Contributed by Michael Brennan / I spent spring break at Studio 34 with Taney Roniger, mostly silent, measuring the depth of her drawings. Her solo show there, “Drawing is a Verb,” includes eight works on paper, mostly made of charcoal drawn on slightly textured hot-press watercolor paper. Each drawing is mounted directly on the wall, unframed, using hidden magnets. Her presentation of drawing as a primary medium – not something to be imported into painting or something else later, not for studies – is authoritative. Too often, drawing shows read as frame shows. Drawings presented like these, unmediated by glass or frame, preserve subtle surface incident that would be lost if they were conventionally sealed-off and protected. The collective series title, Myyrmaki, refers to a Lutheran church in Finland, a source of inspiration for the artist, known for its architectural engagement with fluted light.
“Drawing is a Verb” begins modestly enough with Codex, which at 15×13 inches is the smallest drawing in the exhibition. It serves as a kind of index for the entire show in its simple, winning exemplification of geometry rendered atmospherically. This unlikely combination of qualities – geometry is typically presented more concretely – recalls the drawings of Myron Stout, who imparted exacting attention to the smallest point of detail. Codex also reveals Roniger’s current preoccupation with, and skill in conveying, the illusion of emerging light and that of drawn transparency.
The much larger Horizon is more magisterial in unleashing the illusory light effect, which is achieved negatively by preserving some areas of the paper’s natural white color via drawn darkness. While Roniger’s work inevitably appears flatly graphic in reproduction, in person her charcoal fields have a soft appearance, almost like felt. This suppleness belies the rigor and vibration of relentless repeated vertical fluting. This appears grid-like at first, but functions as a variable gradient against which viewers can measure the effect of expanding atmospheric radiance.
Although reduced and abstracted, a forest is clearly visible in Forest, in which isolated vertical lines evoke trees that advance and retreat along a fixed horizon, each making its own distinct mark against a foggy background. Roniger’s subtle dusting of charcoal is exceptional here.
Some aspects of Roniger’s drawings remind me of painter Mac Wells’ spiritual harmonics.
Ocean is a stunning example of light generated by hand. Imagine if Dan Flavin’s white light were freed entirely from its fluorescent tubing, without glass encasement, and made more palpable and present, at once airborne and graspable. That gives you some idea of the sensation Roniger has achieved here with ordinary charcoal: drafting a kind of tactile light.
In her current and more recent work, Roniger’s light often hovers outwardly, suspended like an ethereal projection from twentieth-century light artist Thomas Wilfred’s Clavilux – also known as a color organ – which generated light with the touch of a key.
So let us now praise charcoal. Carbon-based like ourselves, it is the most painterly drawing medium. No other element is so thoroughly organic. Carbonized, burned – what could be cruder? And yet this base material in the hands of an artist like Roniger can conjure the unlikely illusion of emerging light, which is immateriality itself. It seems a small miracle of transubstantiation, and Rectangles is textbook example of adjusting values to accomplish it. “Drawing as a verb” indeed.
In Shards, Roniger flirts with the blur. But her blurring is spatial, as distinct from, say, Gerhard Richter’s unfocused or photographic blurring that gained attention in discussions of abstraction in the 1990s. Here her vertical forms alternately appear as flat, downwardly dragged bands, and cylindrical volumes, straddling a simulated 2D/3D boundary.
Beyond the optical effects and art-historical context of Roniger’s work, its philosophical implications most deeply distinguish the exhibition and make it especially relevant and worthwhile. When AI apps can quickly develop a convincing image of artificial light and space, doing it with charcoal – the stuff of cavemen – and rendering detectable qualities that remain unique to a hand-drawn image is a significant achievement. Roniger’s technique finishes with real discovery, not merely predetermined arrival. That is the quintessential difference between drawing and just manufacturing. While the national emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education may be understandable, the neglect of the humanities is regrettable and unnecessary. In particular, we have never fully appreciated the practicality of drawing, a learnable skill that’s as useful as the 3 R’s. Roniger’s investigations are proof. If you really want to understand something, follow Roniger’s example and try drawing it.
“Taney Roniger: Drawing is a Verb,” Studio 34, 34-01 38th Avenue, 4th floor, Long Island City, NY. Through April 8, 2023.
About the author: Michael Brennan is a Brooklyn based painter who writes on art.