Urban portraits make Yip a quick study

Alison Yip: Drawings From Modern Life

At the Blanket Gallery (4-2414 Main Street) until July 8

Alison Yip makes small, spontaneous drawings in graphite pencil, coloured chalk, and pencil crayon. Her subjects are as varied as her choice of media, culled from frequent trips to the U.S.A. and Europe. The best are quick studies of urban strangers and architectural details: A woman gazes off into space in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, lost in a moment of private reverie. A dog walker marshals their charges in London's Hyde Park. A man braces himself in a narrow train corridor. Water spurts from an Italian fountain's mouth.

Yip's sensitivity to body language and gesture-to the Met visitor's unfocused eyes, or to a train passenger's features, briefly relaxed in sleep-is similar to that of other urban portraitists recently exhibited in Vancouver, such as the photographers Garry Winogrand, Stephen Waddell, and Adam Harrison. These artists, like Yip, pursue a program the 19th-century French art critic and poet Charles Baudelaire called "the painting of modern life"-a practice which, in the hands of Baudelaire's contemporaries, artists like Edouard Manet and Constantin Guys, meant depicting things as they were, without recourse to allegory or symbolism.

Yip's drawings seem spontaneous, and this illusion of quickness helps the best of them overcome a technical facility that stifles the earliest works on display. A photograph can hardly help but reproduce each thing that came before the camera's lens. On the other hand, part of drawing's appeal is its ability to clearly show which things an artist has chosen to focus on, and which others they have chosen to de-emphasize, or obscure.

Yip's early drawings are "photographic" in the artist's dogged desire to reproduce every aspect of their subjects in exhausting detail. At some point a change occurs, and the drawings loosen up. In the Hyde Park dog-walker picture, the park's trees are little more than cartoon silhouettes. The image is full of empty spaces that lead the eye back to the leashed beasts restlessly circling the walker's legs. Similarly, a portrait of an older, scowling, simian-faced man succeeds precisely because of what Yip chooses to include and exclude. The man's apish face and heavy upper body are rendered in almost sculptural detail. His legs are skeletal, laid in only in contour. I'd wager that Yip's sitter didn't look much like the finished picture. No matter: the drawing is a fully realized rendition of what Yip thought of him as she drew.

My favourite drawing is Yip's most unusual: a sprawling black-ink rendition of a man sitting slouched in a New York subway station. Technically, the picture is a mess: Yip's ink lines shake and sprawl, with none of the easy precision of her graphite or pencil-crayon works. But the drawing's trembling lines and weird optical distortions feel psychologically accurate; they direct your gaze in and around the figure. Looking at this work, I kept thinking of Henri Matisse's late contour drawings of flowers. Yip's picture is ungainly like Matisse's, and equally arresting. It is a very quiet artwork, with no particular conceptual or ideological axe to grind. Yip's act of clear-eyed witness suffices on its own.