Drawing is often overlooked in the curatorial choices of galleries and museums, seen as a lesser companion to painting—more typically associated with sketchbooks and preparatory studies than pristine, white-walled exhibition spaces. The Western Exhibitions Drawing Biennial is out to change those preconceptions, offering a “salon-style celebration of works on paper” to capture the current state of contemporary drawing practices. The Chicago-based gallery has long shown artists for whom the worlds of fine art, comic books and graphic design are frequently melded together. The inaugural edition of the biennial, staged both at the gallery and online, brings together 28 artists from the gallery’s exhibition history. Each of them uses drawing to explore questions of selfhood and identity in exuberant, highly personal works that range from the directly figurative to the abstract and geometric.
At a time when lockdown is still a reality for many around the world, the familiar intimacy of the pencil is a welcome option for creativity within the confines of the home. The structured pencil drawings of Elijah Burgher offer that immediacy, combining abstract shapes and forms to create a surreal landscape of the mind. For Amanda Joy Calobrisi, strange and sensuous tales of womanhood conjure the private space of the bedroom (she calls it the “boudoir”), using coloured paper and the distinctive grey of graphite to create her provocative scenes of playful eroticism. “Drawing is the compass of my art practice: it gives direction to my thoughts and it helps make visual my ideas. I appreciate its immediacy, and its ability to be raw, simple and direct or meandering, dense and decorative,” she explains, adding: “Drawing is more carefree and reckless than painting, it’s like meeting someone new and chatting until you hit upon something worth talking about or not.”
“Drawing is more carefree than painting, it’s like meeting someone new and chatting until you hit upon something worth talking about”
That freedom to experiment can be seen in the work of Michael Pellew, a Brooklyn-based artist known for his humorous ruminations on pop culture and celebrity mash-ups. His inspiration comes from “music like MTV and Jersey Shore, Degrassi, speed metal and sinister music like Metallica but also Taylor Swift.” Characters line up like playing cards in his work, their imagined personalities expressed in cartoonish speech bubbles, with the distinctive sartorial choices of subcultural tribes given centre-stage. Catherine Whited uses a different form of cultural categorisation in her work. Her art-making process begins with writing lists, such as “What’s in my fridge?”, before proceeding to draw every item on them. She starts each drawing with a ruler; coloured pencil is then applied in shaded blocks before moving to the next item on the list. In doing so, she isolates the objects that populate her life in naive snapshots of the everyday.
A more intuitive approach is taken by Lauren Wy, whose work investigates the sexual body as a residue of process and colour. Her current work comprises a multi-volume graphic novel saga: AUTODESIRE. Partial narratives emerge and disappear, sketched with wax crayon on an intense pink paper, as if the act of drawing itself were a material expression of desire. Erin Washington takes a similarly impulsive approach, combining imagery and text in multilayered works that bring together ambiguous scientific diagrams, art historical references, Post-it notes, studio debris, mythological figures and self-deprecating jokes. Following a period as a science student at college, when she would draw “thousands of models of skeletal and nervous systems and geometric chemistry structures and evolutionary biology charts in order to retain information”, Washington made the decision to revisit her drawing practice within a creative context.
For all of the artists exhibiting as part of the biennial, the simple immediacy of pencil and paper offers the opportunity for self-expression, even under the most limited of circumstances. The drawn line upon the page—a gesture that most will have enacted during childhood—reaches out to the viewer in a moment of nostalgic recognition. Unlike the stretching of a canvas or the mixing of paint, the beauty of the works on display here lies in their relatability. All you need to do is pick up a pencil and draw.
All images courtesy Western Exhibitions and the artists