Kelly Wallace - Nothing in Particulate, Ben Portis
Having now followed rather closely Kelly Wallace’s drawing practice for three years, I continue to get thrown off track by his cagy attitude to subject matter. The two most salient features of Wallace’s art have been his intensely disciplined and controlled technique and its remorseless portrayals of decay and entropy. Surely there is a master narrative in place—consider only the course of devolution implicit in successive bodies of work: “Capital Salvage,” “Terminal” and “Level Grounds.” However Wallace claims that attributions of these sharply rendered, hyper-detailed scenes of unspecified observations, mental amalgams of imagination and memory, as more than analogies of creating art, pretexts for the event of beholding drawing, are mistaken. Ultimately they are pictorial allegories of nothing, never and nowhere—albeit marvelously so.
How to reconcile what then becomes a confounding disparity between stated intent and apparent effect? Both are simultaneously evident. Taking the measure of their proportionate or differential balance seems an especially joyless approach to already tough drawings replete with optical delights. Perhaps Wallace rhetorically overstates his claim to assert and allow acknowledgement of the crucial quotient of subjectivity that is a less obviously essential element of his art. At work in his studio, Wallace makes frequent notes that log his physiological, perceptual, intellectual and emotional bearings through the long course of making a drawing: “repetition of pattern presents consistent motion/time,” “cadence in pressure as well as frequency and length of line,” “know where level earth is—intuition,” “propel/flutter—short stops, skids in mark making,” “marks make subject matter,” “I cannot visualize these drawings, therefore I draw them” are prime examples, among many others. These are an artist’s notes-to-self but they aptly suggest a navigational channel that an encouraged viewer might find and follow between awe at fierce technique and awe at fierce nature.
Consider instead Wallace sifting through rubble to produce the very image of rubble, or torpor, or desolation. His art literally consists of metallic powder markings on a pulverized mineral emulsion surface applied to a mashed organic fibre support. All is residue. The rock, river or wreckage before you is particularly rich, illusory and convenient reconstitution. Wallace has always preferentially measured the constitution, properties and space of his working materials. Smithereens, Sinker, Igneous and Ignis progressively depart from a persuasive, fictive imagery to be ever more factually realistic, observational drawings, representations of the artistic act itself. Lead is ultra-terminal. Even the blocky nautilus composition of the two large scenic panoramas, Light Mass and Spira Mira Bella, cuts the scope of familiar whole down to a bewildering yet undeniable riot of chaotic detail.
Ben Portis, Level Grounds catalogue essay January 2013, Michael Gibson Gallery
Scanning the history of art and the inventory of effects—and there for the taking—must be seductive for any artist, but Kelly Wallace has consciously restricted his drawing and technique. There is no meandering line “being taken for a walk” (a phrase attributed to artist Paul Klee); light and dark is generated by the proximity and intervals of straight lines as units of information. On this and other levels the work is conceptually-driven, yet not the message his work transmits. Nor is it his intention to play the role of the draughtsman-aesthete—the game of image contradiction and the obedience to concept. There is no denying the images in Wallace’s work or mistaking the pictorial content as a means to an end.
In the absence of drama—the graphic cues of chiaroscuro—or a “signature” (what is often called “style”), the eye is captured by the complexity and labour-intensive nature of the work. In other words, it is “slow work in a fast world,” but at the same destabilized by how he makes the work, a sense of distance rather than the “loving embrace.” This, however, says more about our expectations for an enchantment of the eye. At the risk of over-simplification, because unravelling Wallace’s thoughts and practice to find the “beginning of the thread” is no simple task, there are three operational elements in his work. The “book ends” are the choice of subject matter and the means of execution—the what and how. They need not be joined but Wallace has done so and invented a junction point for himself. The subject matter has an intuitive dimension, yet neither haphazard or arbitrary; there can be signification and portent, and equally a complete absence of it. The third element is the cognitive (for argument’s sake, “in the middle”); a visual processing that cannot be seen in the work, but is in the nature of knowledge itself—how we come to acquire it—and how we construct it. Wallace’s drawings are constructed; it is part of his self-discipline. A found image, photograph, or object can be the source, but then subsumed in the act of drawing. One example is a distressed and torn dollar bill as an object source for a series of drawings; a “thing” observed and reflected upon. Once “embedded” in his consciousness, he can then rely on the mind-and-memory as a source, a second nature.
