Published  29/11/2005

Obsessive Drawing

Obsessive Drawing

American Folk Art Museum, New York
14 September 2005 - 19 March 2006

In its current exhibition, which opened in September 2005, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City explores the infinite expressive potential of line through the works of five, self-taught artists. According to Curator, Brooke Davis Anderson, the artworks resulting from these artists' obsessive fascination with line are fresh, contemporary examples that fit well within the art brut cannon. While much less detailed than the artworks produced by their predecessors, 'The artworks in "Obsessive Drawing" are all labour intensive and painstakingly precise, mirroring the methodologies of some of the best examples of art brut. This minimal appearance does not equate less lust for line, but points to a more cautious, almost spiritual approach to the process of placing marks on a page'.

'Obsessive Drawing'showcases, for the first time in a New York venue, works by self-taught artists Eugene Andolsek, Charles Benefiel, Hiroyuki Doi, Chris Hipkiss and Martin Thompson. In more than 40 drawings, visitors are offered an insight into the highly personal nature of the drawing process, in which the tactile experience of making marks on paper becomes an intimate form of self-exploration, self-expression and self-preservation. As is true for other self-taught artists, these artists have created and used their art to help them make sense of the world and their place in it. Through their works, they wrestle with the depersonalised chaos that they have observed in contemporary society and find a sense of balance. For them, drawing is one of the essential survival skills that they use to overcome a variety of major life challenges. It is as if the obsessive nature of their work - their craving for the feel of pen or pencil on paper - matches their unrelenting need to find meaning in their life experiences.

Japanese artist, Hiroyuki Doi (b.1946), a chef by trade, creates his works to combat the increasingly computerised nature of contemporary society. His symbol of connection, the circle, is used to represent every creature in the world. Some of the circles are flat, with the impression of a poster or cartoon-like rendering, while others are so intricately worked that they appear to be three dimensional. In some works, the arrangement of circles is orderly, while in others it is chaotic. Using Pilot ink pen and different papers, Doi varies the scale of the circles in order to achieve a variation in tone, from pale grey to inky black. The pieces on view in this exhibit represent a break with Doi's previous work and indicate a move toward the meditative quality that is evident in work by the so-called 'spiritualists,' such as Emma Kunz and Madge Gill.

Charles Benefiel (b.1967) from the USA worked on his 'Random Numeric Repeater' series (c. 2001-02) while living in New York City and New Mexico. Like his other work, this piece, created with ink and watercolour on paper, is intended to be a musical, visual and mathematical experience. Benefiel considers the contemporary trend toward using numbers as a system of identification as futile. Linking people to numbers (social security numbers, banking accounts and pin numbers) has depersonalised and limited communication to what can be encoded numerically. The dots and circles in Benefiel's art are what he calls a 'dumb language' and stand for the numbers and sounds that have replaced the infinitely varied, yet unpredictable nature of human interaction.

At the age of 30, Benefiel was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Through a decade of searching for some relief for his condition, Benefiel discovered that drawing helped to control it. The series on view in this exhibit represents a turning point for the artist. He has refined his drawing through a more meditative approach to line and its effects.

Chris Hipkiss (b.1964) was born in England but now lives in France. He is showcased by one large work and a series of smaller drawings. He used pencil and silver ink on paper for his 35-foot 'Lonely Europe Arm Yourself' (1994-95), which presents a dramatic aerial view of a mythical, ravaged urban landscape. Hipkiss's luxuriant pencil line sharply contrasts with the blunt presentation of a truly horrific, violent and chaotic scene: a landscape dotted with mostly female characters who wear punk-like leather outfits. The surrounding buildings jut upward, offering a number of phallic-like symbols.

The eight smaller works (c.1998-2000), drawn in pencil and ink on paper, are more contained and devoid of human characters. In effect, these pieces serve as 'road trips' to defiled natural settings. It seems as if, after having achieved total devastation through pollution and technology, the human beings have either escaped or died. Visitors may find that viewing Hipkiss's bleak portraits of the future - his commentary on a very contemporary and urgent concern - is an intensely emotional experience.

Hipkiss began drawing as a small boy. His shocking subject matter and method of rendering have caused commentators to compare him to Henry Darger. Like Darger, Hipkiss includes enigmatic texts along with his provocative images.

Eugene Andolsek (b.1921), from the USA, uses a limited number of tools when he works: hand-mixed inks, graph paper, a straight edge and a compass. While in the rendering the process is controlled, Andolsek says that, often, he is unaware of the process itself and works in a trance-like state. In 1950, he began what became a nightly ritual of drawing at his mother's kitchen table. Using what the artist describes as a 'methodical approach', he draws black outlines and later colours them with eclectic, sometimes jarring colour combinations, such as purple and yellow or orange and green. The six works on view are bold and decorative, calling to mind African textiles; carpet patterns from the near and far east; and even the childhood drawing toy, Etch A Sketch.

Apparently, the obsessive nature of Andolsek's work mirrors his obsession with security and the uncertainty surrounding his life situation. To help express and diffuse his anxiety, Andolsek made thousands of drawings during half a century, mainly for his own viewing. He worked for a railroad company and then for the US Department of State, in Washington, DC. Fear of losing his job and caring for his mother was the driving motivation behind his life choices and, it seems, for his art. In 2003, due to failing eyesight, Andolsek gave up drawing, which was, perhaps the only outlet for his fear and insecurity.

New Zealand artist, Martin Thompson (b.1956), calls the world 'a mindless distraction.' Like Benefiel, his works have a numeric underpinning. For Thompson, the rational (mathematical) basis of his art provides a balance to the distraction of an irrational world. He is represented by 12 diptychs rendered in fine-point coloured pens on graph paper (c.2002-03). Thompson also uses a handsaw (as a straight edge), a scalpel and tape. When viewed close up, these pieces recall traditional quilt and cross-stitch patterns. When viewed from afar, the graph-based patterns recede and are replaced with a mandala-like effect.

Each mark on the graph paper represents an equation. The formulas for the equations, which he memorises, are based on multiples of ten. Benefiel uses a systematic process in which he draws a sharp-lined pattern in a single colour on a piece of graph paper, scaled in millimeters. The pattern emerges from the rhythmic alternation of coloured and grey squares. On a second piece of graph paper, he creates a mirror image of the first pattern, using the same coloured ink but an opposing mathematical sequence. The scalpel and tape are used to correct errors. Additional pieces of graph paper are integrated to fill in areas that have been excised. Up close, viewers can see patches where corrections have been taped on from behind.

The five artists' works are displayed in one gallery on the museum's third floor. Outside the main gallery, 20 pieces by established artists working within the art brut genre are displayed, including works by Inez Nathaniel Walker (1911-1990) and Hector Alonzo Benavides (1952-2005) from the USA; Madge Gill (1882-1961) from England; Adolf Wolfli (1864-1930) from Switzerland; and Edmund Monsiel (1897-1962) from Poland. Viewing these pieces prior to entering the gallery will provide a certain historical context for visitors, while viewing the pieces afterwards may provide a more striking impression; their relevance to the works by Doi, Hipkiss, Andolsek, Benefiel and Thompson becomes even more apparent after one has considered the personal, individualistic elements in each showcased artist's work. A repetitive, almost ritualistic effort to fill a surface with intricate detail provides the connecting thread that runs through all of the works.

The exhibition is supported in part by the Gerard C Wertkin Exhibition Fund.

Cindi DiMarzo

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