Opinion Then and Now

December 13, 2007

    The Drawing Room proprietors Emily Goldstein and Victoria Munroe have become proficient at the type of group exhibit that blends their stable of gallery artists with examples of other contemporary artists and those of the past.
    “Eyes on the Natural World,” their latest endeavor, is another such example, and if their approach is beginning to seem formulaic, the art they have chosen continues to surprise and delight.
    In this case, a collection of 19th-century ink and watercolor studies of snakes packs an unusual visual punch that is a good foil to the ethereal insects in oil on panel by Jill Musnicki on an adjacent wall.
    The snakes are faithfully represented, but their composers have gathered them in fanciful squiggles and tangles. It certainly must have been a challenging practical matter to fit the snakes on the available paper size while still producing a detailed representation, but like many studies of the natural world, the works have an aesthetic appeal that goes beyond their scientific use.
    And so it goes in the gallery, with Jean Pagliuso’s chicken models matched with John Alexander’s drawings of birds and 17th and 18th-century watercolors of an owl and “Perroquet.” Mr. Alexander’s bird renderings are given his usual treatment with titles that are more like quips, such as the hummingbirds in “Rush to Judgment” and an egret called “Lone Ranger.”
    Ms. Pagliuso also adopts an irreverent air with her chickens, which she titles as if they are abstractions, such as “White #12” and “Black #9,” both from 2005, and photographs of the poultry posed like supermodels in a self-consciously artificial studio setting that highlights the birds’ showy plumage and somewhat haughty air.
    On a wall devoted to landscapes, Jane Wilson’s watercolor seascapes blend with Henri Marchal’s monotype landscapes, Clifford Ross’s photographs of waves during a hurricane, and a few unsigned French ink and wash landscapes.
    All of the landscapes are particularly compelling in their diminutive treatment. With the exception of one of Mr. Marchal’s monotypes, which measures 15 by 20 inches, the rest of the landscapes measure 8 inches or less. Mr. Ross’s works measure about 2 by 3 inches. None of them sacrifice any of their power, however, and instead point out that an artist does not need a large expanse to deliver a formidable message.
    Charles Yver, a French artist who painted a variety of tropical fish for the “Petit Atlas des Poissons” published in 1942, offers a taffy-colored vision of a whole aquarium’s worth of species. They are paired with renderings of the “Fishes of India,” studies by unknown 19th-century Calcutta artists.
    Mr. Yver’s drawings are well preserved and vibrant with very specific titles in French such as “dorade” for a common porgy or bream fish, and “mulet” for mullet fish. In most cases the crowded field of five or six species swim harmoniously in the same direction, their colors highlighted by a fanciful undersea background.
    Michelle Stuart’s Rorschach-like ink and gouache blots of butterflies and moths on folded and unfolded paper share affinities with the other art on the walls, but are somewhat singular within the exhibit as a whole. Chance seems to play a key role in her process in the beginning, and then evolves into more specific representations of her subject matter as she completes the images with her paintbrush.
    Next to Ms. Stuart’s work, a study of wasps by J.G. Pretre, a French artist, from about 1810, is far more specific in its presentation, but more generalized in its identification. The renderings are so delicate and pretty that they could serve as models for a brooch.
    The exhibit is on view through Jan. 31.