New York

Tacita Dean

The Drawing Room, The Drawing Center

As a filmmaker who also works with the tools of drawing, Tacita Dean’s interest lies with the liminal potential of the storyboard: incomplete, evocative, suggesting a visual narrative bigger than it can contain. Unlike the film still, which is finished and looks backward, signifying a real but absent whole, the storyboard is a seed-idea, a blueprint. In Dean’s recent installation of seven chalkboard drawings—which together formed one integrated work, The Roaring Forties: Seven Boards in Seven Days, 1997—the artist sketched an epic tale with ephemeral means, a narrative whose cast and setting were completely specific, but whose imaginative possibilities remained deliberately unbounded.

Working in white chalk on 8-foot-square Masonite panels prepared with blackboard paint, Dean allowed herself seven days to complete her project. In that time, she drew seven scenes: a ship under full sail; a storm; maritime adventurers climbing in rigging, rowing a skiff, pulling a hawser, etc. The Roaring Forties refers to a zone of longitudes in the southern Atlantic where the winds are particularly rough, and which was a common route for grain merchants making the run from Australia to England. Dean’s fragmentary narrative was marked by clues to a bygone era without being particularly nostalgic. Under their watch caps, the seamen’s faces were deftly outlined but indistinct, hinting at a story involving romantic machismo, camaraderie, and hard but honest labor.

But negative space surrounded Dean’s characters, as if their swashbuckling were being swallowed into a smooth darkness beyond the frame. Into this void came the voice of the work’s maker, in the form of scribbled memoranda. “Aerial view,” one noted. “Fade up from black.” Directional arrows indicated “Wind” (whose effect could be seen in the picture) and “Out of frame” (following a sailor’s gaze). These verbal cues functioned on two levels. As markers of cinematic illusion, they kept the action in the pictures from fully cohering, putting a brake on the viewer’s desire to be absorbed into an unfolding plot. But they were not just captions: fully integrated into each composition, they were afforded the same importance as the ships, waves, seabirds, and men.

Although tightly edited, the scenes were quite detailed, tempting the viewer to believe that Dean must have drawn from projections of period photographs. But apparently she worked freehand, with photographs as reference points; moving back and forth, she built her images simultaneously rather than sequentially, much as a director would shoot a script. The chalk-on-board worked in sync with a reading of the images as production notes, and, like a cinematographer in love with black and white film, Dean used the simplicity of her medium to rich effect.

Her virtuosic handling of the chalk resulted in bold but wobbly lines that were searching and somehow humorous—as if she had rediscovered and was thoroughly enjoying the problem of creating contour and volume with a single mark-making utensil. Highlights and shadows were uncomplicated yet dramatic. Cloudy erasures remained openly legible as graphic corrections, even as they disappeared into the logic of the picture, becoming spume, sunlight, droplets glistening in the folds of woolen clothes. Like the pages of an outsized flip-book, Dean’s dusty vignettes composed a delicate, open-ended motion picture, a work whose scale and allusive quietude filmic technology could never exactly reproduce.

Frances Richard