“Drawing in the Continuous Present” at The Drawing Center

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“Drawing in the Continuous Present” is a geographically diverse show of recent drawing; it showcases 13 artists from 10 countries, comprising close to 100 works of art. In some ways, the exhibition provides a window into work made during the ongoing difficult circumstances of the Covid virus pandemic. Some of the work can be described as an attempt to heal personal hardship such as emigration or cultural isolation, the latter resulting from necessary quarantine. Interestingly, the worldwide orientation of the show underscores the fact of art’s continuing pluralism; the artists, who come from places such as Africa, Britain, and China, project personal interests more than national characteristics. Thus the show, brought together by Associate Curator Rosario Guiraldes, acts as a window onto a worldwide current temper, in which low-level plague of the virus may well be pushing gifted younger artists into an introspection caused by isolation and its accompanying doubt. Whatever the reasons for this complex, compelling array of works on paper, it becomes clear that drawing, as always, provides its audience with the consequences of private truth, made public in often visionary fashion.

Regularly now the comment is made that art is occurring primarily at an international level. Style is no longer an indication of a particular nation; it is the consequence of individual choice, no matter where the artist comes from. Artists from nations in which modernism did not take place have thoroughly internalized the principles of the movement; moreover, we recognize that art made since modernism has been considerably more worldwide, and individually driven, than many imagined. The advantages of an approach occurring beyond geographical boundaries can be debated; once we do away with cultural difference, we may be embracing the inspiration of work whose force is not joined to the stylistic particulars we associate with earlier directions in art. This can cause a confusion that results from the acceptance of a style lacking national origins.

Thus, we forego the notion that singular places result in singular art. Artists and audiences dismiss the concept; social media has resulted in a worldwide discourse, in both the images we see and the mores they represent. One can enjoy the recognition of an abstract style practiced anywhere and everywhere, but we lose the force of specificity. Yet, as we know, this has been occurring for a while. It looks very much like contemporary art remains indebted to modernism, no matter the considerable distance between the time of modernism and now. The efforts to escape or transform the modernist legacy still feel a bit peripheral, as if we were trying very hard, but without great success, to establish a visual communication free of the past.

The artists in “Drawing in the Continuous Present” engage in a broad variety of styles, ranging from precise realism to expressionist abstraction. Their pluralism, while not indicative of place, does convey the thought that it is not so much new form we are encountering as it is original content, much of it devoted recognition of the periphery: minorities of race and ethnicity, sexual choice, religion. This show includes artists from geographies distant to each other, yet the human experience, as given in these highly varying artworks, remains accessible, open to understanding by most people anywhere. Much of the work is personal, as befits the spirit of the time. Indeed, the emphasis seems to be located within a private vision, supported by the details of the artist’s life or the constraints of an individual imagination. This sometimes makes the work hermetic, in the sense that it relates primarily to visuals that feel as if they were off the record, articulated within boundaries of a self in isolation—their remoteness likely intensified by Covid. In a time of continuous movement, from country to country, by artists presently active, it makes sense to see their travels as an attempt to understand various cultural environments. Yet the insights that result from seeing art made in different parts of the world is not quite as various as we might imagine. A critic might argue that human nature remains the same, no matter who makes the art. But it can also be said that the visual styles we use today are so well established that they blunt difference. Visual efforts may assert not only an international humanism, but also a rhetoric vague in its forms and implications.

The rhetorical power of art might more easily be understood in abstract drawing, which is nearly dominant in the show. Abstraction is hard to characterize in a national sense, being taken with the elements of form, rather than the specifications of a country. Backgrounds mean little in the face of form that remains committed to its own design, not to a place we can name. For example, the two black and white drawings, along with the wall murals above the Center’s stairs, by Christine Sun Kim, belong to Hand Palm (Echo Trap Series) (2021). The imagery regularly consists of an abstract white center, with curving edges ending in multiple points, surrounded by black that frames the design. Toward the end points of the white shape, letters spell out words such as “Hand Palm.” Sun Kim, born in California but now living and working in Berlin, is already well recognized, having shown in such venues as MoMA PS1, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her works at The Drawing Center are dramatic inventions within the very limited palette of black and white. Language, used discretely here, more or less as an article of conceptual rather than visual interest, complicates what otherwise we would see as a straightforward abstraction. The images might also be portrayals of explosive sound by Sun Kim, who has been deaf since birth. And the idea of trapping an echo, as suggested by the series title, is wonderfully poetic and evocative.

Maren Karson lives in Berlin. Her drawing, Angels 12 (2022), is ambiguous: it might be the roots or thin leaves of a plant moving upward; the blue-green forms emanate from a single center against a black background. At the same time, they might be spectral emanations, as the title suggests. Free of rhetoric, the drawing’s design leads to a pattern reflective of both nature and spiritual existence.By establishing the work in both worlds, Karson looks to a balance between this world and the next. Interestingly, the lack of expressionist extremism, and the absence of gaudy color, emphasizes the structure of the work, which cannot be fully understood as recognizable description. If it is true that this is an image of angels, it means that the voice of the work is metaphysical, driven from worldly existence. But it is hard to tell. Much good work today exists in the cusp between figurative imagery and abstraction, as Angels 12 does. Unlike many of the images on exhibition, which emphasize extravagant emotion or restrained design, Karson’s piece reminds us that a middle ground, supported by a formalist sensibility, enables the artist to make sense of the opposing impulses of description and speculation. This drawing supports this idea very well.

