The unobtrusive works on paper by Wes Mills and Susan York, two mid-career artists whose work is profoundly and obsessively about mark-marking, is an adroit pairing. Although it is tempting to label these works merely as minimalism, to do so would be incorrect in the strictest sense of that word—just as Agnes Martin, York’s mentor for years, did not appreciate that her paintings are often classed as such. Both artists in Graphite on Paper position the maker’s hand and process, among other issues that certainly include expression and dimensionality, over formalism for its own sake. When used colloquially, the word “minimal” does indeed describe the visual effects of the exhibition as a whole. Nonetheless, the generally subdued appearance of the art merits a closer look, preferably several. Mills’s barely visible gestures on muted backgrounds and York’s black-and-white pieces are about much more than line on paper, and further, travel in two very different directions. Viewed one artist at a time, the effect of each exhibition is distinctly dissimilar; no matter how beautifully they hang together, these artists are investigating entirely different issues through their art. That they may arrive at the same place speaks to their shared commitment to the journey itself.
Works by Mills date from 1997 to 2008, and represent a dedicated draftsman’s passionate desire to explore the unutterable essence of mark making. The works are intimately sized and extremely delicate; one must see them in person in order to arrive at any comprehension of their significance. “No Title” (1997), for example, is 11 inches square and consists of a Richard Tuttle-esque loopy line made of graphite, ink, and powdered pigment on yellowed paper. It looms monolithic in the eyes of its viewers, yet all but the truest reproduction will inevitably render it inconsequential. Mills has undertaken a painstaking search, a search that is valiant and heartrendingly impossible: to boil drawing down to its most elemental presence.
Mills recently began creating one work out of a series of small drawings, each framed and mounted in a unifying color and material. “Piper Drawings” (2006) was inspired when Mills discovered an antique book, the back of which featured several blank pages rich with the desiccation of age. He made drawings on those pages, executing a few well-placed, hard-edged lines. The second piece in the “Piper” series includes the following text, scrawled above and to the right of the nearly evanescent mark of the drawing itself:
What is it to make a drawing where drawing asks a question of itself
[two words crossed out]
See the drawing with only what the drawing gives
Seeing the drawings from within the drawings
The person speaking from within
More than a couple of Mills’s drawings echo York’s work: smoky little forms residing, lonesome as orphans, on their paper settings. Generally, though, Mills renders biomorphic shapes, while York’s drawings imply geometric sculptures caught, somehow, on paper.
In order for that to make sense, it is necessary to know that York is primarily a sculptor who employs solid graphite, an impossible medium that reveals an astonishing surface that is reminiscent of unpolished diamonds. After an excruciating finishing process, each piece defies its human origins. The play of light and shadow are integral to her sculptures and, I find, to the drawings as well. Her “(Left) Corner Column no. 1” (2008) is made of pencil on Rives paper, and is the two-dimensional version of a columnar sculpture shown last summer at the Lannan Foundation’s Santa Fe gallery. Pivotal to that exhibition, “3 Columns,” “a site-sensitive installation of solid graphite sculpture,” was a slim suspended piece that came close to the floor, swaying nearly imperceptibly. In the present show “Untitled (Beneath Floating Column)” (2009) gives an ant’s-eye view from under that precarious pillar of graphite.
“All of her drawings are based on the sculptures and made from templates of the three-dimensional work,” says James Jernigan of Kelly’s gallery. “This sculpture is this drawing.” York describes the drawings as a way to relate to sculpture; they are made with the same labor-intensive process to achieve a hazy aura hovering cloudlike around the actual object, an aura of the very energy that composes matter. Minimalist? Hardly; more like the stuff of life itself, spoken from within.