outside the lines

Ann Prentice Wagner, PhD, Curator of Drawings

Drawings abound in the City of Little Rock. On the walls of restaurants, offices, private homes, galleries and throughout the Arkansas Arts Center itself, drawings take pride of place much as paintings do in other cities. The efforts of Arts Center founding director Townsend Wolfe and his successors have made drawings an integral part of Little Rock’s soul. The outstanding drawings collection has been growing since its foundation by Wolfe in 1971. Works by top artists have come in from the dealers and studios all over the United States. The permanent collection’s drawings range from European old master works to drawings right off of current artists’ drawing boards. Since 1986, the Arts Center has taken an active role in American contemporary art by inviting the most deserving artists from all over the country to exhibit recent drawings in the National Drawing Invitational.

The current 12th National Drawing Invitational features eight distinctive artists from the Mid-Atlantic region. Each finds a different way of imbuing marks on paper (or Mylar or walls or vinyl) with meaning. The sub-title of this exhibition, Outside the Lines, opens the question of how these artists and their creations break old barriers of graphic custom. These works investigate how artists draw and how viewers respond to drawn lines. This exhibition challenges us to reconsider the nature of drawing.

Mia Rosenthal

Macbook (Scott)(detail)

2012

Hover over image to enlarge.

 

The creation of lines is one of the oldest and most enduring of characteristically human endeavors. Mia Rosenthal reminds us of this long history and its implications in MacBook Pro (Scott), in which 32,000-year-old art from Chauvet Cave appears as computer “wallpaper.” Some of the earliest cave artists would use pigment hand prints to create or “sign” their work, stamping it as theirs. The evidence of the artist’s hand at work is just as clear in Rosenthal’s hand-drawn ink lines used to describe computers or images that appeared on their screens. A close look at Rosenthal’s drawings discloses the irregularity of her dashes and dots, and the hand-wrought nature of her drawn shapes. The slightly uneven lines of the computer keys she draws are not coldly printed by computer or even traced with a template; each outlined and shaded key is an irregular grid of hand-drawn lines. These hand-made images remind us that the keys are tapped by fingers – like the fingers that left their prints on cave walls millennia ago.

Of course, when humans put lines on paper, they are often writing rather than drawing. Most ancient forms of writing, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, grew out of drawing. Victor Ekpuk brings writing and drawing back together in his drawings. In works like Dis Amsterdam Life, Ekpuk uses a personal vocabulary of linear shapes derived from his native Nigerian symbol system nsibidi and other graphic systems from around the world. But Ekpuk does not keep his post-modern pictograms tethered to particular meanings as written symbols are. Ekpuk’s drawn shapes break free to become expressive modern abstractions. In Dis Amsterdam Life, he reminds us of the inherently abstract nature of writing by roughly printing the title in reversed letters that therefore read, at least partially, as abstract shapes. In addition to the symbolism that lurks behind his forms, Ekpuk’s traces on walls or paper embrace one of the most important functions of line – as a chart of human motion. Like footprints, drawn lines show us where the artist has been. Ekpuk’s shapes link up in a graceful, energetic linear dance. Viewers who watch the artist in the process of drawing on a wall can appreciate the link between line and dance as the artist moves around the gallery space to make his marks.

In her Walking Drawings, Walking Books, and Cut Drawings, Sharyn O’Mara entirely devotes her drawings to recording human motion. She literally draws as she walks. Therefore, her subject is walking. The lines and nodes in her drawings reflect the natural shift of weight during each human stride. The length and direction of her strides vary depending upon whether the artist is in her own Philadelphia studio, out in the streets of Philadelphia, or in the varied conditions she has found in places like Estonia. These lines and dots overlap gracefully to make complex compositions. There is inherent beauty in the balanced motions of moving people.

Sharyn O’Mara

Walking Drawing (detail)

2014

 

O’Mara’s New York Times Drawings look at a different set of inherently human rhythms. In these, she considers how our eyes move across the page in reading. She comments on how our minds respond to the information we take in as we read. So often, as the artist notes, we read about the loss of our fellow beings. But we may simply read on. Her drawings ask us to take note of our motions of reading, what we learn, our responses, and their implications.

The gestures of any kind of artistic creation are special kinds of human action. These are actions that communicate with our fellow humans. Linn Meyers makes drawings that are about the nearly universal experience of drawing. Her lines are not dictated by exterior designs, although she does create sketches to guide her. Her sketched out compositions are merely starting points. She pays attention to her body as she reaches across a sheet of Mylar or a museum wall to make marks on it. The marks she makes respond to how her mark-making feels and how the drawn lines look. Each line responds to the line before closely but imperfectly. The records of Meyers’ creation are left on the wall, with shifts of relationships between the lines creating the effect of ripples where the lines come close together. Like waves on the surface of water, these shapes speak of motion. The viewer is drawn into the experience of creation and becomes part of the dance, walking back and forth in front of a monumental drawing on a wall. Such a wall drawing interacts with time as well as space. It emerges out of many hours spent passionately, yet meditatively, making marks. Then, at the end of the allotted exhibition time, the drawing is destroyed. This limited life span gives such a drawing an intense and passionate resonance. Viewers, as humans, know too well that they are likewise mortal.

