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Drawing Notebook
by N.F. Karlins
"Obsessive Drawing " Sept. 14, 2005-Mar. 19, 2006, at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019

Obsessive looking is the natural response to "Obsessive Drawing," the new exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan. Of the five artists in the show, who hail from around the globe, four offer work that is minimalist is design and maximalist in execution.

The fifth artist, Chris Hipkiss, is represented by a 35-foot-long narrative environmentalist diatribe, Lonely Europe Arm Yourself (1994-5), which is "operatic" and then some, to use the words of AFAM curator Brooke Anderson.

Hipkiss, who was born in England and has recently moved to France, makes over-the-top "save the environment" works, works that make their point with bizarre scenes of dominatrix-style women in sci-fi-ish, post-apocalyptic settings. The artist maintains that only when women dominate the world will the environment have a chance for surviving its present decline.

Hipkiss works on many scales. Eight smaller pieces here in pencil and silver ink have no human beings in them; they depict views of exhausted landscapes. But his larger works and the pencil-and-charcoal behemoth on view, one of only two mural-sized pieces he’s done, are filled with chorus lines of punk-dressed women in sex-exposing see-through skirts dancing around run-down factories surrounded by depleted woods and rivers.

Even the phallic, bullet-like factory towers in Lonely Europe Arm Yourself are transgendered by the addition of vaginal openings. These are trussed up like Thanksgiving turkeys. Domination and submission are everywhere.

Giving any kind of definitive reading to Lonely Europe Arm Yourself beyond its generalized environmental trope is complicated by the various sexual cavortings and by the fragments of writing that are sprinkled here and there. "Forever fist" and "Chungaloid Supremacy" are among the phrases, which offer a kind of surreal poetry to go along with the endlessly fascinating drawing.

Hipkiss’ rich pencil conjures up a smoky glow on the paper that magnifies the cough-inspiring setting. His patterns are hypnotic. A path wanders in and out of the scene but never seems to lead anywhere. His drawing seduces, abandons, then seduces again.

For a more optimistic vision, just turn around and find Hiroyuki Doi’s ink on washi paper drawings of foaming, buoyant circles. Doi builds up ethereal organic abstractions by drawing tiny circles over and over again. The resulting works manage to look both microscopic and celestial at once. Using only a Pilot black ink pen on Japanese paper, Doi varies the tonality on his works from palest grays to every conceivable shade of black.

I talked with Doi last year, and he said that he approaches the paper with nothing planned but simply begins drawing circles at night and falls into a trance-like state where time stands still for hours. He began this style of work after the death of his younger brother twenty years ago. It assisted him in dealing with his immense grief.

Hiroyuki Doi is quoted as saying, "By drawing, I started to feel relief, at some point I started to feel that something other than myself allowed me to draw these works. Suppose every creature is a circle, which exists in this world, how many of them can I draw? This is my life’s work and my challenge. . . . By drawing circles I feel I am alive and existing in the cosmos."

Doi lives in Tokyo and, like all the other artists in "Obsessive Drawing," his work has not been seen previously in an American museum exhibition. Doi was discovered and shown in this country by SoHo art dealer Phyllis Kind for the first time only last year, although he has exhibited a very different body of realistic work previously in Japan.

Charles Benefiel was born in the U.S. and works in New Mexico and New York City. His Random Numeric Repeater series uses miniscule symbols repeated in horizontal lines roughly evenly spaced on large sheets of paper. The symbols are dots, circles or combinations of them that replace the numbers one to ten (sometimes one to 100). They are pared with sound. For example, zero equals a solid circle and the sound "Na." The artist recites the sounds and counts the numbers while drawing the symbols, creating a multi-dimensional yet meditative experience.

Benefiel’s self-described "dumb language" is his personal protest against the use of numbers in representing identity, whether on credit cards, bills or elsewhere. His works’ use of a grid and repetition and their minimalist look have sparked comparisons with the work of Agnes Martin, among others.

The process of drawing, along with medical oversight, has allowed him to control his doctor-diagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The artist is so successful that he will probably soon be able to support himself totally by his art making.

Eugene Andolsek, another American artist, was born in 1921, stopped making art because of failing eyesight in 2003 and currently resides in an assisted-living facility in Pennsylvania. "Obsessive Drawing" is the first public display of his work.

Andolsek did not think of his work as art until recently. But he was inspired to start creating his black-outlined, eye-poppingly patterned abstracts after seeing an ink drawing in an art show in 1950. Using a straightedge and compass, he made designs, and then filled them in with inks that he mixed with an eyedropper to get the exact colors he desired. He credits stamp collecting for his exquisite sense of color combination and hue. With their dark outlines, his pieces have the feel of stained glass on speed.

Andolsek, now 83 and living alone, made his drawings in a nightly ritual at his mother’s kitchen table. The process of art making became a way of coping with his anxiety about job security (although he was never fired from any job) and the demands of taking care of his mother.

Martin Thompson of New Zealand employs fine-point pens on graph paper scaled in millimeters to make pixilated diptychs. Two small square drawings, one light, one dark, sit side by side.

Thompson begins each drawing by developing a mathematical formula, which he memorizes. Once finished with the always left-hand light visualization of that formula, he reverses the equation and makes a darker version to the right of the first drawing.

Considering what computers are capable of, I preferred the corrected drawings that appear in the middle of the gallery, which show the back of the works. Thompson realized that he made the occasional error and formerly cut out a section of drawing with a scalpel, attaching a tiny replacement cut from the sides of the drawing with scotch tape. He then evolved a new technique scotch-taping the entire back of the drawing first, then making minor adjustments. The corrected drawings with the cutouts in the borders gave me more of feeling for the hand behind the finished product.

"Obsessive Drawing" begins with a wall of "great hits" by self-taught artists in the "horror vacui" tradition. The works range widely, both geographically and temporally, but the five spotlighted artists all extend this kind of work in exciting ways.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.