a mutable feast

by susan emerling

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Those familiar with James Drake’s work from exhibitions in Santa Fe, N.M., where the 61-year-old Texan currently resides, might think of him principally as a draftsman. Those from El Paso, where Drake spent most of his life, might think of him as a sculptor of room-sized, welded-steel installations featuring handmade facsimiles of knives, guns and animal trophies. Those who’ve only seen his work in Europe, where Drake has shown frequently, might think of him as a photographer and video artist. And all three observations would be correct.

Drake is one of those astoundingly versatile artists who has managed to create accomplished, distinctive work in a number of media. In the process, he has deployed a consistent vocabulary of images relating to art history, weaponry, the fine line between savagery and civilization, and life on the densely populated bilingual Juarez-El Paso border. Drake’s work is allegorical, visceral, exquisitely crafted, and visually seductive. As a draughtsman, his hand can be exacting or gestural. As a sculptor, he can render delicate, naturalistic detail in the most masculine of media. As a video artist and photographer, he can generate a relaxed sense of intimacy with hermetic subcultures through poignant detail-such as the photographs of poor Mexican transvestite prostitutes shown at the 2000 Whitney Biennial and published as Que Linda La Brisa (How Beautiful the Breeze)-all while avoiding any sense of being a gawking tourist pilfering souvenir snapshots.

In the past year, Drake has shown three distinct bodies of work. In January and March, he showed drawings at Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco and The Galveston Art Center in Texas, which make up a series entitled War in Heaven. These are meticulous life-sized, photo-based drawings of some of the collateral victims-the wives, children, and young men-of this century’s U.S. wars. Towards the Pandemonium of the Sun, drawings shown last November at the Moody Gallery in Houston and again this fall at Columbia University, are turbulent and expressive. Made up of dense bursts of charcoal powder and chance marks, they evoke Dante’s tortured souls buffeted by infernal storms and attacked by swarms of gigantic mosquitoes. A third body of work, Tongue-Cut Sparrows (Inside Outside) is a spare two-channel black-and-white video with scenes of male and female members of the tough Juarez-El Paso 2 Black Trece gang signing poetic texts by Drake’s close friends Jimmy Santiago Baca, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Cormac McCarthy, as well as William Blake, Dante and the Book of Job, across the walls of the El Paso County Jail. The work was shown on side-by-side monitors this summer in the Venice Biennale exhibition, curated by Robert Storr, entitled “Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense,” and at Dwight Hackett Projects in Santa Fe.

In each instance, the medium and the technique convey the underlying emotional tone of the work. The taut line of War in Heaven belies the innocence and anxiety of war’s specific victims; the expressiveness of Pandemonium speaks to a general state of torment and disorder. The text and image of Tongue-Cut Sparrows and the leaking of language across impenetrable barriers-be they jail walls or video monitors-speaks to the indomitable human desire to connect and communicate love and longing. Storr identifies the strength of the video installation as “social sculpture.” According to Storr, Drake creates “an exchange that would not otherwise take place in a language that is ongoing,” while at the same time “chronicling the very difficult lives of ordinary people.” It is typical of Drake’s work that tender sentiments find their expression in the most extreme and violent of circumstances, yet they do so in a total absence of overt emotion. Storr refers to this as Drake’s “austerity in relation to a tough image.”

The always affable and accessible Drake has earned his stripes in relation to these tough images. As a child, he spent several years in Guatemala, where a man was slain in the family’s front yard during a revolution. In their return to El Paso, Drake witnessed how tough life can be on the border. Because he wanted to become an artist, his mother arranged for him to meet a local painter, Manuel Acosta, who Drake refers to as “one of the biggest overlooked artists ever.” Acosta’s claim to fame-before being murdered on the streets of El Paso-was a portrait of Cesar Chavez that made it onto the cover of TIME magazine. Acosta encouraged Drake-who had never even eaten pizza, let alone visited a big city museum-to go to Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. At Art Center, Drake was mentored by Lorser Feitelson, the influential teacher and hard-edged abstractionist. Under Feitelson, Drake learned to draw in a way that he observes has fallen completely out of fashion. “Nobody draws like this anymore,” says Drake. “I guess they think it is academic and old school, but it hasn’t been explored fully for me.” Drake stayed at Art Center for six years, with a hiatus when he joined the Army at the height of the Vietnam War to avoid the draft. After two years, mostly spent painting portraits of officers, he returned to Art Center and finished his graduate degree. Failing to find a teaching job in L.A., he returned to El Paso and paid the bills by running yarn across the border on a daily basis for the family weaving business, while still working at night in his studio and showing regularly.

