James Drake: Anatomy of Drawing and Space (Brain Trash) at the Blanton Museum of Art
James Drake has spent the last few years drawing every day. The Lubbock born artist, perhaps best known for his sculptures and video works, rose quickly in the early 1990s and continues to command the respect of the art world, having shown at the 2000 Whitney Biennial and at the US Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2007. Drake visited with Austin writer Seth Orion Schwaiger about his 1242 drawings coming to The Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Oct. 19 – Jan. 4, 2015.
A+C: Before we get right into it, I’ve got a couple of questions I might not use in the printed interview, but I feel like I need to ask just because I’m an artist as well, from a small town and some humble beginnings. I understand you were born in Lubbock. Is that correct?
JD: That’s right. I’m from Lubbock. I live in Santa Fe now, but I use to live in El Paso. I moved from El Paso to New York in, I think it was 1996, and moved from New York in 2001 – actually on 9/11, on that day.
A+C: That’s incredible. Has that had an effect on your work?
JD: You know, probably sometimes, but not overtly. It’s one of those subjects that’s hard to approach, that you don’t even know how to think about. You think about it and … I don’t know,maybe visual art isn’t the way to do something there. Maybe writing, or talking about it is a much better vehicle.
A+C: Do you feel like your career took off because you moved to New York or did you move to NewYork because your career was taking off?
JD: *laugh* I moved to New York because my career was taking off, and actually I was starting to get some shows and things started to happen around 1989, and I was living in El Paso then. People from the rest of Texas and probably the rest of the country may not consider it a hot bed of art endeavor, but it is a hot bed of art inspiration, because it is right on the border and because of all the violence in Juarez. Juarez turned into one of the most dangerous cities in the world. I worked in Juarez for over 25 years. Now, I worked there before all of that violence really escalated to a point where it was really really dangerous, but I consider myself sort of street-smart to a certain extent. I was dealing with work that dealt with physical, mental, and psychological borders, back in ’89 and before, and that’s when people started to notice my work. It was because of where I lived and the issues I was dealing with, border tensions in particular.
A+C: I saw some of your work just yesterday at The Texas Contemporary Art Fair in Houston with Betty Moody Gallery. You talk about El Paso and Juarez as a place for strong art inspiration regardless of the lack of arts infrastructure there. What do you think about Texas as a whole in that regard?
JD: Texas has a much better, much larger, much more influential infrastructure. Obviously, you’ve got substantial museums in Austin, like the Blanton, and others in Dallas. You’ve got lots of artists that are working, that are committed, that have vision. And so, between New York and LA, Chicago and then – I don’t just go for Houston, It’s Texas as a whole. It’s so influential and it keeps getting better.
A+C: Well enough about the economic state of arts in Texas. Let’s move on to your exhibition BrainTrash. Tell me why drawing everyday for two years is a good idea.
JD: Well, let me go back to the beginning. I had just finished a very large project, and drawing had always been very central to my work. Whether I was doing a sculpture or a video, I think it always had a basis in drawing. I wanted to make a lot of drawings and I knew that making a hundred I wouldn’t be able to rigorously delve into it adequately, so I thought I’d do a thousand.That’s been a little bit of misnomer, I did draw everyday, and I did commit myself to draw everyday,but some people think, “oh, he did one drawing a day.” No somedays I’d do a drawing and somedays I’d do four or five. Basically I wanted to go back to the beginning. People have such access to technology now. That affects our approach to art, obviously, having a highly developed technical aptitude. But I wanted to do something really basic: making a mark on a piece of paper.Doing that everyday gives yourself an internal discipline that makes you go beyond yourself, and that’s what I wanted to do.
A+C: Tell me more about that process, I’ve heard from a previous interview that you frequently use video as a starting place for your drawings. Is that the case here?
JD: Actually I made my first video in 1979 which showed a guy, a gang member in Juarez, Mexico,getting a sort of – what we would call a jail house tattoo. So I videoed that. I did subsequent videos,the best known of which is probably Tongue Cut Sparrows which was shown in the 2007 Venice Biennale. And yes, there are images in this body of work that relate back to some of those videos.Basically, making all theses drawings I wanted to go back to the beginning, but I didn’t want to have a theme, a theory, or predetermined outcome in doing these drawings. I just wanted it to be – people say a “stream of consciousness” – I prefer to say a stream of unconsciousness.
A+C: You say you don’t necessarily have an outcome in mind, more of a method, or an investigation. Were there any surprises along the way?
JD: Oh gosh yes. I let the drawings take the lead. They would point in different directions that, I know had I not been so immersed in this I would have never pursued. It’s surprising because sometimes you get locked into a certain mindset and attitude and perspective where you ask, “if I get out my comfort zone what will happen?” Well a lot of good things happen. I escaped my comfort zone and I was very pleased with that.
A+C: Can you tell me how the show was received at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego?
