Vertigo variations: Scott Tulay’s drawings turn reality inside-out, upside-down

Last modified: Thursday, January 28, 2016
Working as an architect at Juster Pope Frazier in Northampton, Scott Tulay creates meticulous renderings that reveal building design and record construction detail. In his after-hours studio art, however, he ventures into a different artistic universe. Still, architecture informs Tulay’s drawings, with their all-encompassing scale and their frequent imagery of fragmented buildings.

But the super-sized drawings also twist and transform architectural space, even turning it inside out. A precisely rendered spatial ambiguity infuses Tulay’s work, with a deliberate conflation of what’s up and what’s down, an easy osmosis between interior and exterior, and a light that dematerializes solid elements of the landscape and various man-made structures.

This intersection of art and architecture began several years ago when Tulay observed the way that light streaming sideways through the open slats of a tobacco barn in Hadley seemed to dissolve the structure of interior space. (His grandfather grew tobacco and used such a barn to dry the leaves.) That same interest in pushing spatial boundaries carries into his current work, displayed in “Drawing On, In, Out,” at the Brattleboro Museum of Art in Brattleboro, Vermont, and “Leaving Our Mark: In Celebration of the Pencil,” at the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield.

An expanding work

The diptych “Lift,” installed in Brattleboro, is over 9 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It began as the left panel only, but even the single panel is so large that Tulay had to mount a ladder to work on the top section. The left-hand panel just barely contains a wooden structure, not unlike an open-slatted tobacco barn, exploding outward and upward above a rocky outcropping and a few skeletal trees. Slats from the building fly off into space, extending in length and increasing in flexibility, to form long, sweeping arcs rather than rigid right angles. White light — or is it fog? — weaves in and out, above, below, and beyond landscape and sky.

When this drawing was done, however, Tulay decided to push further, to expand the image and allow its centrifugal force to spill over onto a second panel. “Lift” became a diptych, with the lines of architectural elements and atmospheric swirls of white light connecting one panel to the other. But there’s also a significant spatial disconnect.

The left panel has an upward orientation, looking up toward a building that seems to be flying apart. But the right panel looks down on the architectural elements, which seem to coalesce. The changing perspective sets the viewer spinning in space. Are we looking up into the sky? Are we gazing down from it?

Varying influences

Tulay makes convincing use of Western art’s conventions of perspective in representational renderings of the man-made elements. But the drawing’s dramatic shift in vantage points also echoes the use of space in Tibetan “thangkas,” works designed to aid spiritual practice by helping viewers move out of their corporeal bodies. Tulay also notes that the effect is akin to Chinese landscape paintings that, in visual effect, “make the mountains float.”

Working in charcoal, ink, graphite and pastel, Tulay tends toward a monochromatic palette, at times adding a touch of color to unify the vast scale of the drawing. The four-panel “Explode” (now in the permanent collection of the Tchoban Foundation Museum for Architectural Drawing in Berlin, Germany) contains an atmospheric blue which easily reads as sky, since the vantage point places the viewer gazing up through a tangle of erector-set architectural elements. Hints of blue also help unite the 11-foot horizontal stretch of “Upsurge,” displayed in the Brattleboro Museum. But in “Lift,” Tulay experiments with red earth tones and creates another layer of ambiguity. Where some see the glow of a beautiful sunset in strategic wisps of red, others conjure the threat of smoldering flames.

“Lift” and “Upsurge” are displayed in Brattleboro without protective glass, which makes the material surface of the paper more palpably visible (and more vulnerable). Tulay’s process acknowledges the power of the white of the paper. The paper, he explains, is not the background surface on which he makes the drawing. Instead, the white of the unmarked surface boldly moves to the foreground. To keep areas pristine white, he covers them with tape and liquid frisket, which goes on as liquid, dries, and then can be drawn over and peeled off. Tulay applies successive layers: masking out sections, building up the image with graphite, ink and charcoal, then masking out more areas, and reworking the image again and again.

Ambiguity and confusion

“Lift” and “Upsurge,” with their wild, gyroscopic pictorial space, are distinct from earlier drawings, where Tulay places the viewer inside an architectural framework made ambiguous by light.

“Clear” plays with the ambiguity of interior and exterior and the confusion between wall and window through a composition built around two contrasting grids defined by the white of the paper. What’s inside and what’s outside? What’s solid wall and what’s shadowy reflection? These questions remain unanswered.

“Steamed,” included in the Springfield exhibit, goes further and uses atmospheric swirls and strokes of white to dissolve the geometric post-and-beam construction.

Tulay’s later work sets us loose in space without the anchor of a horizon line or concrete clues about scale that the architectural elements can provide. Tulay notes that solid structural fragments are disappearing from his most recent drawings, as the atmosphere becomes increasingly dominant. Though a drawing might be extremely large, its scale becomes undefined — is it as vast as the solar system or as small as an atom?

Drawings from his professional work in architecture cut open walls and use cross sections to depict construction. An architect meticulously records each element of a building and shows exactly how they all go together, Tulay explains. His studio practice, however, defies architectural rendering, as well as gravity’s rules. In his drawings, he says, “Unbound by rules or gravity, I can blow these elements apart!”

“Drawing On, In, Out,” will be on view through Feb. 8 at the Brattleboro Museum of Art. For information, visit brattleboromuseum.org. “Leaving Our Mark: In Celebration of the Pencil,” will be on view through March 27 at the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts. For information, visit springfieldmuseums.org.