Review: Graphite at the IMA 

****1/2
click to enlarge Kim Jones, Untitled (War Drawing), 2002–2007, 2012, graphite and acrylic on oil cloth and on wall
  • Kim Jones, Untitled (War Drawing), 2002–2007, 2012, graphite and acrylic on oil cloth and on wall

Graphite is an allotrope of carbon, the fourth most abundant element in the universe. And like carbon, graphite isn't particularly rare. It's been in artists' toolkits, in one form or another, since the 16th century. But tradition is only one element of Graphite, a collection of new and old work employing the titular material that opened last week on the top floor of the Indianapolis Museum of Art; several artists in the show, curated by the IMA's Sarah Urist Green, go well beyond pencil and paper to explore the mind-bending sculptural and installation potential inherent in the medium.

Take Joyce Hinterding's "Wave Form: Induction Drawings," comprised of four abstract graphite drawings on paper set on a table, each drawing hooked up to a circuit and attached to a sound system. Touch the drawings themselves - this is a hands-on installation - and you'll hear amplified sounds ranging from scratches to booms. Graphite conducts electricity, and by touching the paper and interrupting the sound field around you, you create noise. You also, for a brief moment, become a part of this very clever installation.

Adam McEwen's "Switch," on the other hand, is more like a bait and switch. Looking up at the fifteen light fixtures above you, you see, instead of glowing fluorescent tubes, tubes of pitch-black machined graphite. This installation might make you think about the role of such fixtures in our lives and how we take them for granted as they hang above us in our offices and hallways.

Geof Oppenheimer, "Love and Other Abstractions," 2012 (included in Graphite)
  • Geof Oppenheimer, "Love and Other Abstractions," 2012 (included in Graphite)

Dan Fischer, rather than riffing on mass production, draws your attention to the way artists produce art. In his case, he's reproducing photographs with pencil and paper on a 1:1 scale. In order to do so, he lays gridlines over the photographic portrait that he wishes to copy. Fischer leaves the gridlines in the backgrounds of his portraits, drawn with mechanical pencil, to reveal his process. But, you might wonder, is the end result somewhat mechanical and cold?

Kim Jones's "Untitled (War Drawing)" is anything but mechanical. It takes up two entire walls of the exhibition space, chronicling an ongoing battle between xs and dots for supremacy. Depicting numerous city states bordering seas and battling armies between them, it owes something to both Homer's Iliad and Edwin Abbott's Flatland. Yet in the way that it has emerged from the head of the creator onto the gallery walls it seems utterly original and without precedent.

Robert Longo acknowledges his influences explicitly in his Heritage series of graphite on paper drawings of iconic artworks, which spans a timeline putting Roy Lichtenstein's cartoon-like imagery on one end and the cave paintings of Lascaux, France on the other. Consider this: 17,000 years or so ago a man picked up a piece of charcoal and marked the wall of his cave for the first time. By portraying the world he knew, he just so happened to influence a fellow artist tens of millennia later, one working with a similar material.

One age is continually eclipsed by another. Ways of creating art are also eclipsed, forgotten, and revisited. But the act of creating art remains visceral and alive throughout the ages. Graphite succeeds in tapping into some of this excitement. Through April 7 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

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