Writing Archive

This Just In: Drawing, Portraiture Relevant

Miami Art Exchange, July 10, 2001

It came to pass that two visitors were in the classroom of a friend of mine to talk about what they do. One was Tom Virgin, an artist who was there to demonstrate his considerable abilities in the art of the woodcut, and whose show of printed portraits, PRESSURE relief, is up at the Frances Wolfson Gallery at the M-DCC campus downtown. The other was a college recruiter who was making an ass of herself on behalf of her institution. Her school shall remain nameless; let's just say that it's famous for perpetuating the highbrow self-indulgence that makes much contemporary art as pointless as it is.

Some of the inanities thrown out by the recruiter were: drawing isn't really important, necessary, or relevant anymore; the portrait is a defunct mode in the 21st Century; getting a likeness is something anyone can do; it's wrong to make judgments about what's good art and bad art (although figurative work is dated and bad); and everyone (everyone!) should be an artist.

In short, it was the usual dreck you hear from an art establishment that is long on bombast and short on talent. Virgin put up with all this with quiet patience. It was admirable and kind of him, considering that this recruiter may not have been qualified to dust his work, much less evaluate it. Virgin's exhibition is proof that drawing continues to hold as much aesthetic potential as ever. It is also a tribute to the graphic power and seductiveness of the portrait subject.

One-color woodcut is a stern medium, allowing only black and white with no gradation. (The only gray possible is a near-black produced by applying fire to the block before inking; Virgin has done this here and there.) Optical grays can be formed by hatching, which gives the woodcut its distinctive look. Virgin uses hatching to great effect as his marks alternate between planar forms, textures, patterns, and crisp lights.

Arpita Sleepy captures a heavy-lidded, slouching woman in front of a dark window that reflects the light of the room. The fact that many of these images were made at night is a reminder that the artist developed this impressive body of work around the necessities of his workaday life. (All so some dingbat art snob could dismiss what he's doing to his face.) On Arpita's right lapel, a dark anarchist-A-inside-a-circle appears from the blackness with striking subtlety. We see her as a rebel too tired to rebel, for now.

We look up at the artist in Tom 2 ('Dator) as he depicts himself with unquiet angularity. Beams set at mad angles and lighted with a flashbulb run through the dark, cavernous space overhead. Mad Kate sets up an image of the artist's girlfriend with another self-portrait. Sharp hatch marks form a pattern in the background and convey the spikiness of the sitter's mood. Her sulking is captured in an endearing way.

Five still lifes with a cat skull give Virgin an opportunity to work with the formal problems of woodcut, while the skull takes on an intense, aloof personality.

In Storm Woman, a squarish nude with pointy bangs is posed in front of an ominous Florida landscape whose grays are cut to resemble sheets of rain. In the background a silhouetted palm seems ready to shatter in place. Classically unclothed but maintaining a tough veneer, she is equal parts Gaugin and Miami Beach High. The same could be said of the nude in SoBe Girl, whose short hair is plastered to her head as she looks at (or past) the viewer. There is a tension between her vulnerable nudity and forceful gaze.

In Jess in Mango Season, a young woman with thick curls lies back on a couch with a bemused expression. Virgin has amplified the solidity of the figure, as if she were sculpted from wood; the effect is one of sinewy strength. Certain portraits make us feel that we know the person, and this is one of them. Relevant to the 21st Century? You bet - as relevant as people and the connections between them have always been.

Tom Virgin: PRESSURE relief is on display through August 3 at the Frances Wolfson Gallery, Miami-Dade Community College Wolfson Campus, Building 1, Fifth Floor, 300 NE 2nd Avenue, Miami. Call 305-237-3278 for more information.

Word count: 717

Return to Archive