at Gallery Joe
Through May 31, 2014
By Julia Clift
Sebastian Rug’s current exhibition at Gallery Joe comprises seven small graphite drawings. Each white piece of paper houses a filled shape: a delineated surface dynamic with both obvious and quiet pattern. Without any predetermined image in mind, Rug allows each drawing to emerge as the sum of innumerable tiny marks, like chain links in a metal mesh.
At times, the drawings resemble thin fabric rugs or tapestries. Skinny lines winding through the fields of graphite recall runs in a material, while larger stripes and rectangular patches resemble woven designs. Alternatively, the drawings seem to represent patches of land as seen from an airplane, segmented into forests and fields.
Both visual associations reflect human construction, particularly a restrained cultivation of natural material (earth’s terrain or fibers). If one sees the drawings as pieces of cloth, they are woven loosely. Their symmetrical patterns are gently distorted by the way each cloth has fallen—by gravity and friction. Rips and runs in the cloths further warp their patterns; they seem to be worn with time. Viewed as landscapes, the drawings allude to incomplete intervention in nature. In untitled (04-2014), roads curve and squiggle organically, their builders having seemingly worked around nature’s original layout.
Seen either (or neither) way, the drawings evoke a tug between human intention and chance, or natural forces. It’s an effect one can feel viscerally that nods to Rug’s process. Each pencil stroke is a decision, but the outcome of their accumulation is not. The drawings exemplify obsessive control—each flat shape is drawn into existence fiber by fiber—yet Rug can no more determine the drawings’ ultimate course than make a river run straight.
The resulting sway of each piece is evocative; it records a relationship between control and its lack, with which all human beings are intimately familiar. Each mark suggests our day-by-day, or minute-by-minute agency; the finished product reflects the unpredictable sum of a life. According to the size of Rug’s mark, the unit of experience for which he dare assume authority is awfully short.
When I first went to view Rug’s drawings, I overheard a woman say “I liked them better bigger.” She’d seen reproductions online that blew up the image to larger-than-life scale. The woman continued, “You can’t see all the parts when they’re this small, it gives me stress.” Her reaction prompts a line of inquiry: where is the barrier between viewing art and participating in consumer culture? When considering the merits of a new phone or tablet on the market, it’s culturally acceptable to complain when a feature fails to conform to our preferences. But is it the viewer’s role to discredit an artist’s decisions that discomfort her? Unlike most consumable goods, art (ideally) offers a two-way exchange. Questioning an artist’s motives, rather than dismissing them, allows one to construct potential meaning.
I strained my own eyes, trying to see Rug’s individual pencil strokes; their smallness projects antagonism, or perhaps defensiveness toward the viewer. I wonder if Rug sees his process as a private act. Beyond suggesting the limits of individual autonomy, the size of Rug’s mark serves to protect the details of an intimate record from viewers’ greedy eyes. A degree of inaccessibility lends compelling mystery and authority to the drawings, yet they frustrate a consumer’s expectations.
Julia Clift is an artist living and working in Philadelphia. She received her BFA from Washington University in St. Louis in 2009, and she is a student of the painter Odd Nerdrum. She currently teaches at Fleisher Art Memorial and the Simon Youth Academy in Media.