It is often easy to disregard the role that drawing plays in the creative process; although typically smaller, more fragile, and less valued than other media, it has been and remains an important part of artistic production. Drawing as Process in Contemporary Art, an exhibition currently on view at the Smart Museum of Art, attempts to explore the now varied roles of drawing in the artistic practices of seven artists: Kerry James Marshall, Zhang Huan, Carol Jackson, Julia Fish, Mark Dion, Erwin Wurm, and Richard Rezac. The intention of the exhibition is to demonstrate how much, or perhaps how little, drawing has changed over time. From traditional preparatory sketches for paintings to humorous “instructional drawings” in the spirit of Dada, the exhibition shows how ideas evolve during an artwork’s conception.
Drawing as Process begins with an installation by Kerry James Marshall, consisting of studies for his comic strip “Rythm Mastr” (1999), a parable about race in media representation, urban violence, and the power of historic Africa. In preparation for the comic strip, Marshall fashioned clothing for dolls to test costume ideas and made large-scale drawings that appear to be nearly finished compositions. As an unexpected element in a drawing show, dolls in a glass vitrine model Marshall’s miniature costumes, presenting a pleasant contrast to the typical juxtaposition of preparatory sketches and finished, two-dimensional painting. The other element of the installation demonstrates Marshall’s practice of creating many preliminary drawings in varying stages of completion: 15 drawings hung salon-style culminate in his acrylic painting on plexiglass, “Vignette #10” (2006). The sketches for “Vignette #10” are certainly works in their own right. The work is displayed in conjunction with Marshall’s earlier painting, “Slow Dance” (1992–93), as both paintings focus on a couple surrounded by schmaltzy symbols of love, such as pink hearts. “Slow Dance,” however, seems to serve as a counterpoint to “Vignette #10,” as Marshall contrastingly composed it primarily directly on the canvas.
A contemporary Chinese artist known for his body-oriented performances, Zhang Huan revives his 1994 performance, “12 Square Meters,” with a series of five silkscreen prints titled “Dragonfly” (2006). In “12 Square Meters,” Huan covered himself in honey and sat in a fly-infested public toilet in Beijing for one hour while flies stuck to his face and body, in his nose and ears, and then slowly walked into a nearby pond until he was completely submerged. For “Dragonfly,” he used a friend’s photographic documentation of the performance to create screenprints, to which he adds a red dragonfly swooping above the water, creating a feeling of serenity and beauty. Six drawing studies for the prints are displayed on the facing wall, and in this case, the drawing studies are much less effective than the performance documentation and its subsequent prints, as Huan’s sketches of dragonflies bear little relevance to the scathing social critique in “12 Square Meters.” The physicality of Huan’s work is completely lost in the studies. In addition, the dragonfly studies reveal nothing of significance about his working method.
The most innovative drawings found in the exhibition are those of the Austrian artist Erwin Wurm. He is known for his “One-Minute Sculptures,” bizarre, written instructions that tell the viewer how to turn himself into a sculpture. “Be a Monument for One Minute (You may also do it outside)” (2001/2006) includes a tiny sketch at the bottom right of an empty podium wherein a man “plays horse” while another sits on his back. Similar to the “One-Minute Sculptures” in scope and humor are Wurm’s “Instructional Drawings,” in which the artist juxtaposes simple, diagrammatic sketches with absurd commands for the viewer to make art out of everyday life. Although the works include drawing, the drawing itself is not important, for sometimes Wurm even has others recreate his drawings for this series. “Instruction Drawing: Urinal,” (1990/2002), was created in homage to Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917), but here a sweater is the readymade. The drawing shows a green sweater hung up on rods and accompanied with a list of commands:
1. Nail 5” nails one inch into wall 11 ½” apart
2. Place sweater over nails
3. Fold arms of sweater over top of nails
4. Adjust so arms are flat and even
Wurm’s drawings are a welcome detour from the more traditional representations of drawing found in this exhibition.
Richard Rezac’s drawings, which bear likeness to architectural blueprints, are used both to guide the creation of his sculptures and to function as completed works. The drawings of Julia Fish are spare and delicate, especially her sketches on lined Japanese writing paper; however, the “drawing-as-study/drawing-as-artwork” binary is still at work here also. The dichotomy of such works seems to belie the exhibition’s proposed exploration of drawing as an evolving genre. As such, it seems that the conclusion of Drawing as Process in Contemporary Art was foregone.