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October 16, 2005
Art Pick of the Week

High Contrast

Two distinctive midtown shows fascinate and inspire
By Victoria Dalkey, The Sacramento Bee Art Correspondent

The exhibit of Theophilus Brown's drawings, such as this self-portrait, offers a worthwhile stop for art students as well as art collectors. b. sakata garo
Two rare and remarkable shows that opened on Second Saturday within a block of each other in midtown offer proof, if proof is needed, that Sacramento has come into its own as a serious art center.

Bay Area figurative painter Theophilus Brown's first drawing show at b. sakata garo offers an intimate look at the process of drawing. Chris Daubert's monumental illuminated installation at the new 1050 Loft asks us to ponder the landscape on a variety of conceptual and visual levels.

You couldn't ask for a sharper contrast than the one afforded by these two shows. Comparing Brown's essentially traditional figure drawings to Daubert's epic examination of the land and its place in our collective unconscious is like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. But what they have in common is a commitment to excellence, a rigorous and probing approach to the investigation of phenomenological events and an insistence on the visual and physical presence of art.

Daubert's installation, "Travelers Amid Buildings and Streams," is one of the most arresting exhibitions I have seen and certainly the most amazing installation to be mounted in Sacramento. It's a breathtaking work that takes you on an astonishing journey through time and space.

The sheer size and scope of the electrical text-based architectural piece is awe-inspiring, and the texts - illuminated fragments of evocative statements - add up to a moving meditation on the timelessness of the Earth and the temporal nature of its inhabitants. As you move through the installation, the texts, which appear first as a red line, like tail lights passing on a distant highway, form a non-linear narrative that addresses the landscape both as a physical and emotional presence and as a metaphor for our dark human journey.

Entering the pitch-dark space, you are immediately thrown off balance physically and psychologically, as if you were a prehistoric human gingerly feeling your way into the caves at Lascaux or Altamira. where you would be initiated into the secret rites of your culture. But instead of bulls and mastodons, you see a vast plain stretching out before you with a sense of almost limitless space.

As you move through the installation, the space keeps changing, keeping you off balance, by the illusion of shifting planes and distances. It's like standing in the middle of the valley on a dark night and losing your sense of place in the universe and your sense of being a separate entity.

Along the way, the text sometimes echoes your sense of disorientation: "The night was closing in faster than we thought it would. Soon all we could tell was that we were going down hill." At other places it calls up our experiences of living where we do: "The heat mirage on the road blends into the summer haze on the valley floor, and you don't really believe the mountains either." By turns wistful ("I know it's far from everything, but I can remember the city if I want to, and I'd rather be out here by myself"), enigmatic ("As it stands now, I don't really want to go into Guatemala") and philosophical ("Just standing in front of these mountains is success"), the words form an open-ended poem that is both elegiac and celebratory, theoretical and phenomenological, emotional and intellectual.

When you have transited the entire circuit of text (which is 180 by 78 feet but seems larger), you look back at the installation, feeling as if you were in the middle of a dark ocean looking at the lights of a city on a distant shore and you marvel at the sea change you have experienced.

Though it has antecedents in the works of Robert Irwin and James Turrel, Daubert's piece is vibrantly original and truly transformational.

Brown's show also takes you on a journey as you follow his investigations into the act of seeing, analyzing and rendering the human figure. Though traditional in the best sense, his rich mixed-media drawings have a quirky edge that places them firmly in the realm of contemporary art. Using a variety of media (graphite, charcoal, ink, gouache), Brown gives us solid, upright, hardworking drawings that are models of the kind of serious endeavor all artists, even conceptualists, ought to engage in.

Ranging from a dark image of a reclining male figure done in 1964 to a 1995 painterly drawing of a seated woman, the show covers a lot of territory both in terms of time and methodology. While the figure is the central theme of the show, there are some wonderful departures, including a charming graphite line drawing of African animals done in 1968, a stunning still life from 1979 and an incisive self-portrait from 1994.

In his workmanlike drawings, Brown achieves a strong sense of gravitas, imbuing his uningratiating figures with a feeling of nobility. His image of a somnolent nude couple, leaning against each other so that their bodies form strong diagonals that join at the top, is static yet emotive. The male and female figures in an almost deathly repose make you think of Etruscan tomb sculptures.

Similarly stern is the figure of a female nude on a couch, who, like many of Brown's figures, seems stoical and chaste, without any hint of lasciviousness. The drawing of the interior, on the other hand, with its Danish Modern couch and potted plants, is wonderfully sensual and alive with a palpable sense of light and atmosphere.

Lively, too, is a collage made up of three drawings in which a rigorously rendered image of a woman in boots is flanked by briefer line drawings of male and female figures in psychologically interesting poses. There's a wonderfully alive and off-the-cuff quality to the male figure in this work that is echoed in several of Brown's drawings. One has to admire, for example, the powerful realism of an awkwardly turned foot in a drawing of a male nude on blue paper and the relaxed slump of a woman in a running suit whose elbows and splayed knees form an interesting series of angles.

In the 1970s and 1980s Brown took part in weekly figure drawing sessions with Wayne Thiebaud, Gordon Cook, Beth Van Hoesen and Mark Adams. A strong drawing of a standing female nude reminds one of some of Thiebaud's figure studies. But it has its own distinctiveness, born of the sense of seriousness and purpose that Brown, like the other members of the group, brought to the task of grappling with what is arguably nature's most complex and difficult subject.

Brown offers a look at some members of the group at work in a small image of Cook and Van Hoesen drawing the model. It's a studious, solidly structured piece, with erasures and pentimenti, that lets us in on the process of drawing. Another work focuses on what might be a figure session in a classroom, with models taking a break while a student daydreams. Again it invites us in for a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.

There is much to admire in this show of works by a justly revered Bay Area artist. Though quieter and more limited in scope than Daubert's installation, it should be required viewing for art students, as well as serious collectors. One must congratulate Barry Sakata for bringing it to Sacramento.

Kudos, too, are due to Kyle Hittmeier and his crew - Jessical Weddle, Skye Bergen and Gregory Geiger. They brought the Daubert installation to life.

Theophilus Brown Drawings

WHERE: b. sakata garo, 923 20th St.

WHEN: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through October 30

INFORMATION: (916) 447-4276