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Process transcends politics: Kara Walker’s Untitled.

Crossing the Line
By Pam Barrett-Fender

Initial Encounters
Arts Center of the Capital Region, through June 6

Drawing is the most immediate, direct form of visual communication, and represents the most primal of artistic impulses. It is the essential mode of defining forms, documenting movements and conveying experiences. It is also fluid, encompassing, limitless—a main ingredient in the melting pot of contemporary creative activity.

This range, this fluidity, is the focus of a current exhibit hosted by the Arts Center of the Capital Region. Curated by the Drawing Center’s Viewing Program committee, Initial Encounters includes the work of 12 artists who have shown at the Drawing Center before. According to the curators, these artists have “helped to shape the center’s ideas of what the medium can be.”

Walking into the Arts Center’s Main Gallery, you get an immediate feel for the scope of the Drawing Center’s ideas—appropriately broad and inclusive for an organization committed to cultural and stylistic diversity. The work ranges in approach from conventional drawing (marks made on two-dimensional surfaces,) to much looser interpretations of the genre. As it meanders across boundaries of method and medium, this exhibit also covers a lot of ground in terms of concept, skill level, and attitude.

Two pieces in particular dominate the room, commanding immediate attention. They greet the viewer with their bright colors, graphic patterns and massive scale, offering up the show’s most ambitious work, if not its most successful.

Geraldine Lau’s Information Retrieval 104: Troy, North and South in a day is an adhesive vinyl map that fills an entire wall, reaching nearly to the ceiling and spilling across a corner, almost to the floor. It is an impossible map; disjointed and incomplete, with unfinished words and roads that go nowhere. While there is a certain curiosity, and an element of spectacle to the piece, looking at it quickly becomes an exercise in frustration. I thought that must be the point. In her artist statement, however, Lau explains that the drawing addresses issues of evolution, migration and changing neighborhoods, aiming to be a “tribute to the delicate balance in urban landscapes and the glue that makes it stick on a social level.” This statement adds a layer of self-conscious intellectualism to the puzzle, generating a chasm between the artist’s concept and the actual experience of the piece.

Peter Dudek, on the other hand, offers no explanation whatsoever for his confounding and alienating Installation for Monika, which serves as a visual centerpiece of the exhibition. The piece consists of an incoherent scattering of building and craft materials, marbles, drawings, and some dingy, battered furniture. The drawings (the only element of skill apparent in the installation) are presented in a way that diminishes any reference to the medium. This is perfectly in keeping with the postmodern irreverence toward order, beauty or meaning that is the essence of this piece. His statement describes the work in the vaguest terms, “The sculpture and installations combine found and altered forms with fabricated objects,” but leaves one unanswered question sitting like the elephant in the room: Why?

Luckily, this exhibit also includes work that challenges traditional concepts of drawing’s possibilities without eschewing craft or charm. Yuken Teruya’s four sculpted paper bags are no less contemporary in their approach, but far more satisfying in their understated simplicity and sincerity. Teruya draws with a blade, cutting delicate forms into the surface of small paper bags lying on their sides, creating what the artist refers to as “a portrait of an existing tree.” Each tree is sculpted inside the bag from two hinged cutouts in the top. The tree’s forms are repeated threefold; the interior sculpture, the negative space left in the bag’s surface, and the patterns created by the light passing through the holes. The tree is, of course, referenced a fourth time through the paper bag itself.

The process of making marks with a knife is present in the work of other artists too, including Arturo Herrera’s 9-foot drawing—which consists of precisely cut collages of pop-culture icons into rambling, stringy forms that partially obscure computer-generated images. Mary Lum also uses a blade to create her small-scale architectural forms. The linear renderings depict complex structures in gouache of various colors, with negative spaces cut out to suggest transparent walls. The drawings are mounted on the windows in the gallery, iterating the reference to the permeable boundaries between interior life and life that takes place on the outside.

Clinging to the narrow wall between windows, and easily overlooked, is a single piece by Cory McCorkle. Model for Trellis is an intricate wing pattern created for the gate of a Scottish commune. The design is essentially symmetrical, but upon closer examination, minute variations between the halves can be rewarding, in a meditative way.

In accord with the exhibit’s contemporary character, it fairly represents artists with a distinctly political bent. This includes the large painterly cartoons of Enrique Chagoya, who portrays Jesus as pilot (and copilot) of an F-14 fighter jet in one piece, and as a looming presence above a military tank in another. They read like political cartoons, leaving little question as to his message. Equally provocative and only slightly subtler are Kara Walker’s watercolor drawings, which parody the complex relationships formed between sexes and races in the antebellum South. In each case, I found the artist’s facility to be the most engaging aspect of the work, the evidence of their process more interesting than their politics.

Another clear nod to the topical nature of Initial Encounters is the flickering glow emanating from the recessed corner of the gallery. In Perseverance, Jenny Perlin takes the direct act of mark-making some three generations from its origin, animating the act, filming it, and transferring it to DVD to be projected on the gallery wall. The piece seems to be both a reference and a challenge to the immediacy of the genre.

Three artists in this show serve to represent a fairly broad range of possibilities within traditional drawing, each employing conventional materials, like ink and pigment, but to distinctly different ends. Yun-Fei Ji presents a group of drawings with lush, complex surfaces, juxtaposing serene surroundings with chaotic and horrific human activity. As if set up for contrast, this work hangs next to the intentionally naïve neo-dadaist drawings of Christopher Johanson. They are flat, brightly colored, and contain text that is largely nonsensical. Across the room hang Renato Orara’s tiny, fastidious renderings of Things that Breathe, including an onion, a chair, cardboard and underwear. The ballpoint pen drawings have an unassuming presence, but are ultimately gratifying for their poetry as well as their astounding detail.

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