Wednesday, October 20, 2010

James Drake at the Station Museum

Without knowing much about James Drake, I have to conclude based purely on his art that he is kind of a bad-ass. He has a bravura drawing technique, but is more than willing to drop that and do assemblage. His show at The Station Museum is full of macho imagery--not that it feels like he's saying "Check out me and my big swinging dick," but he does deal a lot with violence and with "things men like." Think of the famous Stuart Davis mural, "Men Without Woman," amp that up to 10 but also give it some anger and some mournfulness, and you start to get to James Drake.

I mean, what could be more bad-ass than this?

James Drake
James Drake, Artificial Life in the Valley of the World, automobile engine, python snakeskin, 1994

A big V8 covered in tight snakeskin wrapping. Hanging from a chain. If Sailor from Wild at Heart wanted to decorate his crib, this is the kind of art he'd get. What gets me is that this is assemblage. Sure, it took serious skill to cut and sew that python skin into that complex shape, but artistically, this is all about the idea: "Wouldn't it be bitchin' to wrap a car engine in snakeskin." For an artist with prodigious drawing skills, though, this is brave. It is showing a willingness to leave his talent behind and let the idea be the thing.

James Drake
James Drake, Liar, charcoal, tape on paper, 2008

And drawing talent he has in spades, as in this piece. Drake handles charcoal with vigor and powerful expression. But he also shows his drawing skills in more delicate ways, in his large cut-outs, drawings that require skill and patience. But here, the slashing, decayed charcoal is appropriate. It's an angry work. Is the figure an archetype of liars, a summation of a life of being lied to? Or is it some particular liar that Drake wanted the world to know about. Except the world will never know who he is--his face is deliberately obscured--perhaps as a warning that you never know what the next liar will look like.

James Drake
James Drake, Avenida Juárez, steel, wood, roofing fabric, paper, pastel, 1989

When you see this dark and beautiful piece, and read the title, you think perhaps of the murders of women there, or maybe of the more recent narco-violence in that tragic town. But this piece predates those events. So an older reference comes to my mind. 

When you're lost in the rain in Juárez
And it's eastertime too
And your gravity fails
And negativity don't pull you through
Don't put on any airs
When your're down on Rue Morgue Avenue
They've got some hungry women there
And they really make a mess out'a you
(Bob Dylan, "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues")

Is the woman in the panel on the right a prostitute? Could be, I guess. The progression from left to right--blue panel, roofing fabic, woman--suggests someone gazing at the sky, lowering his eyes to the building (a very, very modest building), and going inside where she waits for him.

James Drake, Trophy Room, fabricated steel, 1982

This piece seems like a critique of male culture, the whole idea of "kill it and display it," as well perhaps a critique of the wealth that implies. But is it really? It's hard to say for sure--it's scary, being in a black steel room full of weapons and animals, but it's impressive, too. Drake is ambiguous here. Elsewhere, less so. He shows the tragedy of violence in some pieces.

Still, it's hard not to see his work overall as a celebration of manhood. Not in the Maxim-style "bro culture" sense, but in an older way, a Cormac McCarthy way. A celebration with big dollops of anger and regret thrown in.

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