Out of Line

Breaking Tradition: Comic-book imagery and socialist realism in Neo Rauch's Messe, at MoMA's "Drawing Now."Photo: Galerie Eigen + Art/MoMA

At the entrance to the exhibition Drawing Now: Eight Propositions, an ambitious survey of contemporary work currently at MoMA QNS, the curators present a wall drawing of a vast prison. Instead of barred windows or cells, however, Cárcel (Prison) contains row upon row of drawers, rather like those found in an old-fashioned apothecary’s cabinet. The artists who made the drawing—a Cuban collective named Los Carpinteros—have attached an actual knob on each drawer, a reality-and-illusion game that’s further enhanced by some play with shadow and perspective. The knobs seem to invite the viewer to pull out a drawer to explore whatever strange mystery lies inside, thereby liberating the prison.Cárcel symbolically captures the exhibit’s character. Not only are viewers invited to examine the various interpretive boxes into which contemporary drawings are placed, but the show’s organizer, Laura Hoptman, emphasizes the theme of emancipation—the liberation of drawings into fully complete and “autonomous” works. Today’s artists have burst free, she argues, from “the old criteria having to do with form, finish, and manner of execution, or by the designation of fine or avant-garde art.” Drawing, she says, is “all you need.” Hoptman is doubtless right that for many artists, drawing is no longer a secondary genre. In moving through the show, however, I had the perverse impression that the emancipations of modern culture were also creating new forms of confinement. That’s the way it has often worked: One day’s liberation becomes the next day’s constraint.

“Drawing Now” contains about 250 drawings by 26 younger artists from around the world. Its eight propositions are rough thematic groupings, among them “Ornament,” “Visionary Architecture,” “Comics and Animation,” and “Fashion and Likeness.” What all these artists have in common is a desire to find inspiration beyond the pale of what has traditionally been considered fine art. They look to either the vernacular forms of mass culture, such as comics or fashion, or kinds of drawing often treated with condescension, such as architectural drafting or ornamental design. Even those, such as Elizabeth Peyton, who make images that recall conservative realism depend more upon the techniques of contemporary fashion illustration than they do upon schooled ways of figurative drawing. Young artists of this era rarely try to get the gist of their times by describing surface appearances. Instead, like postmodern Marxists, they adopt, celebrate, and subvert the means of production.

Two sometimes complementary approaches, or currents of feeling, repeatedly surface across the eight groupings in the show. On the one hand, many artists employ a kind of doodling playfulness that rejects both the dry, graduate-school seriousness and the heavy ideological earnestness of much art made during the past 40 years. Chris Ofili, for example, makes roping, ornamental designs that at first glance appear to be made of little dark beads. But the dark beads are actually itty-bitty heads with Afro hairstyles; some Ofili titles, such as Albinos and Bros with Fros, tease away rather than frontally attack racist thinking. On the other hand, an apocalyptic strain also attracts many artists, especially those influenced by architectural drawing. Paul Noble’s architectural fantasies look like the nightmares of a children’s-book illustrator. Julie Mehretu makes drawings in which the measured lines and spaces of traditional architectural drafting implode into mayhem. Toba Khedoori’s wall hangings cut metaphysical doors and windows into a bleached void.It seems strange that given the extraordinary changes created by the millennial mood and the information revolution, no visionaries have emerged to imagine a more optimistic future. There are no utopians here who display the kind of forward-looking joy found in the early decades of the last century. (The future has a great past.) Matthew Ritchie’s Everyone Belongs to Everyone Else looks like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, a time of skeletons on the beach and decaying space suits; like many young artists, he has a way of penciling important-seeming notes and formulas on his work that, while appearing to offer us explanations of what’s occurring, turn such pretensions to rational understanding into gibberish. Neo Rauch, a German who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, creates pictures populated by anachronistic characters resembling the figures in comic books, old advertising, and Soviet and Fascist propaganda. They work around machines that would once have appeared futuristic but now look as dated as a yellowing calendar from the thirties.

In this exhibition, the emancipation of drawing occurs on levels well beyond the granting of equality to a genre frequently regarded as less important than painting. Artists today feel no obligation to perpetuate the craft and practice of drawing that absorbed artists from the Renaissance until the mid-twentieth century. In a larger sense, they are also free from the arduous submission to tradition that T. S. Eliot believed must first occur before an artist can create work of significant originality. (Few of the artists here would agree with Ingres’s observation that drawing is the “probity” of art.) Although the emancipation of drawing from such restraints has led to many brilliant bursts, the losses are also obvious. Without the ongoing support of tradition, artists often have little but their individuality—reflecting the Babel of selves that is modern culture—and often yield to a kind of regressive narcissism in their view of the world. They resemble self-made folk artists who piece together art from what’s left in the drawers, except that they are so painfully self-conscious. The permissions of postmodernism can create a free-form prison.

Kazari: Decoration and Display in Japan, 15th–19th Centuries at the Japan Society focuses on an elusive but stimulating Japanese idea about decoration. Instead of letting the decorative remain secondary, the Japanese regularly placed their razzle-dazzle front and center. Their hope was to bewitch not only the eyes but also the soul. Carefully arranging the interplay of objects and paintings could create an open-ended and dynamic stream of messages, insights, and allusions. Decoration could, in short, embody the play of consciousness itself. Although the extraordinary pictures, clothing, and objects on display in this show (organized by the Japan Society and the British Museum in association with the Suntory Museum of Art, Tokyo) require no justification, making arrangements that are joyfully significant seems particularly appealing at the moment. I can’t imagine a better vantage point from which to cock an eye at our Christmas displays.

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