`TECHNIQUE'' has almost become a dirty word in art criticism. It is most often used disparagingly, to indicate that an artist has confused creative priorities by putting the emphasis on method rather than on substance, or by making the fashioning of art an excuse for showing off. Such accusations are frequently justified, both against individuals who work carefully and precisely and against those who are more flamboyant, who flaunt their skills with virtuoso brushwork or by dribbling or splashing paint with great abandon and with little regard for what it can convey.

On the other hand, there are painters and sculptors who are unjustly criticized for the care and precision of their work, who are thought of as technicians rather than as creators, and who find themselves passed over in favor of artists whose imagery is more bluntly or casually executed.

Draftsmen have a particularly difficult time of it in this regard, for the art of drawing is viewed very differently today than it was up to roughly a century ago. Thanks to the genius and example of Lautrec, Schiele, Picasso, Matisse, and one or two others, and to the innovative procedures of modernism in general, draftsmanship has tended increasingly to be seen as a matter of drastic simplification, of dramatic distillations of complex subjects and ideas into a few scribbles, a line or two, or possibly even a series of subtle smudges.

(In some quarters, in fact, drawing has lost its identity entirely, and anything that is executed on paper - regardless of medium or size - is accepted as falling within this category.)

The more traditionally minded draftsman, then, must realize that what he or she produces probably won't be taken as seriously as it deserves. Or at least it won't by today's arbiters of taste and artistic significance. Knowledgeable experts, on the other hand, will continue to look beyond fashion and trend to evaluate and appreciate good draftsmanship in whatever form it takes. It won't matter to them if it exists as pictorial shorthand, or if it is painstakingly rendered and extravagantly detailed.

Just the same, the issue of technique remains a sensitive and troubling one, especially since tastes and opinions differ widely on what is essential to a work's character and identity, what is mere technical ``embroidery.'' For every art lover who places D"urer's wood engravings among the glories of graphic art, for instance, there is another who perceives those same prints as cluttered.

And the reverse is also true. Matisse's linear distillations, which strike so many as breathtakingly beautiful, appear to others as overly simplified and lacking in character and substance.

The question to consider, then, is whether an artist's technique is appropriate for what he or she wants to ``say'' and if it is capable of conveying whatever that is to the viewer. If it is, then there is little to object to on the technical level - unless, of course, we want to get into the issue of taste, or prefer to make judgments strictly on the basis of skill.

James Valerio's large (29 by 40 inches) drawing ``Pat Combing Hair'' provides the viewer with a wide variety of questions pertaining to technique, ranging from overall appropriateness to that of focus and emphasis.

At first glance, the drawing appears impersonal, even photographic. Every object, even the most insignificant, is precisely delineated. The caning on the chair, the woman's hair, the design on her jacket, and the snapshot on the mirror are all given the same minute attention as her face.

Every inch of the paper's surface is covered with rigidly controlled lines, dots, textures, and delicate smudges. Nothing is left ``unfinished'' or open to suggestion.

It is only as we study it that we begin to realize how appropriate the picture's technique is to its objectives, and how sensitively it has been composed. In only two places is there a mildly jarring note: Both the modeling of the hand in the foreground and the keyhole to the right of it call attention to themselves. And I'm not altogether happy with the handling of the boy's photo. But other than that, we are confronted here with an extraordinarily complex and finished drawing that cannot legitimately be denied its right to be accepted as art.

Consider its linear orchestration, for instance, the way the curves of the lamps, chair, hair, mirror frame, decorative carving, etc., interact with one another and lead the eye gently but inexorably from object to object and then back again. Or the manner in which the artist has subtly stylized the woman's hair in the reflection; played off the ornate design of her jacket against the plain expanse of the sweater and the dark/light caning of the chair; and added the special touch of depicting the translucency of her hair against the light as it is lifted by the brush.

All this makes this drawing exceptional and totally different from one by Matisse, Moore, Mir'o, or Giacometti. Since we wouldn't apply the values and objectives of Valerio's art to these artists' work, is there any reason why we should apply theirs to his?

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