Exhibition Review: Tom Fairs

Posted on July 4, 2011


Tom Fairs. "Untitled." 2002

A funny thing about drawing is that the case we make for it as the foundation of a serious studio practice is seldom borne out by the output of artists whom we admire. Though we identify it as an essential tool for painters and sculptors alike, how often do we have the chance to see drawing for its own merits, apart from its function in the production of more “complete” work?

William Kentridge has been hailed of late as a sort of maverick for his devotion to the medium, and his use of drawing in his stage sets and animated films is as good an argument as any for its continued relevance. Kentridge’s most recent show, “Other Faces,” at Marian Goodman Gallery on 57th Street, was comprised of a virtuosic animation and the dozens of drawings that made that work possible. The drawing technique Kentridge has developed for his films is stunning, and in the art world there are few joys as visceral as watching one of his animated figures (insect, bird or human) move, its trail of former positions registered on the page as if the air itself held the memory of what has passed through it.

William Kentridge. "Drawing for 'Other Faces.'" 2011

Yet somehow Kentridge’s drawings themselves do not possess the same magic. Interesting as they are to examine in light of their role in the animations, they don’t hold up so well when considered on their own. This, it would seem, is only natural for work that is made with another purpose in mind. In this Kentridge shares something with Matthew Barney, whose displays of the physical objects from his films would seem altogether superfluous were it not for their market value as “sculptures.”

But what of drawings that exist completely in themselves, not as stepping-stones but as an arrival upon the far shore? If a Kentridge drawing is to his animation as a page of sheet music is to a performance, where can we find drawings that hold the power of finished work? If you’re interested in this quest, one answer can be found in the pencil drawings of the British artist Tom Fairs, currently on view at KS Art on Leonard Street in TriBeCa.

Fairs, who taught at London’s Central School of Art and Design and died in 2007, did not exhibit during his lifetime. The drawings on display, culled from small field sketchbooks dating from 1995-2004, communicate immediately and with considerable sophistication the active recordings of the eye as it travels over forms in space. Working with a fluidity that comes from a deep familiarity with life drawing, Fairs’ are the observations of old eyes, not young ones. Indeed, there is a double anachronism in the works. In function, they relate to the 19th century practice of travel sketching, the most direct means of recording the look of a place in a time before photography. In style, their obvious predecessors are early Modernists.

Tom Fairs. "Untitled." 2002

Robert Irwin’s statement that “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees,” is an instructive one for those uninitiated into the world of observational drawing. It teaches the value of discovering abstraction in nature. For Fairs, however, the opposite seems true: Seeing is knowing what one sees. Distinct from the work of those painters with whom associations are otherwise strong (Vuillard and Bonnard), the stuff in Fairs’ drawings never functions primarily as design. A tree, seen and understood as a tree, is drawn as such, its fundamental identity never subordinate to its plastic function on the page.

Yet a thing can be rendered in countless ways and still maintain its essence, a lesson that Fairs’ drawings embody like few others. A wide vocabulary of marks is employed to suggest different properties of weight, form and texture. Tonal relationships seem at times an afterthought, second to the materiality of the natural world. The drawings are worked heavily, but there’s an economy of mark-making in play that reinforces the textural density of the more heavily drawn bits. The drawings of Stanley Lewis come to mind, if you imagine Lewis abandoning the blunt regularity of the bic pen and forcing himself to move on after an hour or two.

Tom Fairs. "Untitled." 2002

Fairs’ domain is one of tightly packed town centers and well-maintained gardens or parks in which the lush beauty of the natural world is offset against some clean human intervention (mown field, fencing, etc.). While his trees are put to the page with a certain faithfulness to their appearance, his buildings seem to veer from the path of pure perception. In one intriguing drawing of a funnily-turreted building standing out from its neighbors, one gets the sense that Fairs has rendered the structure as a personification of the odd duck who must live inside.

Tom Fairs. "Untitled." 2005

Significantly, Fairs makes frequent nods to early Modernist drawing, in part, one suspects, from reverence for the work, and in part as the inevitable bi-product of engaging the same ideas. Vuillard seems present in Fairs’ dexterity with pattern. In one drawing, the marks of a furrowed field bend and eddy around a fence post in the foreground, placing them simultaneously in the near and far space. This is pure Van Gogh. A nighttime drawing of a window, curtains pulled aside to expose matching dark rectangles of glass, may be a direct transcription of Bonnard. Yet we don’t begrudge him these flights into homage. Like the rest of the work, they too are evidence of a clear-headed desire to make sense of the physical world.

Meaningful art must result in part from the artist’s conviction in the power of his or her medium. If we have Kentridge to thank for the brilliant application of drawing in the production of inventive new work, Fairs reminds us that drawing in its purest form can still have the power to thrill.