Ardently art-wrestling

Art: Elzbieta Sikorska's black and white drawings -- graphite on paper is her medium of choice -- fairly tingle with primal life.

March 02, 2001|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Whose woods these are you may well know, but perhaps not as Elzbieta Sikorska draws them.

These trees standing or fallen, these streamlets, rocks and brush are all part of Washington's suburban scenery, common as sparrows and as apt to draw attention. Sikorska has stopped on her walks in the woods and taken snapshots and returned to her house in Silver Spring and then gone to work - or is it war?

It's a battle of a sort, as you may notice from her 10 drawings on view at the Gomez Gallery in Baltimore through March 10.

These woods don't whisper gently in the passing day. They crackle as if struck by lightning, the tree trunks and branches jittering like live wires. Something's up in these woods. Powerful primitive forces, surging from the ground, are having at it. It's how Vincent van Gogh did sunflowers, their bristling life bordering on aggression.

She works from her own photographs, chiefly in several forms of graphite: pencils for fine lines, chunks for broader strokes, powder for deep shadow on white paper. Sometimes she adds patches of color with pastel, crayon or water-color. The graphite line is alternately nervous and bold, uncertain, searching, then striking with terrific force. Against the blackness set down in line or lying in inky pools, the white paper assumes a kind of luminance. Light and dark tangle for dominance.

That struggle reflects Sikorska's wrestling with the work. The studio on the second floor of the modest brick home she shares with her husband is hung with drawings that have been started and abandoned and left to vex the artist with questions: Where is this going, what's the rhythm, where's the energy, is this part here really working with that part there? How does it all fit together?

"I work so quickly I cannot get all the information," says Sikorska, who tends to make several drawings at once. "There is this nervous attempt. That's why I start so many. ... They need some - what is the word - conclusion, something clearly organizing the composition."

One that got away

One drawing hangs high on a studio wall in a state of arrested development. The artist was trying to finish it for the Gomez show "but I gave up. It was just not interesting. The composition, the whole idea. I tried to save it by introducing color, but ... "

The sentence hangs there as incomplete as the drawing. Sikorska's Polish-accented voice suggests the uncertainty of someone still getting her footing on strange ground. This may have less to do with her status as a relative newcomer to the United States - the Warsaw native moved here in 1986 - than with her more recent switch to the medium of drawing.

After painting in oils and water-based gouache for decades, she started doing a bit of drawing, then a bit more. Three years ago, she stopped painting altogether. What started as an attempt to rediscover pictorial structure became a consuming pursuit.

"I started discovering, and the technique is so rich," says Sikorska, 51, who had her first solo exhibit of paintings in Warsaw in 1973. "I just started with pencil, then I discover this [graphite] powder. I just started playing."

The drawings convey much the same energy as Sikorska's recent paintings, which also depicted wooded landscapes in thrall to expressionist angst. Deep shadow and bright light intermingle, animated by a striking palette: acidic yellows and cobalt blues, hot vermilions flowing into forest green. The paintings do for woods what English painter Francis Bacon did for popes, their mouths distended in primal screams.

Notwithstanding their expressionism, the drawings are more realistic than the paintings. You can step back from "Ladder," a drawing Sikorska completed in 1999, and almost think you're looking at a black and white photograph.

"Stick," completed last year, has much the same effect, with a bold white jagged streak in the foreground that reads almost simultaneously as an abstract form and as an impossibly pale fallen tree branch. In painting and drawing, Sikorska is working on the border between abstraction and representation.

Switching from painting to strictly drawing makes Sikorska something of an anomaly on the commercial gallery scene, where you don't see very much drawing. Drawings are usually black-and-white, and that usually doesn't complement the drapes.

Wanting color

"Most people who are putting art work in their home are looking for color," says Walter Gomez, who owns the gallery. Although he says he saw quite a bit of drawing at the current Armory Show in Manhattan, he says "it's still my sense from my client base that drawings are a tougher sell. They don't have the allure of color."

Of the 10 large drawings on display at Gomez, six are black and white, four have areas of one color. At the moment, it's all part of a rather new pursuit in progress.

"I still feel I have a long way to go to discover the medium," Sikorska says. "It's bringing my order into it. You say it, but when you try to define it, what is this order, it's very difficult."

There's much work to be done, or as another observer of woods put it: miles to go before she sleeps.

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