Gregory Amenoff
Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco, 1986
Gregory Amenoff: Exhibition of Works on Paper
Introduction by Karen Tsujimoto

It is a puzzling phenomenon in the art world that drawings have traditionally been considered a lesser kin to painting. Perhaps this has been because of their relative small size and lack of finish and ostentation, or even their lack of rarity, as drawings are often produced more readily than paintings. Yet no other art form provides quite so penetrating an insight into an artist’s temperament and concerns. The immediacy of the direct notation on paper, where few mistakes or revisions are tolerated, allows drawing to be simultaneously spontaneous and revealing. Looking at a drawing is, as Aline Saarinen once noted, a kind of visual eavesdropping on the artist.

For Gregory Amenoff, drawing is paramount. In many ways, it is the touchstone for his work at large. Small, informal studio sketches, for example, are crucial to his creative investigation. Executed quickly and profusely, the blank sheets of paper are a kind of tabula rasa upon which forms or compositions spontaneously reveal themselves. Larger and more complex drawings, such as Final Hours and El Santuario de Chimayo, are frequently the genesis for his oil paintings. But equally often, Amenoff will work backwards, creating drawings after paintings. It is a means, according to the artist, to rediscover favorite images in another way.

In the ideal sense, drawing for Amenoff is a giving in–a surrendering–to the material, whether the fluid, tenuous line of ink or the thick, scabrous stroke of oil stick. His hand becomes the instrument of a more distant sphere as forms reveal themselves which possess, in his words, an "unconscious ring" and "primitive energy of spirit." This method of working immediately suggests a type of automatism in which reason and all outside aesthetic and intellectual preoccupations are suspended. It is a means by which the kaleidoscopic flow within the artist is freed.

But this flow, this expression, does not come easily. As with his painting, drawing is an intense, almost violent, process for the artist as he struggles to wrest images from within. The surfaces of the drawings themselves are proof of this labor. Encrusted in thick, viscous webs of gouache, pastel, and ink, they appear almost as bludgeoned carcasses, the pulpy membrane of the paper splayed open as evidence of the artist’s strife. Amenoff’s passion is not for drawing as an embellishment or decoration, but as an unpremeditated means toward emancipation, no matter how sodden or brutal the end result may be.

Given the artist’s automatist way of working, it is not surprising that organic forms dominate the drawings, often suggesting biological or landscape sources. Amenoff himself acknowledges the strong pull the natural world has on his work. The Medanales Group of images, for example, is the result of a visit to the arid reaches of northern New Mexico where the artist temporarily dwelled in this vast sweep of desert.

The Medanales drawings, however, are not portraits of the landscape per se. While some images hint at natural elements–gaunt tree-like forms wafting in the wind or mute clouds suspended over a horizon–most defy logical analysis. Instead, Amenoff digs below the surface of superficial appearances, exposing nature in its most primordial state of flux and metamorphosis. Irregular, writhing shapes, at once pliant and bristling, swell outward suggesting growth and tumultuous energy. No forms can be seen in isolation; they shift and flow with implosive force, absorbing their surroundings just as they contribute to it. The pigment–thick and vibratory–is laid down with an impulsive, almost orgiastic intensity, as though it were primordial material itself. It is as if Amenoff has turned nature inside out in these images, exposing the bone, sinew, and surging lifeblood of its fertile womb. The drawings cut sharply below nature’s visible surface to something that is keenly alive in the desert, though it is vast, mute, and untouchable, and knows no kindness in all its beauty.

It is perhaps inevitable that Amenoff’s drawings point to a humanist content, given his anthropomorphic sources and concern for exposing the underbelly of life. Although the unpremeditated images are ambiguous, they hint at a tragic anxiety over life’s complex and inexorable paradoxes: being and not-being, joy and pain, life and death. Drawings such as El Santuario de Chimayo confirm the artist’s shift to the internal human terrain: to penetrate as far as possible that secret ground where primal law feeds the human spirit.

Like the Medanales drawings, El Santuario de Chimayo was inspired by Amenoff’s New Mexico travels to a small church in Chimayo. But as before, the artist is concerned with something far greater than the physicality of the sanctuary per se. Rather, the drawing is private ritual–the hope for salvation–made visible. The sad truth is that life is a relentless battleground between hope and despair, bloom and decay. In his drawing, Amenoff evokes this duality and the eternal struggle of the human soul. El Santuario is at once demoniac and poetic as dark barbed forms lash out to engulf the image. Yet central to the composition is a luminescent and rejuvenating white fount soaring upward, offering escape, a sanctuary, from the dark realms of this cosmos. Turning his eye inward, the artist has created a resonate metaphor that balances–just as does life–the taut line between ecstasy and anxiety.

In the drawings that Amenoff has since produced, he continues his inquiry into this primitive life struggle. The titles for the images themselves reflect this preoccupation: Waking Dream, Vigil, Final Hours, Haven. They are bittersweet reminders of the fundamental dichotomy and inescapability of the human condition: a haven has no meaning without danger; final hours can precede both the joyous ring of birth or the dull thud of death.

The delirious frenzy of energy that marks Amenoff’s earlier drawings is equally apparent in these images in which heaving, erratic forms flail against agitated strikes of color and line. There is no welcome, no visible accord, in this world created by the artist. Course and ungainly, the tension and struggle between the elements can be seen as an analogy to the human predicament. It is as though life, in all its brooding urgency and unruliness, has been captured in the skin of these drawings.

The quest Gregory Amenoff has ultimately mapped for himself is clear and timeless: to create drawings about life, not art. The path he follows is intuitive, but emphatic, as he cracks through the veneer of the visible world, giving form to the unseen. With their raw, lush presence, the drawings resonate with all the energy and mystery that life embraces. They are at once beautiful and menacing, rhapsodic and cryptic. To enter them is to yield oneself to life’s pulsating forces.

© Gregory Amenoff - 2012 - All rights reserved.