Put simply, this is a drawing show without drawings.
Drawing Redefined: Roni Horn, Esther Klas, Joelle Tuerlinckx, Richard Tuttle, Jorinde Voigt at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA, through March 30. (On March 3 the show’s curator Jennifer Gross will speak at the museum on the history of drawing.)
By Tim Barry
Back in the pleistocene era of contemporary art, say, around the 1950s, a drawing was a fairly cut and dried proposition. Paper, line, image. True, there were myriad variations, multiple avenues of approach, and conceptual interpretations came along that stretched the definition of what could be called a drawing. Sol Lewitt reduced drawing to a set of written instructions — you pilot the pencil. Later artists like Mark Bradford made drawings by gathering found materials, then subtracting from those until a drawing appeared.
Nowadays drawing can be virtually anything, a head-spinning freedom explored in “Drawing Redefined,” an exhibition that is at times fascinating, at times beautiful, but also vexing because it pushes the viewer toward the outer reaches of art-theory. The show’s curator, Jennifer Gross, explains that she’s not interested in objects, but rather in process and that is boldly apparent here. In this exhibition what Gross terms “the physicality of drawing” is everything.
Ah, ‘process,’ that oh-so-honeyed term which, along with ‘mark-making,’ seems to rear its head often in many contemporary visual art exhibitions across all media. Why doesn’t this buzzword have as much currency when it comes to talking about music, poetry or other forms of art?
These are sculptors’ drawings. The question the collection raises — how sculptors’ drawings differ from painters’ drawings — is addressed only obliquely.
Accused in a telephone interview with The Arts Fuse of mounting an esoteric show, one geared to contemporary-art specialists (a ‘curator-to-curator show’ was my exact term…), Gross chuckled amiably.
“I don’t think it’s esoteric; I think it’s accessible and beautiful….though not necessarily a simple topic.” she explained.
Hmm, “not simple.” Agree with you there. Jorinde Voigt’s four large (7-foot high/4-foot wide) mixed-media drawings are a case in point: she uses ink, vivid pastel colors, gold leaf, and pencilled ‘instructions’ to arrive at works that are not simply theory-driven; they are theory. Attractive, yes; theory-drenched, undoubtedly — the catalogue essay by Lexi Lee Sullivan duly trots out Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Roland Barthes for back-up.
Curator Gross averred that the work carries a “complex spirituality and phenomenology,” which is evidenced by the “range of drawing practice.”
All of the works in this sparsely arranged show — there’s plenty of breathing room between works — hinge on philosophical concepts, some more rigorously highbrow than others. When ‘process’ becomes the linchpin of an exhibition, there’s bound to be abstract underpinning that may go right over the heads of those of us who lack a solid grounding in Continental philosophy.
Put simply, this is a drawing show without drawings.
Or if there are drawings, they are not drawings as we’ve previously experienced. All of the artists participating identify as sculptors, they “address 3-D space in the presentation of their work,” explains Gross, and their use of “unexpected drawing materials” is what makes these works so damn challenging, in some cases to their benefit, in other cases to their (and our) detriment.
For example: the mid-career Belgian artist Joelle Tuerlinckx insists that “artists have the responsibility and the power to say that not everything is simple or dichotomous…This position also permits us to seemingly work on the surface in order to investigate the structure of things.” Tuerlinckx’s “untitled site-specific mixed media installation” (2015) clearly illustrates this notion. Rods and dowels are placed atop boxes: the shadows of the rods and dowels create drawn lines. Without a doubt, this piece winningly challenges our ideas about what constitutes a drawing.
The agenda in “Drawing Redefined” is often about investigating structures, which makes for cutting-edge scholarship but not always a particularly compelling aesthetic experience. Gross addresses this charge head-on: “The big challenge with contemporary art is that people should be confident of their experience of the work, not expect it to tell them what we think it should be telling them.”
I overheard a group of visitors considering Jorinde Voigt’s group of abstract sculptures (sorry, drawings…) Solidification (2014). It is made up of pieces of molten bronze after they were tossed into cool water. The visitors pointed at the shapes and exclaimed “Oh, vertebrae!” Hearing about the reaction, Gross was pleased.
Falling under the category of theoretical yet beautiful are Esther Klas’ large unframed drawings, such as BA/PO (2013). The young German artist (born 1981) works gesturally, creating poetic drawings that suggest movement, specifically dance. Catalogue essayist Veronica Roberts identifies the “traces of her physical action (which are) imbedded into the paper of her drawings,” or as she terms it, “her activated body.”
Roni Horn (born 1955) makes large abstract drawings which perhaps come the closest here to ‘traditional’ drawings, though they inevitably bring us back to philosophical speculation — they are minimal to the point that we don’t know what they are. There’s a suggestion of mapping, rather an undernote, a process that essayist Cornelia Butler here terms an “accumulation of sculptural materials, photographs, or any medium that excavates and unfolding idea from the wandering of a gesture or mark….”
Richard Tuttle’s “Looking For The Map 11” (2013-2014) turns the notion of what constitutes a drawing on its ear. It is a wall-sculpture of fabric folded to display the sculptural qualities of the material. Pieces of wood — placed at angles to one another — provide a framework for the cloth. The wood could be seen as the ‘lines’ that make this a drawing. The work also packs an anthropomorphic punch; though wholly abstract, it reminded this viewer of a geisha shyly bending in deference.
Tuttle’s three pieces are textually inscrutable, as abstract works generally are, but they enticingly fit the exhibition’s charter of ‘redefining drawing,’ This artist is tough; the rigor and quirkiness that courses through his arcane constructions resist easy viewing. But accept the difficulty and look hard — they pack considerable rewards.
Tim Barry studied English literature at Framingham State College and art history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has written for Take-It Magazine, The New Musical Express, The Noise, and The Boston Globe. He owns Tim’s Used Books, Hyannis, and Provincetown, and TB Projects, a contemporary art space, in Provincetown.