Featured image: “An Army Train” from the portfolio Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War by Kara Walker. Offset lithography/silkscreen. (image courtesy LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, Columbia University)
“Drawing is the artist’s most direct and spontaneous expression, a species of writing: it reveals, better than does painting, his true personality.”
So said French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas about one of the most fundamental expressions of art. In a new exhibit titled, Drawn: Concept and Craft, which opened on Wednesday at SECCA, drawing as an artform takes on a multitude of meanings.
A woman towers over spectators of the newly reopened museum. Her back is turned away from viewers and she shows off her decorative skirt to those who stand beneath her. A ghostly figure emerges from the pleats of her skirt and reaches up towards her waist while a sea of daisies lay between her feet. Red, gray and black lines traverse the volume of her garment, adding layers and texture to the dress.
“Thy Self” by Paula J. Wilson was put together in multiple parts, says SECCA curator Wendy Earle. Made up of sections of hand-drawn, painted and block-printed paper fragments, the work comes together like a giant jigsaw puzzle on the museum wall.
“It’s drawings but really, really expansive views of drawing,” Earle says about the show. “So, printmaking as a drawing medium, collage and cut paper as a drawing medium. So, some artists are adding information to a page, some are extracting information from a page, which I think is really interesting. Some are more sculptural, some of it is digital drawings.”
The show is the first one since SECCA reopened its doors on Wednesday. Earle says they cut down on the number of guests allowed inside the museum, capping the limit to 50 per half hour. Visitors are required to wear masks, encouraged to maintain social distancing and to wash their hands before and after their visit.
Iterations of the Drawn show has been put on multiple times across the world. The concept began when artist Tomas Vu discovered a series of drawings by painter LeRoy Neiman after Neiman’s passing in 2012. Neiman, who was known for his vibrant, impressionistic paintings of athletes, movie characters and politicians, often created more muted drawings that at times served as preparatory materials for his multicolored final works. When Vu, who works as the artistic director at the Neiman Center for Print Studies, discovered Neiman’s lesser known works, he decided to create a show that celebrated artists’ drawings and their relationship to the medium.
“Some of them were preparatory, but I think some of them were sketches that never got turned into anything else,” Earle says about the Neiman sketches. “He was a very fast sketcher. He sometimes did live TV drawings.”
James Baldwin’s recognizable face emerges from the white of the paper canvas in tones of deep mahogany and ochre. Nearby, Neiman depicts Cassius Clay, before he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X together. In another sketch, Neiman draws a profile of Jesse Jackson.
“These are more of these Civil Rights series which he’s not well known for,” Earle says. “He was known more as a pop culture guy…. Recontextualizing this work in 2020 might be different than it might have been a year ago.”
Artist Kara Walker’s works offer another interpretation of drawing.
Using old prints from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, Walker superimposes storybook-esque silhouettes of Black bodies onto the pastoral landscapes. The resulting images are melancholic and, at times, dreadful.
“We’re talking about printmaking as a drawing medium,” Earle says. “You’re able to carve into things based on your drawings and it’s just a way of making a lot of this stuff that comes, I think, more directly from the artist’s brain whereas I think some other media like painting can have more layers to it. Drawing is a lot more immediate and I think her work taps into that.”
And like Degas, Earle says that drawing is one of the most fundamental avenues of expression that an artist can take, especially now, in the midst of a pandemic when artists may be quarantining or may be low on supplies.
“Drawing is something that everyone can do right now,” Earle says. “And I think a lot of people who weren’t artists before are turning to these creative pursuits as an outlet and that’s absolutely true of the artists as well. It’s a way for them to get their ideas out in a very immediate way and I think for some of them I think it’s a stress relief.”
Many of the works in the show were created during the pandemic, Earle says. And of the 68 artists featured, about a quarter of them are from North Carolina.
Greensboro artist Antoine Williams’ large-scale illustrations grace the outside of the museum, reimagining mythical creatures through human bodies with multiple limbs that branch out in varying directions. Steve Cozart, also from Greensboro, exhibits his Brown Paper Bag series in which he intricately draws portraits of people of color and includes quotes about their relationship with their skin tones.
And it’s not all two-dimensional. In Scott Hazard’s paper sculptures, layers of ripped paper recede into boxes, creating cavernous voids within frames. Along the edges of the sheets are words that Hazard has typed out repeatedly, alluding to the title of the work. In the upper gallery, a stop-motion video shows off artist Jennifer Nuss’ paper dolls as they interact with dragonflies, caterpillars and lightning bugs.
“I think you could argue that some of these aren’t drawings, but it’s the artist’s interpretation of it,” Earle says. “We’re trying not to be too literal with it. Drawing is the starting point I think, but it’s contemporary art so there’s never an easy explanation.”
Drawn: Concept and Craft will be on display at SECCA in Winston-Salem until Feb. 15. Visit drawntosecca.org to learn more.