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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Drawing on What’s Always Out There

I like to see curators working at the far edge of the risk-return curve, taking calculated chances to challenge their audiences. Curators at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, a small Connecticut kunsthalle with a strong educational mission, have taken one of those wisely calculated risks with their most recent exhibition, “Contemporary Erotic Drawing.” Visitors who aren’t put off by the parental warnings strategically placed throughout the museum reap the rewards.

Culture has become saturated with sexually explicit images, the curators argue, thanks in no small part to the growth of the Internet. Advertising, television, and film have also played a role. At the same time that graphic images have become available on demand through multiple channels, artists have returned to depicting the human figure. This exhibition presents the results of artists filtering the explicit images swirling around them through the process of drawing. The results range from the pornographic to the conceptual to the gut-bustingly funny.

Tracy Nakayama contributes some of the most aggressive images in the show. Her watercolor reproductions of pornographic photographs leave nothing to the imagination. The pinkish-orange palette and her deft handling of the medium, though, seduce the viewer into ignoring the figures engaged in sexual acts. Her technical proficiency makes it difficult to read the works as something other than abstractions. The graphic subject matter, though, eventually yanks one back from reverting to a pure formalist reading. The tension created between form and content provides a sticking power for her work that the source photographs could never have.

Kim McCarty creates a similar tension in her lush watercolors. McCarty works quickly on wet paper, allowing the pigment to seep into and bleed through its support. Her process leads to slippery color fields that ask to be read as abstractions. It’s impossible, though, to step back and not notice that you are gazing at portraits of children posed and presented as sexualized objects. Viewers who are drawn into the works because of their color and surface become implicated as voyeurs when they realize they are facing children in socially unacceptable poses who are staring back at them with a look of accusation.

Not all the work in this show is so serious or troubling. Stephen Andrews has contributed an animated video entitled QuickTime Interruptus that draws belly laughs from almost all viewers. Surfing the web for porn and being overwhelmed by pop-up ads has never been this funny.

No exhibition of erotic drawing would be complete without a selection of adolescent masturbatory fantasy doodles, and America’s official dirty old man, R. Crumb, obliges with several pieces. Lecherous, humorous, aggressive, and totally toothless, Crumb’s work serves as a foil for some of the more creative and interesting pieces in the show—work by younger female artists who are starting to make their marks in the art world.

Chloe Piene is represented in this show by a drawing entitled Thirty Years Old. In the series from which this work is drawn (three other pieces were shown in the last Whitney Biennial) Piene presents single women masturbating. Caught at the moment of le petite morte their bodies are captured in the act of decomposing. Skin slides away; skeleton replaces flesh. Composed of unsteady, shaky lines on vellum, these drawings exist at the intersection of the erotic and horror—the space that every teen slasher pic wants to fill but never does as well as this.

Danica Phelps includes four drawings that document her physical relationship with her partner. Originally known for creating works that illustrate the meticulous accounting she keeps of all her financial transactions, Phelps created these works after she left her husband for a woman. Making love to her new lesbian partner becomes another transaction for her to document, and she does so here, mixing together on each page purchases made, errands run, and cash spent with the times she made love to the new woman in her life.

The show also includes work that leans toward the conceptual. Alice Attie draws text from the novels of James Joyce and reproduces it in miniscule size to form lines and patterns. Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses, for example, runs around and around to create a target with a bulls eye of empty space at the center. Visitors are encouraged to use a magnifying glass to read the text.

Far from being titillating, this show provokes discussion on the role of the explicit image in contemporary culture. Images of desire are being endlessly circulated today for reasons of commerce (sex sells, after all) rather than as erotica or pornography as they have in the past. The exhibition demonstrates the various ways the new explicit is being picked up and used to fuel artistic practice. The results are diverse, and the show convinces that the topic is worth exploring further.

“Contemporary Erotic Drawing” is on view through August 7 at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT.

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