I recently came across a video of the Danish performance artist Christian Falsnaes. In the video, he repeats several times: “Art is not business. Art is adventure. Beyond the security of social affirmation is the adventure of art. Art seeks to explore, expand, and include, but not to complete. We embrace the moment of incompletion.”
Astrid Bowlby’s installation, Everything, at the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham Art Gallery, is incomplete. From January 24th through March 6th, Bowlby is embarking upon what may become a lifelong adventure. This is her first “live performance” drawing installation, in which she will be taking requests from gallery visitors in an impossible attempt to draw, literally, everything. Bowlby will be on-site every Sunday from noon to 4 p.m., and by chance or appointment during the week.
“I am drawn to endless projects with the blush of futility about them,” wrote Bowlby, an alumna of the USM Art program who’s attained international success and recognition for her expansive and intricately hand-drawn and hand-cut installations. Bowlby’s previous works have been phenomenal feats of detail and inspiration. Everything marks an experimental departure for the artist. It is the first time she will be present within the installation, involving the public in the process, and creating an installation that will evolve throughout the duration of the show. With Everything, the artist has returned home to take new risks.
Bowlby wrote, “Emotionally and conceptually, this installation is related to Leaves of Grass, a project I undertook a decade ago in the Morris Gallery at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The initial impulse: a desire to draw, and to mix up the high and low, to create a democracy of ‘things,’ to be ebullient and embracing. I wanted to re-visit or re-awaken that impulse, and add to it. Hence Everything.”
I visited the installation in its preliminary phases. The artist had begun to work through several rolls of paper, covering both sides with black line drawings in her signature style, rendering a multitude of objects. Within moments, I identified a band-aid, a magic wand, a pomegranate, a wishbone, a tennis racket, and a fantastic drawing of a piece of wood. The objects were drawn without adherence to relative scale, so a giant mitten may dwarf a tiny life preserver. Along with physical objects, Bowlby also included the abstract forms for which she is more widely known: spirals, Seussian squiggles, and ovals.
The combined effect is surprisingly light. There is a playfulness that tempers the overwhelming notion of “everything” with a childlike feel. How Bowlby’s project will evolve remains to be seen. To elevate the piece from lightness and playfulness to a more substantial, provocative presence will require an intense effort during the upcoming weeks. For an installation involving drawing, the piece still needs to more thoughtfully engage its three-dimensional space.
When I think of performative drawing/installation works, most of them involve a prominent physical component that activates the space in which they are presented. I think of Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint, in which he created a series of athletic challenges to hinder and alter his drawing process, exhibiting the residue of his efforts. I think of Carolee Schneemann’s Up to and Including Her Limits, in which the artist suspended herself in a harness and drew all over the surrounding walls, a reference to Jackson Pollock’s action painting. More recently, I think of the artist Tony Orrico, who pushes the physical limits of his body to create phenomenal live drawings that recall both Barney and da Vinci, for very different reasons.
At this early stage, Bowlby’s work still reads very two-dimensionally. That being said, the drawings are striking in their lack of self-consciousness. There is nothing fussy about these images, and the work exhibits a quiet openness in regards to process. The renderings of individual objects vary in completeness, such that a poorly drawn image of a hand holding what looks like a pile of hair may share space with an expertly rendered drawing of a boot. There seems to be no filter applied to the work. “Everything” is on display, and herein lies the greatest risk.
Bowlby wrote, “The good, bad, and ugly, funny, elegant, and awkward bump up against each other. I am drawing in a way that the poorly rendered glove, the beautifully realized clothespin, the crisp little icon of the Whitehouse, the mediocre bicycle, and the inept diamond ring jostle each other in a complimentary fashion.” Which leads to the question: Is complimentary enough?
In an article for BOMB magazine in the summer of 2010, Joan Jonas talked about the performative aspect of drawing for a live audience. She spoke about the intense double focus required to pull off a live piece, how the artist has to consistently split her energy between attentiveness to the audience and an attunement to the drawing.
Bowlby had yet to take on this live aspect of the process when I visited the space in late January. Will this new element of risk be the factor that transforms the gallery? Will Bowlby bust through the rectangular frame with her cut-paper techniques? Where is the adventure in Everything? That remains to be explored – by you.
— Sarah Bouchard
Everything shows through March 6 at USM’s Gorham Art Gallery, 37 College Ave., Gorham. Opening reception on Sat., Feb. 2, from 2 p.m.-4 p.m., with an artist talk at 3 p.m. Hours: Tues.-Sun. noon-4 p.m. (note: gallery closed Feb. 18-24)