Drew Shiflett: Line Readings
During a recent studio visit, Drew Shiflett briefly discussed the
work of a few artists who are important to her—the delicate
grids of Agnes Martin in particular. She also talked about Alan
Shields, who emerged in the 1970s and is best known for
post-minimalist work that uses marked and stitched fabric to
make hybrids of sculpture and painting. Later, Shiflett mentioned
Martín Ramírez, a self-taught artist hospitalized for most of his
adult life for schizophrenia, whose often large-scale drawings
of a few restricted motifs—fantastic urban scenes; railways;
men on horseback—are inscribed within dense networks of
It is a striking trio, which traces a terrain that includes both
sophisticated and intuitive approaches to regular, linear markmaking;
firm adherence to abstraction and dalliance with figurative
imagery; and a range of relationships to textiles—especially to
weaving—as process and metaphor. In Shiflett’s own recent
works, which she calls “constructed drawings” (they might also
be called collages, or reliefs), fields of shade and tone, rich with
atmosphere and, sometimes, hints of architecture or landscape
as well as woven cloth, are built from the painstaking repetition
of fine parallel marks. They are drawn variously in ink, sometimes
with a Rapidograph pen; watercolor; pencil; and Conté crayon.
The chromatic and tonal range is narrow: gray, darker gray, sepia.
The drawings’ “construction” involves layers and adjacencies
of pasted-together and interwoven sheets and strips of paper,
most of it handmade, as well as cheesecloth and paper pulp.
Generally, the glue and (if used) the watercolor cause the paper
to buckle, which contributes to their subtle three-dimensionality.
The growth of each composition is organic; sometimes there
are guiding ideas, but usually not. Scale ranges from tiny to substantial.
The handmade-ness is unabashedly evident throughout, although some
of the marks seem mechanically—or, magically—small and regular.
The demands of the process are, Shiflett explains, “a way of slowing down
time for me”; as a result, they are also a register of time for the viewer.
A method for slowing down time is also, nearly inevitably,
a form of meditation. Originally a painting student, Shiflett says
she started making drawings as a relief (the pun is inevitable)
from working on canvas, which seemed unsatisfying. The nature
of the work’s composition, its visible additions and subtractions,
are as essential as its formal conclusions. Incremental calculations
made along the way involve decisions about line and shape,
individually and in mutual relationship. Despite her embrace of
the intuitive and serendipitous, Shiflett is clear about wanting
to “push the mark-making in as rigorous a direction as possible.”
But she also admits to the balkiness of the process, to a kind
of groping that is also crucial to the outcome. “My ideas are not
fixed. They mutate as I go along,” she says of the business of
beginning a new drawing, the larger of which can take months to
complete, and then adds, “I’m elated when the piece comes to
life, and I’m always trying to determine how and when this
happens. It’s as if the drawing locks into place at the same time
it becomes animated.”
All untitled, Shiflett’s constructed drawings vary considerably
in the degree to which they suggest objective imagery. Several,
such as Untitled #59 and Untitled #60, have multiple horizontal
courses in which colonnades, or windows, or perhaps narrow
doorways can be discerned. Sequences of arches occasionally appear, and are sometimes inverted to become scallops. At times, the patterning is allover,
with a scrim of fine marks deepening in some places, becoming lighter and finer elsewhere. In other cases, areas of denser mark-making are blocked off
in roughly rectangular configurations against lighter areas,
themselves sometimes divided into large-scale grids. One drawing
looks something like an architectural plan for a rather eccentric
residence, with a tiny central structure connected by long
corridors to a pair of matched pavilions. There are examples, such
as Untitled #62, that are particularly close to textiles—tattersall,
seersucker. Often, contrasting areas are pieced together, like
patchwork. Several expansive horizontal drawings, much wider
than they are high, such as Untitled #56 and Untitled #58, strongly
evoke landscapes. Untitled #55, a singular tall, narrow and irregular
drawing, with protruding crosspieces, suggests a kind of totem.
The constructed drawings followed a series of sculptures in
which the vocabulary of parallel hatchings, already central to
Shiflett’s working language, was further developed. Laid on the
floor, or draped over frames that suggest both easels and looms,
the sculptures have the volume of heavy drapery, but appear airy,
nearly weightless. Here, too, there is a range of referentiality.
Tongues (2000) has appendages that resemble levers or pedals.
Stretch (2000) snakes along the floor like a wagon train seen from
a distance. Easel Sculpture #2 (2000) most closely anticipates
the constructed drawings that followed, with its wry negotiation
(per the title) between sculptural and pictorial form.
In a landmark 1978 essay titled “Grids,” Rosalind Krauss
described the format as riven by contradiction. On the one
hand, “Logically speaking, the grid extends, in all directions, to
infinity,” she wrote. On the other, “the grid is an introjection of
the boundaries of the world into the interior of the work; it is
a mapping of the space inside the frame onto itself. It is a mode
or repetition, the content of which is the conventional nature
of art itself.”(1) To the extent that the grid is extroverted, it brings
in the whole of visual experience. But it is also purely formal and
hermetic. It often resonates at a frequency that can be called
(though Krauss hesitates to do so) spiritual. Equally inclusive
is Sol LeWitt’s account of Conceptualism, written at a time when
he was practicing it by deploying regular geometries, including
carefully ruled and delicately drawn parallel lines. The first of his
1969 “Sentences on Conceptual Art” reads, “Conceptual artists
are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions
that logic cannot reach.”(2) Not altogether dissimilar is Agnes
Martin’s characteristic invocation, in one breath, of beauty and
imperfection: “I hope I have made it clear that the work is about
perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings
are very far from being perfect—completely removed in fact—
even as we ourselves are,”(3) she said in an undated statement with
which a book of her collected writings begins.
This combination of voices, and Martin’s in particular, clearly
evokes Shiflett’s. Using the rudimentary marks of grids, and
hinting at—while decisively refraining from—more elaborate
material forms, Shiflett commits herself to the experiential
receptivity of which Martin speaks so eloquently.
1 Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist
Myths, Cambridge, MA and London, MIT, 1986, pp. 18-19.
2 Sol LeWitt, “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” first published in 0-9, New York, and
Art-Language, England, both 1969, reprinted in Sol LeWitt, New York, Museum of
Modern Art, 1978, p. 168.
3 Agnes Martin, “Notes,” in Agnes Martin: Writings/Schriften, Osfildern-Ruit, Haatje
Cantz, 1992, p. 15.