Themes of replication have engaged artists for decades, undergirded by the critical armature of Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." A number of contemporary artists have confronted the mechanical proliferation of images with an intensely hand-drawn studio practice that reinscribes the work of art with specificity, presence, and a uniquely human subjectivity. Drive-by Projects's current exhibition Recent Work by Meg Alexander and Richard Forster features two artists whose work foregrounds the complexity of human mark-making and the tension between natural and mechanical forces.
Boston-based artist Meg Alexander has responded to the natural landscape around her home with an ongoing study of the forms created and abandoned by nearby beavers—their discarded logs, piled sticks, chewed stumps, and carefully constructed dams. Disappearing Dam, 2008 was a series of 32 graphite drawings, each 7 x 9 inches and nearly identical, yet with a subtly diminishing intensity of line created by a repetitive transfer process that resulted in the slow disappearance of the structure. The extended quantity of drawings suggested both the steady passage of time in nature, as well as the sometimes other-worldly quality of time in an artist's studio, and invested the small-scale works with a quiet monumentality.
Alexander's recent project Beaver Stick, 2013, on view at Drive-by, is a literally and conceptually layered meditation on strategies of mark-making. The sculpture retains at its core an oak stick originally gnawed and discarded by a beaver. Alexander's process involved the observation, mapping, photographing, tracing, and drawing of the intricate surface of the distressed bark, replicating the natural textures of the wood, as well as the beaver's marks, through both hand and mechanical techniques. At first glance, her workspace appears to be a cartographer's desk, littered with material efforts to harness real space into abstract representation. Over the course of the project, Alexander used extensive documentary photographs of the stick as a visual reference to produce a series of ink and graphite drawings on paper at varying scales. Each drawing committed the stick's surface details to her mental and muscle memory. Only then was the stick's identity obliterated with layers of gesso to transform the object into the artist's final drawing surface. Alexander's process ultimately obscures the dirty, messy, and abstract drawings of nature in order to re-present a highly formal, controlled and referential image of the stick upon its own body. Her intermediary use of a variety of tools and processes to document the stick suggests the unfulfilled potential of mechanical reproduction, and ultimately reinscribes the complexity and beauty of the artist's hand on the actual object.
British artist Richard Forster has considered the iconic mid-century American community Levittown, New York throughout his career, and presents four related drawings in the current show at Drive-by. Using found images available on the internet, often aerial views that highlight the endless stretch of identical suburban houses, Forster prints out the digital photographs and then further replicates the images and modifies their scale through photocopies. These highly mediated images become the source for Forster's pencil drawings. Both his subject and his process imbue his hand-drawn work with a critique of replication. Forster appropriates emblems of modern mass-production—Levittown's suburban sprawl and the photocopier's ubiquitous ease—in order to subvert their multiplicity with his own insistence on a labor-intensive and highly skilled ritual of mark-making.
Forster wittily describes his work as "photocopy realism" and he is clearly engaged, as is Alexander, in achieving what most viewers would call a photo-realist representation of his subject through the process of drawing. The current Levittown series on view are each composed of vertical diptychs, pairing an image of Levittown above with an abstract image below. The hierarchical organization lures the viewer's eye to the rendering of the Levittown photograph in graphite, with its unnervingly familiar array of houses and streets and its astonishing affirmation of Forster's graphic skills. The quiet lower half of the diptych, however, establishes abstraction as an overall theme and recasts the representational image above as a rhythmic pattern of lights and darks. Forster's source for the lower drawing is what he calls a "pure toner image," the result of placing nothing on the copier bed and the replication, instead, of only the aged surface of the copier lid and the scratched glass. Forster renders every recurring wobble in the toner pattern with painstaking detail, yet his graphite image refuses to adhere to its literal source or scale and instead achieves an abstract neutrality upon which he can inscribe a broader meaning. By eliminating any referential subject matter, Forster makes the activity of mechanical reproduction his subject and collapses the space between infinite multiplicity and the unique hand of the artist.
Forster's hand-drawn portrait of the blank "toner image" ultimately belies the machine's illusion of uniformity and instead foregrounds the immense variability of reproductions made on a copier. Forster's Levittown compositions may seem at odds with the nature-based subject of Alexander's Beaver Stick, yet his attention to the subtle textures and tones of the blank copier image evokes the delicate striations of woodbark that underlie her drawing project. Both artists use various strategies of repetitive image reproduction in their studio practice to reveal fluid shifts between representation and abstraction inherent in all visual forms. The organized landscape of the Levittown suburb dissolves into texture and line, and the gnawed surface of a beaver's lunch crystallizes into a carefully mapped and drawn terrain. Ultimately, Alexander and Forster expose the frailties of mechanical reproduction and absorb them into works that reaffirm the potency of human mark-making.