Past Present/Present Past

Memory...acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura: it focuses everything and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original. - Umberto Eco 

In the recent exhibition Winter Wheat Barbara Drucker has created mesmerizing and enduring metaphors of remembrances.The idiosyncratic visual and conceptual journey is constructed on a series of contrasting values. Past and present, natural and artificial, life and death are eclectically and innovatively intertwined throughout these works of art. However, there is neither a dramatic confrontation nor superficial reconciliation. Instead, the artist calmly, yet passionately inserts clues to appease dichotomies and disclose inherent common threads. Personal and collective memories are the key to discovering these connections and embarking on a magical voyage.

The artist, however, is not interested in creating suave nostalgias. Quite the contrary! Drucker’s art is firmly rooted in today’s artistic discourse. A keen observer and sophisticated reader of the contemporary, the artist establishes layered dialogues with her peers. The heterogonous visual paradigms relevant to artists such as Kiki Smith and Annette Messenger are also important to Drucker. The haunting allegorical solitude, visible particularly in the installations, aligns her work in very subtle ways to Boltanski’s concerns for identity and anonymity. Visual quotations from the past and references to primordial occurrences are masterfully transformed into meaningful current statements. The minimalist ordinary objects recall the secular spirituality of Dutch still life. New media converts the palpable trompe l’oeil into a new and intense mimesis. These intricate and unexpected allusions establish a sophisticated path across time and cultures and position Barbara Drucker as a major player within the international art community. The visual narratives in Winter Wheat are defined by paradoxical correlations between abstraction and realism. Calendar and Calendar Notations are perfect examples. The rigorous punctuations, colorful playfulness and geometric patterns construct an enigmatic non- figurative pictorial space. This is not, however, a gratuitous formal exercise. Rather, these meticulous arrangements are symbolic codification of sacred time. This link between graphic designs and contextual values, reminiscent of Xu Bing’s strategies, creates novel systems of visualization that turn form into content and tangible into conceptual.

A similar transformative process is effectively articulated in the large video installation Bread and Death. Binary oppositions on the one hand, and cyclical processes on the other, inform this project. The stark distinctions between the still wooden boxes and the moving electronic images form an allegorical representation of life and death. The depictions of Greek rituals and customs have the precision and accuracy of documentaries. Throughout the video, however, pictures of life are bluntly, yet cleverly collaged to scenes about death to create a rich, poetic, and timeless frieze. Contrasted with the fugitive video images, the impressive number and solid firmness of the blocks become a metaphor of patience, growth, and, in the end, time itself. The frequent references to fire, water, earth, and air generate a unifying concentric continuum with never-ending, perpetual processes. The viewers’ need to sit and contemplate adds an important performative element to the installation. Isolated in an enclosed space the spectators feel compelled to watch in silence an unfolding story which is simultaneous remote and intensely personal.

Avanti I, the other installation in the show, is powerfully enigmatic. The clearly marked converging point is a dark and secretive object. The twelve boxes guarding the display in a formation reminiscent of the ancient Valley of the Kings create the ambiance of a processional. Inside some of these minimalist containers, flour sacks with cheerful fabric rest peacefully. Metaphorical juxtapositions between commencements and conclusions emerge and heighten the reflective mood. The installation becomes a mysterious, silent, yet celebratory memorial. The viewer solemnly proceeds through this orderly assemblage as if passing through time, always forward, avanti, in an epistemological quest for primal beginnings. And there, at the end, erected on a pedestal, is the answer: a well-insulated metallic crate houses and protects the Seeded Book of Prayer. Illuminated from above the relic is temptingly close. But the permanence of the book is only possible if it remains unattainable. A sense of disenchantment brings the viewer back into the present. The title, Avanti, abruptly, intentionally, and forcefully clashes with this impasse. It is too late. The overwhelming stillness is a poignant reminder of irrevocable finality.

The prayer book is a reoccurring motif in Ducker’s work. The mixed media Seeded Prayer Book #1, skillfully manipulates the technical processes to enhance meanings. The flatness of the print both emulates and falsifies the tactile richness of the covers. The texture of the meticulously placed seeds and statements has been reduced to a surface. This reversal of values highlights hidden inner ties and questions absolute, universal significances. Real becomes realism and original is now a re-creation. The beautiful glossy prints fixed onto the exquisite painterly metal reinforce the ambiguous dialogues between natural and artificial. The surprising palette further blurs the distinctions between factual and fictional.

