Initially the works in "Bad Touch v.6" seem deceptively nonchalant, not the studied commentaries on the moment's manners and morals they actually are.
TAMPA - Is drawing a verb or a noun? Artists have been of two minds over the centuries, some regarding it as part of a process toward creating a finished work, others considering it an end in itself.
Contemporary art generally seems to hew to the second impulse. That predilection was beautifully illustrated by an exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 2002, "Drawing Now." It showcased eight young artists who proved that sometimes drawing, probably the oldest form of art, can express today's myriad currents of thought, lifestyle and preoccupations more convincingly than new media.
An exhibition at Beaker Gallery in Tampa stakes this claim with its own mother lode of drawings - hundreds of them - by 90 artists from around the world. It's wryly titled "Bad Touch v.6" (I'm assuming the v.6 stands for its venue; this is the show's sixth stop, following Raleigh, N.C.; Philadelphia; Chicago; Boston and London, and it's slated to travel to Winnipeg, Manitoba; Los Angeles; Berlin and New York.).
It's one of the freshest gatherings of art to come to our area within memory. And one of the most challenging. Your first impression might be one of randomness and crudeness. Everything is unframed, stuck on the walls with tape. The number of drawings is daunting and stylistically diverse. None appears to be "crafted." Instead, all have a lightness of hand and a spontaneous spirit, as if dashed off by whatever drawing tool - pencil, marker, pen - and on any material - the back of an envelope, a long sheet of accounting paper, old cardboard - that happened to be available.
This is causal art, however, and about as far as you can get from casual.
Very broadly, it is representational in the way that cartoons are: People, animals and trees look real. Almost. They inhabit parallel universes in which children's heads are abnormally large, adults wear disguises of some sort or other and the landscapes are futuristic.
Many have a narrative thread, though few are sequential in the comics' tradition. Beatriz Monteavaro, who recently had a show at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, presents us with vivid colors, flat perspectives and her familiar cast of characters - the imperturbable Adam Ant and a woeful-eyed Pablo Picasso trying to outwit forces of evil. Daniel Davidson's drawings have the depth and richness of an 18th century etching, and themes echoing those earlier portfolios that pictured the excesses and perversions of humans. In one especially lurid scenario, a nude elderly woman sits gleefully on a mat, an empty bottle at her side, confronting a crowd of ghastly onlookers, especially a small boy dragging a reluctant dog in for a closer look.
Melora Kuhn's young girls, taken up with bodily functions, have a knowingness far beyond their years. Neil Farber's boys play impassively with bottles of poison. Like many of his peers, Barry McGee, a San Franciscan whose work appeared in the Modern's exhibition, often works collaboratively in creating a series of graffiti-influenced panels - vignettes really - that shape up as a Mr. Roger's Neighborhood gone to seed.
Herbie Abernathy's portraits are just as self-consciously jarring. His color drawing of a woman talking into a pay phone while holding the reins of a passive horse could be a magazine ad for the Marlboro Woman except for the odd grimace on her face. Katherine Bernhardt's splashy portraits have the visceral slashes we associate with Francesco Clemente. Sam Dela Rosa's portraits are editorials, a donkey head on a man's body bears the slogan: "The Art of Leaving Things Behind (That Will Hurt You)." In another, a big hamburger sports human features that weep in a low-fat goodbye. Or maybe it's the burger's inner cow that's crying.
Elizabeth Condon's gouache and ink drawings of mermaids and fairies reside in Mattel-like landscapes whose plasticity suggests ice-cream colors but instead are wrought in somber blacks and grays. The meticulous draftsmanship of A.A. Rucci looks from a distance like a patch of toile wallpaper; up close the white figures on a red background become cryptic, headless bodies in strange, intimate embraces.
So what's up with this serious doodling and mental noodling? Like anime, these works' roots lie in the legacy bequeathed them by the pop art movement. But these artists, though employing exaggerated forms, generally do not appropriate their images. They invent their own icons, which move through a world of the artist's own creation. Unlike pop art, which treats its images as leaves floating on water, this work, for all its apparent superficiality, seeks to penetrate the surface of its subject, to explain and control its cosmology.
Pop art blurred the line between high and low culture, fine and commercial art. This collapses the distinctions. This is an unsettled and unsettling world, it tells us. But if we want to understand an art movement that is becoming so ubiquitous as to border on mainstream, we had better enter that world.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.orgREVIEW
"Bad Touch v.6" is at the Beaker Gallery, 401 N Ashley Drive, Tampa, through Sept. 25. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and by appointment. Free. (813) 221-6876.