Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Unique Unica Zürn at The Drawing Center

by Drew Martin

Unica Zürn's drawings look like once festive henna tattoos that were abandoned by the young flesh of maidens' hands and have spent the last thirty years living off the streets of New York, fighting over damp, blue bread scraps with seasoned sewer rats. Her drawings, in the subdued, grey-blue setting of The Drawing Center on an all but abandoned stretch of Wooster Street, bring to mind the recently publicized Cadillac Man, the former New York homeless veteran who has settled down and written a tell-all memoir.

Zürn's line creatures have definitely evolved to survive a harsh world. They are scaly and spiked with thorny skin and fiery plumage. They have an edgy sexual charge, which shows the intense, reckless passion and the disturbing, inescapable abuse of a delicate but complicated lover.

The multiple, flounder-fish eyes on her drawings squeamishly bring to mind the fate of Argus but these inheritors are a far cry from the proud peacock. It is hard to always tell the function of the eyes. Sometimes they seem like the defensive eye patterns that moths and butterflies have on their wings to discourage birds from eating them: which raises the question of who she is setting up the guise for. Perhaps it is simply man, with his hawkish, distrustful gaze. It is only when you are looking at these decoy eyes that you then see the real ones, peering out at you from an unsuspecting part of the form, with the slight, bothered glance of an unthreatened octopus.

Sometimes her beings do look like deep-sea creatures, pressed and dried between book pages. In a dehydrated state it is impossible to determine their original form but one can image something puffy and gelatinous. They also seem very sure of themselves and at home, inhabiting the sheets of paper the way weeds spread flatly to dominate a barren concrete surface. The creatures' patterns appear at times to be scarification and other times like internal, faceted chambers; processing and filtering their environment.

If the drawings were on small, motley scraps of paper, her style would seem manic, but most of these creations are consistently large and executed on quality, over-sized sheets so the detailing seems more decorative than compulsive. Although most of the drawings were made in an institute and Zürn, in the end, threw herself off a balcony to complete her life, the body of work presented at The Drawing Center is too formal and informed to be branded as l'art brut. This is the work of a very creative, educated and engineered mind tipped over by an unbalanced life. It is not simply the manifestation of a deranged person.

The yonic scribbles, hooked beaks, lactating teats, forked tongues, feathery masks look like string craft that was stuffed in a drawer for years and then removed as tangled knots. Gnarled, overgrown, overwrought faces and twisted serpents, wrinkly turkey heads and road-kill phoenixes are gathered in layered, visual tales. The centipedestrians, multi-headed/multi-limbed sirens have their own ancient untold mythology, stored in frenzied lines.

The most interesting drawings have dense, loaded forms and freed, loose, wandering crisp lines. They are contained and territorial incarnations of horror vacui that defend themselves from the nothingness of the blank page and her fragile, personal world but they also send out feelers for the remote possibility of finding a like mate.

The most curious drawing is of two ram-like animals that seem like they belong more on the pages of Le Petit Prince than in this Dark Spring show. They owe their existence to a few questionable lines. Their look tells us they know they have been spared the cramped handwork: a preemptive shearing. They are like Kieslowski's mute observer in the Decalogue, who bears innocent but painful witness to the emotional and tragic lives and deaths that pass before him. They also have a worried look, like they might be next in line for something: an artistic sacrifice.

As Zürn's drawings distance themselves from her writing, her work assumes a much more graphic ability and a contrasted black and white clarity. But then she softens, introduces colors again and replaces interconnected lines with corpuscular forms. In the very last of her drawings her fantasy is freed up. In one of her final drawings, if not the very last one, she draws an ancient temple scene. There is a sense that she has arrived finally at a destination of myths and legend. If there is a redeeming, enlightened progress of the drawings, compared to her tragic end, it is with this anchored architectural element that ends her pilgrimage.