No Asset to Ground Zero
Drawing Center culture at the Ground Zero memorial

The self-regard of our art establishment, bloated like a puff adder, is doing a full monty at The Drawing Center. That calls for music and a theme song; and Pete Townshend wrote the lyrics. The Center was founded in 1977, during Townsend’s tenure as lead guitarist and resident virtuoso of The Who. Townshend’s “Lets Get Pretentious” should be piped in during the current exhibition: “Let's get pretentious / Put on an act / Let's get pretentious / Embroider fact / Exaggerate it /Dress up the bland / Let’s overrate it / Let the critics be damned.”

Chris Sauter, Mind and Body

One small word change—from “fact” to “drawing”—does the trick. If it throws off the rhyme, all the better to accord with the Center’s mission to unsettle concepts of what constitutes drawing. “Wall to Wall Drawings: Selections Summer 2003” presumes to extend the concept of drawing. And who knows? Maybe it does. In an age when we are asked to ponder what the definition of “is” is, we can be excused for not having a clue to what drawing might be, what its purposes and limits are, or at what point it passes into irrelevancy.

At any other time, the current installation of seven site-specific works would pass without a trace, an ephemeral non-event inhaled by the art crowd and paid for with tax-deductible monies. But now that this particular non-profit has been selected, together with the International Freedom Center, as the cultural show piece for Ground Zero redevelopment, it is getting a harder look.

But first, the art. Avantika Bawa cuts corrugated cardboard into parallelograms, paints them gray and arranges them around the wall. You see variations of these arrangements in scores of lobbies across the country. But here they “hint at the architecture and infrastructure that is hidden behind the wall.”

We get a look at the hidden stuff— studs and insulation—through the holes, some as large as 6 inches in diameter, cut into the walls by Chris Sauter. The artist uses the drywall bits to construct a make-shift telescope aimed at the swiss-cheesed wall as if it were a display of planets. The telescope looks bandaged—all those frayed edges from sawed plasterboard—like a mummy in winding cloths. No worry over the cost of replacing the wall.

Mark Licari’s insect-and-anteater contribution snakes across the back wall. It is demented Dr. Seuss, the kind of cootie-anthology the class clown drew up his forearm with ball point in tenth grade but here offered to us as “private mythology.” One anteater sprouts a light bulb; a bleeding eyeball rotates on an armature; bits of hardware seem to vomit and excrete while fighting for space with bugs. You might forgive Mr. Licari his imagery if it were drawn with any attention to quality of line. But the Drawing Center has freed itself of such concerns.

What is there to say about Rosanna Castrillo Diaz’s entry? You can barely see it: a 1/8th inch dot with a faint line descending another 8 inches. On the line is a near-invisible trace of letters isolated from the words they once formed. In such manner Ms. Diaz is said to “redefine the wall as an ethereal space of knowledge in an inaccessible library.” It is an impeccable visual synecdoche of what passes for intellect among artminds.

Soshana Dentz is good with a ruler. For more, see Avantika Bawa above; the concepts are quite similar. Sun Kwak covers the floor with curvaceous black zebra stripes that climb the wall at one end. To spare the expense of resanding the floor afterward, the stripes (“an architectural nervous system”) are made of masking tape.

Every insignificant show needs its political statement to boost box office. The Drawing Center has a mild incitement in Charbel Ackerman’s PowerPoint presentation on the the Axis of Evil. It is a predictable riff on “Follow the Oil” graphs that have been wending through galleries since the 2000 election. The true subject of shallow stunts like this is the smug rectitude of the artist for daring to tweak the nose of a president at war.

When will someone do an “Axis of Money” presentation, tracing the lines of connection between dealers, collectors, museum trustees and curators? This, to be accompanied by a timeline of the passage of certain works by certain artists to sale at Sotheby’s? That might be instructive. As it is, Mr. Ackerman’s vaguely accusatory pseudo-lesson presents merely a stance. Therein lies its dishonesty. A posture is not an argument; it offers no intelligible information and cannot be questioned or refuted. It is a power play exerted on a captive audience.

But the substantive eyebrow-raiser here is not Mr. Ackerman. It is the fact that the Drawing Center and the International Freedom Center—brainchild of Tom Bernstein, president of Chelsea Piers—were both intimately involved in the design process of the proposed cultural center at Ground Zero and in selecting the architectural firm (Snohetta). Mr. Bernstein is also president of Human Rights First which sued Donald Rumsfeld over alleged abuses of detainees from Iraq and Afghanistan. Are there possible conflicts of interest here?

This exhibition harbingers what the Drawing Center will stage at its new address. What makes it bewildering for the World Trade Center memorial is the overweening fatuity of it. While young men and womenmainly menrisk death and disfigurement for the sake of the commonweal, cultural impresarios “liberate” us all from discipline, refinement, modesty, good sense and any vestige of the dignity of labor. One of Mr. Bernstein’s golf driving ranges would be less of an affront to the families of 9/11 than third rate installation art. Go to the Drawing Center to see how a culture swallows its own tail.


“Wall-to-Wall Drawing: Selections Summer 2005” at The Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, 212-219-2166).

This review first appeared in The New York Sun, June 30, 2005.

Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey

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