SUMMIT, NJ — Extended technique is a term normally applied to musical performance, but Migratory Marks, a show of seven wall works by seven artists, offers a thoughtful accounting of where extended techniques have pushed the boundary of what can be called a drawing, if there is in fact such a boundary at all.
The artists in Migratory Marks, which is on view through tomorrow at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, approach drawing in distinct, divergent ways, each dealing with characteristics such as concept, line, contour, mark, movement, light and texture.
That all of the works are temporary, site-specific installations can be seen as analogous to drawing’s volatile relationship between concept and material. Often the first expression of an idea, drawing as an art form is prized for its spontaneity and its direct channel into the creative process. Accordingly, a drawing is just as often tossed off and discarded, its usefulness disappearing as quickly as the thought that sparked it.
The installations in Migratory Marks, curated by Mary Birmingham and Erin Brown, embody drawing’s fleetingness as much as its capacity to support major aesthetic statements. In this regard, the most literal of the group is Esperanza Mayobre’s “Everybody knows that cities are built to be destroyed VI” (2013), which consists of a large graphite and charcoal architectural rendering and, directly below the wall label, a box of erasers presumably inviting members of the public to rub out whatever portions of the drawing they wish.
By the time I saw the work, it was almost entirely obliterated, but from the passages of precision detailing that were still fully or partially intact, it evidently depicted a sprawling assortment of open-frame structures infused with the sci-fi overtones of Lebbeus Woods’ visionary cityscapes. The drawing’s random, incremental disappearance can be viewed a kind of fast-forwarding that pushes the futuristic inexorably into the forgotten.
On the opposite wall, and metaphorically of a piece with Mayobre’s work, is Chris Nau’s “Inhabitat XXII” (2013), a composition of shapes cut out of, and bulging from, an enormous section of drywall. (Not, as I first thought, the gallery’s actual wall, but one seamlessly layered in front of it.)
For all intents and purposes, Nau’s work is a bas-relief, which shifts the weight of its interpretation as a drawing to the marks made by the artist’s blade as it cut through the sheetrock. Like Mayobre’s “Everybody knows…,” the knife’s incision is an act of destruction that drives home a particular facet of drawing, namely the organization of visual experience into discrete sections bounded by contour lines.
Sharing the map-like quality of the paintings of Mark Bradford, Nau’s work is composed of contours that simultaneously describe and create three-dimensional shapes. The overall white-on-white scheme and destabilizing Cubist collisions of geometric and biomorphic shapes evoke ice floes heaving upward off the surface of the ocean, or an early modernist abstraction extolling the Machine Age.
In Adam Fowler’s “Untitled (46 Layers)” (2013), hundreds, if not thousands, of graphite lines are hand cut from long sheets of paper and applied to the wall in a big, hairy rectangle. Here the lines are objects, in contrast to the voids in Nau’s “Inhabitat XXII,” and in that way they offer a peculiar counterpoint to Sol Lewitt’s late graphite works, whose visual existence proceeds from a set of instructions independent of the artist’s participation.
In so being, Lewitt’s lines are all about the idea, while Fowler’s are all about the object. Lewitt’s idea-lines come together only when a team of artists is commissioned to carry out his directions, and Fowler’s object-lines come together only when the artist assembles them into a collage. The two approaches can be seen as defining the opposing material/immaterial poles of pure abstraction.
Drawing as movement, texture and light is foregrounded in the works of Joan Grubin, Dannielle Tegeder and Margaret Inga Wiatrowski. Grubin’s “Flying Grid” (2013), installed on a wall adjacent to one of the gallery’s two floor-to-ceiling windows, is a tilted trapezoid made of hinged pieces of paper mounted in parallel rows, their widths diminishing from left to right.
The materials on the wall label are given as “Acrylic on paper, shadows.” The piece, also apparently sculptural, works as a drawing on several formal levels, with the paper providing a traditional drawing support; the hinged elements indicating points in space on the slanted grid; and the interaction of light and shadow creating transitional marks.
The show’s inclusive view of drawing may work for Grubin and Nau, but not for everything here. Not to get hung up on categories, but the one piece that comes across as an outlier is Margaret Inga Wiatrowski’s otherwise unassuming “Reminders & Remainders: 01” (2013).
Sitting on the floor at the base of the gallery’s other large window, “Reminders & Remainders: 01” is a sculptural installation comprising several sheets of clear acrylic etched in abstracted patterns resembling trees and foliage. I suppose there is no real difference between the making of this work and a drawing composed on a computer and realized on a plotter, but its hands-free execution seems to short-circuit the mind-to-material connection evident in the other works, including Dannielle Tegeder’s animated film “Geo-Chemical Sound Catastrophic Kit” (2010), projected on the wall between Fowler’s “Untitled (46 Layers)” and Nau’s “Inhabitat XXII.”
Recalling the glory days of experimental film, when early 20th-century artists such as Man Ray, Fernand Leger and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy approached the brand-new medium with complete abandon, Tegeder’s moving abstract drawing exults in its hand-made simplicity, a Marcel Duchamp glass painting come to life. The artist’s choices come through unadorned and undisguised in each frame.
By now it is evident that to describe the works in this show as temporary, as I did above, is overly broad. Tegeder’s animation can be projected onto a wall in some other gallery; Wiatrowski’s acrylic sheets can be picked up and placed in front of another window; Grubin’s trapezoid can be reinstalled elsewhere.
But the others do represent a tremendous amount of effort in the service of a foreshortened lifespan, none more poignantly than Judith Braun’s mandala-like “Fingering #16” (2013), a very large work composed of perfectly concentric circles — four in all, expanding in width as they progress from the center — made by the artist’s charcoal-smeared fingertips.
The astonishing physical endurance, discipline and skill necessary to create such a work aside, there is something uncanny, disturbing and transcendent about encountering a perfectly geometric work created with such decidedly imperfect tools as the human hand, arm and shoulder.
While the circles are consummately executed, the scalloped curves of the fingerprints coiling around the center are not exactly symmetrical, which endows the work with a curiously moving human/divine duality. The work’s fate, to be painted over at the show’s end, only intensifies its spiritual imprint: a moment of perfection, achieved through exceptional effort, solely for a moment of perfection.
Migratory Marks continues at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey (68 Elm Street, Summit, New Jersey) through tomorrow, November 24.