Tutelary Spirits & Spatial Ambiguity

Tutelary Spirits & Spatial Ambiguity

Essay by Raphael Rubinstein, 2006

Stephen Posen generally begins each of his recent drawings by making a pencil rule line just within the confines of the rectangular paper. As the drawing evolves, he respects these boundaries so that his marks and shapes almost never reach the edge of the sheet. The resulting margins establish an empty but visually charged zone around the composition that will appear within them. In a painting, such a device might seem fussy and unnecessarily limiting, but in the medium of drawing (at least in Posen’s hands) it seems to make a lot of sense. One thing the framing boundary does is to pull attention to the contours of the drawn shapes and away from the edges of the paper. Although often only a matter of an inch or less, this shift in emphasis is crucial not only in formal terms but also in the subtle clues it gives us about how to look at the drawing. Like the proscenium of a stage, the border signals that what happens within it will be a world unto itself, a place where the rules of quotidian existence may not apply; it establishes the conditions for Posen’s pursuit of continuous, unpredictable metamorphosis, and for the entrance of the animals and architectural motifs which serve as these drawings’ tutelary spirits.

One of Posen’s recent drawings, Piranesi, seems to offer us three views of the same architectural form. On a pale green sheet of paper, he has sketched a trio of blocky structures. With their brief concatenations of rectangular planar forms that meet at right angles, the blocks are suggestive of steps, perhaps the stone staircase of some ancient, eroded monument. This could almost be an on-the-spot record of the artist’s visit to a historic site in a distant corner of the world. Except that Posen doesn’t work like that. While his drawings may be riddled with memories of things and places he’s seen, they are always created in the studio and are emphatically autonomous images. Even if the origin of a drawing can be located in a particular physical experience, as the initial visual stimulus passes through the filter of the artist’s mind, on its way to reincarnation as a physical object, it becomes acosa mentale. Paradoxically, this allows the tactility of the medium to take over from the tactility of memory. The reality of the drawing grows out of the granular transfer of charcoal to a flat fibrous surface, the improvised choreography of a tool-grasping hand hovering over a 39 by 27 inch field before descending to scratch its dark tracks or deposit a layer of color. It also grows out of specific tasks the artist gives himself. (In Piranesi, for instance, he says he was interested in finding a rhythmic means of moving from top to bottom in a single diagonal.) Posen looks for new ways of conceiving the world, of rearranging—and adding to—its constituents, If his drawings are the record of anything, it is of their own making. In terms of process and formal language, Posen’s work inventively mines the heritage 20th century abstraction; his drawings have absorbed and assimilated the great precedents of Gorky, de Kooning and Rothko, while bringing them into a contemporary context.

As is usually the case with these works, the title alludes not to the artist’s conscious intentions but to something he discovered about the drawing once it was achieved. Here, the title is Piranesi not because the step forms suggested to Posen of one of the great Italian’s views of Roman ruins but because the drawing reminded him of Piranesi’s fantasy prisons, the Carceri. In a drawing titled Moroccan, he discovered fragments of a trip he’d made years ago to North Africa and an underground cistern he’d seen there; Malpeque possesses qualities that reminded him of an oyster.

There is, however, a significant subgroup of drawings in Posen’s recent works on paper where the relationship of title to subject is more direct and intentional. I’m speaking of works such as Greyhounds, Poodle Ancestor of Wolves, Wolf, Best in Show, Hyena and Pekinese. In these drawings, Posen deliberately set out to capture some aspect of his canine subjects.

Animals have a potent if frequently unremarked presence in contemporary art, from Rauschenberg’s stuffed goat and Beuys’s dead hare to the funky camels of Nancy Graves, the shimmering horses of Susan Rothenberg, Jeff Koons’s stainless bunny and flowering puppy, and Damien Hirst’s pickled shark and cow, to cite just a few of the better-known examples. While they have been used to convey a variety of meanings, animals in recent art (I’m thinking here of Koons and Hirst) tend to be used as icons, instantly recognizable forms that emphasize the cultural connotations of the creature in question rather than any special relationship between artist and animal. Posen’s canine-inspired drawings are of a different order. In them, he aims to isolate some essential qualities of his subjects. As a visual artist, he is, of course, interested in how the animals look, in their gracefulness; their toughness; the quirky, bred-in shapes of their bodies, and their capacity for comic behavior. But he is also interested in probing their experience, in intuiting how they see the world. He wants to seize the greyhoundness of greyhounds, the poodleness of poodles, the pekineseness of Pekinese. Into this pack of well-bred dogs, he also introduces a wolf and a hyena, and is just as successful in capturing wolfness and hyenaness.

Because of their subjectivity and intuitive process, in many ways these canine drawings are more akin to certain poems than to any visual works of art. They seem to have an affinity, in particular, with the animal poems of the late British poet Ted Hughes. In his poem “The Howling of Wolves,” for instance, Hughes writes of “The steel furred to keep it from cracking in the cold, / The eyes that never learn how it has come about/ That they must live like this, That they must live/ Innocence crept into minerals.” Like Hughes, Posen is keenly aware of the stark distance between humans and animals, but also obsessed with getting under the skin (sometimes literally) of these strange beings with which we share the planet.

Only one of his animal drawings seems to include a human presence: Stroking the Cat, which depicts a curled-up black cat, above which hovers a biomorphic shape of filamentlike pencil lines. Emanating from the cat is a blue pastel cloud. In contrast to the forms in most of the dog drawings, the feline is one of what Posen calls “accidental animals.” Having recognized the catlike properties of a black shape he drew, he decided to try to represent the circuit of affection that occurs when a cat is stroked by a hand (the pencil lines) and sends a purr (the blue pastel) back to the stroker. As well as inventively and elegantly diagramming this common human-animal interaction, Stroking the Cat also highlights the variety of Posen’s mark-making and his willingness to let different families of shapes share a single space.

The dynamic combination of materials is also characteristic of these works, in which charcoal, pastel and pencil coexist and interact but never loose their distinctive qualities. In a few works, Posen fills the pencil frame to nearly bursting and unleashes the opulent potential of his formal language. This is the case, for instance, with an untitled drawing (#9) that features a pair of swelling urn- and bell-like volumes which press against the internal rectangle. This drawing also displays Posen’s love of spatial ambiguity, something that happens even more noticeably in Shifting Ellipses. In its organization of shapes, this drawing looks back to Posen’s work of the 1970s, which used a photorealist style to depict set-up arrangements of objects that clearly related to Post-minimalist sculpture, in particular to Quaker Hill 1972, a painting that depicts an arrangement of blocky fabric-covered shapes attached to a wall. (Posen’s amalgam 1970s paintings, which were shown widely at the time, are ripe for rediscovery.) On a sheet of brown paper whose color evokes both a dust storm and a quotidian grocery bag, Shifting Ellipses employs a skittering but velvety black charcoal line to create a kind of sinuous scaffolding that establishes drapery-like form set just within the confines of the rectangular support. Snagged onto this form at various points are a dozen or so rubbed-charcoal ovoids, as well as a few more irregular shapes. What gives the drawing its considerable presence is the way that each of these rubbed shapes has its own particular tonality, in gradations from ethereal pale gray to sooty black.

Although these drawings proffer an abundance of visual delight, Posen doesn’t make things easy for the viewer. Despite the allusive titles, he doesn’t advertise his subject matter. He doesn’t volunteer to lead the viewer through his complex compositions. Yet—and this is an important point—everything you will need to understand one of his drawings is there on the paper. In such cases, perhaps the most important task for a critical text is to urge viewers simply to trust their own perceptions. This I now do.