Eruption: Louise Despont’s Colorful, Vivid Drawings
Louise Despont: Harmonic Tremor at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery
April 23 to May 24, 2015
327 Broome Street (between Bowery and Chrystie Street)
New York, 212 375 8043
There is a tendency in contemporary art which conflates facts with content. Too often artists will point to this or that and shout “Hey! Look at this thing I know about, isn’t it clever?!” On their surface, Louise Despont’s drawings organize themselves loosely around Balinese rites and rituals. But Despont’s renderings are closer to fetishism than to ritual, less a sacrament to the unruly gods and more a testament to an artist’s own will to succeed. By way of control and precision, the artist converts those unfamiliar or “exotic” mannerisms she finds compelling into a set of data: linguistic, sonic and seismologic — enveloped in an air of the bespoke. The work’s immaculateness is hard to surmount, it begs to be prodded, poked at and taken apart.
Elegance in art is tricky. It can come to stand for good taste, which in turn suggests a classed position. Bali is Despont’s Tahiti. And from its verdant shores and pumice beaches she distills elegant images more Hermes than Noa Noa. In her fourth solo exhibition with Nicelle Beauchene, the artist demonstrates her pitch-perfect technical skills and impeccable design sensibility. Her vocabulary is rich but affected: she draws heavily from South Asian textile design as well as antique maps; the works are robust, though she approaches them with the delicacy of a miniature. Offering in Appeasement (all 2014) is the most luxurious drawing here.. It is a roughly symmetrical composition of tropical fronds, stylized vegetal forms and rosettes. Despont’s artworks owe something to Tropicalia but without its zeal and musicality. Her color is subtle: soft rose, silvery green, myriad grey and inflections of pale gold and blue unify in a constellation of shapes that recall a medieval tapestry’s threadbare surface. Despont is drawing upon the local tradition of making offerings to the gods and goddesses who preside over the geologically volatile Sunda Strait. This marine passage is situated between Java and Borneo and was the site of the cataclysmic 1883 eruption of Krakatoa which killed more than 36,000 people. The eruption is cited as creating the loudest sound ever recorded in human history. The proliferation of lines which overlay Despont’s imagery correlate to the sonic activity of Krakatoa, or “the sound heard around the world.”
Though she utilizes stencils and hand-drawn grids, the work, over time, reveals unexpected buoyancy as a result of the artist’s uniformly light touch and muted palette. An image of two volcanoes drawn in shades of silver and grey appears in Anak Krakatau (or Child of Krakatau). The erupting volcanoes flank an island set within a stylized sea. At left, a text box reads: “anak krakatau, indonesia, sunda strait, emerged 1928.”
An entire constellation of narrative is embedded in Despont’s drawings: travel, ecological disaster, an interest in craftsmanship,colonialism and architecture. But the means by which she attempts to delve into the region’s multivalent history instead stylizes this very history into a kind of ornamentation. In this way, one might say that Despont is participating in an archetypal colonial narrative of mining an Eastern culture for its aesthetic and conceptual riches then dashing back to the West to capitalize. Two of the most successful works in the exhibition are Full Moons and Volcanic Centers. Both of these drawings show less literalism than the larger, more ambitious pieces. It seems that, in these, Despont has metabolized the ideas she is using and instead of illustrating events, she lets these events and ideas play out through the design and drawing. Another aspect here is that there is less filled-in space which lets the warm, rosy finish of the antique paper do its own work. Portions of frosty green and chalk white heighten the surface’s character.
The Sound Heard Around the World is a stylized depiction of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa rendered in shades of cool grey. Again, the event is flattened out and made decorative. Bands and cords radiate out from the volcano’s center, as if to illustrate the sonic aftershock of the eruption. Even the volcanoes she depicts are rendered like plumes — ebullient and decorative. It is evident when looking at these drawings that Despont gives care and attention, and this might be the work’s real subject.