Graphite generally suggests pencil drawings consisting of strokes and lines, but in “Gerald Auten: Graphite Insomnia “, currently playing at White River Gallery in South Royalton, the artist uses powdered graphite or graphite pencil to construct pictures in a very different way. Using his fingers and tools and wearing a breathing mask, Auten creates designs that are partly rubbing and partly scotching; the result is a fascinating confluence of surface build-up and erasure.
Auten’s 15 abstract graphite drawings do not reveal the source of “sleeplessness” in the title of the show, nor whether this collection of works is the cause or the result. If that’s the stuff of sleepless nights, it’s as beautiful and elusive as the dream itself.
Auten’s works are reminiscent of architectural plans – not surprisingly, since he studied architecture and teaching, with the art of the studio, to Dartmouth College. Auten also runs the Dartmouth Studio Art Exhibition program. His own studies were at the University of Iowa, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and he has exhibited widely in the United States and abroad.
Auten’s drawings are two-dimensional, yet whether they are geometric abstractions or recognizable objects, his images seem to emerge sculpturally from the flat surface. White space is a critical factor, acting as a foil to the “black holes” of darkness. In this exhibition, brilliant white lines perforate the dark forms and sharp-edged angles constrain the velvety blurs.
In the 24 x 18 inch “Auten”, soft puffs of gray seem to materialize on the paper. “Bothe’s Farm” (12 by 9 inches) is a veritable blizzard of grays and intense black filling almost three-quarters of the page; a horizontal line separates it from the white space of the remaining quarter. Auten’s shades of gray are not limited to 50.
The artist uses dense, smooth, hot-pressed paper (or sometimes the backs of old posters or postcards), which has the right surface to work on with her preferred medium. It adds bonding elements such as WD-40, turpentine or linseed oil to powdered graphite and polishes the surface of the paper repeatedly, creating a highly polished effect. The process of applying layer after layer, then polishing, can take months. The resulting work is deeply saturated, sometimes illuminated by a dazzling white. In some drawings, the black is so intense that one has the impression that one could immerse himself in it.
Often the images seem to be something, yet this thing is as fleeting as the “smoke” that seems to float on the surface of “Auten”. This eponymous drawing (self-portrait?) Consists of a dark black square that appears to hover just above the center line. Two white lines – one horizontal, one vertical – form a cross in the center of the square, making it appear lit from behind. A cloud of gray emanates from below.
While Auten’s designs are abstract, some include recognizable elements, such as a suitcase. Sometimes these elements lend themselves to multiple interpretations. In 40 x 26 inch “Insomnia”, is it a white shirt and striped men’s tie? Or maybe a man is wearing it, his head represented abstractly as a square, his neck rising from the stiff points of the collar below. But wait – maybe it’s a partially open box or envelope, or an aerial view of railroad tracks disappearing under an overpass.
Auten holds us in bondage, not knowing exactly where we are or what we are seeing. The title “Insomnia” could refer to this state between waking and sleeping and to the artist’s experience. Or the exhibition itself could have resulted from episodes of sleeplessness – and creativity.
Curator Dian Parker describes Auten as “a very flexible person. He likes to change things.” She notes that the drawing titled “Insomnia” actually “started the other way around”. That is, Auten started the job upside down, so to speak – a 180 degree rotation from the finished job we see. Perhaps the change indicates his interest in creating a feeling of disorientation, rather than referring to a specific image.
The designs have a formal and austere quality, but Parker observes that Auten’s sense of humor is evident as well.
“To me these works have a quiet quality and wonderful humor,” she says. “It’s silent, it’s deep. It’s hot and cool. There are contrasts: is it an opening, a space or an object? Is it a rectangle or an entrance?
While many Auten drawings include lots of white space above and below an image, he does not use it to “float” work on paper. Negative space is an intentional part of the design, and it’s not always white. Given its proximity to graphite, it can appear gray (and often gray has been added), contributing to the atmosphere Auten gives to each work.
The edges of his shapes are incredibly crisp and crisp – a technique he achieves in part using archival tape. “He’s a master at handling graphite,” Parker says. Graphite powder can be toxic, which is why Auten uses a mask and gloves as well as excellent ventilation.
Is graphite the thing that keeps Auten awake at night? Do the images in his dreams wake him from sleep? Whatever its genesis, “Graphite Insomnia” reflects the work of a fertile mind and the demanding pursuit of a vision.