Michael Armitrage, in his late thirties, lives and works in Nairobi and London. His smallish pencil study, of a giraffe, made in 2019, is a description of slight eccentricities: the snout of the animal looks excessively long, while the front long are spayed considerably. The black and white pattern of the splotches on the coat of the giraffe tends to merge the pattern, so that Armitrage’s audience may find it difficult to read as a natural study. Instead, the several eccentricities we come across in this drawing enliven our experience of the images, as well as question the process of rendering, art history’s obsession with close description. There is even something comic about the giraffe’s irregular stance, in which the creature’s elegance and poise are reduced by its awkward stance. This looks, then, like the drawing is placed in a site complicated in its meaning, in which description underscores the giraffe’s eccentricity. The drawing emphasizes the humor of the animal’s form. We remember, too, that the giraffe is a representative animal from Africa, so that it is not only an article of Armitrage’s imagination, it is also an emblem of the world he belongs to. His melding of nature and the suggestion of a national symbol work well.

Born in 1986 in China, He Xiangyu lives and works in Beijing and Berlin. Part of the generation that came of age after China’s socialist state, He’s art evinces an international strategy. Palate Wonder (2021) is a strong abstract drawing mainly given to reds. Made with pencil, colored pencil, oil stick, ink, and watercolor, the work consists of rounded, organic shapes, often in red. Interestingly, it bears no evidence of the Chinese tradition he belongs to; rather, He invokes an international modernism easily understood by a worldwide audience (at this point, traditional Chinese painting is considered a mostly historical undertaking, even though there was a revival of the art a number of years ago.

He’s complex orchestration of forms here, in which shapes overlap and jostle each other, speak to a confirmed and widely disseminated non-objective language. It would be slightly quaint to mourn the lost prominence of traditional Chinese ink painting. He does an excellent job of retaining Chinese skill to build a language that can be thought of as culturally neutral. This would make sense for someone living in Beijing, the heart of the contemporary Chinese art world, and Berlin, a major outpost for exploratory Western art. Even if we fully identity Palate Wonder as an organic abstraction, in which the forms complete each other by a process of overlay, knowing the artist’s background influences our intimation that the work is a combination of cultures, albeit a hidden one.

Johanna Unzueta was born in Chile and now works in Berlin and New York City. Her abstract drawing, October Zwischendeich November, December Santiago  (2021), is rendered with watercolor, pastel, and pencil, and has been tinted with wild blackberries. The mauve color of the background, ethereally beautiful, dominates the compositional plane. Abstract shapes embellish the ground, including on the left a shield-like image outlined in black, a few white shapes like the head of an arrow, and a black oval, oriented vertically, in the right center of the top third of the drawing. The elegance of the color and forms of the work is undeniable. The piece argues forcefully for an international modernism, which enables an artist such as Unzueta to engage in a tradition that tended toward a worldwide participation from the start, and now is a given as a stylistic choice all over the world. The general tenor of this show, both figurative and nonobjective, declares in favor of an eclecticism that now occurs all over the world, and allows both the artist and her audience to move freely among art history. Thus, one can see the drawing as a dialogical event, in which the past is reanimated by a present-tense sensibility.

Julien Nguyen, who was born in Washington, D.C.,, now lives and works in Los Angeles. His pieced, called Drawing after Tchelitchew (2019), evokes an earlier work by the Russian-born Surrealist. The drawing, made with silverpoint on aluminum, show two slender men, standing next to each other. Both are unclothed, and the shorter man, to the right, wears a mask covering the upper part of his face. Both men stand in profile; Nguyen places them very closely to one another; the naedness suggests may, or may not, indicate a homoerotic bent. Nguyen’s technical skill is highly evident. The drawing’s details, perhaps the result of the use of the silverpoint, are highly defined. As a masterul figurative drawing, owing its inspiration to a historical figure, the work becomes a vehicle for historical revisionism. In art today, sometimes it  seems like we are in a quandary about what to do next. Yet the possibilities of expression expand both toward the past and toward the future. In Nguyen’s place, instead of looking ahead, he looks backward—to previous artists and historical working methods. The artist, of Asian origins, uses a historical work by a 20th-century Russian figure to claim not only his admiration for a tradition outside Eastern art, but also to blur the boundaries between the two orientations. This makes good sense as the artist was born here, in America, rather than in Asia.

Javier Barios, born in Mexico, lives and works in Mexico City, His 2021 pastel floral drawing, titled Cypripedium estallido, renders the orchid in a burnt orange, with a lighter orange center. Three leaves lie beneath the blossom. A dark green fills the small background space on both sides of the flower. It is a beautifully detailed, nearly visionary study, in which the orange color perpetuates the exotic attractiveness of the flower. Hardly academic in feeling, the drawing establishes Barios’s considerable talent for detail, as well as his evident interest in and affection for the orchid. Usually in contemporary art, we are not paying so much attention to technical skill, but Barios makes it evident that technique is timeless and can be used to illustrate our ongoing penchant for looking at beautiful things. There is nothing in the drawing that would overtly locate it in a particular place. But the presence here, of a magnificent achieved with high skill, results in a memorable image.

Summing up, we can meditate on a show whose differences underscore the worldwide practice of drawing today. The examples of drawing in this show come from all over; Africa, China, Germany, among other places. The work cannot be seen as a worldwide overview of what is happening in drawing, but it can be understood as a window onto a way of thinking generally prevalent. Art now has its own reasons for being; it borrows across culture and time. Abstraction and figurations stand side by side in the show. There is, at present, a great need for expression that moves through the past in order to extend it into the future. Without the past very little can exist, and nothing can be elaborated on, yet we must continue moving into areas of innovation. The wonderful thing about “Drawing in the Continuous Present” is that it offers its audience the chance to see how various artists handle the problem in an effort to gain new ground. The show demonstrates the extent to which both artist and audience wish for a time when art was continuously exploratory just by moving forward in time. Perhaps this is no longer possible, given the weight of the past, but that does not mean the past cannot be employed or expanded upon.

Texto en español

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