Sandra Allen

Artist, pencil on paper

by William Robinson

Description of two drawings, Nexus and Auspice, acquired by the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University
by William Robinson

Sandra Allen bases her monumentally scaled drawings of trees on photographs taken near her home and in her travels. Using a grid to guide the enlargement of the photograph into a drawing, she works with a soft, 6B graphite pencil on heavy, slightly toothy Arches Rives paper. The technical skill with which she models the swelling form of the trunk and mimics the glossy surface of the bark is all the more challenging on this scale and combines with Allen’s compositional strategies to produce images that are at once refined and imposing, virtuosic and laden with complex feeling and thought.

The intertwined bare trucks in Nexus press onerously up against the picture plane and the viewer’s space, an effect enhanced by the elimination of any reference to the sky or landscape. Allen continues the drawing to the edge of the sheet, abruptly cutting off the thick trunks and thereby forcing us to acknowledge that, big as they seem on a sheet that measures seven feet tall, these are mere fragments of much larger trees. This intimate glimpse of two mature tree trucks locked in a tentative embrace is unsettling — is their coupling joyful, erotic or, given that they inhabit each other’s growth, self-destructive? Or do they convey something ambiguous, indefinable? However we interpret them, Allen’s drawings signify; they transcend mere virtuosity.

Auspice is the first of Allen’s large tree drawings. Less disquieting than Nexus, it demonstrates even more decisively the authority of her technique. Here, she convincingly depicts the irregular, illogical branching of the limbs, keeping each twig in its plane, while maintaining an exquisite balance between the massive trunk and the complex interlace of the bare limbs silhouetted against the space-less background.