New York

Dotty Attie

Dotty Attie’s four sequences of words and drawings in tiny panels handle narration with a finely jaundiced eye. Drawn in graphite and lightly shaded with colored pencils, the panels’ flow is only occasionally distracted by bright colors representing such indiscretions as blood. The hand-drawn lettering accompanying—though set apart from—the panels has the slight wobble of old hand-set type.

The visual vocabulary quotes details from Ingres, Caravaggio, and various 19th-century painters of landscape, portrait, and boudoir. These antecedents are so respected as to be suspect. Attie draws upon this, closing in on a whip, a clothed male crotch, a monkey, an enigmatic half-smile, or pulling back to take in bland estates dotted by lumpy statuary, or well-kept fields with a few hounds tearing at a naked woman. The language is saturated with syntax and vocabulary drawn from Richardson and that sort, as well as a few richer tremolos from Mrs. Radcliffe.

Each picture and caption is enclosed in a frame of stiff paper, with a narrow rectangular band of modulated pencil shadings drawn around the paper frame’s inside edges.

From frame to frame trickles of information monitor the rising suspense. Narrow close-ups and sterling language divert our attention from just those sexually or criminally potent acts wafting their implications all over the artifice. Quick shifts in banality and eroticism keep tension and humor at play with each other.

A Cautionary Tale is a 12-drawing sequence. Under each drawing is a couplet from a 19th-century nursery rhyme written by one Dr. Heinrich Hoffman. The good doctor warns children that those who suck their thumbs will have them cut off by a “scissors-man.” The sequence accompanies the moral tale of just such an offending party suitably punished, his mother smiling a bit upon her return as the boy tearfully displays his mutilated hands (extended out of the frame’s range).

The three-panel Resistance and Refusal Mean Consent is closer to Attie’s earlier drawings without words, in which satire is less important than a direct anger. Each of the panels is a picture within a picture, a long-shot of a scene whose center has been cut out, revealing a close-up of the same scene. The action moves in three abrupt leaps from a country landscape to the naked woman, mentioned earlier, attacked by dogs. Each of these pictures has been spliced into the two longer tales which follow.

The 120-panel A Carriage Ride sandwiches its narrative between two rows of drawings. The upper row rolls by scenes outside the carriage, the lower row the daydreams and dreams, images and self-images, of the young Ingres on his way to Rome, as well as flashbacks and parallel action.

The most ambitious, and successful, of the group is the 140-panel Pierre and Lady Holland. Precocious Pierre is the acquisition of Lady Holland, who also owns a considerable estate. One stifling evening at an intimate dinner party Pierre suggests a mysterious diversion to banish ennui, though it will also, most unfortunately, do away with all his pet monkeys. A few eyebrows are raised, but in due time stays and draw strings are undone. Attie’s half-draped bodies and smirking faces accomplish this with more efficiency and indirection than de Sade’s Eugénie de Franval, in which the Count de Franval raises his daughter according to the highest precepts of philosophy, leading, after many passionate speeches by both generations, to some well-documented incest.

Attie’s earlier drawings, begun after many years of working with oils, went into battle with dead masters, Ingres in particular. She substituted her own face for sitters in Ingres’ portraits, defaced and burned her copies of his work, and generally destroyed his images with one hand as fast as she drew them with the other.

These new pieces extend her range beyond those short circuits, adding a dramatic sense of pacing to a solid drawing technique. Her panels can, and ought, to be made into a book.

Barbara Baracks

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