‘By Hand’ Embraces Inconvenience

Share via

“By Hand: Pattern, Precision, and Repetition in Contemporary Drawing,” on view at Cal State Long Beach’s University Art Museum, is a sprawling, vigorous exhibition that presents itself as an alternative to the art world’s starry-eyed romance with digital media. Organized in conjunction with other drawing shows at Cal State L.A. and Cal State Fullerton, the exhibition features 26 artists who “resist the temptation to generate images with a computer,” no matter how exacting their subject, and focus instead on the most basic element in art: the impulse of the human hand to make marks on flat surfaces.

At a time when Palm enthusiasts are busy prophesying the demise of paper and ink and museum galleries are filling with the colored-air painting of video, the notion of concrete marks on paper, made with simple, hand-held objects, certainly has an air of traditionalism. To its credit, however, “By Hand” is not nostalgic. Rather, it focuses on drawing as a contemporary response to a world of convenience, demanding that issues of pattern, precision and repetition--so perfectible with a computer--be reckoned with on human terms.

It’s a pursuit that lends itself to obsession. Witness Mungo Thomson’s nearly exact reproductions of mass-produced graph paper, for instance, or Dana Duff’s large, painstakingly realistic drawings of wood grain. At the same time, however, most of the work has a concentrated quality that may not catch the viewer’s eye immediately but more than rewards those who approach the work with patience.


Much of the work is impressive for its sheer intricacy. (The most frequent adjective to come to mind when moving through the show is “tiny.”) Jacob El Hanini weaves lines of minute handwriting into charming fields of pattern. Marco Maggi inscribes complex, densely packed, vaguely pre-Columbian designs onto sheets of aluminum with drypoint to produce a surface that looks as if it was stamped by machine. John Morris makes exquisitely delicate drawings out of graphite and white wax, using subtle incisions in the wax to create a complicated, lace-like texture. Francesca Gabianni, drawing not with a pencil but an X-acto knife, assembles wonderfully thick landscapes from thousands of minuscule fragments of colored paper.

Other work stands out for its deft manipulation of pattern. Tayo Heuser’s 3-by-8-foot drawing--a wallpaper-like field of loose, overlapping, black and gold rectangles that resembles a bamboo mat--is soothing in its quiet rhythms. Timothy Nolan’s white-on-white stencil drawings, which feature even rows of geometric shapes on ghostly sheets of Mylar, are among the most beautifully subtle works in the show. Nancy Picot Riegelman’s colored monoprints, textured with thin, horizontal pencil lines, are equally elegant. Seth Kaufman’s abstract, colored line drawings on smoky sheets of yellow, pink and blue plastic, are smart as well as deliciously fun.

In the most powerful of the works in the show, obsessive concentration transforms into a sort of meditative transcendence. Makoto Sasaki’s two large pieces are filled with dense rows of red, zigzagging lines that record the beating of the artist’s heart--feats of mental acuity. Russell Crotty’s stunning black-ink starscapes are full of awe and mystery.

Stefana McClure’s transcriptions of the New York Times and religious tracts on the nature of sin, made illegible and ghostly through some unknowable manipulation of transfer paper, are subtle and alluring. Elena del Rivero achieves a similar effect in her series “Letter to the Mother” (1993), in which she applies patterns of black ink and paint over the text of personal letters, playing with the sensitive emotions--attachment, distance, intimacy and disclosure--that such documents arouse.

Ann Faison’s wonderfully spare pencil drawings depict bird’s-eye views of suburban landscapes described only through select patches of their greenery, as though viewed through a veil of clouds, leaving broad stretches of empty space across the page. Similarly topographic are Kathy Prendergast’s “Capital City Drawings” (1992), possibly the loveliest pieces in the show. Though faithfully copied from preexistent city maps, the two works are so sensually rendered--in soft graphite lines and delicate, organic patterns--that they seem to represent some internal part of the human body.

“By Hand” is a lot to take in at once, particularly because each work demands so much attention. While there are certainly a number of less-than-profound works that could have been left out, it does seem appropriate that the exhibition is a little tiring, considering that it’s ultimately a show about inconvenience. While most of us in this consumer age go out of our way to avoid such inconvenience, the artists in “By Hand” embrace it with fearless determination and, for all the implied tedium, emerge with an enviable degree of focus and soft-spoken accomplishment.



University Art Museum, Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-5761, through Oct. 14. Closed Mondays.