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Bending space

Drawing conclusions at Black Front Gallery

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Driving up Fourth Avenue in Olympia, I glanced in the window of Black Front Gallery and saw what looked like an intricate wall sculpture made of cut paper and swirling strands of wire. From my distance and angle as I drove by — holding up traffic as I slowly inched my way past the window — this Calder-like “mobile” looked as if it extended a few feet out from the wall with cast shadows and lighter colored lines behind it echoing the swirling lines.

When I went back to the gallery the next day, I saw that what had looked like a wall sculpture was actually a drawing done in black, dark blue and aqua markers on paper. It was completely flat, but with an illusion of space that was not as noticeable up close as it had been from my car. What I was seeing was Justine Ashbee’s three-part drawing, “Floating Entity.” It is a drawing of floral patterns done in smoothly flowing lines that spans three large sheets of paper. It’s a lovely drawing that looks like it was mechanically produced, but it was done freehand with marking pens. How anyone can draw lines that smoothly is beyond my comprehension.

On the back wall is a large drawing called “Folds in Battle” that actually does extend outward from the wall, thus combining actual and illusory depth. In this one, the drawings are done on paper that is cut out and pinned in clusters along the outer edges of a white wall panel. Large leaf and blossom shapes, along with delicate tendrils of paper, bend and fold outward up to about six inches and cast real shadows that overlap with illusory shadows created by lighter lines drawn on the flat surface. Lines in black, purple and hot-hot pink interspersed with clusters of leaf shapes made of white lines on black paper give this piece a dramatic punch.

A third wall holds three similar but smaller drawings on paper. The most fascinating of these is one called “Auric,” in which there are miniscule breaks in the lines everywhere they intersect. These breaks in the lines counteract the illusion of depth caused by overlapping lines and give the drawing an optical shimmer. It is also the only one of her drawings that does not have black lines, but is drawn with sweet pink and violet lines.

I generally do not like art that is this sweet and flowery or drawings that are this precise. But I really like these.

In the smaller back gallery are seven portraits by Joey Bates. Each of these is taken from a Polaroid photograph and painted on a wood panel. The painting style is flat and precise with each color area outlined with thin black lines. In an interesting wall commentary, Bates includes a small reproduction of one of his paintings alongside a reproduction of the Polaroid he worked from as an illustration of how he changed the image for compositional and dramatic purposes.

Bates’ paintings are interesting but too illustrational for my taste, and in many of them, the backgrounds seem almost like an afterthought. The backgrounds are painted more expressively than the faces, and the faces and the backgrounds do not always work well together.

Two of his best paintings are “Annie” and “Danielle.”  Both of these work well because of the balance and placement of the faces relative to the picture format. However, a kind of clichéd sunburst effect behind Annie’s head keeps this portrait from being as good as it should be.

In his wall statement, Bates says he is tempted to paint more loosely and expressively but paints very deliberately, taking up to a month on each painting. I think these paintings would be better if they were painted more loosely and maybe without the lines circumscribing each area.

[Black Front Gallery, through December, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.  Friday-Saturday, 106 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia, 360.786.6032,]

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