On Line

—Jana Martin

On Line

Jana Martin

A line as a noun: a single being, always alone. It is a boundary, defining — delineating — inside from outside, space from space, but is neither inside nor outside itself. By virtue of its function it never belongs. It may be an ashy mark made in a cave or a brushstroke made on canvas, but there is nothing after it. It is the last word. Whether it leaps off a white plane or sits quietly limning an edge; whether it is question or answer, hint or declaration, a line is a line is a line.

A line as a verb: wrought from the artist, it follows through, an arc from intention to action to form, from brain to hand to space. It is loyal, it is stalwart, and here, it’s also trickster, mischief-maker. It plays with its job description, crossing the line, not behaving in a line-like manner. It vibrates. It shifts. It swells. It’s entirely out of line.

Before we are taught to perceive a line in terms of letters and words, we respond to line as pure line: scrambles, curves, loops, straights. Each shape has a different hum, a different vibration, character. Molly Stevens’s giant ink drawings on paper (Ink Mountain, 2009) have that primal quality, have palpable personas. In an elemental motion, the line surges from the bottom to the top, hovers up there, then plunges down to the baseline. Tall as humans, a pair of lines double each other, one awkwardly spooning the other. These are giants entreating, murmuring, humming. Stevens draws them with a brush attached to a stick in one continuous motion from beginning to end, placing herself at a distance from the page, a distance that allows for accidents, for change. There are countless attempts, but only occasionally does it resonate. There’s one in a heap of them in which the lines make the right sound.

Then comes language, the lines become letters and words. But yet even within the written word, the line won’t quietly give up its place. It won’t give us up. Consider penmanship, that schoolroom drill of curling and looping and dotting and crossing. A parlor hand, a quavering pen. As we read we are privy to the shaping of a line, the nature of ink flowing forth, the carving out of space. The John Hancocking. The Declaration of Independence is a symphony of lines, of ink, the outflow of all that auspicious spirit wrought by different hands. The fat O’s and slender I’s and definitive, punchy T’s of posterity are all contained, defined, delineated, by line.

As the line reflects the writer’s intent, the line reflects the artist’s. Anne-Lise Coste (m m m, A A A, je, 2009) adorned an outsized, long scroll of black tarpaper with letters and words that roll and scribble across the space with a clear sense of their own authority. But this is vocabulary concrete, writing savant — the words and letters don’t really make sense. Unable to discern meaning, we let go of it; the words are reduced back to forms, to designs, to lines, and the lines offer their own visceral tone. We stand back, facing one big fat black line down the wall. An exclamation mark: Yes, I do make sense. Just don’t try to read into it.

The works in Out of Line have a sense of humor. They wink as they alter our understanding of what a drawing is supposed to do. Carin Riley busts an old trope that drawing is line and painting is color, or some such rule we all forgot. Her Kabuki Poodle, (2010) stars a poodle, riding in a grand carriage straight out of Versailles. Riley’s line swells, arcs, bends, sure of itself, enjoying the space it both defines and devours. In Belinda (2010) Riley freehands the full contours of her subject with the same swooping, surging energy of Stevens Ink Mountain (2009). The line has motion, muscle, velocity, loyal to the nature of its real subject: energized, vibrating, powerful. In Girl with Beijing Duck (2010) the young figure’s robust arms are drawn in a continuous gesture, held out with a ready appetite. Her grocery bag is deftly outlined, swiftly drawn; the duck within conveyed in a perfectly accurate swirl of white. Line is working its own language here, enjoying a buoyant authority as it tells its story.

A line is a line is a line. Its edge can be sharp and clean, or blurred, ragged, raw. Elana Herzog’s Untitled, (1992) is, essentially, cloth on the wall: a fragment of red curtain fastened with pushpins that’s loosely gathered to one side in elastic. The redness of the fabric gives it a boldness, even vulgarity, the elastic seems to give it a waist. But there is a stillness here: the fabric was gathered and has not moved since. Its line, fluid-looking, is actually static. In one section the fabric, ripped, gives way to threads, implying wear and the passage of time. And as part of a curtain, it implies a window or, at least, another place. Is there something behind it? Or are we what’s behind it? Is the curtain the dividing line between front and back, between us and something?

If line functions as the most essential part of how we see a figure, we follow its directions like cues. In the case of the neon work by Nils Folke Anderson (Series Link, 2008) the cue is a multi-dimensional, glowing freedom: electric, radiant, eternally in motion, streaming in all directions according to and despite the tube that contains it, forever transcending its own boundaries. This is line the errant iconoclast, nonconformist, energized, untamed In its radiant ownership of three dimensional space, it punches through convention; in its radiance, it transcends its own containment. It is a force of energy. If there is a line to draw between what is drawing and what is sculpture, it burns that boundary right off the map for the viewer — with the steady speed of light.

Jana Martin is a writer who lives in Stone Ridge, NY. Her fiction includes the recent collection Russian Lover and Other Stories (Verse Chorus/Yeti), and publications in Glimmer Train, Five Points, Spork, Mississippi Review and other literary journals. Her nonfiction includes articles and essays in The New York Times, the Village Voice, and the books Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (Abbeville Press) and Great Inventions Good Intentions (Chronicle Books).