November 4, 2008

Exhibit Celebrates Oft-Ignored Art Form

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Prints and drawings have long ended up on the wrong side of prevailing trends, as they are often overlooked as second-rate works and preliminary sketches. In the new show at the Johnson Museum, contemporary curator Andrea Inselmann makes a spectacular case for the majesty of these primitive practices by exploring their rich history in contemporary art and complex, often painstaking processes.
The exhibition, Contemporary Print and Drawings, presents an eclectic selection of newly acquired works from a stable of artists ranging from the introspective Laylah Ali to YBA (Young British Artist) all-star Fiona Rae. Though the selection at times seems random, reoccurring themes and interconnected narratives grant the show a duality that at once celebrates the work of talented individuals and pays homage to neglected forms.
Within the intricately layered lines of Laylah Ali’s untitled drawing (from her Typology series), the artist known for her stark simplicity and monotonous palate abandons the tedious geometry of her famous “green heads” in favor of a more complex exploration of identity through notions of tribalism and tradition. Where Ali’s green heads appear as Spartan caricatures of introspective violence and morality, the figures in Typologies celebrate a vast cultural richness through elaborate costumes and make-up.
Ellen Gallagher is another artist whose work deals with identity. As an African American artist, her work explores issues of race and transformation. Her images, embedded in history and culture, are rife with literary and historical allusions. In the piece entitled Abu Simbel, Gallagher appropriates an image of ancient ruins, similar to one which hung over Sigmund Freud’s fireplace and served as an object of interest and speculation. By amending the image with layers of collage, Gallagher skillfully interweaves her own history with that of the iconic image, exploring notions of personal identity along with those of history and time.
Another artist acutely aware of her place in history is Fiona Rae, the British painter who rose to fame as a YBA alongside prominent artists Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. But, unlike her contemporaries, Rae trades stark conceptualism for painterly abstraction, recalling a rich history of “macho” expressionism.
But if Rae’s work is a nod to the masters, it is an ironic one, for her grand compositions are wrought with modern references and often interplayed with appropriated imagery from magazines and tabloids. Such is the case in her piece “So Lovely!,” which juxtaposes painterly brushstrokes with high-resolution photographs in an almost cinematic expression. This expression is reminiscent of experimental surrealist films, a fitting allusion for an artist who likens her creative process to editing.
Another kind of editing is evident in the work of Jane Hammonds, an American artist whose fictitious investigations into taxonomy and language might lend themselves equally well to a natural history museum and a gallery space. Part art and part anthropology, Hammonds’ dimensional diagrams of butterfly specimens explore our fascination with taxonomy and our need for classification.
Other highlights include a series of prints by the American painter Amy Sillman (whose work is on permanent display on the second floor of the museum) and another by the Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes, whose brightly colored geometric compositions are layered in phenonomonology.
All in all, the exhibition — on view through December 4 — is a stunning testament to a dying art form and a celebration of a largely uncelebrated practice. Contemporary Prints and Drawings is a call to collectors, critics and curators to investigate the formal richness and the process driven art of drawing and printmaking.