Voices echo in the wedge-shaped space of Moody Gallery’s main room on opening night. A new exhibition of James Drake drawings, titled Tongue Cut Sparrows (Desire is not Enough), is on view. “I need to go read about this show,” Beverly Gilbert says. She takes leave of our brief salutation to head off in search of information. Sparrow is that kind of exhibition. Unlike previous Drake presentations at Moody, it doesn’t traffic in the kind of allegorical or sweepingly beautiful imagery that lets the viewer suspend her need for explanation. Instead we see a massive installation of 24 drawings- portraits of two characters, a man and a woman. Like close-ups from a film, their facial expressions shift. They seem relaxed and communicative, but they are separate. Given equal visual weight are Drake’s drawings of text, as iconic as if they were stamped in stone, interspersed among the portraits. Tucked inconspicuously in the back gallery is the exhibition’s sole sculpture, a vitrine containing six crystal clear glass tongues. Clarification is needed.
As it turns out, the visual material for Sparrow is based on a film by the artist which was first exhibited at the 2007 Venice Biennale. In this film, Drake captures a simple, invented form of sign language used by the family members of incarcerated people. Drake’s statement elucidates,
“Even though this form of communication is usually on a public street it has a very private aspect to it and is ultimately more personal and immediate. As might be expected, most of the signing deals with family matters and local gossip; however, I asked if they could sign William Shakespeare, William Blake as well as contemporary writers, Cormac McCarthy, Benjamin Sáenz, and Jimmy Santiago Baca. Not only were they very receptive to the idea, but they were instrumental in choosing certain passages and works that exemplified their love and loss and desperate need to communicate.”
To understand the full meaning of this exhibition, some reading is required. Usually, this reviewer finds extra-aesthetic tasks cumbersome in an exhibition. But for Tongue-Cut Sparrow, James Drake has provided a wealth of material lures and lush details that whet our curiosity. There’s more than enough form to make us seek out, as did the aforementioned Mrs. Gilbert, the content. The artist effortlessly describes the planes of his pencil-browed female subject with loose sweeps of charcoal. The crisp edge of a the man’s t-shirt is painstakingly masked so that the creamy texture of the paper becomes a foil to the subject’s smile-creased face.
And then there is the sparse, lyrical text. The largest text piece, Dancing on the Sidewalk, references the show’s title in a poem. Drawn in heavy, dark charcoal, this poem describes the actions and longing of a woman forced to communicate across a barrier.
“Dancing on the sidewalk,
she shaved her brow
and painted her lips black.
Sign for me a poem
and lets kiss
like we were really lovers.”
This is the clearest narrative element in Drake’s work to the casual observer, the crux around which his visual elements unfold. The written word is an apt adjunct to these drawings. Much in the way that a masterful writer can tackle unexpected subject matter with equal parts grace and urgency, Drake’s technique with his medium is so winning and gorgeous that he pulls us, willingly and openly, into this surprising world. Desire is not enough, the exhibition’s subtitle, is fitting for his subjects but also for his viewers. The artist’s renderings generate plenty of desire, but we viewers feel the same frustration of communication as they do. We understand the potency and urgency of beauty as a new form of communication, the only form that can traverse the unbridgeable divides of this world.
— CASEY GREGORY