On ViewMitchell Algus Gallery
February 18 – March 26, 2017
Conceptual art gets a new, invigorating twist in the current gem of a show featuring Morgan O’Hara’s drawings at the Mitchell Algus Gallery. Unveiling a lavish selection from a major body of work traversing thirty-six years, this exhibition offers New York audiences the opportunity to get acquainted with the work of an American artist little known in the U.S., yet enormously active internationally; she’s been performing, teaching, and exhibiting around the globe for decades. O’Hara is sui generis, making conceptual work that is direct, surprising, elegant, and open-hearted. If aligned in spirit with any other artist, it would be John Cage, with whom she shares a deep affinity. No need for theoretical wall text here, though there is plenty of intellectual grist to chew on. What is novel is an original approach to drawing that collapses four dimensions into two, a fresh take on the slippery relationship between abstraction and representation, and a chance to see what a drawing of time passing looks like.
Morgan O'Hara, LIVE TRANSMISSION: movement of the hands of MARTHA ARGERICH while playing BEETHOVEN’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Festival Pianistico Internazionale di Bergamo e Brescia, 11 June 2001. Drawing on paper. 27 1/2 x 39 1/4 inches. Courtesy Mitchell Algus Gallery.
The gallery is hung with a pulsing wave of black-and-white pencil drawings on paper that ebb and flow across the walls. At first glance, the drawings appear to contain abstract marks—clusters, scribbles, or webs of lyrical lines—but turn stormily black and delicately whispery. Some approach a kind of calligraphy, others coagulate into a dense shape or pattern, and many appear as free-form linear dances to some unheard tune. But upon closer inspection, a tiny line of text running along the bottom of each drawing reveals a specificity of subject: “Movement of the hands of Marina Abramović”; “Dalai Lama’s hand movements”; “Movement of bees on videotape”—each with the exact date and site of the drawing—what O’Hara calls “time/place markers.”
In fact, O’Hara is representing, or as she puts it, transmitting, an action closely observed (hence the exhibition title Live Transmissions). As each text indicates, her subject is often a form of uninterrupted human activity—frequently hand movements enacting a particular task: a speech, a musical performance, preparing a meal, arranging flowers. The rules of her practice are precise: while seated with paper on a drawing board with an arsenal of sharp pencils at the ready, she draws with both hands, executing a simultaneous translation of the trajectories, unfolding movements into line. Subsumed by the subject, her attention is not focused on the drawing in progress. Like a human recording device, she tries to maintain a state of mind at once egoless and utterly present. The process requires enormous stamina, and an almost self-punishingly rigorous form of attention. Through the lens of her work, all activity becomes a kind of a performance, as she, guided by her own rules, is “performing” drawing.
Installation View: Morgan O’Hara, Live Transmission. Mitchell Algus Gallery, February 18 – March 26, 2017.
The exhibition is intelligently structured by category: Artists, Musicians, Poets/Speakers, Politicians, Workers. The groupings serve to show both the variety of ways that line can occupy paper, as well as patterns that emerge from particular activities. Taking in the 115 drawings, the viewer can delight in the acrobatics of line grounded in meaning and delivered through its link to something tangible, all topped off with the pleasure and poetics of distilling time down to a single idiosyncratic image. Without the textual identification, the drawings on their own might go slack, but being cognizant of the foundation on which they rest allows us to toggle between image, subject, and concept, reveling in continuous surprise that drawing from life could look like THAT.
How O’Hara came to this practice reveals how an artist’s way of working can often spring from an unexpected non-art source. Years ago, an Italian collector invited O’Hara to Italy to do a commission. Sitting at meals alongside his Italian friends, day after day, not yet fluent in Italian and feeling increasingly isolated, she began to make small drawings, tracking the exuberant gesticulations of the Italian speakers, first surreptitiously under the table, then openly, as a way to remain present and connected to her experience. The collector’s admiring comment—“How beautiful it is to see classical drawing again!” —triggered her to recognize the artistic potential in what began as a survival strategy, and set her off on the path she continues to this day, capturing movement she finds everywhere.
Perhaps O’Hara has stayed beneath our radar by dint of living abroad (Japan, Paris, Berlin, and Italy), continuously pursuing this portable practice so suited to her peripatetic life. She has created a linear language that grew from making drawings out of the need to feel connected to the world around her. The itinerant artist’s life is difficult, at times lonely; even, as in O’Hara’s case, with friends and acquaintances in every city around the globe. If you think of a drawn line—in her case, a classical, balletic line—as a lifeline, keeping the artist moored to the world and serving to create a relationship to something beyond the self, it brings a deeper emotional resonance to the idea of drawing itself.