Ongoingness: Charles Kanwischer is Marking Time at Shaheen Gallery
It is a rare exhibition that shocks viewers into remembering just what art is capable of. Charles Kanwischer’s Marking Time at Shaheen Gallery is such a show. It absolutely must be seen in person to appreciate.
Now in its last week on display, Marking Time features about twenty of Kanwischer’s graphite drawings of construction sites, suburban homes, and woodlands. The compositions are smallish—the largest measure 16 by 20 inches, and the smallest 8 by 12 inches—yet each contains a world’s worth of detail.
Viewers could count the number of wrinkles in the bark of oak trees in the background of “Falling Tree #2,” or linger for hours over the hundreds of broken rocks and cracks in the dry mud of “Stone Piles.”
“Photorealistic” is a loaded term in studio art. At first glance, Kanwischer’s drawings seem to invite comparisons to photographs. If a viewer were to press her toes against the gallery wall and start walking backwards, after about four to eight paces Kanwischer’s images would start to look like black and white photos to her. It’s a neat effect, but viewers would cheat themselves if that was the only way in which they engaged the work. Kanwischer’s productions are not drawings trying to be photographs. They are drawings meant to be appreciated as drawings, and to do this, they must be seen in person. Not even the highest resolution digital rendering can do them justice.
At four paces or less, viewers see that the scenes Kanwischer depicts were not robotically copied from eye to panel. The artist deploys a wealth of hard-studied techniques to evoke a visual experience. Every square inch of Kanwischer’s work is full of deliberate design. However, Kanwischer has also mastered the ability to prompt viewers’ brains to fill in details where there are none. In his studies of suburban homes, Kanwischer is able to make us see a chain-linked fence by drawing only several posts with a line stretched across their tops—no actual chain-links required. A squiggled line becomes an overgrown tuft of grass encroaching from a tree lawn onto the sidewalk.
But again, these psychological prompting techniques can only work if there is already a high degree of complexity in an image. This is most obvious in Kanwischer’s “Wall Drawing” trilogy. At a distance, we might assume that the stones and slabs of a brick structure are interchangeable. Kanwischer repudiates this assumption. In “Wall Drawing #3,” we are presented with a wall face suggesting a rural stone fence hastily erected, but which has weathered many winters. Mortar pours out from cracks like spilled oatmeal. Each brick has a different complexion of pits and cracks. Some have been inserted sideways to make them fit, creating recesses of darkness. The unnumbered “Wall Drawing” presents 31 lumpy blocks stacked in an almost abstract grid. At a distance, the tiny creases on the blocks’ surfaces blur into a gritty surface one is almost tempted to reach out and feel. Up close, viewers can make out the individual marks Kanwischer made, as distinctive as handwriting.
It is easy to gush about the fastidiousness of Kanwischer’s technique. However, his guiding purpose for Marking Time is not only to showcase skills, however highly developed they may be. The interaction of time and place is the subject here. On his personal website, Kanwischer, a resident of Waterville, OH, writes that he is compelled to draw sites visibly transitioning from one state into another. He seeks to capture not beginnings or endings, but “ongoingness.” It is his challenge to use static imagery to invoke processes or cycles extended through history.
Kanwischer’s “Falling Tree” series illustrates this project most immediately. These images take us into woods and direct our gaze downward, at sticks and other plant debris returning to the earth. At the edges of the images, we can make out living trees. Thus, we see two phases of the birth-growth-death-decay cycle simultaneously.
In Kanwischer’s architectural landscapes, time also looms. But here, there is no guarantee of rebirth. In “Hamilton Street,” we are shown two suburban houses. One stands modestly, while the other has recently been demolished into a pile of jagged wooden refuse. A huge tree sprawls between the two homes, and more foliage looms behind the demolition site. Weeds jut from cracks in the sidewalk. “Hamilton Street #2” is dominated by a dense, unpruned line of trees, depicted as thousands of leaves peeking out of the shadows they cast; a pair of houses are squeezed into the right corner of the frame. On Hamilton Street, we turn our thoughts not so much to the idea of nature’s reassertion of itself, but to human neglect.
It is crucial to repeat here that “ongoingness” is the exhibit’s theme. Even a fallen house isn’t an ending, but a chapter in an ongoing narrative. It can be hard to think of the present as anything other than the endpoint of a story, because we do not know what comes after it. In the Rust Belt especially, we define ourselves by the past. We say we are “postindustrial,” as if we are living in the epilogue to the story of a midcentury Golden Age of manufacturing and prosperity. The story of the house torn down in “Hamilton Street” might be over, but the neighborhood around it endures. It is going forward—to where exactly, no one can say.
Realism has never been about copying the world for the sake of copying, or for showing off an artist’s capacity for verisimilitude. Instead, it is the enterprise of vividly invoking carefully selected scenes that illustrate emotional realities, social conditions, or poignant features of embodied existence. Kanwischer understands this, and draws us in with his formidable skill into deep meditation on our place in time.
Marking Time runs through Friday May 5 at Shaheen Modern and Contemporary Art, located at 740 West Superior Avenue, Suite 101, Cleveland, OH. For more information, call 216-830-8888 or go to shaheengallery.com.