Breathless Images At a Standstill

LIKE all paintings, Bill Drew's speak for themselves. We just have to listen. I don't know why, but I find them hard to talk about. I even listened to him talk about them, and I didn't understand a word. So I asked him to tell me what they were "really" about. That made him nervous. At first he looked around as if to make sure no one was listening. Then he got kind of a twinkle in his eye, and told me where the different shapes came from and what they meant to him. He obviously didn't think this explana tion was important for general consumption. These are captivating, larger- than-life, formal abstractions that feel gestural. So many things are going on in them. It surprises me that they are at all coherent. They scatter all over the place. Shapes dissolve, overlap, or poke into other shapes; lines start, disappear, and then start up again to complete some larger contour. Some colors are solid, and bright, with a sharp edge, while others are muted, fade, or just seem to flake off. The movement goes in all directions at once. The forms themselve s are painted differently as though not only to describe different qualities, but also to reflect different styles of painting and different attitudes toward art. Can all of this possibly work?

The sense that I get from these paintings is confusion. This is a given. But it is confusion about things and the way they are, not so much about painting. (Drew teaches painting at the Rhode Island School of Design.) The images are breathless, beautifully breathless, sometimes to the point of hyperventilation. So many broken, unresolved fragments. What is going on? I try to pay attention. Something is holding it all together, but what?

I wonder if I can really allow myself to respond to, much less experience, another person's anxiety about the way things are.

Bill Drew has an idea that nothing is ever cut and dried. He thinks that we are always "negotiating" between one thing and another.

We might be here, but our mind is there, our heart somewhere else, and our dreams, who knows where? These paintings are a shake-and-bake life view. They have everything in them all at once, with everything talking at once, yet standing still for just a second. They come together like a break in a storm, a wash of warm sunlight, a moment of peace.

What is curious to me about these paintings is that despite all the structural mayhem, I get a benign warmth from them. They may have an edge and architecture that makes them appear cool, but Drew is not that committed to the dictates of pure formal abstraction.

Instead, it is the intangibles that make them float; for all the work, in the end they are really more about rainbows, more sort of la dolce vita who-done-its. He is just looking for some way to put it all together with what he has to work with. What we get is his reclaimed experience, his junk, his past, present, and future "negotiated" and renegotiated into a place that he can call home, or hope, or whole.

It is clear from talking to Bill Drew that everything in his paintings has been held up and articulated with tenderness and affection. The dryness of his paint turns powdery and soft in a glow of inspiration. His curving lines swing me out and back, briefly holding me in timelessness.

Art is so often portrayed as a wretched struggle, but the truth is, it has more often been the place where the artist has found peace. Bill Drew finds that moment in his paintings for himself, and then he hangs it out there for the rest of us.

This series showcases artists at work. Each essay is succinct, introductory, and captures art in motion before labels are applied.

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