Nancy Cohen: Force: Observations from the Interior by Kate Dodd

October 2, 2019

"Force: Observations From the Interior" reveals a shifting boundary, between glass sculptures full of embedded mark-making and drawings constructed of and on handmade paper. This fluidity corresponds with Nancy Cohen's experiences of observing the many ways water meets land. Her handling of materials fittingly involves both surface and immersion.

Cohen's drawings convey vast depths beyond the delicately applied paper pulp networks that bob on her organic surfaces. Glimpses of brilliant orange push through muted lavender in Scrim (2019), while deep vermilion emerges from the details in Low Tide and Underside (both 2018). This sense of looking both at and through something occurs in Cohen's sculptures too, but with roles reversed: solid wire elements are held within transparent, slumped forms, tinged with surprise appearances of saturated color. Intercoastal (2019) provides a pleasure like beachcombing, finding something after it has disappeared and come back worn, yet new. These eloquent works evoke the tide-like nature of existence as an ever-changing state.

Somewhere Over the Interconnected Rainbow & Prospero's Grand St. Masque, 6/8/18 - 6/10/18 by Kate Dodd

Drawing Rooms’ final show at their Grand St. location, entitled Somewhere Over the Interconnected Rainbow & Prospero’s Grand St Masque, 6/8/18 - 6/10/18, is taken from diametrically opposed literary sources, Edgar Allen Poe and Frank Baum. The theme of this show was born of a brainstorming session between Exhibitions Director & Curator Anne Trauben and Executive Director James Pustorino. While the ending of Poe’s "The Mask of the Red Death: A Fantasy", of 1842, occupies the realm of the catastrophic, quite the opposite results when the story’s title is appropriated for thematic purposes. Anne became the Curator in 2014, and as with every show at Drawing Rooms, she has found a way to unify differences intelligently, often making more than a sum of the parts/art they display.

Again and again, as all who have shown and/or visited this gallery over its five highly transformative years know, the impossible gets pulled off with panache. The core of the challenge of this space, to make big ideas work in little rooms that function individually and as a whole, is parallel to the definition of community. And that is exactly what the final show in this particular venue presents: a skilled and diverse group of people that share the belief that art not only can build community, but is essential to the health and growth of communities.

Part of the pleasure of group shows is finding unexpected connections, and this show provides that in spades. While color acts as the overarching organizational concept, themes such as found abstraction, examination of natural phenomena, tension between 2 and 3 dimensional surfaces, visceral use of materials, intention and accident are just a few of the relationships that become apparent by traveling from room to room.

Highlights include the obsessive mark making of Harriet Finck, James Pustorino, Injoo Whang, Ellie Murphy and Elizabeth Onorato. Megan Klim, Maggie Ens, Jaynie Crimmins, and Gianluca Bianchino take that impulse into the third dimension. The serial aesthetic in these works contrasts dramatically with the allegiance to gesture in the works of Robin Feld, Stephanie DeManuelle, Rich White, and Jaz Graf. Surreal scenes employ humor in the works of Cheryl Gross, Bill Rybak, Raisa Nosova, Carol Radsprecher, and Jodie Fink. Intimate observations of nature range from Ed Fausty’s rock portraits to Nan Ring’s pinecone print to Sharon Sinton’s penguin studies and Jade Lowder’s graphite leaves. And of course, the human figure sneaks into each room in works by Winifred McNeil, Mauro Altamura, Gilbert Giles, and Samm Cohen. These are but a few of the discoveries offered among over 300 artworks.

Should you decide to browse the archives on the gallery website, the inventive titles of past exhibits, not to mention the range of high quality art from past shows, will affirm the rich legacy of art that has graced 180 Grand St. since 2012. Drawing Rooms has hit the sweet spot during its time here: the gallery has provided the satisfying experience of looking at a single artist’s output while simultaneously contemplating thematic overlaps between artists, something solo shows can’t do and group shows rarely achieve. While this feat seems aligned with the physical parameters implicit in the Jersey City convent site, I suspect that the real genius lies in the more than capable hands of Anne, which means we have a tremendous amount to look forward to as Drawing Rooms begins its reincarnation in their new space.

