“Yohaku no bi” is a Japanese term found in art and architecture, roughly translated as “the beauty of open space.” When artists are presented with a blank canvas, a white sheet of paper, it is only open space. The typical goal is to fill it — pencil, paint, ink, chemical — to turn the open space to imagery. Unless you’re Phillip McGuire.
“In Western art, we call it ‘negative space.’ It’s not a favorable connotation,” McGuire points out. His drawings pull viewers in through their technical mastery — poetic portraits and naturalistic landscapes — but they set themselves apart by his brave use of blank white space. “I don’t see those spaces as empty. They are just as important as the drawn areas.”
To emphasize this point, he handcrafts his wooden panels, onto which he draws, sometimes in non-traditional sizes, making the white space unable to be ignored. “Borealis” is a 6-foot long, 4-inch tall drawing on which only a few leafless trees make a subtle appearance. The piece takes up a large amount of wall space, but it barely whispers with its delicate imagery. “Subtlety is a lost art in our culture,” he declares.
His works are completely devoid of color. They are drawings, not paintings. And while their mood is as quiet as falling snow, the activity carried out in making them is lively — they consist of thousands upon thousands of tiny marks to create an identifiable whole. “My hand feels like a sewing machine when I am drawing.” He looks to inspirations in nature for a comparison — a murmuration of starlings flying through the air, shifting shapes into mesmerizing forms. “One single mark doesn’t mean a thing. But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
An architectural draftsman by trade, McGuire considers this pursuit the twin to his artmaking practice. In this more illustrative role, he works with contour line to depict structures, though as an artist, his work is all about building up to that line without actually drawing it. This career helps balance out his feuding loves of both science and art. “As an architect, I get to talk about how big a room is, but as an artist, I describe how big a room feels.”
Case in point would be Waiting for Gauguin. The work was commissioned for the 2012 Hickory Museum of Art exhibition “Waking up With Van Gogh,” in which Asheville artists were invited to make a piece responding to Van Gogh’s painting Bedroom in Arles. As McGuire contemplated the painting, he focused on Van Gogh’s sense of loneliness in painting his empty bedroom. After many fights with friend and painter Paul Gauguin, who finally abandoned Arles, McGuire depicts the side of Van Gogh’s head (complete with infamous ear) as he looks out across a long horizontal empty space to the right, waiting for his friend who would never come back. “I wanted to embody this emotional and visual weight…to talk about this hope and disappointment.”
While McGuire does commissioned portraits as well, much of his subject matter comes from more personal interactions with family and friends. Likenesses of his children, siblings, and parents grace his panels. In “Bryn,” a young girl pictured from the shoulders up stares intently, almost defiantly, at the viewer, empty space to both sides of a long thin panel. There is barely a shift in tonal range to create her image, a pale ghost-like creature. Now 18 years old, this delicate portrait of his daughter at five embodies the very concept of the fleeting nature of children, as her girlhood nearly disappears off the panel.
More recent works speak of relationships in a more abstract way, such as an image of deer antlers entitled 1965-2013. Viewers can admire the skill and aesthetics alone, as McGuire excitedly points to his favorite area of the image: “Right here where the line breaks up…I get pleasure from my brain having to connect the line.” But the larger story adds dimension. Begun several months prior to completion, he contemplated his fascination with antlers: “Dry, dead antlers on the forest floor (or on the wall above my fireplace) are the remnants of glory that remain after the demise of a beautiful, majestic being. They outlast him, and are a testament to all that he was, and attained.” With the unexpected passing of his brother in 2013, the completed image became a tribute to him; these antlers given by his father now symbolize this sentiment as it pertains to his brother.
This bittersweet emotion has been present for years through many depictions of his deceased mother. And while graphite has been his standard medium for decades, in recent years he has taken on an ancient method of drawing — silverpoint — to create her image. As an incredibly hard piece of silver, it barely leaves a mark when used, much to McGuire’s delight. It also has an extremely limited tonal range, already a stylistic quality of his work. The Cherry Blossoms is a close-up portrait of his young mother’s face, blown up from a small old photograph, executed in silverpoint. He unapologetically depicts the paper pulp from the original photograph, which crafts a sun-dappled look as the untreated silver tarnishes over into a warmer tone than his graphite pieces.
While intensely personal and perhaps inviting for that reason, viewers need not know the individuals behind the portraits to appreciate his vision. Behind it all are the heightened observations of an artist: “I am in love with edges, boundaries,” McGuire claims. “The elegant nuance of a woman’s neck and shoulder, the fjords of Norway, the fair curve of a wooden boat.”