Were you alright yesterday?

by Donald Goddard

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The figures in these drawings, paintings, and installations by seven young artists are everything. Space is only what surrounds them. They are very much alone, and whatever is around them is around them only because they are there. It is them, genetically and environmentally. In Taylor McKimmens' Untitled Installation, a life-size cardboard cutout drawing of a disheveled young man, naked except for underpants, stands on what appears to be the porch of a crumpled, working-class house, also made of cardboard, paper, and other materials. A hose from the house leads to a sprinkler from which drawings of waterdrops spray and fall on the ground, and the young man holds a plant as though to save it from the flood or to bring it to the water to keep it alive. The house might seem more like a boat or an ark in which the young man is taking refuge or escaping. The cardboard cutout bicycle leaning against the wall next to the house is another means of escape. Scattered around his feet are actual drawings on paper in which hoses or cords are prominent. Being plugged in, like the sprinkler, is how things are held together.

The Cloud Punchers
Ben Woodward.The Cloud Punchers,
Gouache on wood, 40" x 36"
Courtesy White Columns

In any case, the entire scene is subject to the conventions of drawing. There is nothing that is not obviously drawn, including, of course, the drawings within the installation. The space is a cartoon space, not as a fantasy or special world as it had been through the generation of Keith Haring, but as an actual place from which there is no escape. As animation, as cyberspace, as image, the world comes to the person rather than the other way around. It is part of the body in which the person resides. I suppose it is possible to imagine being in a commercial, a situation comedy, or a reality show on television, but that is not the way it works. It's the other way around, with those scenes becoming part of your life, perhaps not the determining part, but something that holds life in stasis. This is the only way the mind works in this situation, which currently is the situation, through media. The person is cast back into the cartoon, which becomes a vehicle of personal expression, as therefore does the drawing itself. Every mark--describing the hair on legs and body, the drops of water, the shingles of the house, etc.--is a mark of emotional identification, of being in the cartoon.

So the experience of all seven artists' work in "Were you alright yesterday?" is always painful--funny or sad or even affectionate, but painful, and aware of the world being thus described. Each of the young women in Rebecca Westcott's three large paintings is said to be in that uncertain moment before her photo is taken. Paradoxically, their alienation as subjects of media, of photography (and painting) is balanced by their vulnerable humanity, their vividness as characters, as figures in tension. The paint genuinely describes them and their aliveness, not something about their station in life.

In very different ways, each of the other five artists embodies a consciousness that is extraordinarily sensitive to the hand and conscience of the artist. Nils Carstens' medium is delicate, fine-lined illustrational drawing, through which the reveries of nubile young female figures and children are effortlessly and somewhat subliminally intersected by processions of more ominous male imagery: tanks, submarines, and in three large drawings by the intrusion of male hands, perhaps those of the artist, manipulating the face of a beautiful adolescent girl as though to force feeling or to discover the reason for its beauty. In the latter series, there is a kind of violation that nonetheless cannot overcome the emotional integrity of the face itself and the life of which it is a part.

Jeff Ladouceur's small ink drawings, many from a book called Ebola, seem to illustrate the conclusion of Trieste novelist Italo Svevo that life is a disease. These too have the appearance of cartoons, with tightly drawn and shaded figures that expand into balls, stretch their arms out into spaghetti like tangles, ingest multitudes (of elephants, for instance), or cut themselves open to reveal multitudes (of elephants, or babies). They have something of the energy of "Popeye," where nothing is at rest, even when the hero remains in childhood (all the time), when everything is in question and life is lived from one disaster to the next. One is hurtling with others down a waterfall, carrying oneself in a wheelbarrow, and even in sleep contending with a web of arms and hands extending from the body.

Feed Me
Feed Me, 2002.
Cardboard, acrylic, masonite, and wood.
10' x 12' x 1 1/2'.
Courtesy White Columns

In Kevin Christy's mixed-media drawings, there is also a sense of being trapped inside conventions of illustration, but also of Surrealism's dreamlike juxtaposition of images, of landscape painting and animal painting, and literally the conventions of modern corporate, suburban life and its fantasies of escape. All that nature is and was, its rugged mountains, endless waterfalls, and wild animals, its people who hunted and lived in caves, is contained within the man in his suit and woman in her dress. But at the same time that is only a picture of what is there, and one that will never be complete, anymore than a TV commercial, arrogant in its pretense, is a complete picture of life.

Children's book illustration is the site of Ben Woodward's strange conventions of invented furry humanoid creatures, whose faces and movements seem to suggest, rather endearingly, an awareness of their own limitations and imperfections in an irresistibly colorful world. And on the adjacent wall in the gallery was Feed Me, a scene of two gigantic figures of a man and a woman by Libby McInnis that evokes the violence of the Grand Guignol, or Punch and Judy, only reversed. The figures are jointed like puppets, pieced together cutout shapes of wood, masonite, and cardboard for all the parts of the body, so they seem to move prodigiously, and a consonant kind of painting in acrylics defines their dress and facial expressions. Having cut off the male's cock, she looms over his prostrate, struggling figure and aims the bloody piece for his mouth. The viewer is instructed to "push" in a way that would presumably achieve the desired goal. This is, like the Biblical scene of Judith with the head of Holofernes, a story of anger and revenge, the climax of a cycle that began somewhere else, and will continue. Yet, though the gruesome business has already been accomplished, the work also represents a moment of pity, a pause in which the viewer might determine what happens next. That sense of personal involvement is present throughout this exhibition.

Donald Goddard © 2003

The exhibition, curated by Monya Rowe, ran from January 31 through March 9, 2003, at White Columns, 320 West 13th Street, New York, NY 10014. Tel. 212 924 4212

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