Whitehot Magazine

Charcoal: Nicolas V. Sanchez at Sugarlift

Nicolas V. Sanchez, Mariachi en la Dona, 2021, Charcoal on Paper, 18 x 24 in.

Nicolas V. Sanchez: Charcoal

Sugarlift Gallery 

Through April 17

By DANIEL MAIDMAN, April 2021 

In his new body of large charcoal drawings, Nicolas V. Sanchez develops two distinct modes of image-making.

In Mariachi en la Dona, a musician plays while figures dance. The sense of light, space, motion, even sound, is so vivid that it takes a second to notice how much of the image is missing. Faces are elided, even the exact positions of figures cannot be entirely deciphered. The space is indistinct, lapsing in some areas into simple fields of value: here a bright, there a medium. At other points, details leap into sharp, linear focus: iron trellises, spiny plant leaves, the shape of the mariachi’s guitar and the white flash of his collar. The details are inconsistent, sparse, irregular – and yet one looks at the image and grasps instantly the character of the scene. 

This is a portrayal of memory.

Memory, like dreams, is utterly recognizable and specific about a gestalt. But the closer you look at a memory, the more you realize how little evidence remains. You can retrieve particular defining elements – those hanging potted plants with the dark gap between the body of the pot and its integral base – while other elements, ones you might desperately wish to retrieve, like who was actually present, have slipped away.

See it happen again in La Sala con Tios.

Nicolas V. Sanchez, La Sala con Tios, 2021, Charcoal on Paper, 7 x 10 in.

The character of light on the wall, dropping off toward the edges, gives a sense of the shape and size of the entire room. The contents of the pictures on the wall have vanished, but the gleam of that gilded frame toward the back remains. What was on the mantle is forgotten, but there were definitely knickknacks on it. The particulars of the curtain have softened into a distinct overall shape, and the sash drawing it back, and tassels down the edge. The postures of the uncles are clear and distinct, and yet their faces are a blur. The mind strains to summon more, but this is all there is. A sense of what it was like. 

Now compare those pieces with Brown Horse with Veil.

Nicolas V. Sanchez, Brown Horse with Veil, 2021, Charcoal on Paper, 42 x 70 in.

Look how crisply each edge stands out – the edges of the wood boards, the shapes of the shadows. How clearly we can see each detail: the grain of the wood, the nails, the sunlight rippling over the horse’s muscles, the hills and depressions in the sandy stable floor.

This almost painful clarity does not depict memory. It depicts observation. This didn’t happen a long time ago; it is happening right now. The eye records what it sees as it sees it.

A similar brilliant sense of sunlight and presence appears in On the Dock.

Nicolas V. Sanchez, On the Dock, 2021, Charcoal on Paper, 18 x 24 in. 

Sanchez meticulously renders the folds in the clothes, the worn texture of the wood, the irregular shapes of the planks. Every edge has a daylit sharpness, the darks are ineffably, photographically dark. Again, this drawing evokes the act of observation, not recollection. The children could have been on the dock this afternoon. 

The text which accompanies Charcoal explains that Sanchez is continuing to explore his Mexican-American family history and legacy. He began in Mexico; he lives in New York. To my eye, the dual modes of perception he embeds in this body of work – memory and observation – lend the show a narrative. They use the tools of image-making itself to separate where he was, accessible now only through introspection, from where he is, available to his outward-turned gaze. The distinction opens a vast and poignant gulf, a sense of joy and grief, loss and renewal. In Charcoal, Sanchez uses the tools of cognition to paint, above all, an emotional self-portrait.


Let’s contemplate Sanchez’s work from a different facet altogether, that of craft. Sanchez is best known for drawings he makes with ballpoint pens of various colors. He develops subtle composite colors from meshes of marks made in bold component colors, like a tempera painter. He makes portraits, master copies, pictures of animals, scenes, landscapes… His ballpoint pen drawings are nearly uncanny. They are like flawless gems. They betray no imperfections from any angle of view.

In contrast with his pen drawings, his oil paintings foreground the physicality of brush and paint. His marks are choppy and his paint is thick. One wades through a thicket of material in order to comprehend the image. But as with his pen drawings, the image itself is perfectly drawn and rendered.  

