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Elise Engler’s Prices Upon Request 2.

A Place for Everything
By David Brickman

Elise Engler: Your Tax Dollars . . . and Other Drawings
The 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 dollar store.

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.

>From 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, March 14.


PERIPHERAL VISION

David Arsenault: Time Standing Still
William 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.

—David Brickman


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