by Jonathan Kamholtz
April 8, 2014-May 16, 2014
Joomi Chung’s “Atlas 4” (2011) is an acetate scroll of indeterminate length, standing like an elephantine roll of film on one of its edges, allowing us to scrutinize some of its intricate webs of markings. It has been covered with networks of (mostly) black ink, some of which are traceries of line and others of which are more like shapes. Because they are sketched onto clear acetate, you can focus on one layer or see a palimpsest of several. In form and content, it seems a little like a mix of codex and Kodak. Despite its transparency, it is virtually impossible to see more than a limited amount of the curled surface at a time, so it seems like a map determined to keep some of its secrets, a bold way, I think, to imagine the task of drawing today. Are the larger shapes abbreviations of continents and other land masses? Its multi-dimensional nature gives it the feel of the sort of map of galaxies that Dr. Who might use for celestial navigation, snaking his way through distant zodiacs, until you notice that some of the markings, particular those in colors other than black, are recognizable shapes and forms, some popular, some commercial, and some even figurative. Its overall effect is to suggest how many ways there are to abbreviate space and play with scale.
“Atlas 4” seemed like an exciting way to stretch our sense of what a drawing could be, why artists make them, and why we are drawn to them. Mary Wagner’s “1,312 Revolutions with a Twist” (I’ll take her word for it; I didn’t count) was as well, taking the form of an elegant, intricate, hand-crafted, adult spirograph. There is an elegant loopiness to the drawing’s outer curves, but by its very nature, this drawing is tight, tight, tight. It does not relish the value of the autograph touch common to many drawings; its abstraction is highly mechanical, like a design for a stupendously elaborate chandelier or an insanely overdone snowflake. The hand labor here is partly in the custom design of the gears that produce the drawing after, one presumes, 1,312 go-rounds, and the sympathetic pressure a viewer can feel for the artist not to fuck up, say, 1,309 revolutions into the thing.
Disclosure: I am one of those people drawn to drawings. I have an interest in them so salacious that I don’t entirely trust it. I like the feeling that I’m looking over the artist’s shoulder, that I’m privileged to share in the process. With a drawing, I’m being licensed to see just what the artist saw, at least in her mind’s eye. The drawing will reveal the inner core of the artist’s inspiration before having to get bogged down in all that tedium of recopying and recasting and the challenges of scale and the bewildering range of color and texture. I feel that the drawing is the last preserve of the autograph presence of the artist. Coming directly from that treasured hand, a drawing is an object to be adored for its intimate proximity to greatness, like a medieval relic, or Thomas Kinkade’s DNA spotted works, or a rock star’s sweat-soaked T-shirt. I see an immediacy in drawings, though I recognize that their casual look may be studied and shaped by hindsight, or even foresight. I may swoon before the wild civility of a drawing where I can see visual ideas leaving a record of their having been explored, but I know that whole classes of drawings are finished, perfectly-formed maquettes for other works. Drawings let me think I know things that are really none of my business. But the intimacies may be faux and all the stuff I thought I was allowed to witness may be pure delusion on my part.
Is it too clinical to propose that a drawing is something made up of the sorts of marks that tend to be made with dry pigments, one color at a time? And what is the state, not to mention the status, of drawing today, as the definitions of autograph, mark, pigment are—like virtually all of the basic terms of art—in flux, under pressure, and subject to debate? Manifest Gallery is in general so devoted to serious inquiry about the subjects and forms it exhibits that I might have approached their First Annual International Exhibition of Contemporary Drawing with overly high expectations. This is not some sprawling, encyclopedic Whitney Biennial, but a show of extremely modest size, resources, and means, shoehorned into two small rooms. Still, it is fair to say that I was surprised at the number of pieces that struck me as conventional. There were figurative works that were finely crafted but chiefly large. I may well be imputing to Manifest ambitions that it never claimed for itself, but I could not help thinking how rebellious it might have looked to have a page torn from a 9 x 12 sketchbook, complete with the tears and perforations from the spiral binding, thumbtacked to the wall. But there I go, fetishizing process again.
