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OUT OF LINE @ THE HERBERT F. JOHNSON MUSEUM OF ART

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Drawings and “works on paper” are popular these days, not simply as a medium, but also as an artistic, and perhaps more significantly, a curatorial theme. For example, in the winter of 2002 and 2003, the Museum of Modern Art (then out in Queens) put on Drawing Now: Eight Propositions. Organized by Laura Hoptman, that show attempted to bring some provisional order to bear on the diversity of contemporary drawing. The work there was uneven, often featuring lesser work by well-known artists. More significantly, for my purposes here, the eight categories imposed–the “propositions”–felt arbitrary and sometimes interchangeable. A sort of follow-up, Transforming Chronologies appeared at the new MoMA in two installments earlier this year. Curated by Luis Perez-Oramas, the show featured work of the past 140 years, but was also arranged thematically rather than chronologically. The themes were based more on visual analogy than the relatively traditional genre classifications of the earlier show. That (and no doubt the broader available selection of works) made for a much stronger show.

Out of Line: Drawings from the Collection of Sherry and Joel Mallin, currently up at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum, has elements in common with these and other contemporary drawing shows. Like the Queens show, it features work by living artists. Most of them were born in the 60’s and 70’s, but a good number are older, which makes for greater diversity. The show was curated by Nancy Green, and features works from an alumni collection. It may seem mean of me to compare the their efforts to those of the Modern (and this isn’t the first time I’ve done so). But the show is clearly derivative, in broad conception, if not in the details of its execution. So some context is needed. Anyway, the show is a strong one, and stands up well against its better known predecessors. Notably, there are no formal categories, which works quite well. Nevertheless, the temptation to categorize is hard to resist.

Several works in the show employ collage or use paper in a sculptural manner. The most spectacular of these is Matt Bryans’ wall engulfing untitled collage, made from newspaper cutouts and reaching perhaps twenty feet tall. The original text and imagery is gone, having been laborously smeared and erased. In their place, ghostly faces (often grinning) emerge out of a map-like field of light and dark. Jim Hodges’ “Flowering Big Pink”, on the other hand, is small — the size of a notebook sheet — and delicate, girly. Its flower-head and leaf (or tear) shaped cutout holes and pop-up flower are colored decoratively in colored pencil, and (allegedly) chewing gum marks. Julia Rose Clarke’s “Pretty in Pink”, which is made of text and cutout images hung from a series of dangling threads, takes cuteness into a more ornate direction. Kirsten Hassenfield sculptural “Spyglass” resembles a paper lampshade and is suspended from chains (also made from paper).

A series of five etched silver nets Rachel Whiteread also fit loosely into this category. While pinned in some places to a backing board using tiny clips, elsewhere they float above, casting shadows. These vary considerably in thickness , texture and directional orientation; they alternately resemble fishnets, old city blocks, flowers and honeycombs. Sometimes the nets are solid, other times fraying.

Many of the older artists in Out of Line work in more or less traditional modes of abstraction. Richard Serra’s thick black oil-stick masses and Sean Scully’s richly painted bricks (more effectively executed here in oil than in pastel) seem like almost perfunctory inclusions. Both less expected and more interesting are pieces by less canonical artists. Sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard’s loose charcoal and oil-stick drawing resembles a landscape seen through a chain link fence, while Leonardo Drew’s oil features brushy highlights over a dark reddish brown ground. Sharon M. Louden’s “Merge” does exactly that: white brushstrokes on white Mylar, pinned directly to the white wall.

The figure, both as portrait and in interaction with others or with the landscape, is another recurring theme. Graham Little’s portrait of a fashionable young woman is done in colored pencil and gouache over gesso, giving her face and hands a rough but even texture. Combined with her mannerist pose, the effect is subtly estranging. In E.V. Day’s simple, playful (pencil) line drawing, a lady appears headless until you notice it protruding from the umbrella she carries in one of her elongated arms. Peter Doig’s “Drifter” wears a cowboy hat and strides forth precariously into a thinly painted greenish landscape, while Kojo Griffen’s “Untitled (Man Teaching a Boy to Shoot)” shows the influence of comics and graphic design.

