Last year, a New York art fair organizer pitted pop music fans who are also artists against one another in a show entitled "Oasis vs. Blur," referring to the British bands. At the time, a friend came up with an idea that might be even more reflective of popular culture: In the Age of the Mental Disorder and its attendant Ritalins, he suggested, how about the OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) vs. ADD (attention deficit disorder) show? Were one to curate such an exhibit, the two artists currently on view at Sally Sprout Gallery would have to be at the top of the list -- the OCD side of the list, anyway.
A single 16-inch by 19-inch drawing in this show could take six months to make. And that doesn't include the time spent developing ideas, washing hands or turning lights on and off.
In Matthew Sontheimer's ink-on-crystalline paper Study for N.O. Map, he carefully traced the streets on a map of New Orleans, the city in which he grew up. Then he overlayed the same tracing paper on another section of the map and traced it. Then (seriously) he did that six more times, until the entire city had been transferred onto one sheet of paper. The city itself, with its diagonal viaducts, radial neighborhoods and stadium drives, provided the line and the composition. The result looks like a pane of safety glass that's been hit once with a large, flat mallet, leaving a web of cracks. Every line is shorthand for an actual place, and the layering of the sections provides additional random intersections, a metaphor for the artist's own cerebral web of associations. In fact, Study for N.O. Map becomes an aerial view of memory's lanes, a four-dimensional map -- with time as the fourth dimension -- compressed into three.
The famous American minimalist Sol LeWitt used to make square plates following his own terse instructions: "one-inch vertical lines, not touching," for example. Then he would print them four times on the same sheet of paper, rotating them one-quarter turn and changing the color each time. Sontheimer uses a street map the same way LeWitt used his set of instructions, as an armature on which to build a visual experience. Hanging near Study for N.O. Map is the final product, N.O. Map, in which Sontheimer traced the study. This time he changed color every time he crossed an intersection, creating tiny flecks of ocher, gold and gray. But where LeWitt's lines, points and shapes are pure geometry, a sweet melancholia muddies Sontheimer's project, creating a sentimental tension between armature and artist. And where LeWitt reproduced lines by mechanical means, Sontheimer labored for weeks over a light table, tracing the avenues he knew as a child.
If anything, Sontheimer's obsessiveness bleeds over into preciousness, particularly when he shows the detritus of his process as well as its end result. Celadon Runoff, a piece of paper Sontheimer placed under the edge of his drawing surface when using celadon ink, is framed here, as is Color Study, a piece of paper on which Sontheimer doodled with his many colored pens when testing to make sure colors matched properly. Both these pieces, though elegant, hint at the artist's strange precision and not much else.
In a series of related works, "Rain Maps #1-10," Sontheimer traced, again in ink, the exact outlines of splashes of water. Inside each splatter appear subtle graphite lines -- on close inspection, more portions of a street map. Plenty of artists, notably Guillermo Kuitca, have used maps in their work, and here the map image comes perilously close to becoming a flat, tired icon. Still, few artists have used maps with Sontheimer's degree of sincerity.
If, that is, we take intense labor to be evidence of sincerity, even the sincerity of an alien intelligence such as the second artist in the Sally Sprout show, Tina Marrin. Marrin, a Glassell Core Fellow who achieved a modicum of fame last summer when she curated an exhibit on trailers for the Museum of Jurassic Technology in her native Los Angeles, exhibits small drawings and color Xeroxes, but the three centerpieces of her part of the show are two latch-hook rugs and a single large drawing. On one of the rugs, supermodel Nadja Auermann's head floats unperturbed in an otherwise empty latch-hook grid. Marrin recreates Nadja as a pointillist exercise, using magenta, lime and pink yarn that somehow blends to seem normal. Marrin's exactitude conjures up the photo-realists, and her unusual medium makes her kin to the edgier practitioners of the genre such as Chuck Close, who could recreate skin tone with blobs of yellow, cyan and magenta.
