New York

Mark Manders

The Drawing Center / Greene Naftali

Dutch artist Mark Manders’s recent installation at the Drawing Center’s Drawing Room was one of the most unassuming and compelling exhibitions of contemporary art in recent memory. Simple graphite drawings were tacked to the walls; strips of masking tape, some with bits of text, were interspersed throughout; and a thick pile of drawings, wrapped neatly with string so that all but the topmost were unavailable for viewing, lay on the floor. The drawings, like the installation itself, had an expressive, direct, childlike quality that complemented the artist’s mythic and metaphysical preoccupations without seeming contrived.

In a statement in the exhibition catalogue, Manders says that for him “drawing is research into thinking rather than an investigation of perception.” He sometimes draws classically, as in Three Touched Numbers/Drawing with Bathtub, 1996–2000, then furiously scribbles over part of the work, rubs or erases here, tears the paper there—whatever works. Occasionally he uses a straight-edge, as in Drawing with Vanishing Point (fragment from self-portrait as a building), 1998. These divergent approaches combine to suggest an urgency in his project of rendering ephemeral images before they vanish. It seems to beless the content of a thought that matters to Manders so much as the structures that are attached, however dimly, to the act of thinkmg. The suggestion is that there’s an aspect of who we are that is generally obscured by reason; and that an artist might sneak up on and depict something of this subconscious reality, however obscurely. These drawings are sketches of a world as germane as it is cloistered, one that’s every bit as preternatural as de Chirico’s or Duchamp’s.

A few characters feature in a number of the drawings, which Manders regards as an extension of an overarching project, Self-Portrait as a Building, 1986–. One recurring figure is an armless fetuslike human who also resembles a porpoise; another is a half elephant/half human recalling Ganesha. In an untitled triptych, a male and a female elephant-person are depicted handling simple geometric forms, suggesting that the world of mathematics is of equal concern in this work as matters less purely rational. The female, its back half turned to the viewer, coyly exhibits a kind of attenuated pudenda. There is a visual resonance between the organ and the creature’s mouth, as if to suggest the almost interchangeable sexual and communicative functions of bodily appendages and orifices. Manders has little concern with the grotesque for its own sake; any perversity is allusive rather than gratuitous. Even when his armless human figures stoop and throw up, as they often do, they seem to do so interestingly, as in Three Touched Numbers, where the vomit assumes the form of a coiled snake.

Some of the bawdy intimacy of the drawings is lost when Manders’s vision assumes more plastic, sculptural form. In his installation at Greene Naftali, two large androgynous kouros-like figures stood in a carpeted living room where a complex metaphysical operation seemed to be transpiring, involving arm-size hooks anchored in day cubes, bags of processed sugar, bones, and pieces of mid-twentieth-century furniture. The work is monumental and elegant but more hip than idiosyncratic; it seems less entirely the artist’s own. Here Manders is closer to some clever critique of latter-day civilization than to the concerns of his more suggestive drawings, whose figures read as emblems of the relationship between consciousness and the material world. It’s these forms, inherent to myth and fable, that point to the persistently mysterious origin of thought.

Tom Breidenbach