James Drake, City of Tells, 2002–04

Interview: James Drake, Strange Beauty Walked In

I first wrote about James Drake for a catalog essay accompanying his 2005 City of Tells show at SITE Santa Fe. His monumental charcoal drawing, City of Tells, combines into a scroll-like mural the manners of Drakes closest friends, who include the artist Bruce Nauman, the Nobel laureate in physics Murray Gell-Mann, writers dead and alive, family members and vast deserts. All unfold in a sweepstakes of time memory and legacy named for a poker play, in a room centered by a fancy set table writhing with a snake.

Strange beauty walked in.
That wild hogs and birds and reptiles make up critical living elements of James Drakes ark of curiosities is really perfectly natural. If not presented in charcoal drawings, which the artist now is creating as multiple-panel works in series, they are seen in video. Drakes work has alternated between those two forms for 35 years.

When Talking Pictures opens at SITE Santa Fe October 10th, Drakes 1996 video Tongue-Cut Sparrows will be screened adjacent to an older work, Exit Juarez, that he made 30 years ago but has never before shown.

Also in this show, Bruce Nauman exhibits World Peace, first being seen in the US (on loan from Germany) after a decade. Up, too, are video works by Nic Nicosia, a photographer and video artist also living in Santa Fe. Diller & Scofidio and Stephen Dean; as well as Tri-Christus, a light sculpture by Jamaican-born Brooklyn dweller Nadine Robinson.

For Tongue-Cut Sparrows, Drake in 1996 observed the somber pageant of women hand-signaling a sign language to their men, inside of an El Paso prison, while the women stood outside. He showed this video at the 2007 Venice Biennale, as part of the US pavilion curated by Robert Storr. He explained in my video interview with him that he asked them to sign poetry for the video. Some picked Lorca; the title comes from a poem by Albuquerque poet Jimmy Santiago Baca.

The womens gestures, their faces upturned like cinematic ecstatics, express a meaningful yet oblique division between onlooker and participant, between those at the edge of a society that is already itself at the border of the literal most dangerous place on earth. (Juarez, noted Drake, has endured more than 3000 murders so far this year, giving it that deathly distinction.)

Although no drawings are seen in the SITE Santa Fe show, Drake has just completed a 24-panel charcoal drawing based on Tongue-Cut Sparrows (featured in the video interview shown with this post).

Top photo:  James Drake, City of Tells, 2002″“04 Charcoal on paper 12 x 32 feet
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