Los Angeles

“The Power of Suggestion”

Although it would be dull to try to homogenize the variety of aesthetics in “The Power of Suggestion: Narrative and Notation in Contemporary Drawing” into anything like a movement, it’s interesting to note that many of its most prepossessing artists live in LA, and that a funny, slant way of looking and an idiosyncratic investigation of mundane human activities and interests motivated much of the work. In her catalogue essay, curator Cornelia H. Butler described these artists as making “a kind of productive agitation in the visual field,” a formulation she used to expand “drawing” to encompass artists constructing “a narrative situation or voice that is highly inflected and subjective” by deploying a wide array of media: graphite, pencil, acrylic, ink, plastalina, blueprint, cartoon color, computer-generated color Xerox, photography, Styrofoam, iron filings, video, wood, carbon, and tears. Butler suggested that drawing should be seen as something in flux. Her thirteen more-or-less younger artists negotiate the shifting terrain of now by accepting a vital capacity for doubt about materials, genre, subject matter, and even their own subjectivity. As understood by Butler, drawing strengthens the connection between sketching and journal keeping, emphasizing the speculative basis of every medium; her curatorial project aimed to encourage one to see drawing as an experimental, speculative, “diaristic” way of using any particular media, rather than as a medium in its own right.

All of the artists placed the body snugly in the midst of their projects. Whether physically shown, or merely muscle and flesh providing the motion for the prosthetic of pen, pencil, or camera, or present through the intensity of an absence, the body and the worldly systems that surround and impinge upon it are the source of endless contemplation. Pauline Stella Sanchez’s work dazzles with blues and yellows so intense that with the right equipment they would probably prove to have sonic frequencies. Radial installations of diagrams on paper depicting circles, ovals, and Spyrographic bubblings, sometimes accompanied by glowing (fabricated) fungal growths and lumpy accumulations of Styrofoam and/or found materials, the work would seem to have some astronomical or astrological application, like an orrery for the moods of the next millennium. Given today’s media bulletins about microscopic cultures (i.e., HIV), and the knowledge (pace Avital Ronell) that what seems to be happening outside is actually happening—relentlessly—inside, Sanchez’s work can also be seen as mapping the endless sea motion of our interiors. And just as she blurs the boundaries between natural and artificial, outside and in, she dissolves, movie-star-like, the hierarchy of person and persona: Sanchez herself may be only a stunt double, for her installations are the pre- and postperformance paraphernalia of a character called the Sun Queen, who only appears in “The Power of Suggestions” photographically (somewhat like Rrose Sélavy) in the tiny, hazy, erotic “1990 Portrait of Me on The Sun as the Sun Queen . . . Cartier,” 1990–96.

Martin Kersels’ documentation of his own body’s failings and fallings links his work to Chris Burden’s, but if Burden often takes his impetus from demolition, or the agon of gravity, Kersels plumbs the humor and poignancy of just getting through daily life. “Tossing a Friend,” 1996, a series of simple but evocative photographs (their theme described by their title), is full of the floating joys of intimacy yet captures the violence and aggression possible when any two bodies meet. Even giddier is his Circle Amplification (Orange), 1996, which perhaps stole the show by amplifying the stupid repetitive inward activity of drawing as well as its goofy wonder: tracing a circle, a forlorn woolly caterpillar of iron filings turns over and over, held in place by a behind-the-scenes magnetic device hooked up to an amplifier and a bright-orange speaker. There was a primal thrill in encountering this machine: Somebody made this! Thinking about that fact and its implications sent one off happily reeling.

Not all the work thrilled. Paula Hayes’ clunky garden-shop structures didn’t enliven the definition of drawing but enervated it and the tradition of earth art they supposedly connote. Elsewhere, a reliance on text doomed things: few visual artists use language felicitously, and who is persuaded by text-heavy art if it isn’t first enthralling as writing? Joseph Grigely’s scribbled, practically illegible conversation notes are interesting for a moment, but his typed texts almost always dissatisfy and his dull sense of bachelor-pad installation quickly becomes tedious.

Give me instead the exuberance, unease, and intellectual fun coursing through Sam Durant’s drawings of household plumbing systems, toilets, and modernist home and office interiors, sometimes juxtaposed with sketches of works by John Chamberlain and Robert Morris; Matthew Antezzo’s replications of images of often ephemeral and/or conceptual artworks from old art magazines and exhibition catalogues, as if he were reinscribing his body where he would have liked to have been but was not; or Ginny Bishton’s hypnotic acrylic daubings, at once personal and soothingly nonrepresentational, suggesting tree bark, fiber strands, and DNA. Strikingly different yet also personal, and similarly governed by the encroachments of time, Russell Crotty’s careful repeated observations of the West Coast’s casual destruction are countered by records of his star- and planet-gazing. These latter are often presented in oversized books, metaphors for the overwhelming complexity (and urgency?) of his concerns.

Butler organized a show on drawing in which the artists were not afraid to not draw conclusions. Life is often best treated the same way.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.