drawing as both noun and verb

Laura Roulet, co-curator

Virtually every artist draws, but the National Drawing Invitational showcases artists who make drawing the focus of their practice. In this latest iteration of the Arkansas Arts Center’s venerable tradition, contemporary artists based in the Mid-Atlantic region present expanded notions of what drawing can be, including experimentation with scale, site-specificity, evidence of process, and conceptual approaches to portraiture. Their work continues to redefine the conventions of drawing, bringing awareness to the choices that an artist makes in terms of size, materials, technique and subject matter.

The 12th National Drawing Invitational includes two artists who create site-specific installations of drawing. Native Baltimorean, Gary Kachadourian, brings his witty method of transforming the everyday environment by affixing to-scale xerographic prints to the former façade of the museum, as well as to inconspicuous locations within the Arts Center. His prints of bare tree branches, a shrub, a bike rack, an ATM and a dumpster displace the real space of the gallery. By inviting the outside in, he brings attention to the history of the museum’s architecture and the history of art as a form of mimesis, or imitation of reality. Kachadourian’s process brings his natural curiosity and powers of observation to objects or surfaces in the everyday environment that tend to be overlooked, such as the Pepsi machine or parking lot. He questions how an ordinary object like a generator was designed, not only functionally but aesthetically.

Kachadourian also challenges basic assumptions about valuation, manufacture and distribution within the Western art market system. Drawing inspiration from writers like Lewis Hyde, he rejects how art is valued according to judgments of rarity, craftsmanship and individual authorship. In contrast, he reframes the everyday environment and makes his replications inexpensively available. The viewer’s experience of these transformative environments becomes the work of art, the artist’s gift.

Gary Kachadourian

proposal for diagram of

Three Scenarios in Front

of Cinderblock Wall #3

2014

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Victor Ekpuk also transforms the museum environment through his site-specific wall drawing. Born in Nigeria, Ekpuk now works in Washington D.C. His vibrant wall drawings and works on paper combine ideograms based on nsibidi signs with bold graphic patterns derived from Western Modernist art. This contemporary form of African expression can be seen as a form of post-colonial critique, a reversal of the way early 20th century European artists such as Pablo Picasso or Man Ray mined African tribal art for its formal qualities without regard for its cultural meaning. Ekpuk utilizes formal elements of abstract art such as color and composition in combination with a genuine understanding of this ancient form of indigenous African writing. He creates new symbols based on what an ideogram is – a linear symbol that expresses the idea or thing that it represents, such as a spiral representing the life cycle. By creating a large-scale drawing directly on the wall, he activates the gallery space, immersing the viewer in his world of images.

 

Ian Jehle

creating The Collectors

(Richard Gould and Lena Skanby)

2013-14

photo: Jason Horowitz

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Three of the artists in the exhibit demonstrate contemporary approaches to portraiture, based on ideas of depicting people’s likenesses, rather than on commissions by the subjects or concerns about verisimilitude. Ian Jehle’s subjects are often unaware that they have been depicted on a larger than life scale. His subjects are people in the art world that he has known to some extent, such as Dave Hickey, the critic and professor, Andrea Pollan, the dealer, and Robert Gould and Lena Skanby, the collectors, whose portraits are included in the exhibit. They form a personal memoir of the artist’s life, each representing some aspect of his relationship with them. Using sketches, photographs and models with similar body types, Jehle constructs a likeness of his subject that is based on his or her outward appearance, but even more on an ineffable inner quality of their relationship with him.

The grand scale of Jehle’s portraits is influenced by the wall-size canvases used by the Abstract Expressionists, while the surface tension created by his agitated line has similarities with the styles of portraitists like Alice Neel or Egon Schiele. This combination of grandeur of scale with intimacy of line creates an enticing contradiction for the viewer.

On the opposite end of the graphic scale, Laura Ledbetter depicts miniature worlds containing human figures, animals and patches of landscape bound by a teetering infrastructure. Named for friends and family members, these figures represent her generational worldview. A barefoot businessman is a recurring motif, appearing isolated and adrift. The 2008 economic recession had a major impact on Ledbetter’s imagery. Her portrayal of contemporary life shows men and women struggling to connect with each other and balance their lives in a precarious environment. Reference to the firm Goldman Sachs represents the power of Wall Street to disrupt the most basic tenets of our lives, as the artist observed in the world around her.

