By Kenneth Baker
Published San Francisco Chronicle 4:00 am PST, Saturday, November 19, 2011
Despite critics' esteem for luminaries such as Robert Bechtle and Janet Fish, handmade art based on photography remains under suspicion of gimmickry or false facility. But the rich, camera-fed drawings of Bay Area painter Richard Ambrose at Hespe remind us how little work an automatic medium - photography - may actually spare an artist who relies on it. Ambrose uses photographs to compose the large graphite-on-paper images in the show, views that appear impossibly panoramic and instantaneous.
At about 2 by 7 feet, "Band of Urbanity" (2011) delivers a view wider, more sustained and detailed than direct observation could. It sights down Post Street from Jones in San Francisco, apparently taking in every billboard (including one showing the Beatles late in their heyday), lamppost, vehicle and pedestrian and all the shadows raking building facades. Infusing what his camera has seen with a moodiness all his own, Ambrose has produced studies of the differences between graphic and photographic values.
His most arresting piece, "Fiesta" (2009), at about 6 1/2 by 3 feet, mimics the vertical reach of traditional Asian scroll paintings. It describes the outlook from Ambrose's El Cerrito home, with plants in the foreground, rooftops below cascading away to the bay and the mountain horizon of Marin, the whole view capped by light-struck evergreen branches.
After it marvels at the view and its curved space, the eye begins to sort out Ambrose's millimeter-by-millimeter technical solutions to descriptive challenges posed by his extremely complex subject matter. The camera may offer some structural guidance, but it could not tell him how to draw, how to keep things in believable proportion.
Testament to the artistic success of Ambrose's graphite drawings: When looking at them, the viewer never misses color.
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