Thomas Van Auken uses the human figure to emphasize the drawing side of painting. 

Go Figure

"Thomas O. Van Auken: Recent Work"
Eric Schindler Gallery
2305 E. Broad St.
Through Oct. 8

Egon Schiele was a turn-of-the-century Austrian artist who worked with the human form. His expressionistic treatment of the nude figure suggested a lonely, tormented spirit, full of anxiety, angst and insecurity. It is interesting that the first thing that struck me about Thomas Van Auken's recent paintings at the Eric Schindler Gallery was their formal likeness to the work of Schiele. This is particularly uncanny as Van Auken actually referenced Schiele in a "self-interview" with Punchline magazine two years ago, mentioning Schiele's early death in 1918 from the flu at age 28. Whether this is purely coincidental or not, I'm not sure, but it does offer a suitable starting point to approach Van Auken's figural studies.

The show consists of 19 works, mostly of the human form. Almost all the works are of reclining nude male and female models. Because the models' eyes are typically closed or averted, the viewer is free to scan their vulnerable bodies undisturbed and without guilt. Nonetheless, there is a sense of disquiet and tension within the works that is achieved by the very technique that Van Auken employs. Part of his unique artistic signature in these paintings is his method of leaving sections of the figures undone, or at least appearing to be incomplete.

For example, in "Anne Marie I," the canvas is dominated by the nude frontal figure of the model with little space left for background details. Although the model appears to be lying on her side, the painting has been mounted vertically so that she hovers between sleep and wakefulness, inert yet still responsive. The upper right corner has been filled in with thick yellow paint in a gestural, wet method that encapsulates the head. With dashes of rosy reds and pinks, Anne Marie's face, hands and nipples appear ruddy, wind-burned and alive. Her torso, however, echoes the yellow corner and glows with a muddled, jaundiced effect, languidly sagging, within the confines of the strong, black outlines of the body. At the top of the thigh, the artist has not painted at all. Her legs effectively dissolve in the pencil traces that indicate where they should be. It is as if the artist ran out of steam to paint or decided that the pencil was more effective in articulating the structure of the body.

This emphasis on the drawing aspects of painting offers a unique opportunity to witness the sketchy, even spontaneous first marks of the artist that are later covered with pigment. Not at all disjunctive, the seemingly unfinished sections of the figures play a key role in formulating the disquietude and emotional expressiveness that contribute to their success.

In "Soapy," the frontal upper body of the male model is depicted in fluid, yet raspy strokes. His entire baggy shirt is in an ochre hue with only a few dashes of pencil to indicate folds. Out of this bodiless shirt, two arms, a neck and head sprout, fully modeled, with a jaunty cowboy hat on top. The effect in some ways distances the viewer from the subject. Unlike Schiele, however, who employed jagged lines to express psychological tension over aesthetic concerns, it seems that Van Auken uses these same lines to stress formal considerations over emotionalism.

Overall, this body of work is a compelling example of the artist's talent and vision. Emphasizing the drawing side of painting, Van Auken successfully renders the human form in both an unsettling and confident manner — much like Schiele. Let's just hope, however, that this artist has had his flu

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