of works in this sidelined medium mounted at McKenzie Fine Art in 2019. Judging by the nearly fifty abstractions on paper by sixteen artists in this recent iteration, the explanation might involve a desire to make space for qualities of obsessiveness, eccentricity, and self-indulgence that are all too often ironed out of professional-grade artwork. Hallmarks of most of the pieces on view were precision and intricacy; symmetrical composition was also abundant. Free gesture was entirely absent; instead, subjective investment was reflected in an assiduous filling-in of predetermined shapes—a practice of devoted attentiveness.

Only a couple of the artists in the show, Senem Oezdogan and Audrey Stone, opted for large, simple, imposing forms—although Richard Tinkler might be half in their camp, as his dense strata of fine polychromatic lines following the edges of his irregularly shaped sheets of paper (part rough-edged, part rectilinear) ended up framing a likewise eccentrically shaped colored form (or void, if you prefer) at their center. A tinge of late-1960s-style psychedelia could be found in the throbbing hues and swirling patterns of works such as those by Mara Held, Warren Isensee, and Cotter Luppi, while a diagrammatic dryness was more evident in drawings by Jacob Cartwright, Leslie Roberts, and Jessica Rosner.

While most of the artists in the show were unfamiliar to me, my great discovery was Nancy Blum, who was also the largest presence here. Her twelve drawings—all made this year and each a foot high and nine inches wide—were quietly seductive. As I learned from the artist’s website, she is primarily known for public artworks, including mosaics and sculptures in clay, glass, metal, and other materials. This revelation was surprising, given the distinctly inward and meditative cast of the drawings. All executed on black paper, they were among the few works here to forgo bright chroma in favor of a more shadowy palette. And yet, whereas the intricacy of many of the other artists’ drawings called attention to their makers’ tight, scrupulous drafting techniques, Blum, employing patterns just as complex as theirs, evoked a more absorptive, atmospheric space, with a breathing rhythm that welcomed the viewer in, little by little.

Outstanding among the more typically hard-edge, zingily colored works were five by Geoffrey Young. These eleven-inch squares with four-way symmetrical kaleidoscopic arrangements of ornamental geometric shapes possessed an unexpected intensity, as if they were meant to drill their way through your eyes to your brain. Despite being composed of a multitude of small shapes, these impactful drawings felt bigger than their literal size. Young’s imagery brought me back around to the question I started with—Do real artists use colored pencils?—because he, as far as I know, has never hung out a shingle as a professional artist. He’s one of the best poets around and has been an occasional curator and gallerist, too (the Geoffrey Young Gallery has been a summer staple in the Berkshires town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, for years). Well, professionalism be damned! Young’s drawings are a reminder that just as a poet can be a doctor or a lawyer by trade, a real artist is whoever makes real art, even if it’s just a side hustle or pastime. And if using colored pencils suggests an affinity with the amateur, as this exhibition showed, then their use should be all the more welcomed.