Dawn Clements at The Boiler (Pierogi)
April 2 to May 7, 2010
191 North 14th Street, between Berry St. and Wythe Ave.
Scale, space, observation and imagination have long been intertwined in the drawings of the Brooklyn-based artist Dawn Clements. In a stunning exhibition at this outpost of Williamsburg’s venerable Pierogi gallery, the artist pushed her customary concerns to new extremes. The show is now just a memory, albeit a particularly vivid one.
Included were just three works, drawings in sumi ink on paper. Each carries the artist’s distinctive stamp, which might be described as the hand’s record of a restless mind. One senses that drawing is how Clements comes to grips with her surroundings, whether those stimuli are constructed, imagined or discovered; by rendering the world around her she means to locate her self. But each of these three drawings is involved with a very different conception of space. One is quite literal, the second is dreamily metaphorical, and a third is poised somewhere in the vast gray area between.
First there’s Fence, an 18-by-23-inch still-life. It functions according to the standard conceit of the genre: objects of dubious inherent significance are invested therewith by virtue of being assembled, artfully arranged, and subjected to the artist’s close attention. They transcend their ordinariness and achieve a kind of poetry of the everyday. Fence is a quite literal (albeit quizzically appointed) rendering of tchochkes—a female figurine sporting abundant drapery; a candlestick or casserole, its circularity foreshortened to an ellipse; a lidded box; a coil of pawn-shop tickets; a weird, nasty gourd, desiccated tangerine, or stone; a statuette of a recumbent lamb—in a familiar, closely cropped, tabletop space. The otherwise deadpan image is complicated by comprising five contiguous, pinned-up little sheets of paper, typifying this artist’s practice of extending her drawing surface on an as-needed basis.
Next is Ruin, 12 by 9 1/2 feet. A wrecked chandelier assumes the foreground, scratchily brushed in shiny, shellac-heavy ink on stout, dusky gray paper. Dangling chunks of crystal cling gamely to a limp armature of snaking wires. To its right, a once-grand staircase lumbers up to the top of the frame; a balcony passes behind the tortured tangle and emerges to its left as a book-lined study and a linen closet. Areas of the drawing court illegibility as descriptive accuracy is forfeited amid a welter of mark-making. The effect is reminiscent of the cross-fade between scenes in old movies, in which the viewer is expected to fill in spatial and narrative gaps. The drawing’s synthesis of architectural and imaginative space felt entirely at home mounted on the gallery’s unfinished brick walls.
Then there’s Boiler. Eighteen feet high by 48 feet wide, this enormous drawing was executed in situ during the days leading up to the exhibition’s opening. Its subject is a relic of Williamsburg’s industrial history: the massive Babcock & Wilcox “Type H Stirling Boiler” (built in 1937) that looms over the space, and after which this venue is named. In the drawing, which is at roughly 1:1 scale, Clements disregards the brick enclosure—the actual boiler’s walls—and concentrates instead on the sprawling network of pipes, conduits, valves, meters, and air ducts that covers it. This is the jazzy part, to the left side of the picture, which satisfyingly contrasts with, on the right, a much darker, denser rendering of the massive iron hatches the visitor walked past to enter the space. As she often does, the artist glued together a great many sheets of paper for this drawing, resulting in a wrinkled, creased and folded surface. Boiler was hung in a corner, with the two regions of the drawing occupying adjoining walls.
Monumental drawing has a rich history, even if the intimate writ large seems a bit paradoxical. The seductive architectural surrealisms of Toba Khedoori come to mind, as well as Robert Longo’s mosh-pit sharp-dressers, monster waves and mushroom clouds. But so commanding was the physical presence of this installation of Boiler that it bordered on sculpture. As such, it has a conceptual affinity with the “charcoal sculpture” of Gilbert and George, The General Jungle or Carry on Sculpting (1971), that once formed the backdrop for a performance of their Singing Sculpture at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York. (The subject matter of Boiler recalls Cindy Tower’s “Workplace Series,” in which this terrific and underknown painter documents abandoned industrial sites and their derelict equipment.)
With a major drawing in the Whitney Biennial and a dynamite solo show currently at Acme in Los Angeles, Clements is having a good year. But even if Boiler lands in a public collection, which is devoutly to be wished, seeing this site-specific piece in any other context will be a wholly different experience from the gestalt of this remarkable installation.