Look Ma, No Computers

Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Sunday Calendar

Technology today allows human beings to create images with the speed of a gesture, but there are plenty of artists who still prefer doing it the old-fashioned way--by hand, with the simplest of tools and materials: paper, pencils, pens.

In fact, according to Mary-Kay Lombino, curator of the University Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach, drawing is enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity. Artists have been making drawings all along, she points out; even artists who do not view it as their primary medium use drawing to create complementary or preparatory work. "But recently," Lombino says, "there's been increased attention paid towards drawing--in collecting and presenting and appreciating it."

To explore the latest trends in the medium, Lombino began planning a drawing show last summer. The result is "By Hand: Pattern, Precision and Repetition in Contemporary Drawing," which opens Tuesday, featuring 26 artists from seven countries. It is the biggest entry in the Tri-Cal State Drawing Exhibition, which includes shows at the university's Fullerton and Los Angeles campuses as well.

What emerges from the Long Beach show, contends Lombino, is a generation of artists influenced by the likes of Agnes Martin and Sol Lewitt, but also reaching beyond their classic brand of Minimalism.

"Some of these artists actually use the computer as a model to emulate," Lombino notes, "as if the computer has upped the standards."

At the same time, there's an ambivalence, even a discomfort, with our reliance on technology. Malibu-based Russell Crotty, who does freehand drawings based on astronomical observations, "is the perfect case of the artist who accepts technology but at the same time wants to defeat it in a way," she says. "He doesn't have to take a picture of the sky, he can draw it."

Most of the works in the exhibition are abstract. The few works that aren't, like Crotty's, veer towards the surreal. Still, they reflect painstaking workmanship, a reverence for the intricacy and unique qualities of work by hand.

"Once I had it in my head that I was doing a drawing show, I kept seeing work that had an obsessive quality," Lombino says. "It wasn't so much rendering from life, it was craftsmanship in the sense of being completely precise. I also began to see a lot of works that dealt with pattern."

The details of these works are often minute, barely perceptible. Artist Marco Maggi, for one, has termed what he does "micro-art." Earlier this year, in an ArtNews article, Barbara MacAdam identified a number of artists working in the 'strange yet venerable genre best called 'micro-art.' Labor-intensive to produce, it can be almost impossible to decipher." Several of the artists she named--including Maggi, Jacob El Hanani and Stefana McClure--are also in the "By Hand" show.

"You definitely have to look closely at these works," says Lombino, leaning over to peer at a drawing leaning against the wall, ready to be hung for the show. "One thing to take note of is the formidable skill that it takes to make these drawings."

The Long Beach show has been divided into three sections that emerged from Lombino's research--landscape, system and overall pattern. All the works were made in the last decade, and some of the artists cross categories. El Hanani and Crotty, for instance, have work that is displayed in two sections.

Among the landscapes, some works are recognizable as forests, mountains or towns, but others focus on a limited aspect of the landscape. Eve Aschheim, for example, fills sheets with wavy horizontal lines, which could be seen as abstract until you learn that she is inspired by the view from her New York apartment of the Hudson River. Michelle Segre's tangled web of jagged lines evokes rocky cliffs or caves. Amid the apparent chaos, says Lombino, there are "patches of pattern that occur. She did these freehand almost the way you would do a doodle. She has an idea of one specific place as she's doing it, but then she allows chance a certain play."

Ann Faison depicts bird's-eye views of cities by drawing in only the trees, leaving buildings, streets and other man-made objects as remnant white space, invisible but defined.

With Francesca Gabbiani, the show stretches its definition of drawing.

This artist creates objects and scenes from pieces of cut colored paper. Her show at the UCLA Hammer Museum earlier this year included intricately assembled bugs and a wall covered with a paper forest. Lombino has chosen to showcase three of her landscapes, which are usually based on photographs. Although Lombino admits that Gabbiani's work is not "drawing in the conventional sense," she sees a connection in what she calls the "artist's gesture." That is, the use of an X-acto knife as if it were a pen or a pencil to make "lines" on paper.

British artist Paul Noble is one of the few whose work looks like traditional drawing. Noble has been working on a semi-autobiographical series about a desolate-looking town, Nobson Newtown. In "Nobpark (with small tent)," an iron gate leads to an eerily elevated plain upon which a giant dome sits; enigmatic buildings are tucked into the distance.

"Most of his views show this city as a kind of dystopia," Lombino notes, "but there are these tiny signs of life--there's this tiny spider web." She points to a web between two poles of the gate. "Little details like that make you think someone could actually live here."

The section of the exhibition devoted to systems includes artists whose work is based on self-created rules or notation methods.

In a series called "Letter to the Mother," Spanish artist Elena del Rivero has drawn what appears to be lines of text graphically blacked out--suggesting censorship or catastrophic revision, or, as Lombino says in the exhibition catalog, "metaphors for the ambiguity of language."

Joyce Lightbody has devised a method of musical notation by using scales illustrated with her own symbols.

In an least one case, the obsessive nature of the work can be explained by the artist's upbringing. El Hanani, born in Casablanca and now based in New York, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household where repetitive prayer and calligraphy were integral to daily life. Today, he is known for writing small strips of Hebrew texts in intricately interwoven designs--work that requires so much concentration, says Lombino, that he can draw for only 12 minutes at a time.

Another obsessive artist is Frenchman Frederic Tchorbadjian, who uses only small circles in red, blue, green and yellow to make drawings that are all versions of a spiral-like pattern. Some show the whole pattern, some part of it, and these in turn are sometimes enlarged, shrunken, rotated and so on, although the component circles remain the same size. Tchorbadjian's universe is ruled by rigid methodology, and Lombino pulls out a spiral-bound manual he has written on how to navigate the system.

The third gallery of the exhibition showcases pattern, and includes such works as Crotty's recent astronomical drawings on suspended globes, Maggi's densely packed geometric designs inscribed on sheet aluminum, and Tim Nolan's white-on-white drawings. All of them fill surfaces with repetitive imagery, and the subtlety of the works requires close scrutiny.

Also in this section are two drawings by Japanese artist Makoto Sasaki, who covers large sheets of paper with records of his heartbeat.

With hand to paper, he draws a continuous line across the top of the page, from left to right, with an upswing every time he feels his heartbeat--sort of a do-it-yourself electrocardiogram. Then he starts again from the left, under the previous line, and so on until he fills the entire sheet with what he claims are 24 hours' worth of heartbeats.

Although the works in the exhibition strive for precision, they don't necessarily strive for perfection. They reflect the inevitable quirks and anomalies that flesh is heir to, and imperfections remain--a crooked line, a messy overlap--that signal their human source.

"We're really comparing the human touch to something more mechanical," Lombino says. For her, the fact that artists continue to devote so much time and energy to drawing is an indication "of its staying power over the centuries and most likely into the future, regardless of what devices are invented and where progress takes us."

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