San Antonio

James Drake


Somewhere around 423 BC, Socrates said, “If we had neither voice nor tongue, and yet wished to manifest things to one another, should we not . . . endeavor to signify our meaning by the hands, head, and other parts of the body?” “Tongue-Cut Spanows,” a suite of works by James Drake simultaneously on view at ArtPace in San Antonio and the Pamela Auchincloss Projects space in New York City, was a powerful and elegant expression of that observation. The impetus for the project came from a daily event that occurs in the artist’s home of El Paso: groups of women gather outside the county jail for men, scanning the windows to catch a glimpse of their lovers, husbands, or relatives. To communicate with the inmates, they have developed a unique form of sign language. As the artist slowly developed friendly relationships with some of the women, they allowed him to photograph and videotape them in the act of signing. The resulting works comprise some large, charcoal drawings (close-ups of hands signaling which take on an ethereal, enthralling quality of visual abstraction), a beautiful limited-edition book, and a video installation.

On the book’s handmade paper, closeup images of women’s hand signals and body gestures are juxtaposed with passages from William Shakespeare, Antonio Machado, William Blake, Federico Lorca, the Bible, Jorge Luis Borges, Cormac McCarthy, and Benjamin Saenz, an ex-inmate of the jail, concerning ideas of loss, love, separation, and the absence of the human touch. For the giant video-screen triptych, Drake filmed close-ups of girls’ faces as they look upward signing to their lovers. Fleeting feelings of melancholy, sadness, loneliness, affection, and even amusement flicker across their faces, as if each were a screen on which the full force of their emotions appears. These close-ups alternate with film of one of the women signing some of the literary texts Drake chose for the book.

Drake neither sentimentalizes nor romanticizes the plight of the prisoners or their visitors. The power of the work comes from the artist’s portrayal of human resourcefulness. We only have to watch these people signing to see that the language they have created has a quality and style quite different from that of speech. There is something raw, intimate, personal, and utterly moving contained within their gestures. They play with the signs, bringing all their imaginativeness and personality to their gestures, which are given special force as the code is “uttered” with the whole body. And though it is performed publicly, the sign system seems remarkably unself-conscious and mysterious, impervious to bureaucracy and outsiders. Drake has produced a starkly dramatic work of art, making the inner as well as the outer lives of his subjects radically visual.

Rosetta Brooks