Susan Hartnett at Danese Gallery

Susan Hartnett, Reed Canary Grass Phalaris Arundinacea, November 14, 1998, #1 (1998), charcoal on paper; courtesy Danese Gallery

* * *

Susan Hartnett, whose works in charcoal and pastel are on view at the Danese Gallery, suffers from Twomblyitis: the inability to develop a painterly corollary for an art predicated solely on drawing. The striking difference in quality between Ms. Hartnett’s charcoal drawings and her large, colored pastels is rooted in two distinct pictorial approaches (though one could quibble that the pastels aren’t painting per se).

Ms. Hartnett takes inspiration from the bounty of form, rhythm and incident provided by the natural world, in particular plants. Wielding charcoal, she’s capable of breathtaking feats of calligraphic concision, augmenting scientific fidelity with a lean, poetic gift: A suite of drawings depicting blue lyme grass is spidery, elegant and true. But when she picks up a pastel stick, Ms. Hartnett doesn’t know what to do. Mostly she dithers; sometimes she panics. All the while, she’s clueless about how to fill up those big sheets of paper.

Major ambitions are well and fine: Should Ms. Hartnett pull off a pastel drawing, I’ll be the first to offer a high-five. All the same, some artists are better suited to small moments of grace than to brawling, expansive epics. Ms. Hartnett is one of them.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 3, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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