Drapell & Saxe: the space between intent and result

An idea suggested by Donna Haraway in the 1990s in an essay titled The Cyborg Manifesto, was that we are, in a pragmatic way, already cyborgs. Her example was the dependence we have upon alarm clocks, or other technology that is so ubiquitous, so ingrained in our lives, that we don’t even ‘notice’ it anymore. That doesn’t even consider things like a pacemaker, or how she wrote this years before we all carried hand held devices that we have come to rely upon, incapable of imagining a world without them. 

In fact, years ago, when teaching digital media, I had a student who complained about the invasive nature of technology, citing how she’d be watching television and was annoyed when a website was flashed across the bottom of the screen. I attempted several times to show her how she dismissed television as ‘not technology’, but saw the web as such, based on her own experiences and implicit biases. 

This reference to technology is an undercurrent, in encountering Joseph Drapell’s work as it is in Henry Saxe’s art, in the current show at 13th Street Gallery. Perhaps, to be more specific, with Drapell it is present in the creation, in the mark making, whereas with Saxe it manifests in the assembled components: but both have a sense of the detritus of technological implications, whether physically (Saxe) or indexically (Drapell). 

Drapell’s large works – more likely to grab your attention in the gallery space – have large swathes of colour, and marks that seem mechanized, with the ‘grooves’ and lines suggesting an almost automatic process or production. There is not so much a ‘hand made mark’ as wide and long, grooved ‘treads’ or tracks, suggestive of an assembly line repetition, with no human variance. 

Joseph Drapell, Questions, 2019
Joseph Drapell, Answers, 2019.

This is an unusual pairing: there are not so many points of intersection as contrast. Saxe’s work is more sculptural, even when on the wall, and you may be familiar with his large ‘spheres’ from past exhibitions at 13th as well as those installed on the grounds. His ‘ball works’ – such as Ball #20, 2nd variation (1993) – are rough and entertaining, but require more space. Several works in this series were in the Modern Masters show, and offered a challenge to many of the wall works, melding a sense of industrial ruin and recycling (there is a character in William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive who builds numerous figures out of the rich leavings of his industrial wasteland home, and I was reminded of these: form and beauty through destruction….) 

Henry Saxe, Ball #20, 2nd variation 1993, Aluminum

Drapell’s works are flat, with the occasional glop and texture, as a result of the wide and expansive ‘sweeps’ of his colours and ‘lines’. Saxe has a restrained palette: often monochromatic, with touches here or there of green or orange or red, whereas Drapell’s hues and tones are somewhere between excess and excessive (in a past review of his work, that is of the same date as some of the works presented, Drapell’s work is described as ‘discordant, failing to excite the eye or mind. Most of the work is strikingly ugly — ugly in a way you rarely see and for reasons you wouldn’t expect.’ (Sheila Heti))

Both of the artists have brief didactics on display, offering a teaser of their ideas, before you walk among the works. Saxe: “I want the mind to move around and shift, and not to be fixed on one thing or the sensation of colour.” Drapell: “A painting takes a long time to make, but I love when art looks fresh, like the sunlight that hits me in ‘Eight Minutes Three Seconds’.’ That references a work of Drapell’s, hanging next to these words, on the gallery wall.

The gallery statement found online offers more. An excerpt: ‘Joseph Drapell and Henry Saxe are two unapologetic artists with strong personal oeuvres that have fought against the tide of fashionable conventions.

Joseph Drapell paints intuitively with much less planning; he often uses unpredictable chance-event that happen during work, propelled by his curiosity. Drapell sticks to his forms as vehicles for feelings that go beyond the realm of basic emotions. 

Canadian sculptor, Henry Saxe…while sculpture remains his main focus, Saxe also practices drawing and painting. In the sixties, his works represented a clash between constructivism and abstract expressionism. These two- dimensional works tie into Saxe’s sculptural practice as they deal with concepts of balance, juxtaposition and distribution.

Henry Saxe, Riviere de Loup, 2012, Black stove paint on aluminum

Drapell is a vocal proponent of the ‘movement’ known as ‘New New Painting.” Here, however, ‘New New Painting’ isn’t so much anything revolutionary as just more self aggrandizing petulance (similar to how ‘critic’ Miklos Legrady whines about Duchamp’s legacy in contemporary art, but offers no genuine replacement or equally engaging ideas, instead privileging an immature jealousy, best summed up as ‘why aren’t I the person everyone pays attention to?’) Drapell has been criticized for willfully ignoring half a decade of painting, eschewing it for something ‘better’ which ‘New New Painting’ claims to provide. But this is reminiscent of Agnes Martin’s idea of ‘turning away from the world’ (and her work offers the odd unique element, but is too often so specific and ‘personal’ a narrative that it’s more repetitive and frequently boring to others). It makes you cloistered and inbred, and we all know what the products of inbreeding are known for…..This posturing is reminiscent of the Karaoke Modernism I saw too much of, on the Prairies: second rate painters who ‘read’ Greenberg only for the parts that were confirmation bias, not as challenge. Years ago, on a panel about ‘prairie modernism’ – and its fallow nature – I actually found myself defending Greenberg, as I was exhausted by those who, like ‘christians’, claim to ‘follow’ a book they haven’t read or know….

To cite Heti again – in one of the few responses to Drapell’s work I could find that was neither his own, nor that of curators who’ve worked with him – ‘the source of the problem may be the…decision to work “as if the last 40 years of official art never existed.” What do they mean by “official art”? Given the pluralistic climate of the past quarter-century, protesting some dominant movement is absurd.’

Even the pedagogical – if not more pedantic – citing of Greenberg ignores one of Greenberg’s most important observations, that the criteria and standards we have now (and Greenberg wrote that several decades ago) will and must change, and are never – have never been – static. There’s a rigidity of thought here, enacted. 

