“Soul Man,” Journal North

The following article was published in the Journal North, a zoned publication of ABQ Journal.

By Malin Wilson-Powell / For the Journal
Photo: Eric Swanson. Photo courtesy of the New Mexico Museum of Art.

All artists build imaginary spaces. James Drake is fully cognizant of the human tendency to project subjective history and meanings into the spaces he opens and constructs. Even before the visitor reaches the formal entry of his current exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art, the artist has placed three functional steel sculptures that announce his personal point of view. These include two benches and a graceful child’s table stacked with books of art and literature that are meaningful to him. There are monographs on Goya, Daumier, Rubens, the Mexican muralists, the novel “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy, two books of poetry by Jimmy Santiago Baca, including “Que Linda la Brisa” (2001) with photographs by Drake, and the 2008 University of Texas survey of the artist’s 35-year career.

The two 1989 benches –– ominous, deep shadow boxes with 3-D weaponry in silhouette beneath the seats –– were commissions for an El Paso courthouse. Drake lived in the border city from 1960 through the 1980s, with the exception of his art school studies in Los Angeles from 1965-1972. Beneath one bench are two oversized six-shooters for up-close killing, and beneath the other bench sit shoulder-launched rocketry projectiles for killing at a distance. These are prescient pieces completed before the violent deaths of hundreds of women in Juárez since 1993, before Mexican drug cartels were fully armed with military arsenals, and before the installation of metal detectors in all U.S. courthouses following 9/11.

More than most American artists of his generation, Drake understood at a very tender age the intensity, darkness, bloodshed and economic necessities that have led to a future that is now. As a child in Guatemala, he remembers blackouts, men in his front yard shooting at each other, and newspaper images of victims in pools of blood. The artist’s primary palette of black and red and gold reflects this upbringing.

In the corridor that marks the formal beginning of the “James Drake: Salon of a Thousand Souls” exhibition, the artist’s own poetry, his 1989 “Heart of Gold (Dressing Table)” installation, and a grand drawing titled “LIAR” establish the gradients of the artist’s long-standing sociological and geographical perspectives. All told, there are 19 sculptures and works on paper spanning 24-years that create gallery spaces reverberant with great sweetness and heart-wrenching tragedy. Drake never fails to acknowledge that every life is a sequence of confrontations between expectation, desire, and history.

Above Drake’s dressing table installation –– his version of a vanity (or the vanity of humans) –– the mirror is an opaque “black hole,” a universal metaphor for every man and woman’s missing perceptions and multiple phantoms. Inevitably, when personal histories are too haunted to allow opening up into new experiences, humans hit a wall and shut down. Surrounding the blind spot with its crusty gold leaf frame is a nimbus of nine daggers, each different and slightly akimbo, as if thrown by a tipsy knife-thrower in a circus. Each knife has crude words of solder-like scars declaiming FORGIVE ME, CUT, NO COUNT, and TRASH.

Metal as used here is a dark, dense, compressed, hard, resistant material and at the other end of the spectrum from Drake’s drawings on large expanses of white or creamy paper. By comparison, Drake’s more recent drawings including two 2007 Mexican-myth inspired masterpieces and the powerful 2008 “LIAR,” though robust are also fragile. The open, ventilated skeins of graceful charcoal lines on torn and patched paper are as aerated as the expressive gestures in space the artist must make to create them.

The “LIAR” drawing is a larger-than-life full-frontal rendition of a naked and obese man who is seated with his legs spread apart. His face is a smear and conjures up such contradictory persona as a fat cat in a steam room, a hooded figure out of Goya, and photographs of victims from Abu Ghraib.

These two poles –– heavy metal compression and the gesture of the open hand –– are evident in the juxtaposition of pieces throughout the loaded, yet spacious, mixed-tape style of this exhibition. Those familiar with Drake’s ambitious re-interpretations of historical paintings by Orozco, Goya and Magritte will find riveting pieces from his major series. In both “The Revolution (Orozco)” from 1988 and “Cinco de Mayo” from 1988-1989, drawings with multiple velocities and vectors are paired with steel models of imperial constructions, the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan and a train engine respectively.

James Drake, The Red Mirror, 2011, Red pastel on paper, 136" x 256"

Special features of this exhibition are a 21-foot long red-pastel drawing from this year titled “The Red Mirror.” Instead of a black hole, the red center of the mirror here seems to be pulsing outward with a force that has tumbled the two female figures in its path backward. In addition, Drake has created a reprise of a 1989 site-specific drawing titled “Burned Wall” and executed directly on a museum wall. A fountain of charcoal finger trails suggests the repeated slippage of desperate hands trying to climb upward to freedom, only to sink downward without purchase or a helping hand.

The most disturbing work in the exhibition however is “Many Worlds Interpretation (Suicide Drawing)” from 1995, a bifurcated vertical charcoal drawing of the artist himself. In the upper red section, the slumped and seated artist dangles a gun in his hand while leaning forward in front of a rock (and a hard place?). Mirrored in the lower black section, the artist holds the gun under his chin. It is only with the distance of 16 years that Drake has unveiled this document of his pivotal choice.

A catalog for “Salon of a Thousand Souls” is forthcoming, as is a new book titled “Red Drawings and White Cut-outs” from Radius Press. Only one of Drake’s wonderful cut-outs (similar to those shown in his June 2010 solo exhibition at Dwight Hackett projects and reviewed in this column) is included in this New Mexico Museum of Art selection. Titled “Sinking Mirror,” a delicate cut-out filigree of paper frames a central drawing of an upended, sinking ship. This ship is a composite of three World War II military vessels; perhaps the last time the idea of war as heroic could really float.

WHAT: James Drake: “Salon of a Thousand Souls”
WHERE: New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 W. Palace Ave.
WHEN: Through April 22.
COST: $6 New Mexico residents; $9 non-residents. Museum members and children 16 and under free. Sundays free to state residents with ID. Wednesdays free to New Mexico seniors with ID. Free 5-8 p.m. Fridays.
CONTACT: 505 476-5072