On ViewWestern Exhibitions
Profiles in Leadership // Drawings without words
November 8 – December 21, 2019
The two bodies of work on paper (all 2019) by Deb Sokolow currently on view at Western Exhibitions share much in formal terms: they are structured by scaffoldings of precise graphite lines that bolster transparent drawn boxes and collaged patches of smudgy color. The “Profiles in Leadership” series, which expounds on bizarre moments in the lives of powerful men, Kim Jong-Un, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ronald Reagan among them, also includes blocks of text meticulously hand drawn in all caps. Sokolow is well known for the humorous jabs at authority these texts shuttle in, but that very function is evacuated in “Drawings without words,” the other series on view in this exhibition, the artist’s fourth solo showing. As the name of this second series suggests, these are works that include no writing at all. Taken together, the two bodies of work picture the systems that hold information in place and around which we negotiate everything else: our truths, our histories, our bodies, and so on.
From anecdotes relayed in “Profiles in Leadership,” we learn, among other things, that David Copperfield has been employed by a political campaign to disappear candidates about to commit verbal self-sabotage, that Vladimir Putin has prepared muffins from the flesh of a shark he single handedly overpowered, and that Fidel Castro categorically evaded women to avoid being poisoned. Penned in the present tense, Sokolow’s (his)stories are enlivened and made available for reimagining, a task which she approaches with apparent glee. While the texts clearly transpose fact and fiction, what is more interesting than parsing truth from deceit is the suggestion that these categories are always already unstable and freighted with bias. It is, after all, largely the history of victors that we have inherited, making Sokolow’s fabulations function as a kind of critical intervention. Mr. Richard Nixon’s Difficulties with Ovals, Version 2 describes the former president’s suspicion of oval rooms in the White House, which he believed were responsible for his path toward impeachment and emitted an “unseemly amount of expressive feminine energy.” As Nixon paces back and forth, the ovals follow him, inducing paranoia. While surrounded by architectural and textual systems that secure power, we see the very authority these systems are constructed to valorize and fortify degraded by irrational fears of hysteria, poison, and grime. In exposing the human tendency to entertain mystical, subcultural, and sinister explanations—a tendency which extreme authority apparently does not render impotent, but actually exacerbates—Sokolow shoots the supposed genius of these men through with doubt.
In the second gallery, Sokolow withholds textual cues in If Madame Blavatsky Had Been an Architect and her other “Drawings without words.” In Madame Blavatsky, triangles, trapezoids, and elevation sketches in pinks, blacks, and emerald greens suggest the theosophist’s ostensible architectural creations. But even without narrative, the work retains Sokolow’s characteristic interrogation of authority. Power is not represented here in the form of a singular political or cultural figure, but as the weight of the history of abstraction. This is suggested by both Sokolow’s colored patches, reminiscent of the stained canvases of Washington DC-based color field painters like Sam Gilliam or Kenneth Noland, as well as the oft mysterious narratives that weave together politics and that tradition of painting. In earlier artworks, for instance, Sokolow has explicitly interrogated Noland’s links with John F. Kennedy and the murder of a woman believed to have carried on affairs with both the painter and the politician. By invoking abstraction in “Drawings without words,” she nods to its erstwhile, though deceptive, imperative for autonomy from the social, political, and, especially—given the departure from textual cues—the literary. These are perhaps the most beautifully chromatic works Sokolow has ever produced, with color seeming to compensate formally for text. Despite the vernal palette, however, there is a sense of melancholy here, as if these rooms—all the titles reference architecture—are inhospitable, uninhabitable, scrubbed clean. Yet in Sokolow’s abstractions there is also a sense of freedom: from the stories of powerful men, and from the critical labor of confounding their truths.