Elastic and Unbuilt: The Projective Drawing at the Austrian Cultural Forum by Alex Tell

Contending with Robin Evans and the limits of architectural drawing.

Saupper Judith 01

Judith Saupper, The Great Noise (Das Grosse Rauschen), 2014. Paper sculpture, 6 lengths of paper with 475 collaged ink drawings, 118 1/8 x 307 x 267 3/4 inches.

The Projective Drawing is an exhibition built upon dueling ideologies of drawing’s relationship to architecture: the skeptic’s insistence that drawing cannot capture architecture, and the believer’s assertion that drawing is architecture. The exhibition takes its title from The Projective Cast, a book by architectural theorist Robin Evans. In the book, Evans argues that drawing abstracts and obscures fundamental elements of architecture, namely the phenomenological qualities of space: light, and its reflective tendencies; temperature, and the effect a room’s climate has on the body; scent, and its ability to overwhelm a space–these are the earthly elements that ground us in our location and ultimately comprise our experience of architecture. From this vantage point, architectural drawing has a difficult task, and ultimately, Evans posits, drawing cannot illustrate these essential experiences.

The exhibition is housed in the Austrian Cultural Forum, one of a few built works by the imaginative “paper architect” Raimund Abraham. Best known for his lush drawings of unbuildable structures rendered in rich colors, Abraham’s monograph is rebelliously titled Unbuilt. He insisted on an ontological autonomy for his drawings: they were works of architecture in their own right. Within the context of this exhibition’s investigation of drawing’s capability (or lack thereof) to engage the built form, the Austrian Cultural Forum, a spindly and elegant building with a striking geometric façade, provides a rich test case in how drawing gets pushed to its boundaries.

An Evans-inspired show in an Abraham-designed gallery might be considered an odd match. The works in The Projective Drawing bridge the two, showing us that to be skeptical of drawing’s ability to render reality faithfully is also to recognize drawing’s ability to speculate about how we might imagine our relationship to space. The exhibition, curated by Brett Littman, Executive Director of The Drawing Center, is installed on the ground and subterranean floors of the gallery. Littman seems unconcerned with medium specificity, and the group exhibition unravels the visitor’s definition of drawing as one descends the staircase. The Projective Drawing displays site-specific sculptural installations, surrealistic collages, ghostly outlines of imagined structures, and a diagrammatic representation of a family genealogy. Taken together, the exhibition breathes life to the idea that drawing, at its widest definition, can be a sensuous medium.

Weaving together sight and sound, nature and artifice, Sara Flores’ participatory installation is comprised of three canvases with abstract tessellations and a microphone in the center, inviting visitors to create a sonic response to the work. Flores, an artist of indigenous Peruvian Shipibo origin, draws on her canvases with plant extracts, referencing the Shipibo practice of using art, natural remedies, and Ayahuasca ceremonies for healing. These healing powers are translated to the gallery space: we are encouraged to “hum, sing, chat, whisper, scream, screech, clap, whistle, definitely whistle, and maybe ohhhhhm” in reaction to the work.

Favre Lionel 01

Lionel Favre, detail of I’M-MIGRA-GINATION, 2018. Mixed media on wall, site-specific installation, dimensions variable.

Lionel Favre’s and Judith Saupper’s site-specific installations also elicit our participation, by interrogating our interaction with the gallery space. Favre’s playful wall drawings, titled I’M-MIGRA-GINATION, seize on architectural elements: He turns an emergency exit sign into a ladder, a fire safety light into a hot air balloon, and a lighting panel into a space-age command center. His interventions into the space are a lighthearted nudge at the gallery’s self-seriousness by (literally) drawing unwanted attention to the architecture’s more unsavory fixtures.

Saupper’s sculpture The Great Noise consists of undulating reams of paper hanging from the ceiling, collaged with ink drawings of houses of varying styles. She layers images of cartoonishly rendered houses in bold, dark lines, hanging, crinkling, and draping them to create craggy peaks and valleys in the gallery. The viewer loses sense of inside and out, up and down, as the logical space of the drawings gives way to the chaotic space of the installation. Saupper’s work crosses the boundaries between domestic architecture and landscape, and makes visible internal and external spaces we occupy.

Saupper Judith 02

Judith Saupper, detail of The Great Noise (Das Grosse Rauschen), 2014. Paper sculpture, 6 lengths of paper with 475 collaged ink drawings, 118 1/8 x 307 x 267 3/4 inches.

Simona Koch’s Mycelium of Humans #1 uses drawing as an informational structure. In the series, a work in progress, Koch intricately details her own family tree. The format is familiar, a ubiquitous representation of familial bonds replicated at some point by most children as school project. By relying on the instantly legible format of a family tree, and creating a vast of work (the piece is already impressively large at 28 feet long), Koch renders the intricacies her individual familial relationships illegible. The overarching themes of communities and networks become replicated in the format of an intersecting tangle of lines. In this sense, Koch’s work moves from the space of drawing-as-infographic, to become an abstract illustration pointing to the randomness of our given families and the contingency of human connection.

Leopold Strobel’s series of small pencil drawings offer a different commentary on the relationship between drawing and information. Each frame depicts a detailed landscape–a street of buildings, a local park, a waterfront scene–all with amorphous blobs plopped onto the center of the image. Through these vigorously blacked-out portions of space Strobel thwarts our ability to fully behold the scene, frustrating the viewer. We are presented with our desire to behold a location through richly illustrated landscapes and enjoined to accept the same desire’s impossibility.

Strobl Leopold 01

Leopold Strobl, two works, 2014-2016. Pencil and color pencil on paper, both 12.9 x 12.9 inches framed.

The dreamy confines of the steel-and-glass gallery contain the viewer in a cradle of reflective surfaces, unexpected volumes, and ethereal light. It has a tendency to overwhelm some of the works in the exhibition. At its best points, The Projective Drawing propels the viewer into a sensory experience through works that hold court within the exhibition space. Flores’ sound installation, Saupper’s sculpture, and a full wall, six-panel drawing by Seher Shah stand out for creating meaningful destinations for the viewer to exist in relation to each piece. “The characteristic thing about language,” Abraham wrote, “is that it possesses innately the possibility of different forms of application and yet still remains the same language.” The Projective Drawing presents a body of work that insists on the elasticity of the language of drawing. Honoring Robin Evans’ skepticism of the medium, the moments where drawing veers off into multimedia are the exhibition’s lodestar. The Projective Drawing’s strongest asset may in fact be its refusal to pin down a definitive idea about what constitutes drawing.

The Projective Drawing is on view until May 13, 2018.

Alex Tell is BOMB’s Marketing and Circulation Assistant.

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