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Draw You In 

Four Bay Area artists seek connection

Wednesday, Feb 23 2005
Just when I'd started to worry that San Francisco's art scene was stagnating, along comes an exhibition that affirms the irrepressible vitality of our artistic community. This year's SECA Art Award show feels honest and earnest and more than a little saucy -- it's the most robust expression of local culture I've seen in a long time. SFMOMA curators Janet Bishop and Tara McDowell led the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art in awarding the biannual prize to four emerging artists -- Rosana Castrillo Díaz, Simon Evans, Shaun O'Dell, and Josephine Taylor -- who aptly represent the indignant energy, ballsy idealism, brainy neuroticism, and staggering beauty of the Bay Area.

Simon Evans' work strives desperately for intimacy but achieves something closer to specificity. Evans, a Brit who avers that he's spent much of his life as a frustrated writer, senses that people prefer their information delivered in cogent, legible info-graphics. His wordy drawings are structured as pie charts listing the artist's preoccupations, maps of imaginary cities from which he feels alienated, and coded texts that conceal more than they reveal. But Evans fails (mostly deliberately) at his attempts to divvy up and quantify life: He crams his ink-scrawled graphs with tangential information and unconnected musings, then plasters them with mangled Scotch tape and Wite-Out, as though to declare the whole undertaking a mistake.

Above all, Evans' work seems to be about distance -- the vast plains of apathy, difference, and miscommunication we have to cross in order to share our experiences of the world with one another. This is the distance that the artist, more than most, strives to bridge. In Diagram of an Interaction With a Different Body/Yellow Concerns, Evans offers a series of drawings in which two circular blobs approach each other incrementally (without ever getting very close) above printed phrases like "Stage 5: Tell her she is a genius in the park" and "In the mornings, bodies don't look like they're meant to." The artist badly wants to connect, but he's unsatisfied with the poverty of means available to him -- the limitations of language, labels, or sex.

Evans' drawings are by turns neurotic and endearing, with flashes of spot-on brilliance. Though his clumsy style and manufactured mistakes can feel contrived, he taps into elemental anxieties about how to present yourself to others, how to say something (anything) true, and how to condense your vast experience of the world into the cramped space of a sheet of paper.

Perhaps that's why Josephine Taylor's delicate watercolor and pencil drawings unfold over such capacious sheets: She knows that when something looms large in your imagination, a small canvas can't adequately contain it. Taylor's nearly life-size figures occupy fields of pristine white paper as big as 6 feet high and 19 feet wide. Her drawings are monumental but spare, pared down to their essential details. In each, she uses only the bodies and facial expressions of her protagonists to conjure a single highly charged moment, evoking the countless small wounds that we dish out and suffer -- whether through malice or miscommunication -- in all our closest relationships.

These works draw you in close, only to poke at your psychic scars and make you feel again the raw heartbreak or burning shame that inflicted them. To stand in the middle of Taylor's installation is to be surrounded by leering father figures, dying friends, and taunting bullies, feeling very small indeed. The drawings reflect this vulnerability physically: Though enormous, they're rendered in thin washes of translucent color and tacked to the wall unframed, unprotected. Taylor's forms are distilled, evanescent, and exaggerated, like well-worn memories that stubbornly cling to the edge of our consciousness.

Shaun O'Dell's diagrammatic drawings, meanwhile, tap into the nebulous confluence of collective memories. Using the imagery of civics textbooks and greeting cards, O'Dell parodies our vague, impressionistic understanding of our country's origins -- the myths we accept without question, the stories we only half-remember. These are the foundations upon which our society is built, but it's been many years since we dared check them for cracks.

By asking us to reconsider old myths, O'Dell is also inviting us to pay more attention to our present course. His concern is laid bare in the installation's most literal work, The Extractor's Ghost Dance, a densely hand-printed account of current government spending on war, shady defense-industry campaign contributions, and environmental decimation, paralleled by a time line marking the atrocities committed by our early post-Colonial government in its own rabid pursuit of land and wealth.

O'Dell, like Evans, adopts (and savages) corporate marketing strategies to relay his message. His elaborate flowcharts link iconic forms, like the silhouette of a bison's head or the contours of the Mayflower, by means of a preposterously methodical series of lines and arrows. Boldly graphic and beautifully drawn, O'Dell's ideograms can nevertheless feel hopelessly indecipherable. He takes universal, exhausted symbols and wields them so personally that we can barely access the narratives they suggest.

The intimacy of Rosana Castrillo Díaz's work is more material than conceptual. The centerpiece of her installation is a site-specific "wall drawing," suspended like a whisper on the third-floor landing at the entrance to the exhibition. Made up of thousands of thin strips of Scotch tape looped sticky-side out and pressed together to create a diaphanous web, this untitled work is a sprawling confederation of cells that announces its presence with a slight flutter as visitors walk past. It's nearly invisible, and almost absurdly ephemeral. Like a Tibetan sand drawing that's swept away as soon as the last grain is placed, Díaz's piece painstakingly transforms a mundane substance into a thing of astonishing beauty -- all the more precious because we know it can't long survive.

Around the corner (sequestered in an unfortunate spot near the bathrooms), Díaz also displays a series of exquisite graphite drawings. These works on paper, like the tape sculpture, celebrate utilitarian office supplies: Stacks of manila envelopes are lovingly rendered in profile, while the ragged edges of a pile of newspapers are drawn in dramatic chiaroscuro. They are portraits of things we see every day but never really look at, and with them Díaz makes the universal feel specific.

It's no surprise that each of the four SECA artists employs drawing (in some fashion) as a means of expression -- it's the most intimate and immediate of media, and the right vehicle for the pursuit of emotional honesty. Each of them, like all of us, struggles with how much of himself to reveal in the hope of finding connection. But most important, all four challenge themselves to say something important and true, and while they're visibly frustrated by the near impossibility of the endeavor, they manage it.

About The Author

Adrienne Gagnon


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