JD: I’m thrilled with the installation.When I started this project I had a few concepts that I wanted to maintain. I set up some algorithmic functions in my own mental computer, and those would determine my methods of working. All the paper would be the same size: 19 x 24. All would be based on what we think of as drawing media:charcoal, pencil, and pen and ink – just marks on paper. I’d do these consecutively and I wouldn’t edit, if there was a drawing I didn’t particularly care for, there was no going back into it, there was no taking it out. That was it. All of my thoughts, whether they were good, bad, or indifferent were contained in these 1242 drawings.For the show in San Diego I went out and measured all the walls. There were ten that I could use,and depending on the size of the wall each could accommodate a certain number of drawings. So I called the drawings on each individual wall chapters. For instance, Chapter 1 has 128 drawings,Chapter 2 has 128, but then Chapter 7 has 192, chapter 9 has 175. In a certain sense it was dictated by the space. To answer your question, I was really pleased with the way they looked, the way they felt, the way people responded individually to each drawing, then to an aggregate of drawings, then chapters, then the entire museum as a whole. Because they’re pinned to the wall I think they have an immediacy to them. They even flutter a bit, with the movements of the viewers. They have their own energy.
A+C: As this moves to The Blanton are they going to be configuring walls to mimic the original space?
JD: No. No, again the whole concept was that if the show travels to another space, the drawings must then fit into that space. There would be no accommodation like building walls to specifically hold each chapter. So it will be different, and in some ways it may be better. I don’t know, we’ll have to determine that once it’s up. It’ll just be different. It will be the same works, they’ll be consecutively placed, but because of the configuration of the museum it will have a different feel.
A+C: You have very classical sensibilities of draftsmanship, formula based anatomy, chiaroscuro,and composition. Do you feel that this is at odds with more contemporary thrusts?
JD: Well, I’ll say this. I have been conflicted by that my entire career, my entire life. I love classical drawing. I absolutely love it. I always have. Early on, probably 30 years ago, I tried to deny that influence. But it’s there, so I think denying what your attracted to, denying what you really love is fighting against yourself. Now what I try to do is I embrace the classical. I’m a contemporary artist but I embrace the classical. It’s real important for what I’m trying to do to fuse these two. They’re not in conflict – one is informing the other, which makes for an interesting tension historically,emotionally, psychologically for me, and hopefully for the viewer as well.
A+C: Alongside that classicism you use a technology based image vocabulary. You’ve got quick response codes embedded into your drawings, neuroimaging, even physics based mathematics–
JD: –Oh there’s a lot of math. There’s a lot of science theory. There’s a lot of physics. I want to infuse all that is really current, as far as what we are talking about in the sciences, where science overlaps with contemporary art, with classical art. You put all of those elements together and mix it around and see what we get.I went in and got an MRI done for this project and the QR code is a link to the sound you hear from that. You might be looking at a drawing or a group of drawings that are classically inspired and then you hear this very contemporary technical sound that of course didn’t exist 500 years ago. I like that.
A+C: With Brain Trash, you’re reaching pretty far into the past and bringing things right up to the present moment. Given that temporal aspect, and also with chapters that you’ve built into the exhibition, is there a strong narrative that forms, or is it more loose than that?
JD: No, It’s completely and totally loose. I think each individual will probably determine their own narrative, but there is no narrative specifically. This is one of the hardest concepts to get across to a lot of people. I wanted it to not have a narrative in the beginning, but it developed, and certain chapters took on their own character and their own narrative and their own energy. That just evolved, and that’s what I like, I wanted it to evolve and not be predetermined.
A+C: And the text in the work, would you like to talk about that as well?
JD: There’s only a few texts in the works that aren’t mine, except of course, the equations.
Literature and poetry have been incredibly influential to me. It’s been one of my main driving forces. In this project I’m not going to hold back on anything. I’m going to include everything that’s been an influence, everything that’s been apart of my life. I think the viewer will relate to that because we all are influenced by hundreds of things every day.
A+C: You talked about borders. I know your work is often influenced by that, and it certainly makes sense given the situation in Juarez. I’m wondering how that plays into this exhibition. Do you see this as a migration of ideas from your internal self across some mental border to get this out into the external world.
JD: I couldn’t have put it better myself.
A+C: That’s what I like to hear!
JD: No really, it was absolutely a migration of ideas across borders in a physical and mental way.
A+C: Do you consider the project to be cathartic for you?
JD: Yes. It’s cathartic and it’s ongoing. I don’t consider the project to be finite. I’m still working on the progression of drawings. The last drawing you’ll see at The Blanton is 1242, but I’ve continued with the same methods and now I think I’m at almost 1300 drawings. I want this thing to be an organic evolving exercise – that’s too flimsy of a word, but ‘exploration’ is too overused – the point is it’s continuing and I want to see how far it’s going to take me. If I do 1500 drawings, ok. If I do just one more, so be it. I have not predetermined when it will end, and I don’t know if it will end.
A+C: That’s so much like Rodin’s Gates of Hell, don’t you think, that he kept adding elements to year after year from it’s inception to the end of his life.
JD: In retrospect, and thinking about all of this, I think about all of my work as one big piece.They’re individual things but they are part of a whole. And this show at the Blanton is a a part of a whole that’s still continuing. It might play out to fruition or it may not. I think that’s pretty exciting.