February 6, 2013

Blank Pages in a Crowded Room

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Mustachio’d men with half-moon eyes, their hands clasped over buttoned beer bellies. A bald old man in a onesie. Figures whose foreheads bleed into their noses, whose limbs contort in impossible positions. Ink blobs with feet.

For nearly two weeks, these figures and many more populated the Experimental Gallery in Tjaden Hall as part of “Drawing Room,” an exhibition which ended last Friday. A drawing performance piece by Sophia Balagamwala M.F.A. ‘14, “Drawing Room” invited viewers to alter or remove the drawings on display according to a set of instructions taped to the outside door:

1. Things to draw on: paper, photographs, books, gifts.    2. Time to draw in: 10 seconds, 30 seconds, one minute, five minutes, as long as it takes.    3. Things to draw with: pen, pencils, ink, crayon, paint plasterune.    4. Types of drawings: big, small, very big, very small, medium, drawings that fit, drawings that do not fit.

Ownership of drawings: You are invited to draw on and take any drawing you like. Blurring the distinction between gallery and studio, the show was both a place for creating and a place for display. Upon entering the Experimental Gallery, viewers were confronted by drawings of all shapes and sizes. Some were pinned to the wall, others loosely arranged on the floor amidst scattered pens, pencils, crayons and markers. A work table and several ladders were also included, available for anyone who wanted to reach the top of a larger drawing or sit in a desk.

According to Balagamwala, the idea for “Drawing Room” originated from an anonymous blog she began with a friend three years ago that documents and comments on their hometown of Karachi, Pakistan. The blog began as a way for Balagamwala, who spent four years in Toronto completing her undergraduate studies, to renegotiate her relationship with Karachi. It started simply enough. Some drawings, a few photos here and there, some text. However, eventually something unexpected happened: People began printing out Balagamwala’s drawings, altering them and sending them back to her.

“It was interesting how people would claim ownership from a drawing,” said Balagamwala of those initial altered drawings.

Likewise, “Drawing Room” asked viewers to take ownership of the drawings on display by altering them. Every day, the drawings changed. Over the course of the exhibition, a group of intertwined men grew facial hair, started reading books and bought headphones. An empty building was filled with figures trying different positions, all visible from the windows. According to Balagamwala, one participant got so carried away that he drew all over the wall — something which took several layers of paint to remove this weekend, when the show was taken down. However, she said, it’s just par for the course.

“That’s the beauty of something like this, that it’s open to the unexpected happening,” she said, contrasting a performative, high-risk work like “Drawing Room” with a more typical gallery space, where drawings are hung on the wall.

Indeed, Balagamwala’s work is all about turning the white cube notion of the gallery space — and all the elitism that accompanies it — inside out. She uses simple, cheap materials: sketch paper, pens, ink and occasionally plasterune or cut-outs from magazines. Her mostly monochromatic drawings are quick sketches, some taking as little as five-seven minutes to complete. Her figures, rendered in a few squiggles and marks, are whimsical and inviting.

“I kind of like how [drawing isn’t] taken so seriously,” she said, elaborating on her choice of medium. “There’s a silliness to it, and I think that’s why it works.”

At times, Balagamwala will use such silliness to undercut serious subject matter. For example, when Karachi passed a law banning Pillion riding, riding many people to a motorbike, (supposedly to stop terrorist planning and attacks), she didn’t want to comment directly on the subject of terrorism. Rather, she made funny drawings of people crammed clown-car style on motorbikes.

“I guess part of it was trying to laugh at stuff that was happening or show a lighter side or focus on points of resiliency,” she said of her drawings depicting Karachi.

It’s this lighter side that came alive in “Drawing Room” and that promises to be on display next week in “Ripe One Fresh,” a two-person show with Francesca Lohmann M.F.A. ‘14. In some ways, this show will be a departure from Balagamwala’s previous work — she will even paint something directly on the wall. However, no matter the medium, she said, everything comes back to drawing.

“There’s something about these lines,” she said. “I think I could spend my whole life just working with line.”

Original Author: Emily Greenberg