Walking into Jill O’Bryan’s recent show at Gallery Joe, Rock, Paper, Breath, my first impression was one of intense distillation. As the title of the show suggests, O’Bryan’s work pares down the act of drawing and leaves us with the bare energies, materials, and processes that go into making one. Three clusters of graphite ‘breath drawings’ line the walls of the first room; in subtly modulating shades of black, white, and grey, they record the artist’s inhalations and exhalations during the course of their making. Each breath drawing becomes a kind of memorial of the time O’Bryan spent with the paper; they are records of the artist’s bodily presence in a particular past time and place. In seeing the products of these acts of drawing we are left with the ghostly trace of that past moment.
Two large drawings open the show, filled with rows of small, thumbnail-shaped marks in varying shades of grey. The ripple of the shades creates a sense of movement and rhythm, and the repetition of the marks impressed upon me the labor and time that went into the piece. Farther into the room a series of rice paper drawings – 18,200 breaths between 4/1/2012 and 4/19/2012 and others – appear diaphanous, like a breath of air itself. The paper is transformed by the thousands of breath marks into something that looks like a grey, wooly piece of fabric, not woven or sown but mysteriously generated from a process we can’t quite determine. The striations brought me to the realm of organic, biological processes, reminding me of xylem and phloem, the network of tubes that conduct water and minerals through plant stalks. Subtle variations in the length and thickness of these bands create a sense of rhythm. Going into this first room of breath drawings, it was important to me not to know the details of how they were all made before looking at them. I read the explanatory material only afterwards, which made the primary encounter with these works more mysterious and compelling.
Filling the adjoining smaller room of the gallery are four large rock drawings, each of which record the artist’s rubbings of a rock face. The scale of the drawings and their close proximity to one another allows the viewer to be enveloped, involving his/her own body in the equation of elements – ‘rock, paper, breath.’ The surfaces of the pieces feel bodily and atmospheric as well as geological; the trace of the surrounding air, weather, and the physical efforts of O’Bryan are preserved here, as well as the topography of the rock face. Accompanying the group of drawings is a small video monitor, where we see O’Bryan’s figure, moving across the sheets of paper with her graphite, in the midst of a vast, craggy landscape.
Located in the transitional space between the two rooms of the gallery, the video draws attention to the centrality of O’Bryan’s own body and the aspect of performance while allowing the drawings themselves to stand alone. An audio component in the video introduces the element of the sound of the air, the birds, and the scraping of the artist’s tool that informs the drawings in this small room.
Stop by Gallery Joe, 304 Arch Street, to see the current exhibition, Lighten Up, through July 28, 2012.