There are three reasons why “Sweet Subversives: Contemporary California Drawings” at the Long Beach Museum of Art is neither sweet nor subversive but rather cloying and annoying. Each has nothing to do with the 31 otherwise fine pieces on display here. All the reasons are based on assumptions the museum seems to make about its audience.
First, what does the show tell us about contemporary California drawing? What makes it different from, say, Chicago or New York or even San Francisco? (The title references California; the brochure blurb references Southern California. Which is it, please?) Presumably the artists live and work in this part of the state and, for the show’s organizers (it doesn’t feel curated, it feels aggregated, like Google News), apparently such a thin affiliation is causal relation enough but nothing else of substance is adduced s evidence.
At last check, a museum serves as an educational institution, so it bears a responsibility to present and interpret the work it displays in a legible manner, teaching the viewer about visual literacy. The brochure jejunely states that the show is subversive, sweetly so, because it “presents drawings as finished works of art” — that’s subversive?
Second, it suggests, curiously, that the artists in the show have integrity because they’re true to themselves and not trendy. Despite such Hallmark cheesy prose, does the museum suggest that artists are otherwise insincere?
Third, and for the most part endemic, the museum’s obtrusive, distracting, and unnecessary wall labels with artist statements that range from the meaningless to the insipid, impart too much information. Their de facto existence next to each piece suggests the audience requires spoon-feeding, which is easily enough confirmed by re-examining reasons one and two.
This hand holding gesture is condescending; it does nothing for visual literacy and suggests that it’s more important to read the text than look at the work itself. Why not just have the didactics available outside the gallery or at the front desk? What would really be sweetly subversive is for the museum to let the work speak for itself. Which it does, once we get past all the propaganda.
It does tell us that the medium promises scale-wise dexterity. Some artists work with great effect on an intimate scale. Margaret Griffith’s eight-piece series “Blue Corner Collection,” (2009) bristles with luscious optical effects; it’s like looking at a Bridget Riley painting. And, just as an effectively resume’s said to be best graphically laid out when the words legibly float in a sea of white (perhaps an inadvertently jocular reference to the wordy artists statements that litter the walls), the forms in the show’s standout piece, Yunsun Lee’s Weeds (Snow – Korea II) (2009) hover like wispy and diaphanous clouds betwixt the paper’s white space. The Zen-like spaciousness creates a field ripe for interpretation and bewonderment and a tribute to the medium.
Others work with great effect on a larger than life scale are Adonna Khare’s gargantuan, fresco-esque Elephant, Lion, & Buffalo (2006) which envelopes the viewer with humor and insight: we like to think that pets take on the characteristics of their owners but what if there were no humans and the animals were of the jungle? Kiel Johnson’s I think I’m gonna be a little late (2008), takes what could be a simple text message and gives it a delightful graphic representation. It does tell us that the medium can express whimsy, idiosyncrasy, and introspection.
Michael Dee’s 9 x 19 (2009) cleverly shows the flattened head of a hollow point bullet that resembles a flower. Macha Suzuki’s four-image Untitled (squirrel drawings) (2005-2009), places wrestler’s masks onto rodents. And Margaret Lazzari’s Scream (2004) presents a time-lapse sequence of three bald heads, the middle one emitting a Munch-scream, the front one with head facing down, as if spent from the effort of screaming.
But the best works in the show are like ephemeral dreams, not a little surrealistically irrational, rendered with great precision but without the material durability of either oil or acrylic. They seem to drift off the paper, fragile and fleeting. Tom Knechtel’s Nino and Babette (1989) for example, juxtaposes a mouse with a porcupine. Yuval Pudik’s Logan’s Harp No. 1 (2009) leaves us to wonder with mute awe the nature of that musical instrument. The tree form in Jennifer Celio’s Signals 4 (2008) doesn’t seem to emerge vertically and parallel to the picture plane but rather three dimensionally into the viewer’s space from the vaporous white that engulfs it. And Joe Biel’s exquisite Import/Export (2008) juxtaposes pop culture images (a world famous soccer head-butting incident, a slice of pornography, and Hitler doing a jig) on a wide–open, horizonless frontier.
Misgivings about museological practices aside, this magnificent exhibition as a whole attests to drawing’s ability to sustain the arc of graphite masterpieces from Da Vinci through Ingres to Picasso and demonstrate, convincingly, that the power of the pencil still resonates strong in Southern California.