There is also something contradictory – like a hamartia, something that’s essence contributes inevitably to its failure – about those who proclaim an ‘end’ to history. It’s like Fukuyama’s ignorant ‘end of history’ in post Cold War, pre 9/11 America, or the Marxist self aggrandizing of ‘stopping’ history. ‘New New Painting’ came after, and is less intellectually honest or rigorous, than Ad Reinhardt, who had a wider understanding of abstraction in both Islamic and Asian contexts, and thus offering (Reinhardt, I mean) a wider context for any historical watershed, as in his ‘black on black paintings.’

Henry Saxe, Past History, 2010, acrylic on aluminum

But ignore that, if you will – or if you can – and as you should. Drapell’s works do – sometimes – offer a visceral vibrancy, colour and texture that is striking: Far Greater Than Presence (1990) and Above Loses, Beyond Desire (1992), for example, are works that dominate you and the gallery space.

These larger works have a power in their unabashed joy of colour: others, however, demand that a more self critical approach to a seductive tool be employed. This is also something to consider in how, again, the artists’ works are separate: when a Drapell is installed next to a Saxe, the garishness of the former taints the latter, somewhat. Saxe’s works – often sparse and controlled in their colour, to serve the metal that is intrinsic to all works (Le Loup Garou, 2012, or Past History, 2010, both  acrylic on aluminum) – have a subtlety and restraint not seen in some of Drapell’s paintings.

In fact, there’s an aspect of Saxe’s works that bring to mind Rod Dowling’s sculptural works, that I’m most familiar with from my time in the rust belt wonderland of Welland and Niagara. But whereas Dowling‘s are often clean and seem to mimic the industrial – and functional – objects of factories, Saxe looks more like what is ‘made’ from what those businesses and industries leave behind them. In some ways, this brings us back to how a curator I know spoke of the ‘fallowness’ or ‘failure’ of ‘modernism’, in her citing of the hopefulness of nuclear power in the 1950s, to be followed by the dangers and disappointments encapsulated in incidents like Fukushima or Chernobyl….

Joseph Drapell, Eight Minutes Three Seconds 2019, Acrylic on Canvas

In terms of comparison to past shows – which is perhaps a more equitable and fair platform, as past shows at 13th Street have been of individuals such as Ron Boaks, Paul Sloggett or Daniel Solomon who are of the same generation and thus discourse as Drapell and Saxe – this isn’t as strong, as a whole. For example, Boaks and I were speaking about his Spirit Rises works, which are very recent, and how that’s a departure from his earlier ‘pure’ abstraction, offering symbols and hints of signs that are ‘new’, reflective of his recent experiences. He has grown and changed as an artist. Solomon and Sloggett were an interesting contrast as regards the paint or the sign, with Sloggett offering recognizable elements for the viewer to access, or interpret, versus Solomon’s back and forth regarding the paint and the perhaps controlling ‘hand’ of the artist. Both of the latter spoke of ‘failures’ in the ‘purity’ of abstraction, but that’s again a very ‘utopic delusion.’ Komar and Melamid – artists who lived under Soviet dogmatic ‘aesthetic’ forces – offered the following acerbic points: “Living with utopias as with rats, the artist’s only consolation is to organize rat hunts.” Boris Groys, in his fine book The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, offered the following observation about those artists’ irreverent impurity to ‘utopic’ ‘end of history’ assertions: “[The artists] themselves, however, perceive no sacrilege whatever here, because they consider the religion of the avant-garde to be false and idolatrous.”

This is, again, more applicable to Drapell’s less than successful works than Saxe: but it’s worth considering that if both are to be described as ‘against fashionable conventions’ in their practice, then it’s not unreasonable to turn an Ad Reinhardtism on them, and ask what they do, in fact, represent in their works. 

Saxe has a frequently delightful play in the metallic, industrial remnants of the industrial detritus of the late 20th, early 21st century: his ‘hand’ is more sculptural, more about textures and forms, than colour, often, and this is clearly his stronger space (unsurprising, for someone well known for his public art works). The colour, in Saxe’s pieces – when not monochromatic – sometimes seems forced. Drapell is uneven: some works have a power, an intensity that pulls you in from across the wide space: others repel, and make the visitor consider his statement about paintings ‘taking time’ but seeming to be ;immediate and fresh’, and wonder as to whether he brought a criticality or consideration to his use of colour and form. I’d offer the paintings of artists such as MABO or especially Scott Sawtell, as painters who use colour, and not allow it to use them. There is something very masturbatory and ejaculatory about many of Drapell’s paintings: an immediate satisfaction, that surely is emotional resonant to the artist, but leaves the viewer somewhat unsatisfied….

Drapell and Saxe at 13th Street Gallery is an unusual pairing of two artists who have – either by declaration or demonstration – produced works that don’t always fit within other, more dominant narratives of art. Both offer differing approaches and aesthetics, that sometimes are quite engaging and other times are not. There is, in some cases, a dissonance between what is alluded to, and what is present. As always, repeated visits are a necessity, as they exist very differently in person, with their very visceral and physical being, than in reproduction or on line.

Henry Saxe, Untitled, 2020, painted aluminum
Henry Saxe, Rougemount, 2013, red acrylic paint on aluminum

The exhibition Saxe & Drapell at 13th Street Gallery runs until Saturday October 24, 2020. The Gallery is located 1776 Fourth Avenue, St. Catharines, and hours are Tuesday to Saturday 10:00am to 5:00pm or by appointment. All images are courtesy 13th Street Gallery, and the header image for this article is Joseph Drapell, Sparks of Galastic Longing, 2008, acrylic & Holographic additives on canvas.