The form and content of theatricality informs and illuminates “Scribblins,” Alexis Anderson’s MFA show at Cal State Long Beach. Her 18 prints (14 woodcuts, 4 etchings) are strewn with images – some taut and coiled, some unhinged - that could serve as backdrops while organic shapes - some transparent - react to these settings. Her predilection for dramatic modalities is apparent in several pieces (they’re all Untitled) in which she uses galvanized striations reminiscent of Cy Twombly and Jackson Pollock to activate the picture plane as though it were an electrical field. Mostly done in black and white, these stark, spectral picture spaces evoke an atmosphere of random and chaotic peril, suggesting an anxiety that could extend beyond the aesthetic into the political, from personal and idiosyncratic concerns into global frames of reference. Other pieces she populates with forms that resemble the organic shapes of Hans Arp or, in the third-dimension, of Henry Moore. Though they appear as something primal, they are hardly lyrical and spontaneous. They may be tinted with optimistic colors but they roil and writhe with aesthetic agony. Each feels more like abstracted versions of St. Sebastian being prodded by electric spears that could be out of a Philip Dick story. Composed as if they’re in constant motion, they appear to recoil from contact with the barbed wire background.
Thus the introduction of characters and their environment, now the drama. Each piece reveals some sort of tension: hard line versus soft shape, black and white screeches versus splashes of color, the attempt of forms to escape a skein of sinister line. In the background-pieces, the charged lines reverberate against the picture plane; you can almost hear their lambent sizzle. In the protagonist-pieces, the beleaguered forms flail about helplessly in the narrow pictorial space. In the pieces that bring both setting and protagonist onto the stage of the picture plane, they engage in a give-and-take, a parry-and thrust, that enacts a series of archetypal mini-dramas. Albeit anachronistically, the engagement at the stylistic level recalls debates that surrounded early abstraction as to the superiority of either geometric or organic abstraction. Now, though, with style a moot point, the engagement becomes existential and, thus, universal: a Sisyphean, ongoing struggle that serves as a metaphor for such issues as national, religious, and ethnic identity versus overarching globalization; for the 24/7 vigilance of terrorist activity; and, in short, for the timeless and unfortunate trait of the human condition to not leave well-enough alone.
The seemingly casual title of the show, then – “Scribblins” – belies it’s content. It suggests a shorthand manner of describing issues that extend beyond the ambit of the student gallery. The very manner of their execution suggests violence: the use of abrasives, mark making tools, substrates, as well as ink to create what amounts to apocalyptic tattoos. The fact that Anderson describes the process as automatic and intuitive and not overt and calculated suggests that she is not so much a political artist as one who evokes a tragic sense of contemporary history in her viewers. Movement in the piece is thwarted; the mark making is obsessive, the physical acts afflicted to the forms – one of them bleeds red into the energy field; a larger one appears to consume a smaller one - suggests a gradual evisceration of optimism as well as the dramatic event that made it so. Contrasting the organic and the geometric, the rounded and the sharp, the upbeat and the pessimistic, the exhibition doesn’t so much predict a victor - environment or inhabitant - as much as it makes you wonder how much longer the gladiator battle can continue.