Common Currents 

Obsessive drawing and borrowed imagery figure in the work of two young artists at TAG

Jerry Dale and Julie McFadden’s TAG Art Gallery has a signature—certain work just looks like TAG.
Jerry Dale and Julie McFadden’s TAG Art Gallery has a signature—certain work just looks like TAG. Defining that signature is hard because the gallery has plenty of variety, but two threads are prominent: obsessive drawing and nostalgic borrowed imagery. These two tendencies are evident in the current show of drawings, prints and paintings by Jonathan Prichard and Nicole Pietrantoni. In obsessive drawing, the artist builds up forms and figures by drawing small patterns inside of and on top of each other. This is basically an extension of doodling in a school notebook, taken to extremes. The patterns may accrete into human figures or alien creatures, or may form purely decorative patterns. The style offers immediate pleasures in its impossibly minute detail and the surprises invariably hidden in mazes of lines and shapes. You find it practiced by self-taught artists who draw as an obsessive behavior, like TAG regular Robert Simon; by restless intellects in other spheres, like musician Devendra Banhart; or by artists with more art school and gallery pedigrees, like Prichard. Prichard constructs his drawings by adding very small shapes one to another. But, unlike some examples of obsessive drawing, his compositions don’t come close to filling the paper, relying equally on white space and voids. In “Demon,” he builds a bear- or dog-like figure into a lattice of smaller drawings of various animals. Looked at in total, the figure appears to stand on its two hind legs, has voids where you would expect its belly and chest, and extends two arms outward over animals standing on top of each other, like cheerleaders in formation. Many figures common for this sort of art show up in Prichard’s work—robots, rockets, bugs. These seem to be natural endpoints when an artist lets the pen lead the way. Some of the pieces have a little more narrative content, such as one where a man in an alley encounters a cat or one cat echoed several times. In other cases, he draws the figures more directly rather than relying on the aggregation of smaller forms. In the best pieces, subtle associations slide together. “Scepter,” for example, includes hints of religious and mythological symbolism from many cultures, plus a couple of simian characters who could have walked out of Planet of the Apes—the sacred and the profane, or maybe just a broad idea of the sacred. Given their use of a popular style, Prichard’s drawings might seem ordinary on their own. His paintings, however, use those techniques in more unexpected ways. Like the drawings, the paintings are busy, perhaps even busier because he fills the entire frame with patterns. He creates a patchwork in colors that look somewhat aged and define larger shapes that give the work compositional structure. Each painting uses different types of details: “Look Close” incorporates airplane parts and human faces into a central form vaguely shaped like a human head. “Fault Lines” seems to be composed from bits of street scenes; its central form takes on the characteristics of a standing human figure, suggesting a mythical creature emerging from the cityscape, like in William Carlos Williams’ epic poem, Paterson. While these paintings still reflect obsessive processes, their design recalls earlier abstract painters, and their layering adds complexity and potential for surprise. Vanderbilt graduate Nicole Pietrantoni is the director of the Visual Arts, Crafts and Media Program at the Tennessee Arts Commission (and an occasional Nashville Scene contributor). Her last major outing was her Hamblett Award show at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery about a year ago, and her prints at TAG show progress. Her compositional approaches remain the same—she works with a set of stock figures (birds, pears, apples, seeds, worms, teeth and cartoonish figures of a girl and a boy) and decorative patterns, occasionally inserting words in a needlepoint style. She combines and recombines these and other elements. Some of the pieces have thread stitched into the surface, often suggesting repair to a flaw or blemish, as well as chaos and domestic life. “Blind Trust” is fairly representative. Two pears float over a woman’s clothed torso, one of them cradled in the woman’s hands and held over her belly. A worm winds through the woman’s body. All of this is laid over a wallpaper pattern with a vertical stripe. A likely first reaction is that the imagery—equating a woman’s body with fruit holding a seed, which ripens or suffers from blemishes, all placed within the trappings of conservative domesticity—is overly familiar. These are obvious metaphors for women’s lives and their burden of perfection, and they give the work a literalness that diminishes its ability to register as an image and enjoy full power as an art object. The good news is that this exhibit includes works that show Pietrantoni moving toward something more mysterious and open-ended. “She’s Been Bitten—Teeth Were Lost in the Unraveling” is one of the more complicated works here. A reproduction of a strange older print or drawing of a woman’s neck, twisted in a pose that makes the muscles stand out, occupies the right side of the image. A box or ledge cuts the top of her head out of view. It looks like an illustration, but its original reference is obscure. A few dashed lines and numbers overlay the figure at seemingly random points. The left side of the work contains images of teeth arrayed individually, a full-jaw dental diagram and a tangle of lines that looks like a messy ball of thread. The work could refer to vampirism (literally or as a psychic phenomenon), but most directly, it puts scientific observation in a context that undermines its comprehensibility. Orderly diagrams collide with each other, with chaotic thread lines and with an underlying line that wanders like a slug trail. Here and in several other pieces, Pietrantoni exhibits the courage to let the work stand by itself without overly tight links to specific symbols. These pieces also use a base of warmer colors that create a more intense sensory experience. Prichard and Pietrantoni are young artists getting an early chance to show work in depth. They both use well-established vocabularies that put them into dialogue with other bodies of work, and they show signs of moving through those vocabularies into something less familiar. Since November 2004, TAG has shared space with The Arts Company, an arrangement that has made for new confluences of people and art at an already lively venue. TAG is now working on moving back into its own space, a street-level gallery at 237 Fifth Ave. N., just up the block from The Arts Company. A grand opening is planned for August. This is a tremendous development for downtown, giving visitors and future residents one more draw and—building on the anchor provided by The Arts Company—enhancing this vital corner of the city.

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