If not for Dawn Clements’ panoramic drawings, I doubt I would have connected the still-life paintings of the 17th-century Spanish artist Juan Sanchez Cotan and the black-and-white photographs of blast furnaces and cooling towers by Bernd and Hilla Becher with the Memory Palace — the imaginary construction that enables the storage of mnemonic images. But it is not altogether surprising that Clements’ work, replete with all kinds of everyday details, elicited these and other unlikely connections.
In her exhibition, Dawn Clements: Tables and pills and things at Pierogi (April 1 – May 7, 2017), Clements uses dry and wet mediums — ballpoint pen, Sumi ink, gouache, and watercolor — to draw on large sheets of paper on which smaller sheets have been affixed. When she wants to enlarge her drawing to include more of her subject, she joins another piece of paper to it.
In this exhibition, the drawing “Three Tables in Rome” (2017), a magnificent watercolor that the artist made while in Rome, measures 85 by 248.5 inches. Even at that size, it is not the biggest drawing she has ever made, not by a long shot. Still, the whole thing can be quickly folded up and easily transported, like many of her drawings with visible creases, across borders if necessary. Otherwise, it hangs loosely on the wall, unframed.
What Clements shares with Cotan and the Bechers is a penchant for precision, which is manifested in her devotion to forms and their surfaces — the table’s brown wood grain and the silvery foil backs of torn-open pill packets. In “Three Tables in Rome,” each sheet of paper is filled with what she is looking at, a collection of objects that shift with the direction of her concentrated gaze: a red pushbutton phone or, a few feet away, a white-and-blue box of Xeloda medication — which is used to treat different kinds of cancer — lying on the top of the table, whose surface is tilted toward the picture plane, or the foil packets lying open on the table directly beneath the box and several pieces of fruit.
In order to include the wooden table in “Three Tables in Rome,” Clements had to add sheets of paper that extend below the bottom edge from this otherwise long, horizontal, irregular rectangle. The longer sheet forms a discrete subject (or area) within this panoramic view of three separate tables pushed together by the artist in her studio. Each table contains its own distinct grouping. The additions underscore Clements’ diaristic impulse to document everything about her circumstances. A black-and-white film is playing on the portable computer on the white table in the middle. Cuttings of plants lie on the table on the far left. Everything looks simultaneously arranged and disordered.
Clements’ dedication to drawing — “the way she sees,” as she once told Susan Swenson — is registered in the shifts and jumps in perspective, and in her use of separate sheets of paper to define the limits of her focus. It is almost as if she does not believe that she actually occupies a space until she can document it.
In the ballpoint pen drawing, “Mrs Drummond’s Kitchen (My Reputation, 1945), dated 2011 and 2015, which is in the back room of the gallery and should not be missed, Clements draws the kitchen and adjacent rooms of the sets used in the melodrama My Reputation (1946, according IMDb), starring Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent, directed by the Jewish émigré Curtis Bernhardt. Catherine Turner, one of Hollywood’s few women screenwriters, wrote the script.
The drawing is 21 by 112. 5 inches. Like a camera slowly panning the room as intently as a roving eye, we track different angled views of the kitchen as they unfold across the surface, like an accordion. The feeling is at once expansive and claustrophobic, as in the view of the apartment’s front door as seen through a doorway. There are lots of handwritten notes by the artist along the bottom portion of the drawing.
Clements’ combination of ballpoint pen and written text makes this panoramic drawing feel like an assembly of notebook entries, even as, paradoxically, the thoroughness of her attention comes across as encyclopedic. Her use of the ballpoint pen — hardly an instrument we associate with drawing, much less mastery — attains a level of focused attention and sensitivity to detail that is as surprising as it is deeply moving. Clements has attained a singular status in her use of ballpoint: no one else has come close to doing what she has done with it. Although there are no figures in this drawing (or in any other in the show) something of the melodrama of My Reputation comes through the artist’s attention to the banal details of a large but ordinary kitchen. Without having seen the movie, I got the feeling that the owner of this kitchen is stuck within its domestic confines, that it’s her prison and identity.
As with every show of Clements that I have seen, there is always one work that makes my jaw drop, mostly because her synthesis of austerity and sensuality reaches such an intense pitch. The large watercolor “Fruit” (2015), which measures 64.5 by 76.5 inches, was thoroughly captivating. I have to say that is one of the few instances in which the watercolor looks better than the real thing, which I cannot explain. The jagged green bands of the melon’s surface are abstract patterns, while its contours feel exact. A bunch of plums lie on the table above the melon, which is in the middle on the watercolor’s right side. Each of their dusty violet surfaces is particular.
As with Clements’ other watercolors, everything is offered to the eyes’ delectation, as if it too could smell and touch. At the same time, each thing occupies its own space, as if it is inviolable. The artist’s ethics and aesthetics are evident throughout: she wants to honor the existence of whatever she is looking at.
Clements believes in rendering the form and its skin, not in making a sign for them. Her ardor for rendering the defining qualities of a thing and its surface — whether it is a puckered fruit or a red plastic cup — bespeaks of a deep belief in art’s uplifting power. In her work, the artist calls attention to the pleasures of everyday life, from food to film, no matter how deeply one’s life is filled with uncertainty and apprehension. Clements reminds us that you don’t need much— sheets of paper, ballpoint pen, and watercolor — to make something great, and that the most abiding pleasures may be found right in front of you. I have come to think of these drawings as love letters to the world.
Dawn Clements: Tables and pills and things continues at Pierogi (155 Suffolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 7.