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Mutations on a theme
The Drawing Show gets the willies
"The 19th Drawing Show"
Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St, Boston | through January 8

Now old enough to fight the war on terror were it a person, the annual Drawing Show at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Mills Gallery approaches its second decade by reinventing itself for its own form of combat. Traditionally a mega affair with scores of artists competing for precious space, it’s pared down and beefed up. This year’s exhibit, culled from nearly 300 petitioners, has scaled back to a modest 14 — or 16, since four of the participants work together in pairs. With a few exceptions, like Necee Regis’s postage stamp-sized airplanes and Kirsten Rae Simonsen’s drawings of girls and birds, the participants weigh in with a single very large work. What’s more, each artist draws directly on the walls (or floors or columns), so it’s work that won’t last.

Very often the appeal of drawing, as opposed to oil painting, is the same as that of a sculptor’s maquettes or a movie director’s outtakes: you get to see how something more permanent and finished gets planned for and made. We’re witness to the artist’s hand in the spontaneous moment of creation — the line that corrects itself, the recursive exploration out of which an image takes shape. One of the ironies of this year’s show — no doubt a result of the proposal process that required applicants to submit scaled-down versions of what they’d execute — is how premeditated many of the best drawings look. Instead of appearing as discoveries captured in the act of their making, many of them seem formal and complete.

Joseph McVetty III’s To the Victors Go the Spoils is a towering (9’6" by 10’9") wall-sized work in gouache and graphite depicting four men in white shirts and cowboy hats, with six-guns in holsters and other ambiguous signifiers like military ribbons, in various attitudes and activities around the prostrate body of a large dog. The colors are so muted — the shirts are almost indistinguishable from the white wall — that from a distance the piece looks like an ancient fresco. McVetty uses the extreme lightness of his palette to draw you in, and only then, as you’re standing just inches away, does it gradually, almost reluctantly, reveal its bizarre imagery. The four men are identical, not just in their attire but in their interchangeable, white-moustached faces and lumberjack physiques. One of them looks on from the left holding a small, cudgel-like object; another squats over the animal wielding a half-hidden knife and holding a second cudgel. The two clones who face forward look down at the dog, but they’re not just looking. Each has unzipped his fly and is directing his urine onto the dog’s body.

At this point you might perceive that the dog has had a foot or two chopped off, and those turn out to be the cudgels. Add to that the effect of those identical, fully exposed, near-erect penises and the effect is intense and unsettling, both for the piece’s brutal content and for the proximity it demands. You’re coerced into vicarious participation in a ritual that is as matter of fact as it is macabre. The two urinating men stand motionless as pillars, and the streams of urine arc arrow-like to their target. The onlooker sports a cache of amputated legs in a sack on his back; the butcher with the knife might be taken for tying his shoe were he not wearing cowboy boots. We tend to think of violence, especially these days, as fueled by passion and resulting in chaos. We forget its other face: dispassionate calculation.

Violence takes a different turn in Amy Ross’s similarly sized (11’7" by 9’8") pencil-and-ink Garden. With its harmonious and expertly drafted depiction of flora and fauna, fungi and birds, in subtly nuanced shades of brown, this piece reads like a scientific illustration from centuries past. Except that it’s funny. Limned with painstaking detail, the furious, open-mouthed head of a famished chick (my guess is a robin) rises out of the velveteen cap of a tremendous mushroom; elsewhere a gentle lamb’s head appears grafted onto a nearby plant. Yet not far beneath the surface of this made slice of the unnatural world looms the idea of genetic manipulation that it shares with To the Victors. McVetty’s mutants fare a murderous pack of homo sapiens with identical DNA; in Garden, the mutations cross species and phyla with initially playful and ultimately not so playful results. Yet in both instances the genetic high jinks take place in the service of dysfunction, a slaughtered pet, the bird that will never fly.

Variations on the concept of the natural order perverted by unseen and unimaginable forces can be traced in other contributions, even when the works enjoy the lighthearted look of big cartoons. Magda Fernandez’s anything for my dog is nothing more than a huge (11’3" by 8’11") yellow bunny gleefully clutching a good-natured terrier that wears the expression of contented canine resignation. Were that the whole story, it wouldn’t be worth much comment, but the shimmering, high-tech, incandescent style in which bunny child and hapless dog have been rendered takes the piece out of the realm of book illustration and into the space of eerie, ambiguous meaning. While you’re looking at it, anything for my dog seems to be trying to disappear. It’s been fashioned as a vast, pixelated outline, an import from Adobe Photoshop, with barely enough pixels to accrue shape and deliver form. You’re left to wonder whether the bunny figure might not actually be a little girl, whether the dog is imagined or actually depicted, whether the glee you think you’re seeing in the expression of the bunny might be something ominous instead. The swaths of neon yellow that fill in the microscopically dotted outline suggest sunlight, fleeting and brilliant, yet the sunlight allows for neither visual or emotional clarity. What you see is what you may or may not be getting.

Neil Bender’s 11’7"-by-8’2" Pleasure Tower (done in a pink Latex paint called "Unspoken Love") looks like an aerial view of a doll orgy — the interlocking forms suggest plastic tongues and thumbs, ears and feet, backsides and bellies without ever once offering up an identifiable form. The result is tumultuous but sweet — after all, what harm can come if after hours Toys "R" Us devolves into Plato’s Retreat? Katherine Desjardins’s Anamorphosis, a 4’3"-by-20’8" black-and-gray drawing in acrylic and ink, looks like a children’s-book illustration being stretched and sucked into a black hole. A child attempts to launch a plane over an imaginary landscape while all appear elasticized and distended, as if being pulled toward a point of no return.

Elsewhere, Tory Fair has painted imaginary field boundaries on the Mills floor. Jessica Doyle contributes a kind of comic-book version of Paul Gauguin’s D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? Nathan Lewis positions fragments of tilting towers against a different wall. And the teams of Nicholas Santore and Valerie Ferus and Anna Hammond and Amy Jean Porter contribute their versions of urban graffiti.

Issue Date: December 2 - 8, 2005
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