Geoffrey Todd Smith, "Popsicle Colossus" (2022), acrylic, gouache and ink on paper, 42 inches x 39 inches (all images courtesy Western Exhibitions)

CHICAGO — What’s a drawing today? Can it be oil wax crayon on a cast concrete vase or a rubbing made by shoes on an enormous circuit of paper? Yes, sure!

Over 20 years ago a Thai food dinner party was recognized as a sculpture, more than 30 years ago a long walk on the Great Wall of China was understood as a performance, and 60-plus years ago a slash in a stretched canvas qualified as a painting. By now everything is part of an expanded field, and more’s the better I say. That doesn’t necessarily mean that categories are retrograde or beside the point; they remain serviceable, so long as we aren’t too strict about boundaries. If it’s helpful to call it art, call it art, and if it makes more sense to call it archaeology or investigative journalism or yoga, do that. Everything together all at once works too, sometimes. All that’s to say, a show organized around the medium of drawing can have both an appeal and a logic in 2023, and hence, the pleasures of the second Western Exhibitions Drawing Biennial.

A mainstay on the Chicago art scene for the past two decades, Western Exhibitions was founded, like many local galleries, by an artist who put up displays in apartments and lofts and other alternative spaces before finally opening a brick-and-mortar location in one of the city’s roving gallery districts. Indeed, these sorts of spaces, commercial and not, have been so vital to the city’s cultural health that they’ve been celebrated in two landmark exhibits at the wonderful Hyde Park Art Center, Artists Run Chicago in 2009 and Artists Run Chicago 2.0 in 2020. What has long distinguished Western is director Scott Speh’s consistent attention to multiples, experimental book arts, and works on paper, a shockingly affordable selection of which are always available for view and purchase in a dedicated section of the gallery. (Seriously, you can get something for 20 dollars.) Western is thus the perfect venue to host a drawing biennial, though truth be told it’s really more of a group exhibition than a biennial, at least in terms of the norms of festival culture.

The show includes work by 25 artists, all either represented by or affiliated with the gallery. Each maker has one to three examples, most finished in the last year or two and in such a broad range of styles that if you can’t find something of interest here, that’s probably on you. There’s horror-show realism by Rachel Niffenegger, conspiracy theory from Deb Sokolow, and conceptual architecture from Edie Fake. Lilli Carré offers calligraphic comedy, Elijah Burgher provides symbolic figuration, and Ruby T tries to capture the movement of water. Curiously, my usual faves didn’t necessarily produce my favorite artworks in this particular show, though one definitely did: Stan Shellabarger, Chicago’s answer to Richard Long, whose “Untitled Walking Book (Breakwind Farm, Buchanan, MI)” is laid out on the gallery floor in a seven-by-seven-foot square. Shellabarger printed the foldable volume by pacing across the paper in graphite-impregnated shoes, creating a rubbing that recorded the wood grain of the floor of the eponymous farmhouse. It’s a gesture he has repeated many times over the years, in shoes that dripped water, scratched with sandpaper, or left behind chalk residue as a means of making a mark on surfaces ranging from paper to the city itself. 

Dan Attoe, “Accretion Drawing LXVII” (2020), graphite on paper, 22 inches x 30 inches

Mark-making, whatever the form of the mark, can be a way of signaling “I was here” or noting “This is what I was thinking about then.” Both motivations pertain to Journie Cirdain’s “Seattle to Salem,” a piece of raw canvas so big it drags off the wall and onto the floor, overflowing with ballpoint pen doodles. Cirdain keeps her canvases unstretched so she can pack them up and take them with her wherever, opening them back out and crawling into their blank central areas, then reaching out to fill in the rest with whatever is on her mind or in her line of sight. She observes, makes sketches, thinks, reads, takes notes, spills coffee, ruminates, scribbles. Expertly rendered body parts, fauna and flora, philosophical phrases, snack food, and the occasional evil bear or other dumb bit of contemporary culture combine like a cross between the illustrated man and high school vandalism, for a whole that is way more than the sum of its parts.

Cirdain’s canvases might be considered conceptual portraiture but regardless there’s plenty of actual portraiture in the show. Jessica Campbell uses cut-up bits of purple- and yellow-painted paper plus dabs and dashes of black ink to create stylish images of fabulous women lost to history: Marie Duval, a French cartoonist born in 1847, and Victoria Woodhull, who in 1872 became the first woman to ever run for the US presidency. Also highly stylized is a colored pencil picture of Jackie O, recognizable despite being bereft of facial features and looking as if she were an abstract puzzle made of wood, created in 1976 by Julia Schmitt Healy, a long-lost member of the Chicago Imagists. More of the Imagist variety appears in Richard Hull’s riotous “Whisper,” which either depicts one very phallic and scrotal person murmuring in the ear of another or a Freudian analyst’s next interpretation.

What else is here? So much more: Erin Washington’s delicate, sketchy, and totally mysterious “Anechoic Vanitas”; Geoffrey Todd Smith’s meticulous acid-colored psychedelic diagram, which definitely should be adapted as a Snakes and Ladders board game; Cathrine Whited’s sincere and simple illustrations of a snow cone and tuna fish sandwich. Finally there is Dan Attoe’s “Accretion Drawing LXVIII,” a drawing that contains so many tiny drawings, not all of which interest me, because male puerility is not my thing, but many of which really do, because beautiful landscapes rendered at a minute scale are somehow more moving, and they make manageable the depressing thoughts scribbled beside them, and they are tempered by the absurd ideas and cartoons placed nearby. What could be more accretive than that?

Installation view of The 2023 Western Exhibitions Drawing Biennial at Western Exhibitions, Chicago
Installation view of The 2023 Western Exhibitions Drawing Biennial at Western Exhibitions, Chicago
Installation view of The 2023 Western Exhibitions Drawing Biennial at Western Exhibitions, Chicago
Left to right: Michael Pellew, “Best of All-Time Demos” (2021), pencil on paper, 19 inches x 24 inches; Aya Nakamura, “Heart (Rhizome)” (2022), colored pencil on handmade paper, 31 inches by 31 inches; Cathrine Whited, “Snow Cone” (2018), colored pencil on bond paper, 11 inches x 8 1/2 inches; and Cathrine Whited, “Tuna Sandwich,” colored pencil and graphite on bond paper, 11 inches x 8 1/2 inches

The 2023 Western Exhibitions Drawing Biennial continues at Western Exhibitions (1709 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through February 25. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

Lori Waxman has been the Chicago Tribune’s primary art critic since 2009. She teaches art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and performs occasionally as the “60 wrd/min art critic,”...