Drawing: A Blank

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Everyone complains about exhibits predicated on regionalism, and they are indeed silly: "Four Old Texas Sculptors Whose Rich Collectors Agreed to Underwrite a Show," "Twenty Young Texas Painters Who Flirted with the Curator When He Came By Their Studios," etc. Such shows are marginally better when they have even the flimsiest excuse for their own existence, like the 1985 "Fresh Paint: The Houston School" show, which tapped a surge of new energy and attitudes on the part of Houston painters and had people arguing passionately over who was and wasn't included.

As for "Texas Draws" at the Contemporary Arts Museum, I have seen artists who were not invited to participate shrug in mild relief. The show embodies all the CAM's worst qualities: It's predictable, timid and tainted by the art world's chummy politics of inclusion. Texas draws? So what?

Instead of passion or point of view, this exhibit offers "variety." One gets the unfortunate impression that when Texas draws, it draws acorns and bunnies. The exhibit includes nature studies, which Matisse called "imitation drawings," and not one but two wildlife series. Helen Altman's is supposed to be interesting because she drew her kute kritters using a blowtorch instead of a pencil; Lloyd Walsh's, because his animals are smoking cigarettes.

My initial notes on this exhibit, which I admit are snotty, say such things as "artist is museum donor's protege" and "what in God's name do people see in James Drake?" Thinking perhaps I had been caught by a foul mood, I went back. Twice. At different times of the month. On my third visit, I concluded that animals who smoke look older and hipper than animals who don't.

The one pleasant surprise in the show, the inclusion of 20 couch-potato doodles (a TV showing the "DUKEZ OF HAZZZARD," for example, and dorky Flatlandish creatures poking around on the "HI-WAY OF LIFE") by seminal Houston artist Mark Flood, is weakened by the fact that the CAM, which if it had any balls at all would be giving Flood the run of the place, waited until his punk-rock attitude was sanctioned by the respectable Texas Gallery to throw him the dry bone of this drawing show.

My central frustration here, of course, is that there is nothing quite like the raw delectation of a good drawing, and too often this show misses the mark. Seeing a great drawing is like reading a great line in a John McPhee book: You wish to God you had done it yourself, but you never could have because you're not John McPhee. You want to scamper off into a cave with a good drawing and snarl jealously at all comers. A drawing is personal, small, secretive, foldable. To a contemporary, conservatory way of thinking, a "drawing" is any work on paper. But conceptually, drawing has to do with line (or, really, motion), as opposed to color and space, which are the domain of painting. Drawing reveals rather than conceals, showing each tremor and hesitation. A single line can have a whole horoscope of personality. Originally, of course, drawing was done in preparation for more permanent, less personal things like paintings and sculptures of Bible scenes, unless you were a lady relegated to a drawing room, in which case drawing was a polite hobby. Unfortunately, that's what it seems to be in most of this exhibit.

Although curator Lynn Herbert claims to "hearken back to drawing's original meaning: The images have been created by lines drawn across a surface," she works both ends of the stick. If drawing has to do with line, as does Karin Broker's toothsome oversized still life of a vase of rotting flowers, it doesn't have to be on paper (Broker draws on Formica). If it's on paper, it needn't have much to do with line (Gael Stack and Angelbert Metoyer do work on paper that's basically indistinguishable from their paintings on canvas).

Only a few artists confront the issues of hand and line head-on. Matthew Sontheimer has traced and then dismantled his father's signature and reconfigured it into long, precise strings of subcoherent jabber, like a tape machine that records tone of voice but not words. Sharon Engelstein's combobulations resemble cartoon characters in a rugby pileup. In a send-up of how we are trained to read the visual shorthand of line, the same curve resembles Goofy's nose or Tom's thumb, a chef's hat or a sassy booty. Like Engelstein, Joe Havel is known as a sculptor, and like Engelstein's, his drawings of twists and folds, done after he made a series of freestanding cast bronze curtains that appear to hang from the ceiling on an invisible string, betray an uncharacteristically frantic kineticism.

My preferences are, sadly, as predictable as the CAM's lineup -- most of the artists in the show that I like have been in a lot of exhibits and have received a lot of ink, including mine. The rest of the show is peopled by annoying work such as that of Mark Greenwalt, whose perversely mangled, dwarfed or limbless humans (which I do not want to look at, for reasons which do not include squeamishness), are drawn in an Old Master style that comes across as sycophantic even though it might, I think, be intended as irony.

The good news, though, is that drawing in Texas is not at all that bad. Right across the street from the CAM at Glassell, Museum of Fine Arts Core Fellow Paul Whiting has hit on something fresh and demurely awkward with his architectural, industrial, clip art-inflected drawings on backdrop paper, one of which is on display in the 1999 Core show. At the newish downtown gallery Artscan, Volker Eisele has assembled "Faultlines: Drawing on/off paper," a show that is, if not head and shoulders above "Texas Draws," at least more adventurous. Eisele falls for some similar gimmicks; Todd Severson's chainsaw drawings of women on death row compare to Altman's torch drawings, for example. He has no clearer view of what drawing is than Herbert, but at least he goes further afield in trying to find out. With Eisele, drawing has more possibility -- Michael Golden's are on the floor; Margo Sawyer's are made of kiri wood and tape; Annette Lawrence's are on the wall. I prefer Eisele's grandiose idea of drawings as faultlines that, when activated, "have the power to change conventional configurations in unexpected ways" to Herbert's promise that "drawings afford us unique glimpses into an artist's way of thinking."

In Kathy Hall's Room with a View at Artscan, Hall strings up horse tackle to form a sort of three-dimensional drawing, reminding me of a moment in a book I read as a kid, where the main character, who wants to be an artist, has a moment of insight. As if the kid with purple crayon had just passed by, everything dissolves into line.

In the end, the relative strength of Eisele's show is perhaps that he treats drawing more as a concept than a genre. Genres these days have a way of being crossed and plowed under, their boundaries ignored -- photography looks like painting, sculptures mimic canvas. The energy in drawing is found not in the medium but in the line itself -- whether on, off, behind or around the paper.

"Texas Draws" is on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose Boulevard, (713)284-8250, through April 11.

"Faultlines: Drawing on/off paper" is on view at Artscan, 1113 Vine Street, (713)224-7722, through April 10.

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