It’s a simple concept. For the exhibition Drawing Together, artist Felice Koenig invited members of the public to draw with her. Individuals, mostly non-artists, signed up online for 90-minute sessions at Buffalo’s Big Orbit Gallery. Drawing Together marks Koenig’s first foray into participatory art territory; the artist’s usual process involves months of intense, solitary studio work. But playful, collaborative drawing is a pastime Koenig has shared with close friends and family since childhood. Curator Claire Schneider, who organized the exhibition, encouraged Koenig to bring this activity into the gallery.
In an essay on the Drawing Center’s blog, The Bottom Line, Schneider contextualized Drawing Together historically, considering it alongside artworks by Jim Hodges, Kateřina Šedá and Yayoi Kusama. Through fleeting, reciprocal actions, these artists forge bonds between themselves and individuals or a community. The final result of Koenig’s Drawing Together, Scheider argues, is not just a work on paper, but a union between artist and collaborator. She writes: “Drawing Together shifts two people from a typically lone state into a profoundly sincere dialogue. The final drawing is a celebration of this new connection. The beautiful vibrating energy of the universe, which Koenig offers to viewers in her painting, is now more action than object.”
As a writer and curator, and only one of the 60 people who drew with Koenig, I am in an unusual position. As both a curious and eager participant in Drawing Together and an obligatorily removed observer and writer, I want to fulfill my duty as a critic; but must I also reflect personally upon the connection I felt to Koenig as we sat across from each other, drawing and chatting? If so, how do I reconcile that with my background in journalism, which requires a certain distance from the subject, and my training in museum interpretation, which demands an absence of my personal point of view? Moreover, if the artwork that results from the experience of drawing with Koenig amounted to more than just the marks on a sheet of paper, is my review of the experience also part of the artwork? I think it’s a given that, yes, surely it must be.
When I arrived for my appointment late on the Saturday afternoon following Drawing Together’s opening, Koenig welcomed me at the gallery door and offered me a cup of tea. A folding table covered in clear plastic, Prismacolor and Stabilo markers splayed across its surface, awaited us in the center of the gallery. Small knickknacks Koenig brought in from her studio—a crystal ball, a tiny panda statue—were positioned at either end of the table partitioned off from the rest of the room by four sheets of translucent paper suspended from the ceiling.
Drawings Koenig created with previous collaborators lined the gallery walls, interspersed with examples of her artwork dating to her graduate school days at the University of Texas San Antonio. Labels for several of Koenig’s individual works explained in the artist’s own words both her process and her intent. Displayed in order of their completion, finished drawings on the occasion of my visit with Koenig were still sparse, the walls mostly empty.
Koenig and I sat down on opposite sides of the table with a blank sheet of paper between us. She put on some quiet music. I tried not to think, just to draw. We talked. We turned the paper from time to time, responding to marks the other made. The final result looked better than I expected, and together we selected the three words that made up the drawing’s title: Unfamiliar Crossing Comfort.
So what of the bond between artist and collaborator? Well, we’re Facebook friends now, which, depending on your friend count and opinion of social media, can mean very different things. But beyond that, I recognized in Koenig a fellow introvert, someone who places a high value on quiet, comfortable physical and mental space and who processes external experiences through slow, methodically reflective action. This was evident in the carefully put-together drawing environment Koenig fashioned within Big Orbit and through the absorbing process of drawing. Our 90 minutes together provided a break from the pressures and the distraction of the rest of the world. Drawing Together was a comfortable way to withdraw into yourself, yet simultaneously commune with another person, to disconnect from the outside world and connect with another someone else. It was introvert-friendly social practice. Drawing Together is definitely about sharing, bonding and generosity, but based on the connection I made with Koenig as an individual, I’d argue that it’s also about bravery and vulnerability. For Koenig to transfer the act of art making, a normally private activity, into a public space on view for total strangers, required the artist to muster up a certain amount of faith in herself, and in others.
There’s a connection between what occurred at Big Orbit and what happens in Koenig’s studio. Both are sites of a certain kind of making based in positive thinking, introspection and generosity. For the artist, making a painting is a repetitive, meditative process. As she works, she focuses on an affirmative visualization of love. Does that come across while viewing the work? Maybe. Koenig’s work encourages deep, focused viewing, but it also rewards viewers immediately.
Koenig’s dot paintings, in which she layers tiny circles of acrylic paint over and over again to build up a thick, bumpy surface, often in candy-like hues, exist in the binary-busting state of simultaneity, simple yet complex. Three were on display in Drawing Together. Koenig’s baroque surfaces cover easily visually digestible forms, squares or concave circles of carved polystyrene. The overall shapes quickly register, but the rich, complex surfaces take time to soak in. The titles are poetic and suggestive. Looking at the pimply surface of Koenig’s Touch Me, Touch Me, Touch Me, from the Skin Series made me aware of my own body, of the bumps and freckles that cover its outer layer. Like the surfaces of her paintings, Koenig’s Drawing Together made its participants more aware of their own edges and boundaries through its focus on connection and exchange. Where does one person’s experience end and the other’s begin? And what happens when they overlap?
Withdraw: Felice Koenig’s Drawing Together, a collaboration with CS1 Curatorial Projects, was on view at Big Orbit Gallery in Buffalo, NY from April 24, 2015 to May 16, 2015.
Theresa Bembnister is associate curator at the Akron Art Museum. Her art writing has appeared in Cleveland’s Scene, Kansas City’s Pitch, the Kansas City Star, and Glasstire.com. View more articles by Theresa Bembnister.