It has been observed that you can take any word, and write its first and last letters in their correct positions, and then scramble the interior letters – and the word will remain decipherable. Sanchez demonstrates a similar phenomenon in the visual arts. Drawing and rendering represent the first and last letters of the image. If you can get those right, then the thousands of interior letters can be rearranged however your personal vision dictates – and you will still make an image that works. Sanchez draws like an academic and paints like a fauvist, but the same draftsman is visible in each mode.

Now we have him exploring a third mode, charcoal, and as with ink and oil paint, he identifies the unique potentialities of his medium and integrates them at their dazzling fullest into his work. Charcoal, above all, offers a rich range of value. And so Sanchez composes his work in Charcoal as compositions of value.

Nicolas V. Sanchez, Las Mananitas, 2021, Charcoal on Paper, 6 x 10 in.

Look at the lush range from near-white to near-black. Notice the variation of edge quality in harmony with contrast: patches of darkest dark appear sharp-edged against pale zones, while gradients shade softly brightness to dimness. Observe the overall composition, a bright left half, slightly smaller, balanced against a dark right half, with passages of dark informing the light, and light informing the dark. This is a master class in dynamic balance, achieved chiefly through variation in value, through the specific potential of charcoal.

Charcoal has another distinctive quality: it exists in a tension between line and field unparalleled among media. Charcoal is crumbly and soft. It does not want to yield lines and details. Technical tricks can be applied to forming charcoal implements, and to handling them, to make charcoal produce fine marks. But it quickly rebels. The struggle between artist and tool leaves its mark on the work. Charcoal work emerges uneasily, even angrily, from a field of indistinctness, a field toward which it perpetually seeks to return.

Sanchez takes advantage of this as well, chiefly in the giant Teepee.

Nicolas V. Sanchez, Teepee, 2021, Charcoal on Paper, 59 x 42 in.

This drawing depicts children playing in a teepee in a park on a sunny afternoon. The longer we look at it, the more we marvel at how it is we see what we see. How do we know that it’s sunny? Because of the flat white sky in the background and the sharp edges of the dark cast shadows in the teepee. But we also know that there are trees behind us. How? The sunlight is dappled – on the canvas of the tent, on the ground, on the park bench. Farther away, in a field across a road, there is no tree cover, and the grass has a uniform light value. All of these are field effects.

But even looking at Teepee from a distance, we discern a complex print on the canvas, a virtuoso set of lines and shapes which integrates with the value field of the canvas overall without obscuring it.

Now we take a closer look.

Nicolas V. Sanchez, Teepee [detail], 2021, Charcoal on Paper, 59 x 42 in.

Look at the incredible variety of strategies Sanchez deploys in this little area: fields of value on the canvas, raw, harsh lines and erasures for the print. Delicate dragged lines for the fence, short dark lines of foliage, faint stippled dots for the texture of grass. The pole of a traffic sign defined entirely by absence, a white vertical stripe. Clean areas and smudges, hints of highlight on the edges of bench slats tricking the eye into completing the detail. All of these elements embody the struggle of charcoal toward, and away, from clarity. Taken together, they coordinate into a symphony of value and line. Seen from the distance where overall design takes charge, the picture appears effortless. 

What Sanchez is doing here is available only to a mix of talent and experience. Stanislavsky counsels the actor to learn every trick in the world, so that in performance, he may forget them all – his experience giving him reflexes which deploy each trick in its right place without strain or intervention. Sanchez has done that here with charcoal. His hands know so many things that charcoal does and wants to do and fails to do, that when he enters the zone, he can call on them all. He deploys its qualities to address specific questions of representation, of mood, of thought. He has gotten so good that he can tackle demanding image-making with a light touch, a sense of play, like Hockney. Everything threatens to fall apart. And yet, at the last minute, it integrates.

If you can go see this work in person, do. Photographs on a screen can convey only the most partial sense of its size, its complexity, its beauty and power. WM

Daniel Maidman

Daniel Maidman is best known for his vivid depiction of the figure. Maidman’s drawings and paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Bozeman Art Museum, and the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. His work is included in numerous private collections, including those of Brooke Shields, China Miéville, and Jerry Saltz. His art and writing on art have been featured in The Huffington Post, Poets/Artists, ARTnewsForbesW, and many others. He has been shown in solo shows in New York City and in group shows across the United States and Europe. In 2021 it will be included in the first digital archive of art stored on the surface of the Moon. His books, Daniel Maidman: Nudes and Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, are available from Griffith Moon Publishing. He works in Brooklyn, New York. 

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