Through Oct 26, 2014
By Jacob Feige
In 2002 The Museum of Modern Art exhibited a far-reaching survey of international trends in drawing. Curator Laura Hoptman named the show Drawing Now, likely in homage to a 1975 exhibition of the same title at the museum. The 2002 exhibition came at a moment when drawing was gaining recognition as an autonomous art form, rather than as a preparatory medium. Artists in the exhibition such as Kai Althoff and Kara Walker, now very well known, staked their early careers on paper as the end product—if not the only end product—in their varied outputs. Illustrative detail, repetitive process, and intricate pattern pervaded much of the work in the exhibition, with an emphasis on craft and time-intensitivity that seemed to have reemerged from the nineteenth century after a hundred-year slumber. A few years later the New York art world collectively became impatient, tiring of the illustrative and labor-intensive in drawing, instead looking back to Dada and Arte Povera for absurdity and impulsive material expression. “Process-y,” a non-word, became a criticism I heard uttered repeatedly by critics, curators, and gallerists in New York, and by 2007, many of the talented artists in Drawing Now whose careers hadn’t ascended to the degree of Althoff and Walker began to retreat from the scene.
For better and for worse, Philadelphia has remained a city untouched by the urgency and impatience that elsewhere drives artists and the art establishment away from an ethos of process and an ornate aesthetic. Drawing Now at Artspace Liberti is a survey of drawing as a primary practice among current artists in Philadelphia, and much of the perverse patience and uneasy beauty found in the 2002 MoMA exhibition remains alive and well here.
In many of the best pieces, drawing becomes the conduit between the inner space of the mind and the vast exterior space of the natural and cosmological. Alexis Granwell and Colin Keefe both make thin, intuitive line the elemental unit of some unknown phenomenon, smoldering solar flare or dream architecture, but not quite either one. From a distance, these works appear to be little more than a light haze on a white ground, the great rewards left entirely for a close, sustained look. Within feet of these elegant works are playful pieces that threaten to dominate their more subtle neighbors. The nature of the space—a single, open hall with tall ceilings—precludes grouping works thematically without making arbitrary delineations on the main wall where most works hang. The decision to intersperse subtle and bold works is perhaps the best one for the space, but some quiet pieces are lost in the mix.
Still, among the bolder, louder works are some of the most engaging works in the exhibition. Daniel Heyman’s chunky painting on mylar, Learning Curve (Dartmouth), has the confidence of a mid-career Picasso portrait, if not quite its grace. The central figure, partially obscured by intruding patterns and what could be several upside-down hobos, sticks out his tongue, as if to say to the other works, “I’m the loudest here.” The Heyman work is full of refreshing joy and levity in comparison to subtler, more meticulous pieces nearby.
Most intense, and most distracting to its neighbors, is Samantha Simpson’s Episode, a watercolor of a swan carried off by some member of the weasel family, painted in a style resembling children’s book illustration. Text surrounding the animals alludes to loss and defeat, rendered in various goofy scripts that confirm a strong whiff of irony to the scene, its cheery tone not quite matching the content. While this work appears unsubtle on first glance, in comparison to the fine line work and subdued coloring of nearby pieces, layers of detail and crisp rendering invite repeated viewings and a careful look.
If these disparate pieces have something in common, it is time and labor made tangible, with considerable sweat equity in nearly every one. Ruth Scott Blackson’s two works distill a material record of the artist’s labors most keenly: Black Mass is a leaf of paper, roughly five feet square, covered completely with ball point pen marks. Surprising patterns and textures emerge, the paper itself becoming sculpture as it warps off the wall. 1954, a tiny pocket calendar by Blackson, receives the same Bick treatment, nearly every page covered in pen, save for a date or image here and there. The entire calendar is bloated and dog-eared from the ink, the making of the piece a record both of a calendar year and its own laborious transformation by the artist’s hand.
The bold and subtle extremes threaten to dominate this exhibition, but quieter works are among the strongest ones. Amze Emmons’s drawings of pastel urban detritus, carefully scattered in sparse, suggestive compositions, provide a middle path between the intensely-patterned and illustrative works in the exhibition.
A few works seem to be lost in pattern for its own sake, or simply fail to make the ambiguous-but-crucial leap from doodle to something focused and resonant. At their best such pattern-based works are transcendent: pieces by Hiro Sakaguchi, Mia Rosenthal, and others allow drawing to become a natural phenomenon, its own unforeseen complexity emerging spontaneously. In Gravitational Pull/ After Casper David Friedrich, Sakaguchi cleverly riffs on Friedrich’s 1834 painting The Sea of Ice, replacing the icebergs in the original with elements from a contemporary disaster scene. Just as the ruined ship is only visible in the original on close inspection, Sakaguchi’s wrecked trains and floating teddy bears are almost hidden on first view. Similarly, Rosenthal mimics and illustrates nature in After Bierstadt: Storm in the Mountains. A composition somewhat resembling the titular Albert Bierstadt painting hazily emerges from a swarm of meticulously drawn animals, a cloud that never quite transcends its component parts.
Between 1992 and 1997, sculptor Tom Friedman stared at large white leaf of paper for a thousand hours, or so he said, put a frame on it, and called it art. In doing so, he called into question the value of the artist’s time, inviting the viewer (and the collector) to decide whether the piece was simply a blank page or something more. What the piece isn’t, importantly, is an insistent visual record of work that has been accomplished. When an artist carefully directs pattern and its attendant, intensive labor towards a more substantial outcome than proving her or his own work ethic, we can stop worrying about how much time went into a piece (unless, as in Blackson’s work, that’s the main objective), and simply enjoy its complex beauty. By and large, I am grateful to be able to enjoy—rather than keep tally of—such complexity in Drawing Now.
Jacob Feige is Assistant Professor of Painting at the Richard Stockton College of NJ. His exhibition ‘Settlement’ is at Movement, Worcester, UK, through Nov 1, 2014, and his work is included in ‘Listening In’ at the Abington Art Center.