Today, Drake exudes a confidence born of a consistent art-making practice of over 40 years. His embrace of the process enables him to consider his entire oeuvre as a continuous work-in-progress and each individual work as transitional. For example, the video for Tongue-Cut Sparrows was shot over several years between 1994-98. The imagery was incorporated into an earlier suite of drawings, video and a book, focusing only on the women. The mosquitoes and birds that make a strong appearance in Toward the Pandemonium of the Sun have been made into stencils and reappear in subsequent drawings. A misprinted reproduction of the young soldier featured in War in Heaven-a surprising self-portrait of the artist as a terrified young man-is tacked to the wall of Drake’s studio, waiting to be recycled into another work.

This pillaging, borrowing and pastiching together is often a key component of Drake’s complex drawings, in which images are created by fragments that are taped and pasted together. He likes to think that his images “have a history. They don’t just live in one drawing.”Mountains of photographs of prostitutes, gang members, and friends taken over the years, not initially intended for exhibition (even though they have proved quite captivating for European curators) provide an image bank he mines on a regular basis. A recent drawing, Exit Juarez, is based on a photograph taken years ago of an El Paso ex-con showing Drake his prolific prison tatts; Drake recalls the subject telling him, “I’ve done everything, murder, attempted murder…” Similarly, Drake recycles the sheets of white paper that cover the worktable in the center of his studio, which he frequently stands on to reach the top of large-scale works, as the ground for future drawings. As a result, it is not unusual to find scribbled notes, boot prints, or stray bits of packing slips that work their way into the drawings. This damaged backdrop liberates Drake from the preciousness of beginning a new work, allowing him to cannibalize one drawing for the sake of another. The palimpsest adds a richness of surface and a tangible way of tracking the artist’s shifting thoughts.

By practice, Drake is a loner. He has never had a studio assistant despite the fact that he has produced room-sized installations in which he has fabricated every single component. At the same time, he has a tight circle of friends, which includes some of the most accomplished living American artists-Bruce Nauman and writer Cormac McCarthy among them-as well as poets Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Jimmy Santiago Baca, his frequent collaborators. Drake is liberal in his praise of their work. Shortly after moving to Santa Fe in 2001, he paid homage to these influences on his personal and professional life by including them in the monumental drawing City of Tells, which is modeled after Raphael’s masterpiece School of Athens, in which the philosophers gather and debate in a lofty light-filled hall.

In the drawing, Drake assembles his own pantheon of historical and fictional figures who mix freely with the artist’s friends and family around an elegantly set table beset by a large python. La Malinche, a complex figure often referred to as the mother of the Americas, stretches serpentine on the tabletop above the shipwrecked corpse of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. Meanwhile, Drake’s elderly aunt mingles with Dante and Diego Rivera, while Drake’s parents, young and in love, dance against a backdrop of the mountains of New Mexico. The barefooted Jaime-Drake as a young boy-looks out at the life he will lead, and Raphael peers over the shoulder of Drake’s daughter Elizabeth. (Drake is such a perfectionist that he actually created the 12’ x 32’ drawing with 37 figures twice because he found the first version lacking.) The drawing, which was exhibited at SITE Santa Fe in 2005 before touring to other venues, has a companion piece in the form of a mesmerizing video installation of javelinas devouring a similar banquet Drake had set up in the Texas back country, which was filmed with an unmanned infrared camera mounted on a tripod. The video is a bestial turn on the civilizing force of the educated society depicted in the drawing; it can be read as a humorous riff on the path not taken.

Drake characterizes himself as a narrative artist, albeit one who is more interested in vignettes and fragments than in storytelling. “James does not use pictures the way a more conservative artist might do,” remarks Storr. “He sets up information and allows one to wander and speculate on what he’s doing. He is developing a metaphor or set of relationships that he sees embedded in a story… The question is, ‘What’s going on here? Not, how will it turn out, but what are the dynamics?’”

Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, first encountered Drake’s work shortly after taking the job in 1983. He saw a welded-steel sculpture called Machine Gun Bench at the Quint Contemporary Gallery. The piece, a table with a big machine gun inside, was both functional and menacing. Davies never forgot the work, and a few years later, when he came across a similar sculpture called Knife Table, he acquired it for the museum. “It is a really aggressive, provocative, ambiguous piece, with an odd reference to ornate delicate furniture made out of a tough material,” recalls Davies. “It is the barbarian and the effete meeting. And the craftsmanship on the work is impeccable.” The MCASD has since acquired City of Tells, giving it a broad collection of Drake’s work.

Davies concurs with Storr about the deceptive nature of Drake’s mastery. “There’s a presumption when one sees an accomplished draftsman that the artist must be conservative and hidebound,” says Davies. “Or to see in the photo and video work the cutting edge of a young practitioner. In fact, he’s neither. He’s really a master with all the themes and content, the underpinnings and rigor, that unifies a body of work… To a traditional curator, he’s a walking group show.”

If so, it would be a group show in continual flux.