To call “The Beginning of Everything” a big drawing show is an understatement. Indeed, it is a huge show in a sprawling space at the University of Minnesota’s Nash Gallery that’s divided into roughly six smaller galleries, like a mini-museum.
Curated by gallery director Howard Oransky, this exhibition includes 157 artworks made by 104 artists, spanning more than 500 years of art history. Drawings by Käthe Kollwitz, Diego Rivera and Jean Dubuffet are mixed in with contemporary Minnesota artists including Joe Sinness, Megan Vossler and Dyani White Hawk.
Oransky has created space for some unusual groupings. Some seem meant for a Drawing 101 class, while others create deep conceptual and art-history-minded pairings. In effect, he’s deconstructed traditional hierarchies by leveling the playing field, organizing artists through visual or conceptual themes, really making it about drawing and not history. It’s a curious technique, and it sometimes works.
“Women’s Gaol, 1969-1970,” by interdisciplinary artist and black feminist scholar Tia-Simone Gardner, is a small, delicate work using graphite and carbon paper that looks like dusty clouds; actually, it’s the footprint of a woman’s prison (gaol) in Johannesburg. The piece is part of a series in which Gardner layers drawings of black women’s living spaces with drawings from French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari’s book “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia,” pointing out the ways that structural racism is connected to other types of power, including the control of physical and psychological spaces.
This 2016 piece is positioned below Duluth-born conceptual artist Harriet Bart’s “Study for Twin Towers” and “Study for Drawn in Smoke” (both 2010), two smoke/soot-on-paper horizontal bars aligned next to each other that echo the same texture as Gardner’s. Bart’s interest in personal and cultural memory juxtaposed with Gardner’s creates a phenomenal pairing of work that by coincidence is nearly identical visually.
Other groupings are less about form and more about subject matter or one shared visual aspect. Dave Reed’s “Selfie” (2019), a digital print of an iPad drawing of a black man wearing gold earrings and rings who’s staring at his phone, hangs next to Paula Modersohn-Becker’s 1899 portrait of an “Old Peasant Woman” in the shadows, wearing a black shawl, and Francis Alÿs’ 2002 work “Untitled (Hand).” All three use detailed drawing techniques to bring out the visceral, veiny hands and bony knuckles of their subjects, reminding viewers how much work our hands do for us every day, and the attention to detail that’s needed to draw them.
In the middle of the gallery, a circle of eight flatscreens showing short videos of famous artists drawing are arranged around a series of small clay figures, as if this were a figure drawing class. This media-based element adds three-dimensionality to an otherwise physically flat exhibition. Watching Matisse study the face of a young boy he draws is a meditation in and of itself.
It’s exciting to discover these visual pairings, whether they be abstract or figurative, but the sheer number of works is overwhelming. After a while, being in the gallery starts to feel like wandering a thrift store. A bit more description to explain these groupings would have been helpful, too.
But this ambitious if unwieldy exhibition expands the viewer’s ideas about what a drawing is or could be. As drawing collector JoAnn Gonzalez Hickey writes in the exhibition catalog: “If it feels like a drawing, it is a drawing.”