Drawing on the Past
Darice Polo at raw & co.

Drawing is like casting a shadow – but slowly. The paper gradually fills with varying
thicknesses of graphite, controlled by an intense collaboration of hand and eye that
amounts almost to magic, re-building the darks and lights of retinal perception. Kent State
Drawing Instructor Darice Polo’s subtle use of this material speaks of the infinite range of
human touch as she engages with essential moments of her own family history. Polo’s
drawings contrive to resemble enlargements of several of her family’s 1950’s-era black
and white snapshots as closely as possible, reaching deep into memory and photograph
alike to revive times lost.

The artist grew up in New York and two of the photographs she’s adapted show outdoor
scenes there, on Prospect Avenue and an elevated subway platform in the Bronx. Both
feature her mother as a central figure, who is included in all the works in the show, adding
an underlying note of elegiac intensity and personal focus.

Walking Down Prospect Avenue 1953 (2005) is 18.5”/11” and took Polo three months to
complete (the largest work here is just 26”/11” and was in process off and on for two
years). Apparently the original shot was slightly over-exposed and out of focus, but Polo’s
patient drawing polishes those qualities, elevating them to almost visionary heights. Tall
and slim in a long pale skirt, Polo’s mother is a young woman, reaching down to hold a
toddler’s hand. This is the artist’s older brother, about two years of age and dressed in
white shoes, socks, shorts, and shirt.

Above the waist Mrs. Polo wears a dark short-sleeved blouse; her neck is slightly bent as
she looks down at her son.. Though she stands on a 20th century city street, a vintage
auto visible beyond the blur of her left arm, the figure seems to be removed from history,
bracketed by Polo’s acts of attention and translation. The woman who once stood on
Prospect Avenue could now almost be a dancer on the walls of Knossos

This mythic effect is present to some extent in all of Polo’s works at raw & co., but Theresa
1948 (2001) is definitely more anecdotal both in tone and execution. Where much of the
force of Walking is bound up in a tentative, almost smoke-like trembling of edges, Polo
here renders the family photo in a solid grisaille. Her mother again is depicted standing,
but this time on the planks of the Prospect Station elevated platform. A subway car
approaches on her left, while to her right and a few steps behind a man in a baggy dark
suit and fedora eyes her appreciatively. As in the 1953 photo, Theresa is dressed for
some special occasion. She carries a satin clutch in one white-gloved hand, a piece of
paper – perhaps a program? – in the other as she stares straight into the camera. Partially
shading her face, a hat’s broad hemisphere increases the visual gravity of her head and
echoes her smile.

Each drawing consists of increments of graphite built on the scaffolding (later erased) of a
guiding grid. “Otherwise,” Polo observes dryly, “They would have taken even longer.” She
uses graphite points clamped in an architectural rendering tool, constantly comparing the
emerging work to the much enlarged original. At first it’s very hard to tell that these
drawings on Bristol paper aren’t in fact photographs of some kind, but the knowledge that
they’re hand-made changes everything.  The largest, titled Fela’s Visit 1952 (2006),
appears at first to be a highly professional product of dark room technique. But whether
because one knows it is not, or because of hints the eye gathers on closer scrutiny, it
soon becomes almost alive. Three women of the Polo clan gather around her infant
brother and cousin, while her mother’s head peeks out from the darkness of the
background. Polo’s all but Vermeer-like modeling of faces and fabrics combines with the
dynamic visual structure of the piece (accidental though it may be) in a quietly profound

Six small oil paintings on linen collectively titled Sunday Sequence explore a muted color
range as they find ways to portray interrupted motion. The source materials for these
depictions are segments of 8mm f, transferred first to tape, then to DVD, finally being
sampled and cropped in an Adobe application. Deliberately less iconic than the drawings
that hang across from them in raw & co.’s tiny gallery space, each shows a frieze-like
streak of faces and heads. Again these are family members, including Theresa, engaged
in lively conversation. Shadowy overlapping arcs and vectors of glaze (derived from
incidents in the computer printout process rather than the original film) add drama and a
contemporary flair.

These constitute another phase in Polo’s ongoing attempt to breathe life into images
trapped and limited by their original medium. Whether still or moving, family photographs
tend to be packed with characteristic gestures, expressions, and cultural features ranging
from hair cuts and hats to headlights and fenders, that have the power to abridge time and
move across generations. It has long been a truism that drawings based on photographs
lack the spontaneity and élan of those done from life. But it is also no secret that the hand
has learned a lot from the lens over the past two centuries. Searching for the authentic
lineage of past moments Polo’s photographic sources are made to open onto present

Her compositions might also be considered self-portraits in a special sense, composed not
only from snapshots but from the deep impressions of earliest childhood. It is important
that Polo herself is not depicted anywhere. But it may be that one eight inch square oil on
panel study of her mother comes close. Sketched in grays, Applying Lipstick 1948 (2005),
shows Theresa as she raises her hand to her mouth; and again the artist conjures a
mythic moment, this time almost casually. The face could belong to some classical Nike,
long absent from an archaic torso. Unhurriedly Polo’s drawings finally consider the shape
and press of life that brought her into being, touching on the mystery of her own absence.

[Cleveland Free Times 9/6/06]