New York

Natalie Frank, All Fur III, 2011–14, gouache and chalk pastel on paper, 30 × 22".

Natalie Frank, All Fur III, 2011–14, gouache and chalk pastel on paper, 30 × 22".

Natalie Frank

The Drawing Center

Natalie Frank, All Fur III, 2011–14, gouache and chalk pastel on paper, 30 × 22".

At the Venice Biennale this year, contemplating Joan Jonas’s extraordinary video installation They Come to Us Without a Word, 2015, I began thinking about the great turn that took place in the artist’s work in 1976. That year, Jonas used a Brothers Grimm tale as the basis for The Juniper Tree, a move that signaled a turn from such reflexive, almost tautological pieces as Mirror Check, 1970, to a way of working in which reflexivity enters an expanded field encompassing narrative structures derived from fairy tales, legends, sagas, and other forms of traditional (often oral) storytelling. Nearly forty years on, the tales gathered in the early-nineteenth century in the hinterlands around Kassel by two heirs of German Romanticism retain their astonishing power to spark artistic invention, as testified to by the twenty-five works in gouache and chalk pastel on paper that made up the Drawing Center’s presentation of “Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm,” now on view at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin, and selected from the drawings made for her copious recent publication Tales of the Brothers Grimm (2015), which features seventy-five images accompanying thirty-six stories.

Most of us are aware by now that the tales as they were first passed on to the Grimms were far different from the sanitized retellings we grew up on. The original stories assume a violent, unstable, amoral world in which murder, cannibalism, and incest are everyday occurrences; cultural taboos are practically nonexistent. But by the same token, it is also a world of wonders, in which bizarre transformations are routine, people and animals are interchangeable, and even the most brutalized urchin may be rewarded with comfort and riches. And of course transformation had always been part of the tales’ form: Passed on orally, they were constantly metamorphosing, and even after being written down and published, they turned out to be infinitely adaptable. No wonder these stories have stimulated artists’ imaginations. They seem to offer a royal road to that “dark inaccessible part of our personality” that Freud named the id, that “cauldron full of seething excitations” where nothing is forbidden and everything is possible. For Frank, who has said that drawing is “like committing a murder,” they also seem to have enabled a degree of painterly spontaneity, coloristic richness, and formal intensity that surpasses that of the works in her last New York show (at Fredericks & Freiser) in 2012.

For all her evident sympathy with the strangeness of the Grimms’ tales, Frank’s approach to them is more seductive than unsettling. In the works that were on view here, she draws from thirteen of the tales, including “The Juniper Tree,” the story that was used by Jonas. In these images, everything seems to be happening at once, as if a swirl of disparate actions—sometimes very hard for the viewer to correlate with specific episodes in the apposite tale—were sweeping one along without allowing time to question things. As in the tales themselves, the accent is more on the wonder at strange and possibly incomprehensible events than on revulsion or regret over their often dire consequences. No one’s identity is securely established, no contradiction disallowed in Frank’s magical realism. And then the very texture of the works’ surfaces becomes in itself a kind of mineral fairyland that pleasantly distracts us from whatever is merely legible in the image: For instance, in All Fur III (all works 2011–14), in which a girl’s face seems to morph into that of an animal, it is the zone of overlap where the melding of tones effaces the boundaries between kinds and becomes sheer nondescriptive flux that holds my attention most strongly. In Cinderella I, my eye keeps returning to where the Lolita-like protagonist’s left leg, surrounded by slightly pictographic birds, seems to melt away into the surrounding atmosphere as it points toward the fireplace in which a second figure squats—Cinderella herself again, picking the lentils from the ashes? The less I understand what I’m looking at in these luminous, densely packed works, the more exhilarating I find them.

Barry Schwabsky