There’s something in the air about reading, writing and art. In addition to Summer Reading at The Hole, the New York Studio School is presenting a show called Reading the Space: Contemporary Australian Drawing 4.
Unlike Summer Reading, which gathers together existing works, the curator for Reading the Space, Irene Barberis, asked the artists — 88 in all — to respond to three propositions. The trouble is, none of the statements give them much to hang a drawing on.
What would you do with “Reading the Space: ‘Other’ Meanings,” “All Writing is Drawing,” and “The Space of Writing, What is That?”? Apparently, most of the artists were game despite the airy generalities they were handed, and a number of them put together punchy presentations.
All but a few of the drawings are done on the same size paper, 35 x 25 centimeters, which is roughly 14 x 10 inches. The others, on red-lined graph paper, are around ledger size. The installation is lively in a rough-and-tumble, DIY sort of way, with the drawings pinned directly to the wall along horizontal guidelines of red thread.
The uniformity of the dimensions grants the show an ostensible unity of purpose, even though the drawings are all over the place in terms of form and content. Where the artwork in Summer Reading tends to stick to a literal interpretation of the theme, the freewheeling Australians just let it fly, with the chips falling where they may.
Some drawings are minimalist, others are overwrought. There are organic abstractions and geometric abstractions, conventional representation and cartoonish riffs. More than a few include words, this being a show about reading and all.
Many of the standouts are the ones in which the paper is manipulated to such an extent that the drawing becomes an object. Ruth Johnstone’s “Beware the Coloniser” (no dates are given for specific pieces; the checklist states, “All works 2011/2012/2013”) consists of black paper that’s partially folded over at the top, with the title printed on the flap and featherlike shapes partially hidden beneath.
In Virginia Grayson’s tracing paper collage “Thirst,” a film transparency peeking through a little cutout window turns the piece into an abstracted watchtower, while a work like Bernhard Sachs’ “Green Passion After Dürer” is rumpled, crumpled and shellacked until it resembles a piece of tree bark.
Looking at these works makes you want to see a non-programmatic show of Australian art (despite this one’s grandiloquent billing as “Contemporary Australian Drawing 4”) to gauge how prevalent this current is.
As it stands, Reading the Space is much too enamored of its own concept to present a representative selection of work from its community of artists. A lot of the drawings feel slight, as if they are one-offs done for the show that may not have much to do with the artist’s vision or preoccupations. More than a few give off the vibe that the artist is goofing on the theme rather than responding to it as intended (see “Whatever” by Janene Eaton).
While the show performs a service by bringing these artists to a new viewership, it avoids the hard work of traipsing through studios and selecting work that gives at least a clue to what an artist is about — not what he or she can contribute to a preselected idea. Not every proposition is a comfortable fit, and the more imaginative and expansive an artist is, the more difficult any fit becomes.
Reading the Space: Contemporary Australian Drawing 4 continues at the New York Studio School (8 West 8th Street, West Village, Manhattan) through September 6.