The recent explosion of interest in drawing as independent artistic medium is one of the more encouraging aspects of the contemporary art scene. An exceptional drawing practitioner with no more than the basics - paper and pencil - Brooklyn artist Michael Schall pushes these humble materials to fantastic extremes.
Schall's current show at Platform Gallery features drawings whose intricate detail and colossal scale reveal an artist truly obsessed with process. Though these are message pictures, their spectacular craft is the first and foremost thing KUOW's art critic, Gary Faigin, notices.
In an era when anyone can produce professional-quality images at the push of a button, artists who elect to draw instead make a very different choice. Drawing establishes a direct connection between hand and mind that completely bypasses any technological intermediaries, the quality of the output depending entirely on the skill of the creator. Drawing links us to both our own childhood efforts as well as the art process of earlier eras, where drawings were valued as both a way to learn one’s craft and a research tool for paintings and sculpture.
What’s unique about the current scene is both the variety of approaches –contemporary drawings run the gamut in terms of scale and technique – and the increasing number of artists for whom drawing is the whole point of the enterprise.
One such specialist is Michael Schall. A gifted scenographer with a seemingly unlimited patience for minutia, Schall produces dramatic graphite views of a richly imagined, alternate universe that takes up where the story of the Tower of Babel leaves off. I’m reminded (as is Schall) of Brugel’s famous painting of the Tower of Babel, with all the latest and greatest construction technology of its time deployed in the service of a doomed exercise in civic hubris, a sort of Renaissance version of the World Trade Center, one eventually destroyed by an angry god instead of angry fundamentalists.
The hubris of humankind is indeed the theme of several of the very best pictures in the exhibition, especially my personal favorite, Hoover Dam. I’m not sure why Schall has chosen to be quite so specific in his title, since the only real relationship between the named dam and the depicted one is that they are both colossal manmade structures completely out of scale with our ordinary experience. But unlike its namesake Colorado River version, Schall’s dam is attempting to channel much more than simply water.
Like a scene out of Gustave Dore’s illustrations for the Divine Comedy, Schall’s drawing displays a fevered nighttime vision that is both compelling and disturbing. Fully 3 feet by 5 feet in size, it features a beautifully textured but mysterious walled structure split in the middle by what appears to be a cascade of pure, molten light (it’s a riff on photos of a bonfire pushed over a Yosemite cliff). The dramatic white waterfall emerges from several enormous chambers underneath an industrial array suspended by cables near the top of the giant wall. For Schall, detail is everything. Here he lovingly imagines a sort of miniature city of erector-set pipes, tanks, metallic grids, and stadium lights, contrasted both with the featureless, blurred-at-the-edges flow of light and the gritty, embossed blocks which make up the wall, the product of thousands of individual pencil strokes built up in numerous grey layers.
Schall’s Hoover Dam seems to carry the seeds of its own destruction in the very intensity of its centerpiece energy, an enigmatic force that is clearly too volatile to ultimately control, but there’s an alternate interpretation as well. The luminous streak is, in fact, the unretouched white surface of the drawing paper itself, made bright by the innumerable dark marks around it. Schall has used craft to unleash the inherent light in his paper, with the industrial array a sort of metaphor for the artist at work creating something from nothing, synthesizing pure energy.
A very similar note is struck by the smaller drawing Remaking the Night Sky 2, where a related but even more intricate web of machinery suggests either an oil refinery and a nuclear reactor seen from above and surrounded by a featureless night-shrouded plain. In the center of the structure, and providing the only source of illumination, is a gigantic, glowing white sphere, reminiscent of a ball of hot glass in a blast furnace. Once again, Schall is depicting industrial ambition that is Biblical in scale; the ancient Babylonians may have tried to build a stairway to the heavens, but we moderns are trying to replace the firmament itself.
The centerpiece drawing of the exhibition is the enormous Battle at Sea, a panoramic aerial view of colliding cruise and container ships scattered across a coastal waterway choked with ice. Here the match between subject and content is not as successful as with the nighttime drawings. Schall has paid enormous attention to details like the depictions of the stacks of variously colored containers on the working vessels, the arrays of decks and windows on the passenger ships or the shadows of passing clouds on the ice, but it’s not clear how all this description advances his ideas or enriches his result. It seemed to me that the concept behind the picture – the idea that the conflict between work and leisure isn’t as important as the war we are all waging against nature – is not strong enough to justify the epic treatment.
More successful are an array of 20 oddball and intriguing pencil drawings on 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper, commissioned by David Eggers’ literary magazine McSweeney’s to accompany various articles. We don’t need to know the subject of the pieces to appreciate the imagination, skill, and whimsy that enlivens the images, and the artist tells me the connection is often tangential and indirect, at any rate. Lucky for the magazine; I’d be more likely to read a piece accompanied by a portrait of a football helmet plugged full of electrical wires, empty wooden boxes surrounding a pile of what appear to be black voids, or a claw-footed bathtub overflowing with something dark, leathery, and organic than an illustration that was more obvious and straightforward.
For the most part, the execution of Schall’s drawings is so compelling that it overcomes the sometimes overly-familiar or one-dimensional message of his narrative. Contemporary artists are as caught up in depicting and dramatizing our fraught relationship with nature, as their earlier counterparts were in visualizing their all-encompassing relationship with God. Finding the right balance between idea and execution, novelty and tradition, remains the epic challenge it always was, and always will be.