By Elizabeth Michelman
Norton, MA- This wide-ranging drawing exhibition at Wheaton College, located 30 miles south of Boston, was juried by Judith Tannenbaum, the Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art at the RISD Museum of Art. Sensitively mounted by Gallery Director Michele L’Heureux, the 54 diverse works represent both regional and national trends in what can currently be called “drawing.” Included are 30 New England artists (22 from Massachusetts), another nine from New York and Illinois, and the rest from a smattering of Midwestern and Western states as well as France. With the future of Boston’s own biennial Drawing Show now uncertain, Wheaton’s exhibition, if repeated, may fill an important regional gap.
Speaking to a crowd of students and visitors in her gallery talk, Tannenbaum emphasized a focus on qualities rather than “quality.” Noting that every selection will reflect some cultural bias, she aims for eclecticisms, presenting a wide range of formal experimentation. Tannenbaum chose works capable of satisfying at least one set of criteria in standard dictionary definitions. She found a number of common approaches: in materials (cut paper and collage, thread, yarn and stitching, glitter and old photographs); organization (grid compositions, narrative sequencing, large scale installation on walls, transparency and layering, and sculptural form emphasizing open structure); and method (tendencies toward repetitive mark-making, pattern and decoration, arabesques and curves, and the incorporation of text). In addition, the exhibition reveals frequent strategies of unexpected juxtaposition of objects and disciplines, conceptual and participatory strategies, and video documentation of studio processes.
Tannenbaum’s trained eye delights in a direct approach to risk. She favors the internally compelling over skilled but empty statements. She tolerates the awkward gesture, more concerned about what is possible than what is good or art or salable. Tannenbaum also values concepts capable of generating a host of alternative visions. A casual visitor might walk away from the seething stew of images, materials and forms, wondering, “What’s the point?” But the works included here, encountered in a strategic layout that guides, obstructs and surprises, lead us to appreciate that there are many points of view.
Many works and pairings are compelling, amusing, or awe inspiring. Adrienne Der Marderosian’s tiny tour-de-force “Tattoo Trails, No. 1,” hardly bigger than a spread palm, incorporates collaged, paper, cut plastic, maps and altered photographs, employing stitchery as a means of repair and integration of the broken image. Nearby, David Curcio’s post-lapsarian sampler ruminates on the text “What Will Survive of Us is Nothing,” drawing us into its tight focus through intricate mark-making with pen-and-ink, embroidery and woodcut on a book-sized sheet of mulberry paper.
Occupying the other end of the scale, Michael Ryan’s monochromatic “Bedford Hills School GR-8-F” blows up the nostalgic imagery of an old class picture across a 10-foot sheet of wrinkly paper (mixed media, including drawing, painting and erasure, on paper).
Carrie Scanga’s “Mountain Invention” offers drawing-as-sculpture. She begins on the flat with a diagram in graphite and cerulean gouache, upon which float translucent bubbles made of folded drypoint prints. Margaret Rack’s four openwork abstractions of annealed wire, graphite, paper and cotton come alive in “Quartet Seeking Balance,” reaching across the wall to each other as well as outward to the viewer.
Resa Blatman’s curvaceous multileveled PVC relief, appropriately named “Tangled,” confronts the gallery’s main entrance with computer-drawn and lasered cut-outs, obsessively illuminated and elaborated in oils, beads and glitter like a medieval manuscript. Reminiscent of Frank Stella’s layered and polychromed wall-reliefs, Blatman’s abstract swirls intertwine flora with birds, bats, bambis and bunnies, as well as the occasional lurking arachnid. Right outside the gallery doors and insinuating itself as part of the exhibition is artist-in-residence Debra Weisberg’s giant floor-to-ceiling work “Swoop.” The black-and-white free-form installation of paper and tape, constructed by Wheaton art students emulating her process, zigzags over walls and corners in a feathery, flying extravaganza.
The politics of two apparently simple works give pause. Aparna Agrawal’s stop-motion video “Mapmaking” slithers an X-acto blade around buff-and ochre paths on a large piece of paper. A pink-sleeved, dark-skinned hand carving out abstract tracery hints at cultural and gender identity (Agrawal’s two-minute 15-second piece can also be seen on Vimeo.).
Identity is also at issue in Alphonso Dunn’s meticulous pencil portrait of a pensive, crew-cutted African-featured man flanked by lollipop-trees and a grimacing cat in the lower half of an unframed, lime-green sheet of paper. In the upper half a childish drawing of a man runs toward the right, with wing-like arms, flapping tie and long legs merged with trunk. The feet have slashes for toes. At mid-page, the scrawled inscription, “Last night I died of drapetomania R.i.P,” both joins the two images and provides the title.
Will all viewers easily snap to recognize an image of Barack Obama or decipher the mystifying word-choice? Or is the artist narrowing his address to only a limited audience? “Drapetomania” is the name of a raw Spanish punk Los Angeles band. It also refers to a racist pseudo-scientific conception of the slave mentality, defining the wish to run away as a form of mental illness curable by cutting off the runner’s toes. Dunn offers little to clarify his message, only mentioning “deep processes” of perceptions and a “gerrymandering of worlds in and outside the mind. Though stimulated to decipher the painter’s dream-process, we are barred from figuring out how it relates to his experience. We may only surmise that the curator seeks to demonstrate that freedom in drawing is much like dreaming. It allows connections to be made and explored — if not for immediate understanding and interpretation, then to lead the maker along an unknown path, and, eventually, to bring his audience along with him.
(“The Wheaton Biennial: Drawing Out of Bounds” continues through April 13 at the Beard and Weil Galleries, Watson Fine Arts, Wheaton College, 26 East Main Street, Norton, Mass. For more information, call (508) 286-8200.)