Sandra Allen of Hingham makes academic pencil drawings of trees that are so highly detailed as to seem photographic (she works from photos that she takes), but lent a gentleness and moodiness by the act of drawing.
In her show "Pencil on Paper" at Carroll and Sons gallery in Boston, she focuses close on trunks, cropping off spreading leafless branches, and ably deploying a full span of black to white to evoke the craggy textures of oaks and cottonwoods, conjuring their hefty volumes, and how long they took to grow. Your eyes get pleasurably lost in the currents of the bark and wander around the branches.
As you get close, though, they lose interest – which is most apparent in her large works. Here she fills a gallery wall with “Ballast,” an 18.5-feet-wide, 11-feet-tall close-up on the gnarly flank of a maple trunk, angling upward to the right. When you first enter the room, it’s an astonishing tour de force, this giant form seemingly manifest in the space. But with these monumental drawings, the realist illusion begins to dissolve into drawing when you’re still a dozen feet distant. The initial effect comes to seem more like a stunt and her mark-making, her hatching fuzzy and rote. It feels as if she’s hurrying to fill in all those black passages.
The best piece here is “Scion,” a portrait of a beech tree, because she escapes that effect. And it’s not just because it’s a smaller drawing (just under 6 feet tall). She takes advantage of the distinctive features of beeches. Their tendency to sprout branches close to the ground animates the pictorial space. And their smooth bark seems to focus Allen’s attention, with her lines following around the curves of the trunk like delicate caresses.
Sandra Allen “Pencil on Paper,” Carroll and Sons, 450 Harrison Ave., Boston, Sept. 7 to Oct. 17, 2009.
Pictured from top to bottom: Sandra Allen, “Ballast” as installed, “Scion,” “Conduit,” “Stalwart,” and “Ballast.” All 2009 except for “Stalwart,” which is 2005.