It’s no wonder children love to draw. Every combination of shapes must seem so new and wonderful to those with minds like fresh, innocent little canvases.
- ARTWORK BY JOE BIEL
But somewhere along the line, something changes. Life gets a lot more difficult. Questions harden into statements. Ethereal ideas give way to rigid facts. And children—many of them, anyway—stop drawing.
Perhaps that explains why drawing is sometimes viewed as rather childish, the incubatory stage leading to a bigger piece of fine art. Unfinished. Experimental. Immature. But this assertion has been challenged of late by a number of fine artists, seven of whom comprise a new show called “Drawn In,” currently hanging at Cal Poly’s University Art Gallery.
Visitors are immediately greeted by the large-scale piece Input/Output, by Los Angeles-based artist Joe Biel. It’s a wonderfully provocative image of televisions, the quirky old-fashioned kind, perched upon the stumps of felled trees—a telling metaphor I’ll let you interpret on your own. Expired technological detritus, such as the innards of a cassette tape, has been dragged around and left behind. A rat nibbles a piece of paper. A few wiry weeds survive the inhospitable ground.
Biel makes detailed pictures on intimidatingly large pieces of paper using the smallest mechanical pencil there is (.003). He says it can take him a year—sometimes several years—to finish a drawing. However, in the case of works like Frontier—a huge, highly detailed drawing with several overlapping possible narratives—a good half of that time is just planning. In our phone interview, he compared their careful forethought to outlining chapters in a novel.
Biel’s piece The News from Poems is inspired by a line from the poet William Carlos Williams (It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably/for lack/of what is found there). The work depicts a young man, ear pressed to a broken radio, holding a candle that is, inherent cliché acknowledged, lit from both ends.
“The quote suggested an image to me,” Biel explained.
To him, the piece, and likely much of his other work, speaks of the difficulty of wanting to create something delicate and a beautiful in brutal, obtuse, uncaring environment: “How do you deal with issues of beauty in such a crazy, fucked-up world?”
Then there’s the very kidlike work of Jay Stuckey. The UCLA professor’s drawings have, at first blush, a sort of cheery vulgarity to them, reminiscent of the work of so many anonymous doodlers in so many elementary school bathrooms. But the longer you look at his work, the more it provides a peek into a rich inner imaginative world, the kind of place where, let’s say, the garbage disposal might still be envisioned as a hungry monster under the sink.
The contemporary interpretation of drawing, as these and other artists have come to see it, encompasses not only pen or graphite on paper but also things like collage and installation, both of which are represented in the “Drawn In” exhibit. Stuckey might create a piece by affixing his smaller crayon drawings to paper, alongside photos clipped from magazines and messy to-do lists. (“Sitar” and “home drugs” sit at the top of one, followed by more benign reminders like “email Richard.”)
Fellow Los Angeles artist Sarah Lowing’s simple pencil drawings on semi-translucent tracing paper are illuminated by light boxes that have been installed into one of the gallery’s moveable walls.
“My work is about blending inner and outer worlds,” writes Lowing, an environmental educator, in an artist’s statement. “… The subject of these drawings is what I see as the most significant and magical side of my relationships with people and landscapes of my life.”
Here, a girl feeds a rabbit; there, two human figures hold hands inside a cutaway of a deer’s digestive system.
Ben Britton’s lovely, semi-abstract drawings often bear titles conjuring some sort of personal apocalypse, like After dreaming of you dead and gone, the shock of your nearness is devastating and When it all burns down (better make it count). Britton’s sketches also seem to feature one pattern or idea giving way to another. His smaller black-and-white drawings surround a larger color work, Mew the final opening of the tidal season. The melancholy blacks and blues of what may be a huge wave are accented with green, orange, and peach, as if the light were hitting them. What might be a single keyhole of open air beyond can be seen through a black-green curl.
In a completely different stylistic vein is Alison Byrnes’ series “Scientific theories once widely believed, since proven wrong,” a collection of color drawings depicting charmingly outdated myths like black bile, alchemy, the planet Volcan, and phrenology.
The same goes for the work of Pittsburgh artist Natalie Settles, like Chimera (look at it up close!) and Ephraim Puusemp’s organic, symmetrical drawings.
And to anyone who still doesn’t think of drawing as an end in itself, consider the magnitude and detail of Biel’s current undertaking, a drawing he started in January 2010 and aims to complete in the winter of 2012. It’s 1,124 tiny television sets stacked in towers.
“Each black-and-white television has a different screen shot rendered in watercolor and gouache,” he wrote. “Images are drawn from a variety of sources: Hollywood films, art films, Network TV, documentaries, commercials as well as photographic and art historical references. The range is meant to suggest a broad, though certainly idiosyncratic view of contemporary culture seen from a variety of platforms (emotional, cultural, historical).”
It’s an ambitious project. From the detail shots he sent me, the work appears complete, but when I get a glimpse of the paper he intends to fill, it’s clear he has a long, long way to go.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner is drawn to art. Contact her at email@example.com.