Aug. 01--James Drake -- Pages: New Drawings, James Kelly Contemporary, 1611 Paseo de Peralta, 505-989-1601; through Aug. 27, 2014
In 2012 James Drake began an ambitious series of drawings, culminating in 1,242 numbered works that are currently on view through September 21 in the exhibition James Drake: Anatomy of Drawing and Space (Brain Trash) at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. In some ways Pages, a show of new drawings by the artist, is a continuation of his almost obsessive dedication to the medium, picking up where Anatomy of Drawing and Space left off with work number 1,243. But Pages is a complete body of work in itself, with the numbered drawings grouped together into several large-scale compositions that include collages, diptychs, and triptychs.
In Drake's possession was an old edition of a hardbound book called Master Drawings From the Collection of the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, 14th-18th Centuries, published by Abrams in the late 1950s. Drake's severely water-damaged copy of the book served, in part, as inspiration for the new drawings. He also incorporated sections of the book into the compositions by taking it apart from cover to cover and merging the historic imagery with his own, resulting in a series of conceptual works on paper. One such work, a triptych titled Master Drawings, drawings #1243, 1244 & 1245, can serve as a starting point. The front and back covers of the tome, split up and presented on either side of Drake's rendition of a wild boar, include watercolor staining by the artist, seemingly inspired by the wear and tear of the book -- the tangible history of its aging process while in Drake's possession. The book's front cover bears the faint image of a face, like a whisper or echo from the past, reemerging or perhaps fading away. The image of the boar calls to mind a beast running roughshod over our inherited past or maybe the artist's own zeal for iconic representations from art history. That reading is speculative but apt, considering Drake's ongoing allusions and references to the history of art and, by extension, to human history itself.
Among Drake's major themes in Pages, as well as in older pieces, is a conflation of past and present. It lends his art a quality that's not exactly timeless but that speaks to our reluctance to account for the past, which continually rears its head with tragic consequence. That filter is a lens through which Drake often examines contemporary issues of social injustice. Fortunately, he refuses to ignore what came before and does much honor to the old masters in Pages while simultaneously recontextualizing their visions in a contemporary idiom. Take, for instance, Voyager 1, drawings #1274, 1275, 1276, 1277, 1278 & 1279. It's composed of several drawings -- including Drake's schematic of the Voyager 1 spacecraft -- brought together into a single composition, but the overall work references the polymathic tendencies of Leonardo da Vinci, whose explorations into scientific invention are well known, as are his figurative artworks. As if in reference to the latter, the composition is overlaid with Drake's rendition of Rubenesque nudes. On one hand, the imagery brings to mind the cultural memes that builders of Voyager 1, launched in 1977 and now the farthest human-made craft from Earth, included for potential otherworldly beings to discover. On the other hand, it may represent aspects of culture that were left out of the Voyager mission, particularly art.
A similar work is Accelerators, drawings #1262, 1263, 1264 & 1265, with the largest of Drake's additions to the collaged plates and text from the Abrams book: a schematic of an early particle accelerator developed at the University of Chicago as an outgrowth of the Manhattan Project. Again, there's a double-edged sword happening in Drake's composition. The references to the past include the capacity of nuclear technology to end all life on earth, but particle accelerators also offer much insight into the components that make up the fabric of the universe and have advanced our understanding of its physical properties.
Another consideration is where Drake sees himself on the long train of master draftsmen extending back through the centuries. Certainly Drake is a virtuoso himself, as evidenced by the work on view. Juxtaposing his own renderings with works by, and references to, Tintoretto, Da Vinci, Parmigianino, and others is not conceit; it simply shows the source material for his own formations -- the sphere of influence he is responding to -- making Pages a personal and universally accessible journey. Considerations such as this make one wonder if Eye & Mouth, drawings #1252 & 1253, in which details of a face subtly emerge from the water-damaged pages of the Abrams book (much like the faint portrait in Master Drawings, drawings #1243, 1244 & 1245) is a self-portrait. In a way, all of Pages can be regarded as a kind of self-portrait of the conscious and possibly subconscious ephemera circling through the artist's mind -- hence the almost self-deprecatingly subtitled Brain Trash MCASD exhibition. The fact that Drake managed to create nearly 1,300 often large-scale, technically proficient, and conceptually stimulating drawings in a remarkably short span of years should make us wonder if Drake isn't one of our contemporary masters.
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