4    Washington Art Reporter    April 1988

Sorrels' Silverpoint Drawings at Capricorn Gallery

by Georgia Chamley-Brevik

Something extraordinary is happening this month at the Capricorn Galleries in Bethesda--a solo exhibition of miniature silverpoint drawings by Pennsylvania artist George Sorrels.

Silverpoint drawings in themselves are very rare and have almost never been presented in the form of a show by themselves. They usually accompany other paintings and drawings and in their historical context are most often shown as preliminary drawings associated with a finished work of art. Contemporary silverpoints appear even more rarely on the gallery art scene, thus making those shows a unique and satisfying experience.

George Sorrels' silverpoint work is created using many of the classical techniques that date to the fourteenth century when metalpoints were first used for artistic purposes. He is a traditionalist in this medium, using a silver stylus on a lead ground over paper. More contemporary materials such as acrylic gesso and gouache, which are more accessible, could have been used in place of the hazardous lead, but they do not provide the same velvet smooth ground on which the short cross-hatching strokes, not 1/8th inch long, are applied. This ground is so fragile and the technique so delicate that once the silver is applied, it cannot be erased without damaging the surface.

Meticulous precision is obvious in all of the work in the show. Sorrels is a masterful technician who has taken an exacting drawing medium demanding the greatest dexterity to create pictures of varying tonality and transitional values. The gradation of tones can only be achieved through the long and laborious process of minute cross-hatching. The drawings then undergo a natural tarnishing process in which the grey-black of the silver changes to the transparent grey-brown characteristic of a mature silverpoint drawing. This process can take years to complete itself.

Sorrels' work ranges dimensionally from very small to miniature, one measuring only one inch square; but upon close viewing, the audience is drawn into these personal worlds, oftentimes more real than imaginary. His worlds are either landscapes or gardens, each based on autobiographical sources stemming from his past on the plains of Texas or his present life in the rolling foothills of the Pennsylvania mountains. His work, like the sixteenth century German artists, most specifically those of the Danube School, reveals on the one hand a close relationship with nature, while on the other, an affinity to the mystical. In the "Garden of Eden" drawings, the viewer feels the microcosm of nature in the intricately drawn leaves, and then is thrust visually beyond the immediacy of the vegetation to the macrocosm of the universe depicted in the vast landscape beyond. Tantalizing the senses are mysterious images of roses, the scales of the serpent, and the female body, representing Eve, enigmatically placed within the garden compositions.

The centerpiece of the show, "The Garden: Time, Times, and Time Again," can be read as a statement about the transitional nature of existence. The drawing is divided into three distinct visual phases of time. The rocks that comprise the entire left side of the drawing represent the unrelenting passage of future time, rocks that are between the mountains of the earth and the dust to which all things return. The sky, Eve, and the copse of trees are visual symbols for a state of being in the ever present. Finally, almost hidden, the single fern fossil fragment is a subtle reminder of the distant past. All of the silverpoint drawings from the "Garden" series appear to demonstrate this fusion of time.

In addition to the "Garden" series there are eight landscape drawings. Sorrels' silverpoint landscapes, however, do not follow the same iconographic program, as the "Garden" drawings. The source for these works is the eastern part of Texas; and while these landscapes are not rendered as exact places, they each capture an emotional response to a specific site that was important to the artist. These drawings are especially unique in that silverpoint has rarely been used, either historically or contemporarily, to depict landscapes. As a specific art form, it has traditionally been a medium for portraiture.

One example of these landscapes, "Three Trees: Grand Saline," was created using a light grey ground, which gives the illusion of a hazy, still day. Three dead trees stand isolated in the water before a lush pine forest. The reflected images of the trees play an equal role to the dead trees themselves. These symbols are reminiscent of the barren trees found in the work of the fifteenth century German artist, Martin Schongauer. With this small intimate landscape one senses a contradiction in nature: viable life forces of the forests are juxtaposed with the isolation and death symbolized by the barren trees. Once again, time has ben stilled, reiterating the fragile existence of life in the world.

The technique of silverpoint with its illusive quality, laborious process, and soft, special light color underscores the spiritual essence of this work. Due to the difficulties of the art form, silverpoint has often been called the medium of the masters Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer; however, Sorrels has mastered this difficult technique and further, has added a new metaphysical dimension to the art of silverpoint drawing.

Silverpoint Drawings by George Sorrels, exhibiting at Capricorn Gallery, 4849 Rugby Avenue, April 16-May 7. Call 657-3477 for more information.