James Drake

Like a latter-day Bernini lost in the deserts of the American Southwest, James Drake, in his recent work, explores the stark and savage milieu of West Texas while assembling a romanticized allegorical overview of his life and oeuvre, treating both with an effusive period sensibility. Selected from his series “City of Tells,” 2001– (shown earlier in 2005 at SITE Santa Fe, in the city where Drake now lives and works), this video and sequence of large charcoal drawings are reminiscent of the Italian high Baroque in their extraordinary lushness. Drake uses charcoal in a broad and almost painterly manner, luxuriating in bravura sweeps of the medium in drawings that reach up to fifteen feet across. Somewhere between chiaroscuro and grisaille, his technique is both highly skillful and intensely dramatic.

One group of these drawings is from a project Drake has been working on since 2001. In an isolated rural area of West Texas (the artist was born in Lubbock and has lived near El Paso), he arranges extraordinarily ornate outdoor feasts on a long banquet table groaning under the weight of an orgy of food, flowers, candelabra, and wine glasses. Then, after setting up video cameras a safe distance away, he leaves the dinners to their just desserts. Sometimes, feral hogs appear and climb atop and, in a display of concentrated gluttony, make short work of the veneer of civilization represented by the careful setting. High-end culture meets wild nature, the hogs suggesting an allegory of greed and excess.

For the large drawing City of Tells, with Signs Following, 2002–2004, and in one of the three scenarios shown simultaneously on the video City of Tells, 2001–2004, Drake introduces an eighteen-foot Burmese python into this set-up and shifts it indoors. The serpent slithers through the banquet, disrupting the glassware but ignoring the prepared food. In the video, however, it deliberately encircles a live rooster that seems frozen in terror, and the footage ends at the moment the predator appears poised to strike. This sense of the accoutrements of luxury and surfeit meeting the instinctual processes of nature becomes anthropomorphic on both counts, a strange combination of desire, impulse, and fear that both illustrates and undercuts the adage “all animals eat, but only humans dine.”

Similarly ebullient impulses surface in the other group of drawings that make up “City of Tells,” Drake’s evocative memories and fantasies playing out alongside art-historical homages. He uses old family photographs, including snapshots of himself as a young soldier and images of relatives and friends, as source material. In the monumental thirty-two-by-twelve-foot drawing City of Tells, 2002–2004, not exhibited here but referenced in multiple studies and sketches, these backward glances share space with Drake’s interpolation of artists from the past, through his charcoal portraits of Raphael, Délacroix, Velázquez, Goya, and others. His frieze of casually connected groups of figures, among them images of contemporary colleagues such as Bruce Nauman, Lynda Benglis, John Torreano, and Sherrie Levine, flows left to right in a long stream, its diverse members commingling in a wry meditation on intellectual and personal influence. Like much of Drake’s work, it has the allusive and rhetorical drama of an apotheosis, of a traditional supranarrative strategy made modern and personal. A “tell” may be defined as a mannerism through which one inadvertently reveals private attitudes and feelings, but in leaving such subtleties behind, Drake has created instead something more agitated and pertinent.

James Yood