Drawing in the moment: a "happening" at Artspace
50 Orange St, New Haven, (203) 772-2709
Saturday "happening": Colleen Coleman: Ode to Walter Benjamin
May 5, 2012.
This past Saturday, as part of the opening reception for several shows, Artspace presented the first in a series of Saturday evening "happenings" slated for this month. Saturday's "happening" featured artist Colleen Coleman in a drawing performance "Ode to Walter Benjamin." Benjamin was a renowned 20th century German-Jewish cultural theorist. Among his well-known essays is "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," written in 1936.
Coleman's "endurance piece," as Artspace director Helen Kauder describes it, is part drawing, part dance. Holding a thick, dark slab of raw graphite in her hand—in both hands, depending on the gesture—she cranks swirls of kinetic circles on the long free-standing wall in the main gallery. Stopping for a moment, she offers her outstretched palms to the audience, black graphite glistening on coffee-colored skin.
Related to the dance aspect, the performance is almost musical, as well. In its rhythms, it resembles a free improvisation concert: flurries of noisy energy dissipating into pregnant quiet, only to build up again to another crescendo. This association is reinforced by the sound aspect of Coleman's effort, the whirring white noise of the graphite gliding against the wall, the occasional percussive SNAP! Of the graphite chunk striking the surface.
Circles. Circles within circles within circles and the long flowing lines from one end of the wall to the other, some drawn languidly as Coleman seeks to catch her breath, others applied in a graceful sprint the length of the wall, punctuated with a leap that registers as a black linear arc.
It's a high wire act. Do you end up with something that has an aesthetic integrity outside the performance of its creation? In a way, that's a bonus if it happens because this is gestural drawing as performance art, dance, creation in the moment, Pollock's "action paintings" taken out onto a stage.
For a short moment, Coleman settles into repeated figure-eight swirls, the infinity symbol, the infinite possibilities inherent in mark making, art-making, the musical rhythm flow. Conscious art—yes, thinking the whole time, in the moment—but also pushing beyond the conscious to the visceral physical, the ecstatic joy of graffitizing a white wall with scribbly black marks, that outside-of-consciousness pleasure. The highest curves chart the peak of Coleman's leap, jumping with hand extended, reaching for the stars.
I expect to take in 15 minutes or so of Coleman's performance, which was supposed to last up to two hours. But it is surprisingly compelling and I'm absorbed through to its conclusion, when Coleman reaches the limit of her athletic endurance 10 or 15 minutes beyond an hour.