VISUAL ARTS | “Expanded Drawing” at the MIA: Minnesota artists push beyond paper

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When I exited the elevator on the second floor of the MIA’s Target Wing en route to review the new show Expanded Drawing, the first thing I saw was a kinetic sculpture featuring waving strips of steel. Oh man, I thought, is that part of the exhibit? Has drawing been expanded that much? Yes. Yes, it has.

The promotional text written for the exhibit by the MIA’s Tammy Sopinski Perlman lays out the show’s theme quite plainly: what artists Nicholas Conbere, Michelle Johnson, Jack Pavlik, and Sonja Peterson have in common is that they take the traditional practice of drawing as a point of departure, and then they expand it. Push its boundaries. Kick it up a notch.

expanded drawing, an exhibit of work by nick conbere, sonja peterson, michelle johnson, and jack pavlik. on display through march 15 at the minneapolis institute of arts, 2400 3rd ave. s., minneapolis. admission free. for information, see artsmia.org. this article is an adaptation of jay gabler’s remarks at the february 5 critics’ trialogue sponsored by the visual arts critics union of minnesota.

For me, this premise raised the question: did drawing need to be expanded? Are there any boundaries in any art world that haven’t been pushed, any limits that haven’t been tested? It occurred to me when I was watching the opera The Making of Americans at the Walker Art Center earlier this winter that much of the art world seems to be permanently trapped in 1970. We’ve finished with modernism and everything leading up to it, and post-modernism has arrived and we’re all dressed up with nowhere to go. Conceptual artists made a brave stab at reducing art to its barest essential—the idea of art—but that got boring after a few years. We like museums. We like objects. We like paying money for art, especially in America, where we like to equate the value of things with the amount we pay for them. So here we are in the twenty-first century, where artists are theoretically free to do whatever the hell they want, even if they tend to keep doing many of the same old things. But really, after Sol LeWitt, is there anything about drawing that needs to be expanded?

Jack Pavlik, 6 Bands (2008). Welded steel, motor, electronics.

You’ll have to excuse me. I’m just trying to do my job as critic here—as I understand it, the most important part of a critic’s job is to make artists feel uncomfortable, ideally by associating them with aesthetic and ideological agendas they never intended to be any part of and then criticizing them for pushing those agendas. In honesty, I don’t imagine any of these four artists took to their studios with a raging desire to really show Leonardo a thing or two or outdo Dalí. Given the diversity of the work on display here, collecting it under the banner of Expanded Drawing is in some ways a matter of curatorial convenience. That said, it’s definitely true that all four of these artists have indeed expanded drawing.

How? They’ve expanded drawing along multiple dimensions. They’ve expanded it along the dimension of time—with Jack Pavlik’s sculptures in perpetual motion, for example, and with Nicholas Conbere’s video animation, as well as with works by Conbere and Sonja Peterson that collapse dimensions of narrative time. In Conbere’s works, buildings and landscape crawl over one another with their lines actually overlapping, as though we can see back in time by looking through the built landscape to the natural landscape that preceded it.

They’ve expanded drawing along the dimension of space—most obviously, again, in Pavlik’s decidedly three-dimensional sculptures but also in Peterson’s works that stand in relief to their painted backgrounds as well as in the works of Conbere and Michelle Johnson, where representations of buildings and letters overlap rather than standing apart as they’re normally meant to do.

Nicholas Conbere, Footbridge (2008). Etching with digital print.

And they’ve expanded drawing along the dimension of craft and materials: beyond pencil and paper. Johnson’s work is relatively traditional in this respect, if not in its content—but Conbere, Pavlik, and Peterson all make significant use of decidedly non-traditional materials, from steel to photography to acrylic.

This adventurous use of materials is part of what I see as another common theme connecting these works: an emphasis on process rather than product. When I started writing fiction, I quickly realized how often the casual consumer takes the creation of art as a teleological process—you imagine that Jonathan Franzen sat down with The Corrections complete in his head and just needed to spool it out onto the page, or that Picasso knew precisely what every aspect of Guernica would look like before he even picked up a brush. Both of those works, of course, were planned in some detail—but the creative process is just that, a series of decisions with many possible final outcomes.

The works on display here were obviously planned carefully, but all of these artists in different ways put their creative process right up in your face. By layering images, Conbere creates a sense of ambiguity and change—it’s hard to imagine walking in his landscapes, with their twisted dimensions and overlapping structures. You wouldn’t know where to set your foot. You can’t look at the work of Johnson or Peterson without thinking of the artists laboring over their work, Johnson drawing one letter after another—in pen, no less—in a precisely repeating pattern, or Peterson cutting out every last little tendril on every last root of her potato plants. Pavlik’s sculptures are process manifest in front of our eyes, continually recreating themselves.

Michelle Johnson, H Variation 4 (2008). Ink on paper.

For me, this is the real charm, the allure of this exhibit: the contrast between the manifest precision of the artists’ craft and the ambiguity of the outcomes. All of these works are somehow disorienting, even surreal—but it’s clear that the artists followed very deliberate paths to take us to these very new and strange places.

And then, of course, there’s the works’ sheer visual beauty. You don’t have to take my word as a critic for the appeal of these pieces. For one thing, the work is in front of you to see before your eyes, and for another, you can sit here and watch other people react to the exhibit, as I did on Tuesday afternoon. As I sat on a bench here taking notes, a group of preteen girls ran in with their teacher, and they ran from piece to piece oohing and aahing. “Look at this!” they’d say. “Is that paper?” They ran to one of Pavlik’s pieces and talked about how cool it was. Their teacher told them to look at the shadows the waving bands cast on the wall, and one of them exclaimed, “I saw Jesus!” (Of course, I did notice that these seemed like relatively art-savvy kids. One of them stuck her nose into the adjacent gallery and sniffed dismissively, “Psssh, Rauschenberg.”)

In sum, we have it all here. Vivid, beautiful objects to feast our eyes on; adventurous, dauntingly accomplished levels of craft; and dense layers of socio-historical significance. As a critic, I hereby pronounce my judgment: thumbs up!

Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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