by Arthur Whitman
In the fashionable, cosmopolitan art-world, drawing has become something of a genre. "Contemporary Prints and Drawings," currently at the Johnson Museum, samples the state of the art. Given its small size, it feels surprisingly – and disappointingly – representative.
Two prints by James Siena (a 1979 Cornell BFA) offer up variations on signature motifs. His stock-in-trade is a minutely rendered geometric abstraction, both complex and methodical. Battery, a reduction linocut, is packed all over with striated (dark to light) red loops. Towards the outside they are ovals, parallel to the edges in staggered rows; in the middle they are smaller circles, packed in with increasing disorder. Often with Siena, the more difficult an image is to figure out, the better; Battery, while lively, feels a bit rudimentary.
His black and white engraving Upside Down Devil Variation has a weirder, more compelling tension. The dominant motif is a set of eleven "explosions," lines radiating out from empty points. The lines all have the same quality: careful, stiff, but visibly hand-drawn. They are staggered and spaced — close together or far apart — to create textural variety. This flying through outer space perspective effect is broken, flattened by a lightning-like lattice of empty space that divides the bursts. The fragmentary effect is reminiscent of collage.
Julie Mehretu is known for her large paintings, densely packed with geometric, architectural and elemental forms - often to the point of illegibility. They can be both utopian and apocalyptic at the same time. In contrast with Siena, she benefits (here anyway) from paring down. Her Untitled ink and watercolor is all about the classical elements: air, fire, earth, and water. Although abstract, it suggests an aerial view of a landscape in turmoil. The pen and brush strokes are varied and expressive while the palate is limited — mostly dark brown, gray, and blue-gray lines with small areas of thinner washes.
As expected, some of the work is superficially pretty, mock-decorative. Laura Owens' intaglio Untitled (LO271) shows the blue-purple silhouette of a horse in profile, three of its twisty legs up in the air. Its tail is a long vine-like curl sprouting multi-colored teardrop-leaves. The ink overall is watery, with soft edges; darker, more precise lines add emphasis. Larger and more complex, but not necessarily weightier, is Beatriz Milhazes' As Irmãs (The Sisters). The screenprint is a colorful pastiche of decorative and abstract art clichés: vertical stripes and overlapping colored rectangles, flowers and Baroque swirls, targets.
Fiona Rae's collaged digital print So Lovely!, a pinky neo-Pop piece, is a tight but careless montage of patterns and imagery: canned brushstrokes, flowers, cute little dogs, typography, cartoon eyeballs, and so forth.
A good deal of work focuses on the human figure. Much of it is keyed to the fashionable theme of identity politics — in particular that of blacks and women. This is a legitimate theme with an important tradition in modern art (everything from Manet's Olympia to the photo-montages of Hannah Höch). The western fine art tradition has undoubtedly excluded the concerns of minorities. Beyond any politics, the weirdness of the body is endlessly fascinating. Unfortunately, much contemporary work in this vein is lacking in wit or visual invention; the school's representation here is unsurprisingly perfunctory and weak. (This tends to happen when a species of iconography become academic cliché; a parallel could be drawn with the ubiquity of Greek mythology in 19th-century European art.)
Kara Walker's large, wide linocut African/American makes use of her signature black on white silhouette. A woman appears to be falling. Her head, face turned downward, points toward the left corner, while her legs are raised in the opposite direction. The figure — in the context of Walker's work, probably a slave — is dynamic in her angular profile but helpless in her pose. The hair sprouting from her genitals is grotesque. Scraps of ribbon around her waist suggest a release from bondage. The print, unlike most of the portraiture here, has some drama; it would be enhanced if she could do something more than plop her figure in an indifferent empty white space.
Ellen Gallagher's print Abu Simbel was originally commissioned by the Freud Museum and parodies a piece from Freud's library. In chalky black and white, it shows the side of an Egyptian temple with a row of oversized seated statues. Collaged elements combine racist caricature with kitschy science fiction — including a yellow plasticine UFO sprouting a halo of blue hair. The appropriation of morally sketchy imagery is doubtlessly intended as satire, but in combination with aesthetic sketchiness, the results are dubious.
Despite the presence of a handful of decent or better pieces, this is a disappointing show. The over-reliance on trendy subjects and stylistic conceits is discouraging. Shows like this would benefit from more work like Siena's or Mehretu's, work that cuts against the grain a bit, offering visions that are more personal and idiosyncratic.