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Slowing Down Time: Erin Fostel’s Drawings of Light, Shadow, and Space

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Every morning, around 8 a.m., the sun yawns across my living room floor. The light never quite looks the same, mutating with each day and each minute, as seasons stretch and clouds pass. The shadows shift too. 

Erin Fostel’s latest body of work, “Shadow Series,” attempts to capture the impossible: both the passage of time, and its pause. Known for her depictions of Baltimore architecture and women’s bedrooms, Fostel’s attention has turned inward this time, toward her own home

Using charcoal and graphite, she documents each divot in the drywall and each groove in the woodgrain. Those details, though, simply offer a backdrop. Fostel is interested—as the series title suggests—in light and shadow, and how those transient elements together create a space. 

In “Bedroom (morning),” dawn light hits an old wooden door. The rough edge of the frame and the precise line of the hinge become apparent if you stare long enough. But the focus of the scene is what lies beyond it—a swirl of leaves and branches on the tree outside, their silhouette cast upon the door, suggesting a slight breeze. Fostel’s drawings are as much about what’s there as what’s not. We see the hint of a fan in “Hallway (afternoon),” but not the fan itself. The steady lines of a banister in “Stairs (morning),” but not the railing. 

 

Kitchen sink (morning), charcoal and graphite on Rives BFK, 21 x 16 inches, 2022
Bedroom (morning), charcoal and graphite on Rives BFK, 32 x 23-9/16 inches, 2022
Living room (night), charcoal and graphite on Rives BFK, 42-1/2 x 63 inches, 2021

“Shadow Series” is featured in Time of Day, Place in Life, Fostel’s solo show at C. Grimaldis Gallery, up through May 28. Each piece is drawn at direct scale—in other words, the size of a hinge is the size of a hinge. Many of the drawings are large too and command the front room in which they hang. 

In the back room of the gallery hangs another set of drawings: 18 charcoal renderings of individual women’s bedrooms (appropriately titled “Bedroom Series”). These pieces are smaller, generally running around 11 x 15 inches, and the scenes appear cluttered with intimate detail. 

The impact of the bedroom drawings lies primarily in their technical skill. Fostel makes it easy to admire the way she illustrates the slight wrinkle of a blanket in “An attic to call home,” or the soft light streaming through in “Pusheen dreams.” The images stop just short of photorealism, maintaining a soft dream-like quality even when the lines remain sharp. 

Fostel keeps her subjects anonymous, but their choices in decoration and furniture communicate elements of their personalities. I wonder about the woman whose bedroom is depicted in “After 45 years,” who sleeps in a traditional wooden four-poster bed. I wonder what she has in common with the person outlined in “Judith watches over,” who has a reproduction of the famous Judith Slaying Holofernes painting hanging above her nightstand. The series maintains a voyeur quality, as the audience peers into a stranger’s private space. 

 

Joy, charcoal and graphite on Rives BFK, 11-1/4 x 14-3/8 inches, 2021

As in “Shadow Series,” Fostel likes to suggest what lies beyond the limits of each scene rather than depict it outright. We see the tangled sheets of an unmade bed in “Resting between an ox and a feline,” but not the person who slept in it the night before. An open book in “The advantages of being a woman artist,” but not the woman who was reading it. 

An invisible boundary seems to exist around these spaces, as if Fostel wants to make sure her subjects are kept safe. As viewers, we are allowed a glimpse, but we’re not exactly invited to come sit on the bed. “Shadow Series,” meanwhile, places the viewer firmly inside the scene (an effect which is no doubt aided by the direct scale). We are left to sort through what is “real”—that is, what are we actually staring at?—and what is an effect of the light. What at first appears to be an intricate scene of bending lines and Rorschach-style abstractions morphs as we notice the water droplets, and then the drain in “Kitchen sink (morning).” The drawings require—and thus appear to represent—the very act of paying attention. 

And while the bedroom drawings excel in the sheer level of stuff that Fostel is able to realistically portray, her “Shadow Series” represents a stripping down of elements. The drawings are more open, expansive. In training her attention on the mundane—a floor, a wall, a door—Fostel is allowed the space to explore fleeting moments and feelings. The drawings call to mind laying down on your couch and letting your mind wander; a lazy afternoon in which time slows. 

Bathroom (afternoon), charcoal and graphite on Rives BFK, 29-3/8 x 26-7/16 inches, 2022

 

Fostel began working on “Bedroom Series” three years ago, and that body of work is ongoing. “Shadow Series,” on the other hand, was born out of the pandemic, and Fostel sees it as complete. Prior to those two bodies of work shown at C. Grimaldis Gallery, Fostel depicted Baltimore architecture in “The Baltimore Drawings.” That progression—from public to other people’s private interiors to her own space—parallels the progression that many of us faced in the pandemic as, suddenly, our attention turned inward to our homes and ourselves. 

On her website and social media, Fostel has shared that she suffered a miscarriage during the pandemic. In an artist talk at the gallery, Fostel described it as a great loss, and said that “Shadow Series” was her attempt at finding beauty in the everyday as a way to process grief. 

“Shadow Series” and “Bedroom Series” are two distinct bodies of work—both in subject matter and gallery arrangement—but Fostel’s personal revelation made me consider how much the two sets really share. Through Fostel’s attentive eye, women’s bedrooms appear as refuges, a place to retreat and let their guard down. 

 

Judith watches over, charcoal and graphite on Rives BFK, 28-3/4 x 39-3/16 inches, 2021-2022

Fostel has stated that the inspiration for “Bedroom Series” was witnessing women rebuild their lives, usually after a major disruption of some kind. “I focused on the bedroom as a unique place where a sole woman occupant can be free of much of the objectification and expectation imposed upon her most anywhere else in her life, which is why her figure is explicitly not shown,” Fostel writes in an artist statement on her website. That sense of calm comes through, as if the occupants of these rooms are finally able to unwind from the world outside. 

With recent news in the back of my brain—about the objectification of and expectations for women’s bodies—I thought about all the people who have experienced pregnancy and miscarriage and abortion, who have cocooned in their bedrooms, and watched the shadows crawl along the walls. 

The shadows, though, as Fostel would likely tell you, are just as much about the light as they are about the darkness. And they change, day to day, and minute to minute, depending on the season, clouds, the time of day, the place in your life. 

 

Kitchen floor (morning), charcoal and graphite on Rives BFK, 28-9/16 x 23-1/4 inches, 2021

Images courtesy of C. Grimaldis Gallery

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