Whether or not you've spent much time thinking about the wizardly effects that can be achieved with pen and ink, you should catch Kaye Buchman: Around the Whirled at the Morris Graves Museum of Art's Anderson Gallery this Arts Alive before it closes on May 7. Buchman's large-scale pen and ink works are something to see, depicting swirling currents through the additive effect of thousands of tiny inscribed notations.
Rendering objects at large scale using pen and ink presents a technical challenge. Sheets of paper may get bigger and subjects may gain in size, but the size of the nib and the artist's hand remain the same. This means scaling up even the simplest drawing becomes an exercise in translation. A representational passage that might be conveyed by a single, decisive stroke of the pen on an 8 ½-by-11-inch page might need hundreds of massed strokes to find expression when the same concept is rendered large. Maybe that's why bigness looms large in the artist's concerns, figuring in most of these works' titles.
Three large drawings on the gallery's back wall feature swirling forms isolated against white backgrounds. A vertically stacked suite of four large contiguous drawings titled "Big Disruption" breaks the mold, inverting this process by using superfine tissues of crosshatch lines to depict the surface of a small rivulet. At the drawing's lower margin, crosshatching gives way to a completely different approach to draftsmanship as the artist's fine regular line gives way to brushwork, and what had been a pond dwindles into a staccato series of calligraphic marks.
It all seems to be about natural forces in flux; wiggling, serpentine forms resemble kelp forests, currents and leaping flames. Rendering is slightly cartoonish and everything gets streamlined and simplified, which disconcerts. Realism is beside the point, though; Buchman's approach is founded in the Surrealist practice of free-associative drawing. The artist's statement connects the absorption involved in this slow, meditative activity to the state of consciousness accessed through the Buddhist meditation practice of shoshin, or "empty mind." "Big Collision" is a surrealist fantasia where tiny animals and birds peek out at unexpected points from the thicket of line, the way they do in Max Ernst's free-associative surrealist drawings of the 1920s.
Other drawings exhibit more illustrative tendencies. "Big Tangle" foregrounds a vertical column of sibilant forms suggesting a loose interpretation of a tree in flames. What appears at one point to be inanimate bark morphs into splayed forms suggesting bird feet. At the base of the trunk, a king snake slithers away. Forms take shape from fleets of fine unidirectional lines, like individual hairs. Bachman embraces crosshatching only for chiaroscuro effects in the darkest spots.
For me, Bachman's drawings are more interesting than her mixed media paintings, in which color effects obscure the crystalline quality of line. Silvery pigment dusts the surface of "Big Swell" like powdered sugar, making the panels look almost edible. The richly colored triptych "Overboard" looks like what a surfer might see while wiping out, if the wave were made of Technicolor inks and oriented so it faced the sunset. Compositions, dominated by spiral motifs, are rife with incidents of process; these range from near-Venetian marbling effects to the small translucent berms that the acrylic squeegee left behind.
Among the many technologies potentially involved in the making of images, drawing is one of the most deeply rooted. Line drawings spoke to the people who gathered in caves 40,000 years ago and they remain just as intelligible for viewers today; innate understanding of these representational principles must in fact be one of very few things we feel certain of having in common with those otherwise unimaginably distant human ancestors. Drawing has been spared the regular existential crises that have vexed painting, long held to be the more elevated sister art. And at this point it seems probable that its widespread use will outlast the practice of writing longhand.