Laura Ledbetter

Chuck and Lloyd (detail)

2011

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Using collage, pencil, gouache, ink and, in her latest works, thread, Ledbetter underlines her cautionary message with delicately balanced constructions. The viewer becomes absorbed by the intricacy of detail and variety of textures in each drawing, as well as the fascinating alternate universes imagined. Yet the surface beauty of each drawing belies the underlying mood of anxiety and portrayal of the vulnerability of 21st century existence.

Mia Rosenthal presents a very contemporary take on traditional portraiture as well. Her self-portrait and portraits of friends document the information revealed by their personal electronic devices – their laptops or cell phones – rather than their faces. What has been chosen as “wallpaper”? What icons and files appear? Is the “sitter” a Mac or PC person? Through her meticulous mark-making, Rosenthal humanizes the technology revealing the virtual identities of her subjects. Yet it is revelatory to consider that Google algorithms may determine our historic memory of an artist such as Philip Guston. We are what we Google. We are open iBooks. Do these devices serve us or reduce us? These conceptual portraits constitute an ingenious metaphor for our conflicted relationship with technology.

Another example of Rosenthal’s extraordinary research and recording skills is the ambitious large-scale drawing Life on Earth. Beginning 3.8 billion years ago with a single cell at its center, the design spirals out to include amphibians, mammals, her son Kirby, and concludes one thousand drawings later in 2012. Impressive in scope as well as scale, this is a work that demands both scientific and artistic examination.

Three artists employ abstraction to dazzling effect. Linn Meyers, Sharyn O’Mara and Andrea Way explore the mind-body connection through diverse ways of translating thought and gesture into line. Each artist displays a singular, meticulous process of building the surface through patterning and repetition. Their drawings are also rooted in nature, through an abstract approach to the landscape, a conceptual rendering of movement through space, and a microscopic appreciation for the patterns found in nature on a cellular level.

Linn Meyers is known for her site-specific wall drawings. Three of her preparatory drawings give insight into her process of creating a wall drawing for the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., in 2010. Meyers brings the same systematic method, muted palette and poetic sensibility to her medium format drawings on translucent Mylar in this exhibit. She speaks of her line as embodying atmosphere. No longer a pictorial representation of the landscape, these drawings seem to capture air, conveying the physical and spiritual sensation of being in nature.

Sharyn O’Mara conveys the sensation of being in nature via different means in her Landmarks and Walking Drawings. These gestural, small drawings are made while actually walking near her studio in Philadelphia or abroad during artist residencies. As a conceptual approach to landscape, these works can be compared to the work of 1960s artists such as Richard Long or Hamish Fulton. O’Mara has found a way to abstractly represent the movement of her body through space, marking time, direction and rhythm. These delicate renderings of a day’s journey become a form of sketchbook, created en plein air, as Impressionist painters did in the 19th century landscape tradition.

Andrea Way’s method is also diaristic in spirit. In 2007, she challenged herself to complete a work of art every day for the entire year. This disciplined approach to drawing is evident in her mathematically precise mode of ordering nature. Scientific terms such as evolution, cellular biology, specimens, spores, helixes and fractal geometry all come to mind in examining her intricate, often colorful designs. Way is interested in recognizing and structuring the patterns occurring in nature. The recognition of this infinite variety combined with Way’s consummate skill in draftsmanship inspires a sense of wonder in the viewer.

Sharyn O’Mara

Cut Drawing 1 of 3

2005-2014

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Contemporary art continuously pushes the boundaries. In this exhibition, drawing functions as a noun – a two-dimensional object – and as a verb – the process of making that object. On a monumental scale, drawing transforms viewer’s perception of the museum space. On a miniature scale, it opens up interior space. In the case of all these artists, their drawings are final work rather than preparatory sketches. They point to the diverse directions the line can go.