Work In Progress

by John Haber

Claire Pentecost


11.26.10  Work in Progress

One often looks at works on paper as works in progress. They offer a window onto the artist’s mind and the artist’s studio. Claire Pentecost’s Interior Studies are just that to the point that one can forget that they are photographs. The subject takes over, and the subject is drawing.

Pentecost works directly on the wall, in pencil and whatever lies at hand. That includes the wall itself, seen always in close-up, and the bolt locking the door. Her room comes to seem not just an intimate world, but a small one, and the artist seems never to leave it. That may sound like a child’s fantasy or a prisoner’s dilemma. It may sound like a feminist nightmare, as in the classic short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper. Or it may sound just a little obsessive and neurotic.

The drawings hint at all of the above, with obsessions like drugs, food, eyes, and tears. Men may or may not belong in this world, but their obsessions sure do, and they supply much of the childishness and the comedy. George Bush struts in his flight suit, before literally losing his head. He might take a particular interest in Three Women Wearing the Same Pair of Breasts. Microphones rush up to a cow’s udder, as at a press conference, while a gun sparking, a button assures one, brings major improvements. A man embraces a women in heels, swaying with her head thrown back, but he has the face of a little boy and is still teething.

The photos, at Higher Pictures through December 11, often linger over the exact same spot over time. A drawing, in Pentecost’s delicate but funky outlines, may become a collage with leaves, like a tree in springtime. Then the leaves may stiffen and die as if with summer and fall. Additions, erasures, and a healthy smear of white paint all take their toll and allow for second, third, or any number of other thoughts. From the changing subject of one group, the camera appears not to have moved through at least three presidential administrations. By the time Obama’s earnest smile takes over the flight suit, a 7-11 Big Gulp lies crushed below beside Bush’s head.

The progressive darkening, crowding, and overgrowth of leaves implies a certain sadness, but always with the artist in control and the possibility of renewal and, critical theory would insist, reinterpretation. A syringe into a brain (like, yes, your brain on drugs) at least provides a high. Left to themselves, women can actually relax among the leaves. One woman sits holding hands with a monkey, both with tails that curl out into the tendrils of perhaps a sea anemone. As the addition of pencil words puts it, little curls, big curls. Above them, in a second shot, the two play patty-cake in profile.

Perhaps the true subject is mixed media, but the medium is photography. It has the appearance of process art, but the photographs are unchanging. One often classifies drawings as preliminary, for a painting, or finished, for presentation. Here the drawings are preliminary to photographs for presentation. It all gives new meaning to the artist in her studio. I wonder if she left to attend the opening.