“James Drake: Salon of a Thousand Souls,” THE Magazine

The following article was published in THE Magazine, December/January, 2011/2012, page 51.


HOW TO ADDRESS GREATNESS? I find it surprisingly difficult to write about an exhibition by an artist whom I greatly admire – James Drake, in this case, and his show of works from the 1980s through the present. Salon of a Thousand Souls was so intelligently presented by curator of contemporary art Laura Addison (with the artist’s input) that I fear anything I might add would appear as the slobbering gibber of a sycophant. I am reduced, therefore, to description, with the endorsement that you go see the exhibition, stat.

Key to Drake’s success is the notion of tension. His content is universal and specific; his mediums fractured yet rigorous from years of practice; his effect one of the temporal and the timeless – that is, the agony and joy of being human. To look at his large-scaled works is to weep with the shock of prescience, recognition, and dawning memory. The masterwork of the exhibition is The Red Mirror, a twenty-one-foot-wide drawing in brilliant red pastel on torn paper that has been applied to a canvas backing. Central to the piece, compositionally, is a rococo-style mirror whose crimson interior cannot reflect anything but its own hue. Otherwise, it is opaque, devoid of meaning. This enforced absence allows us to consider that seeing ourselves as we really are is outside the mirror’s scope. Short of divine revelation, we are blindly bound in these bodies and minds. We slip past our own peripheral vision like dust motes in sunlight, gone in a sparkle of radiance. Under the red mirror, on the right, stretches a nude young woman, her back arched and her neck long and supple, a vision of sweetly pliant beauty. The left corner features figures of more mature men and a woman in a Michelangelesque arrangement that is less idealized than it is archetypal of the wisdom that years bring to the soul, expressed through Drake’s hand with tenderness and compassion. Functioning far beyond its implied theme of vanitas, The Red Mirror is a visual soliloquy on the human form – and the examined life – in all its magnificence and frailty.

That Drake knows his art history is evident not only in his direct references to Francisco de Goya’s The Third of May, 1808, and Jose Clemente Orozco’s mural Catharsis, but in the Baroque grandeur of the exhibition as a theatrical whole. From machine-gun benches to locomotives to the Heart of Gold (Dressing Table) piece, Drake uses metals including steel, bronze, and gold leaf to create a dimensionality to his exhibition that could be precious were it offered less artfully. In Drake’s capable hands, the wall pieces meld perfectly with their sculptural components; charcoal is such a physical medium that it seems natural to include other elements that reference the power of fire as both life force and destroyer. Under Cinco de Mayo (Drake’s version of The Third of May), the coal-driven engine on the floor directs the viewer back to one of the artist’s most enduring pieces, Juarez/EI Paso (Boxcar), from 1987-88. Drake has lived in the U.S. and Mexico, and spent plenty of years on the border; he was inspired to make this drawing after seventeen Mexican nationals suffocated to death in the boxcar their coyote had imprisoned them in. For some reason, the would-be border crossers were given a crowbar, and the sole survivor used it to make a hole in the boxcar that provided him with barely enough oxygen to stay alive. Drake’s impeccable charcoal drawing of the boxcar, from the newspaper image, haunts the gallery. Below the drawing, coal, railroad spikes and a crowbar crowd the gap between two and three dimensions – between art and life, as Rauschenberg would have it.

Each of Drake’s works holds its own locus of epiphany, a place that, once found, arcs between the viewer and an ecstasy similar to that of Bernini’s Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). Teresa wrote about the sensation of divine union, “The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.” There’s no getting around it: Drake’s work is as searingly sexy as Bernini’s, and as contemporary as computer porn.

 – Kathryn M Davis