Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Gibbs turns dots and marks into art

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Ewan Gibbs, a British artist who specializes in graphite drawings, is in the middle of his third solo show at Lora Reynolds Gallery in Austin.

Ewan Gibbs answers questions before they are asked.

And the British artist, who is enjoying his third solo show at Lora Reynolds Gallery, has his spiel down.

He works from photographs, he says. And please look closer so you'll see that each of his intimately scaled drawings is composed of thousands and thousands of precise yet minuscule graphite pencil marks — either circles or diagonal lines — each of varying intensity, all neatly made along the lines of an invisible grid.

He offers that he's consciously referencing several art history touchstones, including the pointillism of Georges Seurat, the Pop art Ben-Day dots of Roy Lichtenstein and the luminous exacting photography of Hiroshi Sugimoto.

And sorry, don't even ask — Gibbs doesn't talk about how long it takes to make each drawing. "Let's just say it's labor-intensive," he says. (In previously published interviews he's offered that each drawing takes anywhere from two to three weeks.) "Everyone's fascinated with the amount of effort that goes into a work of art, as if that's the ultimate determination of art's value."

The 30-something Gibbs created his beguiling Austin images — all of which are titled "Austin" — based on photographs he took when he was here a couple of years ago.

"It isn't such an iconic city," Gibbs says of Austin. "It's not a New York or a London or a San Francisco, where you've got these universally recognizable landmarks."

Still, he trained his camera at sights any other visitor might: the Texas State Capitol, the Congress Avenue Bridge, the downtown nighttime skyline.

Gibbs is less concerned with the specificity of the places he draws and more interested in the experience people have viewing his images.

"I'm not trying to mimic photography," he says. "I'm trying to take the best aspects of photography, like its naturalism. We accept that naturalism is the most important way of seeing the world."

Only Gibbs has turned the experience of looking at a naturalistic photograph upside down. Draw closer to a photograph and you're bombarded by visual information in every detail. But with Gibbs' drawings, the closer you get to them, the more you realize they're nothing more than itty-bitty slashes and circles. Only when you stand back are you rewarded with the full picture.

It's a bit of a riff on digital images. Now that we're used to thinking of images as nothing more than millions of pixels, Gibbs throws those minuscule visual elements right back at us.

Standing in the luminous white gallery, Gibbs starts up his story again without any prompting. His explanations unfold as if by rote.

He started drawing in this manner in 1993 when he was a cash-strapped art student in London (at super-hot Goldsmiths College, nonetheless).

"At the time, I was painting, and I was interested especially in interiors by painters like Matisse, Bonnard, Hopper," he says. "I also wanted to travel, but I couldn't afford to, so I'd go to a travel agent and pick up brochures, and I'd have a load of images, pictures of hotel interiors, tons of ready-made subject matter to paint from.

"Then I found a book on knitting patterns at a flea market. The patterns were made up of symbols on a grid like circles, crosses, diagonal lines. I liked the use of a grid as a structure to hang an image on. So I found this (Edward) Hopper painting and the grid with its symbols and put them together.

"The process freed me up to just be able to make something," he says. "And sometimes you worry as an artist that you'll never be able to make something or finish something."

Gibbs, whose drawings have been acquired by New York's Museum of Modern Art, London's Tate Gallery and the Blanton Museum of Art, among other institutions, has finished plenty of images since then.

After his experiment with the Hopper painting, Gibbs made small little drawings of quotidian hotel rooms, rental cottages and other vacation accommodations. Next, he moved to hotel exteriors, then started his "Destinations" series, which includes images of London, Paris and New York. Then he drew found images of baseball players just after they've thrown the ball: "Pictures of Pitchers" debuted at Lora Reynolds Gallery in 2008.

As his work developed, Gibbs abandoned the use of graph paper and now lightly scores the paper to create a grid on which he works.

Gibbs stops his chatter and, smiling, takes a deep breath. He seems a bit apologetic for all his talking.

"I guess I'm just used to answering the same questions because people always ask me the same things about my work."; 445-3699

'Ewan Gibbs: Here and There'

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through Jan. 8

Where:Lora Reynolds Gallery, 360 Neuces St.