Engler’s Prices Upon Request 2.
Place for Everything
Engler: Your Tax Dollars . . . and Other Drawings
College of Saint Rose Gallery, through Mar. 17
I wonder if Elise Engler knew what she was getting into in
1997 when she began her 17-drawing series Everything I
Own. The vertical sheets, about a foot wide and five feet
high, are riddled with tiny drawings—13,127 of them, depicting
the entire physical contents of Engler’s life in colored pencil,
from clothes to tools to toys, even including at the end the
17 scrolls themselves, redrawn in miniature.
What followed, and will continue probably until she keels
over, are other similar series of exhaustive inventories of
contents—those of refrigerators (intended to reach 50), of
vehicles (55) and of women’s handbags (100). Like a serial
killer, Engler the serial drawer appears driven by an irresistible
compulsion: She couldn’t stop herself if she wanted to. And
I wouldn’t want her to, either, for a number of reasons, the
first of which is that the drawings are damn good. Then again,
I wouldn’t want to be her massage therapist either, if you
know what I mean.
In Your Tax Dollars . . . and Other Drawings at the
College of Saint Rose Gallery, 30 of Engler’s scroll drawings,
from Everything I Own (completed in 1998) to current
works in progress, are on view in a suitably spare presentation.
Unframed, they hang from binder clips tacked to the wall;
we can examine them as closely and for as long as we want.
Because the minor details count as much as the overall gestalt
of the installation (considering Engler’s omnivorous cataloging
appetite, no details are minor), it’s important to
be able to take the time to examine them.
But, despite obsessive appearances to the contrary, the drawings
are not about their contents. Yes, Engler draws realistically
(if expressively) in a traditional manner but she is, at heart,
a conceptual, even a political artist. This effect derives
from both the contents and the manner in which they are presented.
By homing in, first, on her entire inventory of possessions,
and then on those of our government (including all manner
of military hardware as well as a pitiful collection of school
chairs), Engler as much as any artist I’ve seen makes us think.
She makes us question. She makes us doubt ourselves. She makes
us feel guilty. She makes us ashamed—even as she amuses us.
After all, who could look at her unblinking depictions of
her own fairly modest, yet somehow nearly endless possessions
without cringing inwardly at the awareness of their own crammed
drawers, closets and garages? I imagine that Engler, during
the many months spent making those drawings, must have had
to stop shopping altogether—bad enough to add one more thing
to the pile, but then to have to draw it, too? That could
be too much pressure to handle during a simple trip to the
It’s fascinating, too, that people willingly subject themselves
to her strange scrutiny of their purses, their cars and their
refrigerators. With each, Engler meticulously records the
container’s outward appearance first, then everything in or
on it with more or less equal fervor (refrigerator magnets,
loose change, campaign buttons, scraps of paper, jumper cables—it
would be possible to fill the pages of this newspaper with
a list of it all). Perhaps for her subjects it’s a form of
therapy: a chance to clear out and start fresh. It’s certainly
an effective method of portraiture.
the viewer’s perspective, the work holds the gaze like an
overheard conversation grips an eavesdropper but it also offers
endless amusements and surprises. For example, the refrigerator
from a photo studio contains, predictably, beverages and film—but
also a whole lot of really silly-looking magnets, yet nearly
no pictures. A zoo refrigerator, while holding food items
that look pretty normal, like trays of veggies, also contains
a vast, lovingly rendered array of dead insects and mice (hey,
reptiles gotta eat, too).
The personal inventories are equally fun but none approaches
Everything I Own for its truly lyrical visual passages,
like the rows of books, CDs and cassette tapes, each drawn
in perspective; or the jaunty collection of yellow pencils,
all of various lengths; or the affecting inclusion of 17 pairs
of scissors—but not one item of comfortable furniture.
Most pointed, aside from the variations on cruise missiles,
are two ongoing series titled Wrapped in the Flag and
Collateral Damage. Currently numbering six and seven
sheets respectively, these two sets of scrolls depict individually,
through a symbolic code of action silhouettes, every military
and civilian casualty of the war in Iraq. Art doesn’t get
more political than this—yet Engler shows through her attention
to names and the time it takes to hand-draw each shape that
there is still such a thing as human compassion, that indeed
it is necessary (at least for her and, by extension, for all
of us) to care enough to bother to pay attention.
Can art change such horrors? Probably not, at least not directly.
But it can change the way we experience them, the way we think
about them, and maybe, somewhere, can embolden one or more
people in a position to affect such things to do something
about it. Equally, there is the Zen-like concentration that
Engler herself must require to make these drawings. If nothing
else, she may be transforming herself through the process,
and the society as a whole by association.
Certainly, this matters to her. The crowded inclusiveness,
the fixation on identity—these are signs that personal transformation
means little to Engler if she can’t bring others into the
process. Showing the drawings is, I believe, just one way
she strives to make the connections.
Please note that the College of Saint Rose Gallery is closed
for spring break through March 13 and will reopen on Monday,
Arsenault: Time Standing Still
K. Sanford Town Library through Mar. 31
Inspired by a childhood love affair with Edward
Hopper’s paintings, David Arsenault transformed
himself as an adult from working graphic designer
to working painter, adopting Hopper’s realist
style and adding his own twists. Now, years later,
he has earned a strong following and reputation
(even winning a Metroland readers’ poll
a few years back), and his entrepreneurial skills
have kept him solvent and regularly showing.
His current display at the Loudon ville library’s
spacious, spotlit Sted man Room features 24 oils
on canvas from as early as 1995 through brand-new
work. This quasi-retrospective offers a well-organized
look at Ar senault’s genesis and evolution—fans
won’t want to miss it, as many of the best older
works have already sold, and will likely disappear
forever into private collections.
Having dubbed his style “the art of solitude,”
Arsenault strikes a softly alienated pose, favoring
isolated houses and, when present at all, self-absorbed
individuals. He’s at his best when capturing qualities
of light, whether natural, artificial, or both
at once—and his sense for color is quite strong.
Where Arsenault occasionally falters, however,
is in describing form; here, his brushwork sometimes
seems rushed and imprecise, which can rob a painting
of its true voice.
But this is a quibble. Arsenault’s a really good
painter—and there’s still plenty of time for trying
to achieve greatness.