Los Angeles

Lee Bontecou

Daniel Weinberg Gallery

Spanning four decades, these twenty-seven drawings offer a glimpse of the most delicate works produced by an artist famous for her rugged sculptures in heavy canvas, wire, plastic, and other materials on steel armatures. The most recent drawings are generally the most refined, with draftsmanship that would knock an old master’s socks off, and all show an unexpected sensitivity to drawing media. This is not, however, the kinder, gentler side of Bontecou, whose work, even at its most elegant, is never easy on the eyes—or the mind. The drawings involve strange jumbling of serene and sinister, sensual and clinical, comical and foreboding. And all reflect Bontecou’s odd penchant for mixing feminine with masculine and hybridizing attributes of the natural with those of the machine-made, and the machine itself.

Often reading as sketches for sculptures (and in one case bearing a title that indicates as much), the drawings share the formal and compositional quirks that define the artist’s three-dimensional work. The trademark holes that stand in for mouths and other orifices, exhaust pipes, grates, cosmic depths, and existential voids in Bontecou’s sculptures show up in the drawings, at times lined with jagged or blocky teeth that look as if they were lifted from a cartoon or, alternatively, from the illustrated journals of a dentist I wouldn’t want to visit. The holes also become pits with teeth in minefields or landscapes that bite, as well as the centers of mutant flowers (another motif of the artist’s sculptures), some armored with bladelike petals. Elsewhere they appear as the centers of small universes, the eyes of storms, and actual eyes with lashes that morph into feathers, scythes, and rotating wind currents. In other drawings, the same visual vocabulary transforms the blades into sails that float through the heavens, swirling on various axes and tethered by lines that connect to unknown points in the infinite.

While one can trace how some aspects of the works lead to others. there is no clean, linear evolution; often, an attribute of one of the earliest drawings seems like the logical next step in an investigation reflected in one of the most recent. Wisely hung according to formal affinities rather; than chronology, the exhibition aptly described a career that has never stagnated or dissolved into self-quotation but that stems from a carefully selected if odd set of variables and a brilliant eye for mutation. These drawings reward Bontecou fans for their years of vainly scanning exhibition listings (though she is still active, this exhibition was the first solo show in twenty-five years to offer work dating from later than the early ’70s), and they attest to the seventy-year-old artist’s enduring vitality. As current as can be, Bontecou’s weird works reflect both the brighter and darker sides of the visionary and fantastic in general and the specifically spectacular periods, movements, and forces from which they seem to take their cues: medieval, Romantic, Surrealist, technocratic, Futurist, sci-fi, psychedelic, military-industrial, post-industrial, New Age (only in the best way), and hyperreal. They’re all that and more.

Christopher Miles