According to conventional wisdom, drawing is something an artist does in preparation for something else: a sketch for a painting; an illustration of an installation idea; a schematic for a three-dimensional object. This preconception persists in art schools and museums.
Super Sized, an exhibit of large-scale drawings at Meadow Brook Art Gallery, questions that assumption and proposes that drawing is an end in itself. Super Sized presents eight artists from Michigan and New York. Some, like Susan Goethel Campbell, Larry Cressman, Tony Hepburn and Gordon Newton, are familiar names to local viewers. Others, like John Newman, Joseph Stashkevetch and Stephen Talasnik, have rarely if ever been shown in southeast Michigan before.
All of the works are at least as large as the human body, and feature a variety of styles and methods, from traditional two-dimensional representation on paper to abstract collage to mixed-media installation. The exhibition was assembled by Douglas Bulka, whose day job in the graphic arts department of the Detroit Institute of Arts has given him nearly three decades of firsthand experience with thousands of works on paper, from every epoch and from everywhere around the globe. Bulka is also one of Detroit’s most respected artists, having exhibited paintings and drawings at places like Detroit Artists Market and Lemberg Gallery. He’s represented in many private and public collections, including the Detroit Medical Center and the DIA. In other words, he has the chops to do this kind of thing.
It took two years to pull Super Sized together (Bulka was still changing the roster of artists as late as July). The exhibition was originally to be presented at the Artists Market, but scheduling conflicts ultimately made the location unfeasible. Bulka then pitched the idea to Dick Goody, director of the Meadow Brook Gallery, which is located on the campus of Oakland University. Goody immediately accepted the proposal even though he’d already planned Meadow Brook’s exhibition calendar for the year. “When he saw what it was about, he said he definitely wanted to do it,” Bulka says. “I’m glad it worked out because Meadow Brook is the only other place that’s doing something I respected.”
With a larger exhibition space than the Artists Market, Meadow Brook might actually be a more appropriate setting for realizing Bulka’s vision. Plus, the resources of Oakland University helped make the ambitious exhibition possible because it eased the need for Bulka to do a lot of fund-raising on his own.
An interesting aspect of the exhibition is how it highlights the special feeling sculptors seem to have for drawing as a form of creative expression in its own right. There’s a deep understanding of materials and compositional structure exhibited in the drawings of Newman, John Richardson and Talasnik, for example. The three artists share a vocabulary of biomorphic forms, yet each unfolds it with a generative logic uniquely his own. Hepburn’s drawings are sensuously intimate and grandly architectonic at the same time. The ghostly shadows of objects worked into the surfaces of the work also evoke a bittersweet quality, all the more poignant for having been made in the wake of the recent death of the artist’s wife.
“As a painter myself, I want to say that we’re the best at drawing because it’s so much a part of our craft,” Bulka says. “But my 28 years of handling drawings at the museum has me told something, that there’s something tactile about sculptors’ drawings, it’s truly about their use of space.”
Longtime University of Michigan art professor Cressman literally draws in space. His work is constructed from strips of paper, acetate, thread and wire loosely pinned to the wall, often actually wrapped into and around the corners on which it is installed.
The artists working from what might be called the conventional drawing perspective more than hold their own. CCS printmaking instructor Campbell’s studies of cloud formations were made expressly for this exhibition; she doesn’t often work this large and she jumped at the chance to do so, according to Bulka. The images in “Between 40 and 50” use building silhouettes to frame patches of sky that seem to transcend the attempts to rein them in from below. With their expansive cloud representations set off by more ambiguous compositional elements, “Blue Northerner,” “Updraft” and “Decoding Precipitation” reveal an issue long implicit in Campbell’s work, her mapping of the elusive border between artistic beauty and natural beauty, the aesthetic and the sublime.
Stashkevetch’s drawings on rag paper in conté crayon (a type of chalk that’s harder than pastel) are classically academic. Executed completely in black and white, these monumental, highly detailed representations of fish reduce drawing to its most fundamental conditions, making marks on a surface to create a virtual visual reality. With dramatic lighting and expert control of pictorial incident, these works are true tours de force.
Super Sized also provides an opportunity to see two recent series from the reclusive Cass Corridor notable Newton, whose work has been infrequently exhibited in recent years. The pieces are vintage Newton, built up in layers upon layers, worked and reworked to the point of sensory overload; yet they still somehow manage to convey the sense of an inner lightness of being trapped within.
As with all the recent Meadow Brook shows, Super Sized is accompanied by an excellent catalog. Designed by Deborah Lashbrook of Oakland University’s design department, this one is among the best, both in form and content. A clean, airy layout provides ample space for a visual record of the work in the show. Bulka contributes a substantial introductory essay as well as full-page entries on each artist. The catalog also includes artists’ biographical information and exhibition histories. Goody offers a brief yet characteristically insightful preface to the whole package.
Rest assured that Super Sized has more than enough visual nutrition to feed your hungry eyes.
The opening reception is Saturday, Nov. 20, 6-8 p.m., at 208 Wilson Hall, Oakland University, Rochester; 248-370-3005. Vince Carducci writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]