As compact as the show was, there were remarkable pieces in it. Janvier Rolland had two extraordinary depictions of her dying mother, “Adieu, Maman” (2008) and “Into that Good Night” (2013), done five years apart based on the same set of photographs or a very vivid set of memories. Both passionate and dispassionate, the drawings will test how you feel about age and decay. They have enormous formal elegance, with hauntingly intense blacks, whites, and greys. At first look, “Into that Good Night” seems built of powerful, squared-off geometries, but on second look, the harsh angles are softened, canted to one side or another, and made more dynamic, setting mortality’s motionlessness into motion. Sheldon Tapley’s “Solitaire” is also highly finished, a study for a painting that he apparently decided not to paint. A young girl of indeterminate age has been building a house of cards, and has been cheating, taping them to each other. She doesn’t care, not about anything. Her profound boredom is pointed at the viewer as a sort of challenge which seems just on the verge of being translated into something sexual. Behind her, as if out a picture window, one of Frederic Church’s monumental paintings of the tropical volcano Cotopaxi is steaming up a storm, on the verge of an explosion of its own. On the table, beside the house of cards, lies an overturned gourd from which extends a wispy stem that might just be a fuse. Tapley has seen all the explosiveness woven into the traditions of baroque still life.
Perhaps most remarkable of the more or less conventional drawings are the two larger-than-life pastel panels of Zachari Logan’s “Eunuch Tapestry 4” (2014). They are closely related to the famous 15th century mille-fleurs tapestries, but I must confess not to have doped out yet the punning relationship between eunuch and unicorn. Nonetheless, these panels are an obsessive’s delight with a wall of astoundingly rendered leaves punctuated by a few birds, a few butterflies, and a few more identifiable flora at the bottom, as if by the edge of a stream. The wall of vegetation is not inpenetrable, however; in the upper right quadrant, we see the bottom half of a bearded face, presumably staring back in oour general direction. The artist’s statement identifies the face as a personification of the unicorn, which reminds us of the inscrutability of the marvelous, and the ways that the unicorn merges with nature but stands strongly aloof from it as well. In Logan’s hand, the unicorn is reinvested with danger and mystery.
There were other strong works in the show as well, including Melanie Johnson’s “Rock, Paper, Scissors” (2013), which features three taller-than-life figures entranced by some nocturnal ritual they are enacting with paper airplanes at what might be a carnival or a used car lot. Tamie Beldue had two fine small portraits that seemed to be on the verge of disappearing into the support medium. And Harry Ally’s “Figure #84” (2012) was deeply mysterious, featuring a human form with a chest that seemed male but long, slender arms that were covered with black as if they were an opera diva’s gloves. The whole head was blacked out, its identity concealed and almost obliterated, as if wearing the black hoods forced onto terrorist suspects. Ally’s work was strikingly effective in using the tools of drawing to conceal and delineate at the same time, and the result was bracing and unsettling.
I found it hard not to be particularly drawn to works that shed some light on what drawing could and could not do. Sue Bryan’s “The Garden of the Golden Apples” (2013) had the look of the timeless 19th century landscape, mixing the mysterious and the mundane. Despite the title, there is a weediness and run-down quality to everything we see, and a sense that this garden’s well-tended days are long past. The trees are bare and a handful of birds are wheeling—or being wheeled—through a bleak and windy sky. In the foreground are a few bright spots—presumably the golden apples—scattered and awaiting discovery in the grass. I loved the way Bryan used the mark of her pencil, putting together a landscape marked by highly linear forms with hardly a line to be found: everything was shape and shadow, made by an endlessly unraveling thread of marks. Chris Day’s “Ingenuity” was a construction scene with five toothed power shovels drooping from their hydraulic arms, apparently at rest. I found the imagery to be very evocative; it was a little like the synchronized elements of a Busby Berkeley routine with the ominousness of a bank of robotic machines fully capable of turning against you. Day has drawn with a water-soluble pigment and streamed solvent across the dark forms, leaving twisted trails of color that called to mind oil for the machines, or blood for the scene of gothic horror about to ensue, or an artist’s ink, giving in to the laws of gravity.
I did have one final thought about the nature of drawing at Manifest. After seeing “Drawn,” I stepped into the neighboring room where the gallery had a show called “Kingdom,” about “The Animal in Contemporary Art.” And though a number of the most interesting things in that show could not reasonably be brought to bear on the works and issues in “Drawn,” a number of them could be seen as continuing the Manifest’s exploration of drawing. I could not help wondering what the effect might have been to have Adrienne Ginter’s meticulously cut paper “Snake in the Garden” (2012) as part of the drawing show, or even McCrystle Wood’s surrealistic, vertiginous “Chimera Series No. 2” (2014), done, I presume, with a computer graphic program. (A new show of Wood’s work, along with work by Mark Fox, is shortly to open at the Phyllis Weston Gallery on Madison Road.) If a drawing doesn’t have to be an autograph mark on paper made with pencil, pen, or chalk, then these two works might well help us understand the vastness of the new directions possible for drawing in the 21st century. I might have to sacrifice some of what I love about drawing, the seduction of its immediacy and simplicity of its tools. In turn, however, the vocabulary of drawing could be hugely expanded to allow for new ways to think of how shapes can get made and managed.