Penny Siopis’ “Shame Series”, a set of nine paintings enclosed in a glass vitrine, depict grotesque scenes of sexual violence and racial conflict. One image shows a dark skinned head swallowing a white woman, her legs sticking out. These scenes are rendered (inappropriately?) delightful through their color palette (pinks, browns, purples and whites), the paints often glossy finish, and the use of ornate printed lettering, which suggests Valentine’s Day cards.

Also interesting is Adam Dant’s “Broadgate”, a large canvas pinned to the wall, with lines drawn in purple ink. The scene is a construction or excavation site, a mass of walls, barbed wire, construction vehicles, bridges, towers, and assorted detritus. Amidst the more geometric architectural forms is a veritable flood of wavy calligraphic lines, resembling water or fire. From these emerges the ghostly head of a ram, perhaps a spirit disturbed by all the activity. Policemen, construction workers and men in suits are scattered about, seemingly oblivious.

Animals and monsters make other appearances. The best of these by far is in a series of four mud on paper drawings by Alexis Rockman. Arranged in a square, these drawings depict simple, even iconic natural scenes: mating frogs, an anteater bending down for a meal, stacked tortoises (symbol of a bottomless, recursive universe), a big fish with smaller fish. The rough texture of the mud and the surprisingly subtle tonality are impressive. Rockman has called his mud drawings “earthworks on paper”. Nigel Cook’s oil on paper “Snake and Owl” combines a realistically rendered landscape of patchy grass and rocks with an improbably cartoonish owl. Other pieces, such as those by Nichola Tyson and Matthew Ritchie depict less natural looking beasts.

Jacco Olivier’s token video animation shows an frog dancing maniacally and then hopping across a landscape. These scenes are interspersed with images of tree branches and abstract blurs and dots. The color is electric: blues and greens with shadows and blinding white highlights. The animation, which lasts a few minutes, is MTV fast.

A number of works in the show incorporate strategies associated with Minimalist and Conceptual art. Ewan Gibbs’ “Blooms Hotel” is made up of a grid of circles, variable in thickness. While reminiscent of some of Eva Hesse’s abstract drawings, the loops here coalesce into a recognizable scene, the corner of the banal looking hotel indicated by the title. Peggy Preheim creates yet another Duchamp homage, imprinting his infamous pissoir on a baseball resting inside a bell jar. Jenny Holzer has two tall columns of her signature aphorisms and short statements, here stenciled on paper. Arno appears to be an oblique biographical portrait.

Both Danica Phelps’ “June 20-26, 1999” and Jim Hodges’ “Talk to Me About Love” combine bold color and (subtle) gesture with schematic representation. The top row of Phelps’ piece tallies her expenses and income by the hour for a week. Each dollar is represented by a tiny brushstroke: reds and pinks on the minus side and greens on the plus side. Daily totals are on the bottom row. The middle maps out where Danica went. “Talk to Me About Love” is made up of two large panels, each containing a 5 by 4 grid of sheet music pages. Each sheet is a different love song, classic or contemporary. Covering the staff at variable intervals are irregularly cut strips of paper in various colors. Musical notation is usually thought to lack the emotional richness of performed music; Hodges’ piece uses vivid color to subvert this idea.

The message of Out of Line is an optimistic one: a celebration of drawing’s breadth and eclecticism. In this, it closely resembles the two MoMA shows I described above. While this might be old news to some (and this brief catalog essay does have wearily familiar and redundant sound to it), it is surely valuable to spread the word as widely as possible.


Links:
The Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University

“Out of Line: Drawings from the Collection of Sherry and Joel Mallin” is on view November 4 – December 17, 2006 at The Herbert F. Johnson Museum.

All images are courtesy of the artist and The Herbert F. Johnson Museum.


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