In the second rug, Marrin does up an image of a tiered chandelier in masculine colors -- black, gray, brown -- that match the fuzzy tiger bedspreads you might find in a scummy bachelor pad. The image in the large drawing, which is done on two panels and enclosed in a plain metal frame, is also singles-pad appropriate: a vinyl sectional couch, affectionately drawn and shaded with a small felt-tip marker.
All of the images Marrin uses here are appropriated, stolen from magazines and Xeroxed (the rug images were color-copied in "mosaic" mode, thus providing the grid pattern used to create the rugs). But like Sontheimer's, Marrin's method of reproduction is distinctly non-mechanical, the product of prolonged attention rather than a quick flash of light.
Writing about the Van Gogh paintings whose authenticity has recently been questioned, the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik noted a turn from the "meta-ironic" to the "post-ironic, the realm where appropriation re-emerges as sincerity." He suggests that the Van Gogh Sunflowers was, if faked, most likely faked by a great admirer of the artist, and as such is a tribute rather than a cynical (in this case mercenary) endeavor. Gopnik's observations could easily apply to Marrin, especially vis-à-vis the ironic appropriation of images by many women artists over the last decade. Artists such as Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine recycled images as a way of pointing out how women are treated by the media and the art world. In the '80s, appropriation was not a polite thing one did to something one liked. Rather, it was a quick hit, a way to recontextualize kitsch or sexism or both. And in terms of time, recontextualization was economical, particularly when photography was used.
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But when Marrin appropriates images, even images of pinup girls, her investment is very, very high. Take Tammy Sparks Xerox-Drawing and John Kacere Xerox-Drawing: Both images -- adult model Tammy Sparks clad in a French-cut swimsuit and a smooth, slick portrait of a woman's bikini region by photo-realist John Kacere -- are in the spirit of streamlined Nagel fetish-prints. Either work might be seen by high culture mavens as, if not derogatory, at the very least unsophisticated. Yet Marrin renders every colored pencil stroke lovingly, in tribute to the fantasy they evoke. And what's incredible about these drawings is not the exactitude of the replication of the image, but the exactitude of the replication of the photocopy of the image. Every bit of electromagnetic dust and dry toner is faithfully reproduced. It's as if one painted a perfectly smooth, glossy image on photographic paper to make it look like a photo. If you saw Marrin's drawing in a trash can at Kinko's, you would surely mistake it for a grainy photocopy.
Like Sontheimer with his Study for N.O. Map, Marrin has included the patterns she used for her reproductions. In the case of the latch-hook patterns, she pricked each tiny square as she hooked its corresponding yarn, to mark her place. She's also included her Spraypaint Patterns, in which she pricked every flick of spray paint sprayed on a piece of paper, and an early, actual-size chandelier pattern -- an intricate pencil drawing on graph paper with paint-by-number squiggles, each scrawled with the name of the color to be used there. These patterns are inside-out works of art -- not all individually successful, but cumulatively powerful. Unlike Sontheimer's Color Study, they do more than testify to the lengthy, uncomplaining process of the artist. Instead, they literally deconstruct what the media constructs. With tiny stabs of her pin, Marrin translates the broad obsessions of the public into the dangerous obsession of an individual; her consuming affection takes apart and then rebuilds.
In that sense, her work is like a classic unrequited love: a quest for the unattainable (here represented by the slick, mass-produced image). In the throes of this affair, a supermodel who has been photographed thousands of times becomes a series of infinitesimal, carefully knotted dots, and then rematerializes as yet another kind of object of desire. Something saves this new Nadja from the bramble-filled castle of irony ... dedication, perhaps? In this day and age, Marrin and Sontheimer's monkish labors perplex. Their motives, in the end, are as impenetrable as obsession -- a lovely mystery in the presence of which cynicism dissolves.
Works by Matthew Sontheimer and Tina Marrin will be on view through September 6 at Sally Sprout Gallery, 223 Westheimer, 526-6461.