Catalog Essay from: Facets of Myth and Memory,
Portland State University, Portland, SE, 2007
By: Richard Torchia
“Drawnwork” is an exhibition of works on paper by four artists who employ drawing as a “means to transgress the accepted distinctions applied to past, present and future.”1 Recognizing the powerful role that memory plays in this process, each of these artists strive to establish ways in which the personal, often hermetic nature of the remembered image might yield more open, universal readings. While the title of the exhibition may appear as a word coined for the occasion, it is actually a technical term that refers to a traditional form of ornamental needlework created by pulling threads to create lacelike patterns. When applied to the work on view, this word invites us to consider the drawn mark as a thread that can be pulled “from the past into the present and back out again.”2 The term also makes constructive allusions to the crafted and the decorative, suggesting that we consider drawing as focused, physical handwork engaged in the formation of satisfying patterns of loops, gaps, and ties.
To propose that drawing redraw the borders separating past, present and future reconciles certain assumptions about the process that are sometimes held in opposition, especially when appreciating the differences between the original moment of a drawing’s emergence and its subsequent viewing. Jacques Derrida, noting that artists usually turn away from the subjects they are depicting in order to observe their drafting tools make contact with the page, has suggested that drawing is always done from memory.3 On the other hand, Norman Bryson, writing about the usually irretractable character of the raw mark on paper—especially in relation to the re-workable, layered density of applied paint—asserts that “The drawn line always exists in the present tense, in the time of its unfolding, the ongoing time of a present that constantly presses forward.”4
When representational drawings are not describing physical subjects before the eye of the artist they can become a means of retrieving visions harbored in the mind as well as a mode of speculation. Following the logic offered by Derrida, if the subjects being depicted exist as interior, mental scenes or emerge unpremeditated on the page in the manner of sentences, there is no need for artists to turn away from them as they draw. We could say that such images are projected directly onto the paper from the mind and then traced without hesitation. The act of rendering becomes akin to that of contour drawing, although instead of imagining the pen or pencil touching the edges of the external subject, the artist follows the path of his or her thinking as if it were a fusion of image and language.
Perhaps the most literal expression of drawing as drawnwork is manifest in the projects of Marie Sivak. Tapping her own automatic, graphic responses, some of her works on paper are generated by scattering the letters of a short text or creating an abstract, linear pattern on the page to register the impact of witnessing a trauma (as in her Glasgow Series) and or experiencing pain (as in the Odussomai Series). Many of her drawings are populated by female figures that appear both comprised of and suspended by unfurling ribbons of language. Held aloft by these bandage-like supports, the figures demonstrate the weightlessness of specters. Writing about some of the drawings in the exhibition, she has stated that she thinks of line as “a piece of string which, through knots, twists, and tangles accumulates to supplant the experience of text with the experience of image.”5
The works of Michelle Oosterbaan, likewise, are generated by the collision of linear abstraction and detailed description. Each of her drawings confronts us with a map-like array of layered incidents that plot actual views and events in her life. Shaped by recollection and the slow deliberation of her labor, each of these visions occupies its own timeframe on the page and becomes legible at a pace determined both by the artist and the viewer. We read Oosterbaan’s abstract passages quickly while her realistic rendering insists on absorption. Together, these two modes reflect what she calls the “distracted state of memory” that navigates “an escape to a place where the mundane journey merges with the mythic narrative.”6 Staring into some of these cloudlike palimpsests, there is a sense that no amount of looking will reveal the sum of figures and forms embedded there. In the process of discovering and deciphering Oosterbaan’s images, they become our own.
The recent drawings of Hiro Sakaguchi explore the distinctions between personal and cultural memory. Employing the differences between East and West as a point of departure, his floating islands, mountaintops (Matterhorn and Fuji), and other aerial views give his drawings the semblance of daydreams that we imagine Sakaguchi might experience on plane rides between Philadelphia and his native Tokyo. In another body of work, miniaturized scenes from both locations become analogs for digital photographs on the tiny screens of handcrafted mobile phones carved from wood. These souvenirs can be read as physical manifestations of memories extracted from the mind and made portable. As such, Sakaguchi’s mementos recreate the manner in which memory serves the process of assimilation while at the same time demonstrating the limits of representation itself.
Perhaps the farthest from pure drawing, Sherif Habashi’s egg tempera works on paper propose a material and conceptual amalgam of drafting, painting, and printing that is emblematic for this exhibition. Seen from a distance, these labor-intensive works possess the detachment and mannered vocabulary of antique wallpaper. Upon closer inspection however, his tigers and hikers become allegories of personal experience camouflaged as generic imagery. The flatness Habashi obtains by leaving large portions of the colored paper he uses untouched provides a pictorial freedom that allows each figure to establish its own pocket of space and time. Scanned by the viewer, these isolated vignettes coalesce to create a panoramic narrative in the manner of Renaissance masters. The implied but never capitulated repetition of images, like all of those in the exhibition, disrupts our routine perceptions of the flow of time as well as the standard distinctions between the coded nature of private memories and those that are visually and emotionally available to others. While their meanings and associations may differ, it is the actuality of these images, as thoughtfully rendered by these four artists, that offers them the chance to become our own memories as well.
1. Marie Sivak, exhibition proposal, 2007.
3. Jacques Derrida, “Memoirs of the Blind: The Self Portrait and Other Ruins,” (catalog essay for exhibition at the Louvre, Paris, 1990).
4. Norman Bryson, “A Walk for a Walk’s Sake,” (catalog essay for “The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act,” The Drawing Center, New York, 2003).
5. Marie Sivak, artist statement, 2007.
6. Michelle Oosterbaan, artist statement (Drawing Papers 67, catalog for “Levity,” The Drawing Center, New York, 2007).
Richard Torchia is an artist and director of Arcadia University Art Gallery, Glenside, Pennsylvania.