Intimate views

Exhibits at the Arts Center transport viewers into imagined worlds

click to enlarge Bart Johnson, "Tiepolo Honey," 2005, ink on paper, 27.75-by-35.5 inches. - Courtesy The Arts Center
Courtesy The Arts Center
Bart Johnson, "Tiepolo Honey," 2005, ink on paper, 27.75-by-35.5 inches.

Drawing is the underdog of art media.

It tends to live quietly in painting's shadow, modest and delicate in comparison to that medium's bold color fields and physical presence. In the context of a white box gallery, the power of ink and pencil (often on white paper that blends right into the wall) can feel decidedly diminished. The immediacy, the intimacy of drawing doesn't seem to lend itself to ostentatious display. It is the diary to painting's novel — a space for unedited thoughts and imperfect gestures — and, correspondingly, it's an intimate viewing experience.

A recent resurgence of illustrative art that merges the surreal with the Gothic takes advantage of drawing's diary-like intimacy and turns it into a repository for visions of the unconscious. Following in the footsteps of cult figures like Henry Darger and R. Crumb, a host of young artists are rediscovering the medium as a venue for dark, obsessive devotion — a place where the imagination runs wild on the page.

That trend toward the darkly fantastical makes a strong showing in Tomorrow's Drawing Today, an exhibit of 32 pieces organized by Santa Fe collector Sandy Besser — a champion of the underdog medium — now on display at the Arts Center. It's surely the most interesting compilation of contemporary drawing likely to hit the Bay area this fall, and it's definitely something worth checking out, especially if you're looking for something a little bit off the beaten path.

The show's most striking examples transport the viewer deep into the artists' imaginary worlds, often populated with mysterious and grotesque characters. Alexander Kvares' "Zombie Discotheque" depicts the undead happily gorging on brain and intestines, delicately rendered in graphite and ink on a background of geometric hot pink, teal and black paper cut-outs. Bart Johnson's "Tiepolo Honey" captures in freeze-frame the descent of a company of angels on a scene of earthly chaos, where a menagerie of part human, part animal creatures seem to be fleeing the angels' wrath; visually, the image merges Salvador Dalí with political cartoons.

Some of the drawings combine painterly touches with illustrative technique. Laura Corsiglia's lovely abstractions are the best example, with expressive strokes and washes of black ink mingling with swirls of bright color. Delicate figures resembling ancient Latin American art depict animal-headed people and skeletal hands and arms, but the living presence in the drawing comes from the swirling ink. In comparison, the outlined figures feel like transient spirits. Sampling traditions of Chinese calligraphy and abstract expressionism, Corsiglia creates about as delightful a postmodern remix as you could ask for.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the informal immediacy of drawing is something like the carefully calibrated immersion of Virginia beth Shields' installation, Remnants/On Becoming, also on view now at the Arts Center. A South Carolina native and USF MFA grad, Shields evokes the experiences of women sharecroppers and mill workers in the South in the 1930s and '40s with hauntingly minimal touches.

Twenty carefully composed black-and-white photographs serve as windows into the spaces — rustic country churches, schools and houses — where her subjects lived; the jagged edge of film negative visible around each image lends them the authenticity of documentary and the unfinished feel of something handmade. In an adjoining room, Shields re-creates the sharecropping community with wood and metal roof-topped cabins that double as light boxes for her photographs. Surrounding the structures, burlap sacks and baskets full of cottonseed fill the air with a distinctly organic scent.

The environment, with its muted tones — all blacks, browns, whites and naturals — and empty spaces, suggests elegiac remembrance and the paradox of memory, part dead record and part living thing. In her photographs, which are otherwise devoid of people, Shields reinforces that feeling by including a recurring character, a young girl, who appears as a blur moving through the empty interiors. Her ghostly presence combines with the folk temple feel of the cabins to create a strong sense of the spiritual.

The imagery repeatedly suggests that life for the girls and women who inhabited these spaces cannot have been easy. By today's standards, the austere farmhouses, pallet beds and bare light bulbs read as signs of fairly severe poverty. A scrawl on a school blackboard — "You will be what you are now becoming" — takes on a slightly ominous tone. Given the absence of adult figures, it's hard not to read a subtext of abandonment and abbreviated childhoods spent at work, church, or school, with little play.

For me, part of the installation — a mattress pulled back to reveal a row of axes sticking up beneath the bed — has undertones of sexual abuse in addition to calling up an image of tired bones hitting the hay after a hard day's work.

A third exhibit, the 14th Annual All Florida Juried Exhibit brings together 45 pieces culled from over 500 entries by artists throughout the state. The juror, Dr. Donald Kuspit, a critic and professor, sought out works that go beyond modernism's somewhat chilly depiction of human concerns and conceptual use of form.

The result is a diverse exhibit full of pieces sure to spark conversation, whether they grapple with narrative or twist materials in a new way. Daniel Wolfe's ceramic vessel accomplishes both in a visually arresting way: Clay sandals climb up the sides of his terracotta-colored pot, titled "The Long Walk Home."

Nancy Cervenka's film pod, a biomorphic shape made of coiled 16mm movie film, suggests the convergence of the natural and man-made. Other pieces run the gamut from oil paintings to digital photography. As is the rule at the Arts Center, it's an interesting mix worth checking out.