A formative work was derived from a newspaper image of the first bombings of a residential area in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war; a continuing example of total war where no one is safe. Wallace’s drawing came long after the height of the bombings in 1993, so it was not reactive or a form of reportage, and other works followed. The first was done in 1998 with wax crayon. Subsequent drawings were done from the previous drawing and twice from memory. The smallest can be held in the hand, and the largest to date is 34” x 50”. A related and return-to-subject are the Greenburgs titled works, but in contrast to sticks n stones, done without an original photo source. The Greenburgs “disaster” is Wallace’s imagined trip along a mid-Prairie landscape prone to twisters, and as he wrote, “a name that refers to 'people' who build a two-story wooden house in the middle of tornado land and also to a ‘cusp,’ an unsustainable construction that will be bulldozed and returned to earth.” Everything is lost in human terms, but the message is not necessarily a treatise or editorialization on loss, human folly or the “error of our ways.” Rather, it offers Wallace a way to work through conceptual and perceptual ideas. Greenburgs is a portrait of the “iceberg” of how he works—there is a foundation below the surface—the what you see—that is not visible. He wrote:
I have drawn this house in the past; it could be seen as the future, but it is dated, has happened and now is certainly something else. I have drawn it up to the sky [the perspective] and rendered its fall to the earth. I think I draw the same house, such as inside out (2008), and sticks n stones...the same dreamscape; it is the revisiting of the same landscape from different perspectives.
Wallace also stated that “I want you to think but not generate emotion,” and in turn his thoughts on the sustained act of drawing:
I am in the process of figuring out how to draw multi-point and interval drawings, like a still life drawn from three angles all layered on one another. The house is wood; rectangles are used as image patterns, a selection of various shapes, which draw me into space as object. Each drawing “houses” questions that begin to be answered in line, lines of perspective that direct perception.
If not already evident, formalist and descriptive languages that are normally applied to drawing have limited use in dealing with Wallace’s work. Images and subject matter can appear out of the world of our experience, yet not wholly in that world. On another occasion he described the Greenburgs house works as “portraits of ghost ships.”
The work of Vija Celmins offers an affinity and comparison. She abandoned painting to focus on drawing in order to extract an essence, not of subject matter per se—water and starry skies—but the thing of drawing. In a Tate Gallery interview in 2007, she stated that “the dark graphite and the light of the paper unfold together. I made them in a deadpan way, and spoke of them as having no composition/no gestures/no artificial color/no distortion/no angst or effort showing. I know nothing, I compose nothing." Likewise, Wallace’s thoughts about his work and processes are not wholly strategized in spite of a methodical approach: “All I’ve done is draw…and everything [else] comes in…gesture as mechanism, not freedom.” Accordingly, Wallace chooses his tools carefully; they’re not just any pencils and his response to a what-do-you-use question was revealing in the thoroughness; the quality, hardness and composition of the pencils (graphite or lead rather than the newer poly-carbon compounds), and even learning and re-learning how best to sharpen a pencil. The paper and other drawing surfaces are given equal consideration; the weight and weave, and color of paper; or paper mounted on a birch panel and gessoed.
No summary for drawing—its meaning or means—is ever adequate but many topics are explored in Patrick Maynard’s book, aptly titled Drawing Distinctions, the varieties of graphic expression (Cornell University Press, 2005). Maynard argues for the importance of drawing beyond “the issues of art or aesthetics,” and in a chapter on the “what and how” of perception and depiction, puts forward the proposition that lines in art are mental concepts, not reality; “Artists are aware that when they draw a ‘line’ with charcoal or pencil, they are creating nothing but the symbol of the mental concept of a line.”
The “nothing but” is a red flag as everything about art that moves our thoughts is a symbol and a concept; it’s what makes the “useless thing” of art useful, and makes it art. There are lines in nature—we can observe them—but it is our vision and our habit of mind. The contour outline is a way of distinguishing one thing from another, a way to express the need for a three-dimensional experience. In Wallace’s work there are suggestions of contour but not so heavily rendered, and to repeat, the lines are his construct in order to make and express the nature of things and ideas. The Maynard assertion however is a valid philosophical position—the impossibility of knowing reality always remains open and irresolvable. Wallace opens up questions about reality, and engages subject matter beyond that of the built environment; a beauty of thought and the beauty in images. These works may speak to the sublime but are approached with the same rigor and discipline. He stated, “for my drawing to be finished…it must be in a balance of representation of the marks made and the subject drawn.” The landscape appears in the Drowning andReparations titled works, which are also the most systemic and loose (least dense) drawings to date. No Horizon presents the surface of ocean water, yet observed as if surrounded by the surface and a question that Wallace poses for himself; “am I drawing on the surface, or creating a surface—am I drawing in, or creating an opening?”
The British poet John Keats ended his Ode on a Grecian Urn with “there is a beauty in truth, and truth beauty.” Ever since it was published in 1820, this passage has been discussed and debated. How is beauty ever caught (actualized), or truth verified? And if proposed or nominated, how truthful is this beauty, how beautiful is this truth? Wallace’s work posits both unprovable propositions, and work-and-draws towards them. The critic (and once-upon-a-time artist) Robert Hughes declared in a 2004 address, “no spiritually authentic art can beat mass media at their own game…but drawing never dies; it holds on by the skin of its teeth because the hunger it satisfies—the desire for an active, investigative, manually vivid relation with the things we see and yearn to know about—is apparently immortal.”
All images © copyright 2005—2016 Kelly Wallace
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