Daria Tessler at Craftland; AS220’s ‘Delicate Shudder’

‘Realm’ of wonder
By GREG COOK  |  May 1, 2012

GREAT ESCAPE Tessler’s Dream Message.

The realm of Daria Tessler's "In the Realm of the Seedkeepers," an exhibit of drawings at Craftland (235 Westminster Street, Providence, through May 12), seems to be an often hushed, mystical place in which birdmen ride on the backs of giant geese, bugs wear socks, and anteater-like people take careful, measured steps as they carry tree branches topped with 20-sided shapes like alchemical talismans. It's a place of magic seeds, ornate robes, parades, masks, staffs, quests, patched-up factories, ecological concern, and crossroads marked by signposts of curious portent. And it's some of the best drawing you'll see around these parts this year.

Tessler's pen and watercolor drawings are rooted in fantasy illustration and children's book art. As abstraction became the central focus of Western art in the 20th century, fine draftsmanship mainly departed the fine art world (with the exceptions of folks like Picasso and Lucien Freud) to hide out and thrive in the realm of illustration — from picture books to comics to advertising. The fine art world, in some ways, lost this skill as minimalism and conceptualism pushed ever more away from traditional realist chops and outsourced the making of artworks. Fine drawing began to return to fine art only as lowbrow painting, psychedelic posters, art comics, street art, and the DIY ethos of punk insinuated themselves into the fine art world between the 1970s and '90s.

FINE LINES Tessler’s The Bird Maker’s Workshop.

The drawings of Tessler — who was born in Finland, grew up in Los Angeles, and now resides in Portland, Oregon — might bring to mind Dr. Seuss books, Oz, M.C. Escher, and the 1986 film Labyrinth. But the most striking echo is of the Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson, whose amazing Moomin comics from the 1950s have garnered new attention since being reprinted by Drawn & Quarterly over the past decade. Jansson's comedies of manners about her hippopotamus-like people are alluringly melancholy, ruminative, eccentric, and bohemian, but she was also a sharp and inventive drawer, using lots of carefully controlled, feathery pen hatching in her own stories as well as her visionary illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Tolkien's The Hobbit.

Tessler recalls Jansson's tone as well as sharp draftsmanship in drawings like Star Journey, in which bird-people wearing ornate robes sail aboard a Viking ship through a sea of blue cylinders or anemones under falling stars. In The Bird Maker's Workshop, a long-tailed white bird flies out of the chimney of an art deco factory building, flapping between soot black clouds like a symbolic dove of clean air. In Dream Message, a bird-person wearing a cloak at the top of a series of impossible M.C. Escher stairways inspects fish in a light bulb-like jar suspended from a crescent moon. It's a realm of wonder that you might wish you could escape into.

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