I have the pleasure of driving through Austin at least once a year and one of my first stops, straight from I-35, is the Blanton Museum of Art on the UT campus. In need of a coffee and a walk, the moderately sized facility never fails to satisfy and is always a reprieve from the long drive. Add the varied special exhibits, and it becomes a slice of heaven after too many billboards and fast food signs along my route.
So, with only one day in Austin last week, I found myself making plans with my daughter and niece. When brainstorming good rainy day activities, I gave the Blanton a hard sell. Fortunately, these two budding artists were enthusiastic about the plan and off we went.
Sadly, by the time I post this, the exhibit, “James Drake: Anatomy of Drawing and Space (Brain Trash),” has only a few more hours for viewers to experience as much excitement as I’ve ever seen in drawings (the final day is today, Jan 4). The exhibit showcases, pinned to the wall from floor to ceiling, 1,242 individual drawings which were the result of Drake’s commitment to produce at least one drawing per day for two years. At times the multiple drawings form a cohesive image and idea; other times, the individual sheets of paper flutter autonomously and create a random snapshot of the artist’s stream of consciousness as he moves from one subject to another, or repeats one item or type of subject in an effort to practice and better understand the object.
Often, Drake incorporates text into the drawings, which either emphasizes or contrasts the visual images. Sometimes the text appears in the form of commercially printed material and is glued directly on the drawing paper and used as a background underneath drawings. Some words are large and stenciled, some are tiny and hand written, reminiscent of a journal entry or personal reminder. The longer I stood in front of each large wall, filled with papers, the more I realized the vast variety of mark making – variety in subject matter, variety in value, and variety in materials. Drake seems to be working hard to determine the most effective materials and methods to communicate. He even uses some type of scientific graph paper with mechanically made lines measuring something (someone’s heart rate? some sort of geological movement?).
This variety reminds the viewer that meaningful marks can be made in infinite ways with multiple materials, all in the name of drawing and communicating. His work inspires me to think about how old the concept of mark making is…on walls, then tablets, then paper. As old as it is, drawing is as modern and futuristic as it is ancient. Drake manages to capture historic, traditional elements as well as contemporary applications of drawing, which I find to be one of the most fascinating and enjoyable results of the display.
Along that thought, what delights me the most, is the combination of traditional figurative work and all that other mark making. The presence of such variety creates an engaging and complex contrast. Yet, with all the variety, there is a simplicity, a calmness or orderliness to the chaos. There are few colors, mostly varying degrees of black and white, though sepia tones and red are integrated from time to time. And there is plenty of white space – empty areas that serve as calm spots amongst the high energy of the drawings. At times, Drake reminds me of the great artist and drawer, David Bailin, whose energetic compositions are unique due to an extreme and fearless fervor of mark making. Both artists are able to create abstractions and complex spaces in their drawings using a strange combination of figurative representation with lines that I can only categorize as “other” (think of the above mentioned graph paper with the seismograph like lines).
Had I stayed longer and more closely examined the drawings, the text, and the collage style imbedded papers, I would surely have a more thorough and thoughtful response to share. But the two little artists were hard to corral and off we went to the second floor* after immersing ourselves for a little while in the mind of James Drake.
Thank you for reading, and good luck getting to the Blanton before 5:00 pm today!
*Regardless of the museum’s special exhibits located on the first floor, the second floor holds alluring treasures worthy of repeat visits, such as an exquisite Alice Neel painting, a meditative Adolph Gottlieb, and the installation show here, by artist Cildo Meireles.