Paper is cutting edge these days. It's cheap, easy to work with, and part of the culture. It's so everywhere we barely think about it. If you're reading this on newsprint you're touching it now; if not, chances are you've handled it today. Paper is more physically accommodating and malleable than stretched canvas, which tends to isolate itself from everything else and can be a bit standoffish.
Artists think about paper all the time. For many it's the material of choice. MOMA's recent exhibition "Drawing Now" featured several artists, among them Kara Walker and Toba Khedoori, who work almost only on paper. This may all sound obvious, but if you really zero in on paper, it becomes this amazing, dizzying thing.
At the moment, there are ample opportunities to do just that. There are ingenious bark drawings by Pygmy women of the Ituri Rainforest at Nolan/Eckman, some visionary zingers made by self-taught Russians at Galerie St. Étienne, the studies of Marsden Hartley at Babcock, the simple but sweet found book pages of Matthew Higgs at Murray Guy, impressive shows by Christian Holstad and Anthony Burdin at Daniel Reich and Maccarone respectively, and a superb survey of Thomas Nozkowski's drawings at the New York Studio School (8 West 8th Street, through March 1) that tracks this late bloomer's steadfast development from tardy postminimalist to explorer of form to the consummate draftsman and balancer of tactfulness, tightness and offhandedness he has become.
If looked at in a certain way, Michael Craig-Martin's pulsating Pepto-Bismol pink and antifreeze green painted room adorned with Day-Glo images of household objects is a drawing expanded into hyperspace-interior decoration as walk-in billboard and art as eye candy. It will temporarily zap your vision even if it won't do much for your mind. Which is fine and not as shallow as it sounds. Craig-Martin's art is to the eye as dance music is to the feet: catchy, jazzy and fun. Walking into this space (Gagosian, 555 West 24th Street, through February 15) is like entering an enormous playroom. As disco is banality with excitement so Craig-Martin's glitzy brand of conceptualism-meets-Pop-meets-late-Stuart Davis resequences your vision and produces moments of reverie.
When it comes to plain old drawing on paper, three other shows stand out. First, and assuming the role of major influence-along with two other less recognized but equally important antecedents, William Wegman and Jonathan Borofsky-there's the dour grand master of drawing himself, Raymond Pettibon, who has a double dip of early work at Zwirner & Wirth (32 East 60th Street, through February 15) and newer efforts at Zwirner (525 West 19th Street, through February 8). I've always relished the curt, aggressive mood of Pettibon's work, his terse way of carving out a very particular, if particularly strange, space in my head, as well as his use of language, which is simultaneously literary, ominous, and absurd. Paradoxically -- and this doesn't preclude him from being a compelling artist -- I've never really liked his drawing style, which is blunt, dogged, repetitious and comic-book-like. Still, Pettibon continues to make winning work.
At Leo Koenig (249 Centre Street, though February 26), David Scher plays New Yorker cartoon to Pettibon's Pulp Fiction. Both artists use words, make art about sex and degradation, keep color to a minimum, and pin their drawings to the wall. Scher, however, replaces Pettibon's heaviness, seediness, violence and philosophy with a waggish, impish eroticism; an easy, light touch; a greater feel for abstraction; and something very Dada. He likes to let ink drip on the paper, then make drawings out of drops, or augment found drawings.
In this mildly redundant but nonetheless convincing sleeper of a show, Scher intersperses peculiar pictures of golfers and fishermen with surreal scenes of flies coupling, couples flying and Bosch-ian bird figures. One funny-scary drawing depicts what looks like a drug dealer, his girlfriend and a pit bull with the menacing caption "Don't look at the dog." Another washy, Rodin-like female torso in profile shows Scher's sexy side.
But despite the unembarrassed, open richness of his work, the nicely cluttered installation, and his fertile imagination, comfortable hand, and skilled line, Scher's ambition remains cryptic. This may be what has kept him somewhat on the periphery of things. But he's not just some earnest guy or oddball outsider. Not only does Scher's work often take art as its subject matter (as in the drawing of two men folding canvas, or the one with the word Cubismo scrawled on it), his sources are also fairly mainstream, and include William Wiley and R. Crumb. In any event, this show finds Scher, who is a reminder that there are many ways to have an art career, at the top of his game.
The biggest burst of paper energy in town is the teeming Gesamtkunstwerk of drawings, CD covers, dolls, dioramas, zines and whatnot by the Winnipeg collective that goes by the deeply Canadian, Jackie Gleason-meets-the-Masons name, the Royal Art Lodge. The spirit of this show (at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, and its Drawing Room annex across the street through March 8) is better than the parts. Still, the total experience is rousing.
Calling itself a "self-serving secret society," the Royal Art Lodge was started in 1996 by six twentysomething art students. Marcel Dzama, one of its better-known members, admits Lodge members are "socially awkward and prefer not to venture out into the art scene." "We like the safety of our homes and our same friends," he says. Indeed, the list of current members reads a bit like a family cult, and includes Dzama; his sister Hollie (who joined when she was 12; now 19, she could be the youngest artist ever to show at the Drawing Center); his uncle Neil Farber; Drue Langlois; Drue's brother Myles; and Michael Dumontier. Jonathan Pylypchuk and Adrian Williams, both in the show, eventually dropped out.
Lodge members meet every Wednesday night and make art together, often working on each other's drawings. The finished products, of which hundreds are on view, are dated and deposited into one of four suitcases marked with ranked symbols: a shining sun for the "very best," a heart for "second best," a sad rain cloud for "the bad ones," and a skull and crossbones for "those works deemed so terrible they must be destroyed." On the first Saturday of the show, as two members clad in masks played drum and guitar, another in a bear costume selected audience members, me included, to feed the "terrible" drawings into a platypus with a paper shredder in its beak. (I must admit the drawing I shredded was pretty bad.)
If the Lodge has a style, it combines the stream of consciousness of Borofsky, the ease of Scher, the darkness of Pettibon, the cartoonishness of Crumb and the humor of Wegman. The group counts George Burns, Steve Martin, Dante, Fischli & Weiss, Bosch, Blake, Fluxus and surrealism as influences. Often, all this adds up to is cuteness. But a lot of good work does break through.
All are good artists, but for my money Pylypchuk, who excels at collaging bits of wood or felt together, and has the greatest sense of materials and form, is the best of the lot (a show of his new work just opened at Friedrich Petzel). As for the rest, Dzama has a tight hand that tends toward inventories or sexually charged scenes involving hybrid creatures. Ironically, his best work here is a creamy black-and-white painting that suggests he should investigate this medium much more. Farber is as tight as Dzama but uses brighter color and has a more coherent sense of narrative. Dumontier has a nice, minimalist's touch. Drue Langlois is good at dioramas, and Hollie Dzama's style is fashion-like and generic, but OK. Myles's work reminds me of Edward Gorey's, and Williams is a collagist with promise.
Someday the Royal Art Lodge, like most collaboratives, will change members or break up. Or maybe it won't. After all, six years is already a long time. What makes this show so lively is all the freedom in evidence. That, and the fact that, as Dzama puts it, "we have no agenda. We just like to draw."
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.