HARVEST/TIME Sup-A-Genius: The Five Guy Show at Drawing Rooms, 9/22/17 - 11/11/17 by Kate Dodd

All of the works in Sup-A-Genius, a show of five installations currently at Drawing rooms, deal with aspects of harvesting and time. The artists were all selected because of their tendency towards work that “works”, that labors and produces, as any good invention will. These are makers making something make something else, and as such, it is worth looking at both their process and their product.

Joe Chirchirillo has been making heavy duty sculpture for a long time. Here he puts his collection of implements to use to create a water cycle, aka a gravity-fed fountain that fills the room with a sort of creaky bucket brigade made up of old farm containers. In one corner, a separate mechanism spins sporadically, marked by a propeller wing labeled water on one side and wind on the other. Its laconic movement, along with the complex arrangement of the aged vessels, creates a sense of abandonment, as if the resources of wind and water have dwindled to a trickle, and all that’s left is the labor of this mechanism, determined to continue regardless of the existence of any resources, while the repeated sound cycle marks the ceaselessness of time passing.

Anthony Fisher has drawings and a video showcasing his process, along with some of what might be his drawing tools, on display. The black and white drawings range in scale; all feature mysterious marks, some made up of several drawings that are inlaid into each other. Delicate lines wrap around themselves on a ground that looks tough, grey, pocked by grit. This toughness connects to the brutish tools nearby, made up of weights and wheels on brooms. The video of Fisher arduously pushing heavy implements over paper on his studio floor supplies the link that reveals his process. Jackson Pollock meets Chris Burden. One could consider these drawings machine made, albeit with significant labor on the manufacturer’s part, with the traces of the tools’ movement as the product being created; Fisher then “harvests” the raw material he has cultivated and fashions it into drawings and collages, elegant records of sheer willpower.

Roger Sayre actually uses his room as his portrait photography studio, complete with a refurbished clinical chair for clients and a large pinhole camera. The challenge here is to sit still enough, long enough, while staring at oneself in a mirror Sayre has rigged up, to result in a fixed image. A conflated Warhol Screen Test of sorts. Portraits done in this manner line the walls, in both black and white and color, each seeming to reveal its subject as if through a long journey from a distant place. The color portraits in particular refer to the myth of Narcissus, with the liquid-y backdrop suggesting that we’re actually peering through water at the subject floating beyond us, a reflection but not the real thing. These are the opposite of selfies; they require an attempt at introspection on the part of the subject rather than the masked pose marking one’s non-present presence at places or events of note. Sayre is distilling the essence of time spent with disciplined will.

Kurt Steger’s work asks participants to give freely and endlessly of their time as well, although one would not know it by looking. His drawings of perfect circles in rich earthy hues on immaculate white paper make one think of a highly singular force. The controlled drops of toxic water that create these rings contradict the purity of form, but don’t reveal the communal process required to manage such exactness. To create these, Steger asks participants to tend to the melting drips at the end of a swinging plumb line by rotating the paper surface that they land on; he hopes to create a communal experience reminiscent of tending a fire while sharing stories and wisdom. He has set up a contraption to illustrate this, although its diorama like scale leaves it functionless, making the connection between the vagaries of people’s informal communal abilities and the refinement of Steger’s circles hard to reconcile.

Fittingly, John Morton’s audio installation challenges us to not only participate in this harvesting of human will, but to believe in it as an action that will yield results. Belief is the subject of Fever Songs, a series of recordings of spiritual ecstasy from cultures around the world. As with other proximity sensor driven pieces, this one requires experimentation and patience. Without enough movement around the room, aka participation on the part of the viewer, the sounds retreat to silence, possibly beckoning you back only as you walk out the door. The absence of voices prompts one to try again, to actually have faith that one’s presence is the thing that initiates action, a clear parallel to engagement with spiritual practice. The sensor acts as a god, reflecting back whatever one is willing to invest.

Each “Sup-A Genius” invention in this show suggests that a process will produce a product. Whether Sisyphean or hopeful, all of these works evoke a sense of effort, of sheer will, of “I will make this happen despite all odds” adding up to a mood of eloquent desperation in a world where effort doesn’t necessarily determine outcome.