It’s difficult to find spaces of tranquility in downtown Manhattan, much less in Soho, but Louise Despont has created an immersive and meditative space in the Drawing Center that invites you to slow down and shut out the noise of the city. Despont splits her time between New York City and Bali, and for her first solo museum show, she has brought a slice of the latter’s culture into a space of the former.
As its title suggests, Energy Scaffolds and Information Architecture, curated by the Drawing Center’s Executive Director Brett Littman, connects the immaterial with the physical. Despont, whose practice is grounded in precision and control, here uses architecture and detailed drawings hidden within its interiors to lend a sense of materiality to the energies within and around us.
Upon entering the Drawing Center’s main gallery, you’re immediately confronted with a small square chamber that is initially jarring: wooden dowels cover the surface evenly so the spiky structure seems to radiate outwards with a confrontational force. Offsetting this armor, though, is a soft soundtrack of chiming gongs, affixed to the gallery walls. These form Aaron Taylor Kuffner‘s gamelatron installation, a series of automated bronze instruments that derive from the traditional Indonesian gamelan. When I discussed these music machines with Kuffner last year, he mentioned the power of sound on our bodies as something physical; Despont is teasing out similar physical effects through her varied visuals.
Kuffner’s instruments, which produce different songs, imbue the space with a sense of spirituality that makes entering Despont’s first room feel like stepping into a temple — one of the most ubiquitous architectural structures in Bali. Christened “Pure Potential,” the inner space is sanctuary-like: dark and enclosing, with a lone white column erected in the middle, supporting no ceiling. While the outer surface seems rigid and unyielding, the inside undulates from geometric shapes that cover not just the four walls but also the floor. Despont had traced these graphite and colored pencil drawings using stencils, compasses, and rulers, and the patience of her hand is evident in the resulting perfection and precision of form. Those drawings affixed to the wall are composed of connected pages from old Portuguese ledger books that are gridded, adding another layer of not just pattern but also formal restraint to the works. Despite this highly calculated nature of the pastel-colored shapes, Despont’s arrangements are fluid, ever-shifting in what they present. Different images gradually reveal themselves as you examine them from up close or afar. In one drawing, spokes and diamonds recall a butterfly but also resemble the blooming petals of a flower. Despont’s lines have a gentle way of pulling you into her constructed setting and inviting deep, personal meditation.
The second room, to which the first opens up, is larger and more open. Entering it, after the first compact and womb-like space, feels like emerging into fresh air. Its outer wooden walls are also smooth, contrasting drastically with the wooden dowels and evoking a calmer mood. Oval-shaped, with more drawings on ledger paper running along the walls like a massive frieze, this sanctuary compels you to roam in a circular motion to observe the illustrations, although a simple bench echoing the egg shape stands in the center of the room, also inviting seated contemplation. These drawings (still made of cookie-cutter shapes of stencils) also feature an extra detail: the ancient ledger paper on which they are spread are embellished with original handwritten notes in elegant cursive. The meandering motions that fill the room — from the inked script to the implied ambulatory path — suggest an energy that flows languidly rather than one that is focused and concentrated — although still pulsing — as in the first room. Some of the drawings here are also figurative, with the shapes within male and female figures reminding of circulatory systems and the coursing of energy through the human body.
Dividing these seven large-scale drawings are columns of paper embellished with a black-and-white pattern drawn from the Balinese traditional checkered fabric known as “Kain Poleng.” The colors refer to dualities: good and evil, positive and negative, happiness and sadness; together on a textile, they suggest a balance of opposing forces. Despont’s installation recreates this harmonious energy through a physical experience, augmented by simple geometry perfectly pieced together. Throughout it all, Kuffner’s gamelatron rings in the background, the physical force of his sounds filling and connecting the polar spaces.
Energy Scaffolds and Information Architecture continues at the Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) through March 20.