Nature studies

New works by Catherine Hamilton and Susan Twaddell
By GREG COOK  |  May 5, 2010

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A DELICATE TOUCH A detail of Hamilton’s “Squirrel II” (2009).

Catherine Hamilton is a longtime birder. So the New York artist and former RISD teacher’s sharply realistic pen drawing of a flapping owl is based on a bird-banding trip to a preserve in New Paltz, New York. Her soft impressionist watercolor paintings of a red-bellied woodpecker, a black-capped chickadee, and a Carolina wren come from watching the competition among birds for suet and seed at a suburban feeder.

“A bird feeder,” Hamilton writes in her artist statement, “creates an intensified microcosm of the trials and hardships of avian existence. Far from an idyllic peaceable kingdom, the hierarchies and conflicts of a complex avian life are magnified much in the way of urban city living for people.”

There’s no doubting Hamilton’s drawing chops, but there can be a rote bird-guide feeling to her images on view at Craftland Gallery (235 Westminster Street, Providence, through May 22). You don’t feel the tension she speaks of in her statement. These feel more like nature studies, like practicing. What’s missing is drama.

Attention to light and a soft focus lend more drama to her ink drawings of trees, meadows, and rivers illuminated by a mystical sun or moonlight glow.

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APPARITION A detail from Hamilton’s “Rabbit” (2009).
These exacting monochromatic drawings bring to mind the dreamy shots of Pictorialist photographers like F. Holland Day, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Steichen from the years bookending the start of the 20th century. They used soft focus to artify their photographs, which were then not considered art, by making them look more akin to the impressionism of painters like James McNeill Whistler.

But the best of Hamilton’s drawings here is a close-up of the dark, staring eyes of a rabbit. Its long ears and roly-poly body fade out into the white of the paper. The ink drawing’s power comes from keeping the focus restricted to the rabbit’s eyes and forehead, plus Hamilton’s delicate touch and extremely fine stippling — lots of tiny dots — so that the critter seems like an apparition on the paper. That selective focus — which adds mystery and drama — may be the key factor. Coming upon the drawn rabbit feels like an accidental close meeting in a fog. Or maybe just you’re hyper-focused on those eyes, and the rest fades in attention, as you size up the scene. You and the rabbit freeze, waiting to see what happens next.

Providence artist Susan Hardy Twaddell’s subject is also nature, but her “After Africa” drawings at Cade Tompkins Editions Projects (198 Hope Street, Providence, through May 29) depict landscapes abstracted into triangles and prickly palm shapes and rendered in woven lines of brown (synthetic walnut ink) and black (India ink).

Hook Cove simplifies a shore scene into a pale ochre oval for the water, a boomerang-shaped hook of brown for the shore, and a bunch of burnt sienna triangle trees or hills beyond. Autumn Primeval features a path curving up from the bottom center into a point. It is flanked by curious, simplified leaf or stone shapes. And in the sky floats a pair of lopsided clouds. The different shapes are distinguished by varying crisscross hatched lines in lighter or darker shades of tan, burnt sienna, dark umber, and gray. All the hatching can give the feeling that the scenes are built from lots of woven mats laid side by side.

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