Nature, both environmental and human, guides Andrea Way in the creation of her drawings. Her works use lines to create patterns that repeat like the coming and going of the seasons and the lives of living beings.  Way decides upon rules before she begins a drawing, such as how many lines of one kind will appear in a sequence, and where dots may be placed and of what size. But while the essential rules are known to the artist as she begins, how they will finally come together with unplanned creative events cannot be predicted until it happens. Whether constructed on a grid or growing in a shell-like spiral, her patterns are complex and multi-layered. These works are stories that unfold under the artist’s hand over time. Looking at one of Way’s drawings is like walking through a forest. Standing back to see the overall pattern of the trees that have grown up over years is impressive. The overall array of patterning of a large drawing or suite of drawings may seem too awesomely intricate to grasp. But when the walker in the forest comes in close, he or she can study intimate details that are easier to comprehend. The hand-drawn details allow the viewer to gain entry into this intricate, elegant graphic world.

Portraits drawn by Ian Jehle invite the viewer in very differently. Their human subjects make these drawings inherently accessible. Jehle uses lines to define the forms of figures and animals much as people have been doing for countless centuries. And yet we tend to expect drawing to be on an intimate scale. Most drawings fit easily into a sketchbook or portfolio. They summarize the characteristics of their subject matter using visual abbreviation because there simply isn’t enough space to show everything. But Ian Jehle’s drawings are large enough to admit more than simply observed detail. Most of his works are well over life-sized. He does not merely blow up the outlines of his subjects in his monumental portraits to give us people of giant size. He enlarges the scale of the lines themselves and of the details and textures they describe. These marks are strong enough for the viewer to study them like sculptures. One feels able to enter these drawing as if they were places, to explore the textures of skin, clothing, and hair. The Theorist’s skin is like rough terrain where a gallery goer might easily trip. A viewer could get lost in the tangled locks of the man in The Collectors. The lines around these forms do not merely define a boundary things; they appear to be things in themselves.

Laura Ledbetter takes this embodiment of lines as things in very different directions in her collages. Although she includes many areas of beautifully descriptive pencil drawing, she juxtaposes them with very different lines created from cut paper. These lines do not just appear to be things – they literally are things. We quickly see beyond the literal placement of delicate strips of brightly-colored paper on white grounds. Ledbetter’s lines carry a range of metaphorical meanings. These paper lines provide paths, platforms and bridges for the artist’s tiny paper figures as they move between threatening masses. The paper structures climb up like bridges or ladders that offer the hope of progress and ascension. Yet these roads threaten to tip and collapse, taking the figures down to destruction. Viewers are invited to interpret the actions of the artist’s characters as stories that reflect archetypal human actions. Shall we climb up? Can we find safe ground? Will we endanger others through our own attempts to gain safety or can we work together? Such questions have powerful world implications.

Laura Ledbetter

Metropolis Construct (detail)

2013

 

In her constructions with paper and thread, Ledbetter’s lines become truly if delicately three-dimensional. The thread-lines leap up from the surface of the background paper to bind teetering piles of colored paper to the background. There are no literal representations of figures in these works, but their implied presence is clear in the compositions and the titles of works like Metropolis Construct. Again, there are stories woven around these lines. These thread-lines define a world in miniature that comments on the real world around us.

Gary Kachadourian also creates a world with drawing as reproduced in prints. But the Baltimorean’s drawn world is one that the viewer can enter not only in imagination but in reality. He studies ordinary objects and the elements of architectural interiors and exteriors, then photographs and draws them. This adds the evidence of his individual hand-made marks to the nature of the images. Through xerography and ink jet printing, Kachadourian is able to expand his drawings to the same scale as the objects on which they are based. Once Kachadourian has created an installation of life-scale prints based on his drawings, art assumes the scale of life and invites us to enter. We can literally walk into a complete environment created by the artist. Kachadourian’s creations make no attempt to fool us into believing that they are “real.” The reproduced lines of his drawings immediately reveal that this is art. It is the drawn nature of the work – the visual evidence of lines applied by the human hand – that causes us to look at ordinary objects and places in a keener way than we normally look at the same objects outside of this drawn world. It is hard to re-enter the “real” world without a changed point of view.

Within the current exhibition, viewers are caught up in linear transformations. What do these varied artists have in common in their use of line? One common thread is the undeniable equation of lines to movement and change. While the completed drawing itself sits unmoving, motion is irresistibly implied. Viewers know that the artists had to move to draw those lines. And as viewer looks at lines within drawings, their eyes often mimic, in tiny scale, the gestures of the artists at work. The drawings of an artist like Linn Meyers or Sharyn O’Mara stir with the memory and promise of life. This is only one of the many qualities that set Gary Kachadourian’s depictions apart from the ordinary objects they depict – the motions of his drawing hand animate the drawn surfaces. The paper and thread lines of Laura Ledbetter seem fraught with not the past of their creation, but the anticipated motions of the future. Viewers may tense as they wonder what may shift and who may fall.

This identification between the motion of the drawing artist and the drawing viewer is only one way that drawings invite us to connect with their creators. As viewers examine paintings or sculpture, they may find it difficult to figure out exactly what the artist did to create these objects where the role of the artist’s hand is obscured. But in drawings, the artist’s actions are boldly displayed. It is sometimes even possibly to figure out in what order the lines were drawn and then to follow them. Drawings like those by Mia Rosenthal or Victor Ekpuk celebrate the activities of drawing and writing. The viewer can almost feel the drawing happening. The eye follows the motion as one might watch a dance. A museum-goer may even be inspired to go home and try it him or herself. This universal human connection is at the heart of the nature of drawing. The open communication between creator and enjoyer is central to the nature of art. Art is communication plus. What’s the plus? That is the eternal question we ask every time we witness or make art.