Trapped in the hermetically sealed material the book, as in the Avanti installation, becomes forever inaccessible. A sense of cosmic space emerges unexpectedly from the ethereal background. Time, like the book, is forever suspended. But it is eternity or the end of time? The artist leaves it to the viewer to decide.

Barbara Drucker’s art establishes a lasting pictorial narrative with a unique symbolic vocabulary that both intrigues and reassures. A witty and thoughtful play between a present past and a past present is at the core her sophisticated visual itinerary. Drucker boldly and effectively connects the banal with the sublime and the familiar with the unknown to incite viewers to explore beyond the comfortable level of representational immediacy. It is precisely in this realm where concept and form speak with one voice and “memory acts like a convergent lens” that Barbara Ducker’s work finds its true, profound, and vital meaning.

Irina D. Costache, Ph.D. February 2008

Excerpts from Press and Catalog Essays:

“When looking at the series “Calender Notations” one realizes that Barbara Drucker is probably as close to a pure conceptual object and image maker as anyone currently working in Southern California. Like her colleague John M. Miller, what makes her work compelling is the rigor she applies to her choice of forms and materials, and the integration of object, image and content. Conceptual art making requires a systematic reduction down to essence. In “Material Evidence: Wall of Hair” conceptual content is clearly expressed but not at the expense of the preservation of poetry and magic. In the hand of an artist as confident and competent as Drucker there is clearly no visual sacrifice. Through the process of conceptual reduction an actual liberation of transformative potential and psychological insight is revealed.”

 Fred Hoffman, “gleaning / California Dream,” catalog essay, 2002


Strong women: The way that ordinary workers occupy - or, more to the point, don't occupy - an opulent space is the general topic behind Sheila Pinkel's photographs of museum guards who appear like specters in the fine art setting (at San Diego Mesa College, San Diego)...Valerie Bechtol has long employed assemblage techniques to provide a contemporary interpretation of tribal spirituality from a feminist sensibility. Her inventive use of materials and elegant touch makes her best work exceptionally compelling, though she is also prone to embrace the rhetoric in her work too literally (at Studio 343, San Pedro)...In "Material Concerns", Barbara Drucker, Maddy Le Mel, Ann Page, Carrie Ungerman present lyrical abstractions by a group of strong and seasoned artists whose visions are individually sharp and distinct. A good mix (at the University of Judaism, West Los Angeles)."

Artscene Website:  Previews, February 2002


“These wildly diverse works are among 100 vital, eclectic pieces in “The Chai Show”...The artists range from historical figures gifted contemporary artists such as Barbara Drucker and...” 

Ruth Weisburg, Jewish Journal, January 31, 2003


Barbara Drucker’s work is a visual exploration of the complex identities of women, vacillating between self-reflection and reductive mass media icons. Process, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, is central to her work. The heterogeneity of forms and materials she employs heightens the wide range of issues her art addresses. In her new work Drucker returns to painting. But there is neither a sense of nostalgia, nor a traditional pattern. Rather, the witty dialogue between graphics and oil on canvas reveals a new level of sophistication. The drastic contrast and the implied and yet, non-existent, narrative that begs for a follow-up, are defiantly rejecting the superficiality of outer appearances. The clever ambiguity of shapes demonstrates how meanings can be hidden and re-interpreted. The leisure of discovery and the time it takes are crucial to understanding and integrating this new project.” 

Dr. Irina Costache, “Shouts, Whispers and Cheers,” catalog essay, 2003.


More and more Europe has come to understand and appreciate the artistic output of Los Angeles. gleaning makes an important contribution to this ongoing dialogue. What is particularly valuable about this small, yet powerful exhibition is its clear focus on the diverse range of pictorial expression currently being employed by Los Angeles artists. The work of these six artists, Barbara Drucker, Jill Giegerich, George Herms, Kady Hoffman, John M. Miller and Patty Wickman, reveals the city’s current range of artistic strategies including assemblage, minimalism, symbolic realism and conceptual art making. While many regions tend to focus on one, at most two trends or methods of operation, the artists of Los Angeles are committed to furthering the dialogue in all major areas of inquiry as defined by Post War art.

In considering the defining features of art produced in Southern California, one is continuously reminded of the strong sense of individualism and independence that exists here and which guides the artists in this exhibition. The works in gleaning evidence an avoidance of fashionable or formulaic solutions which tend to guide a group or define a school of artists. Almost defiantly, and with a great deal of vigor, intelligence and determination, the artists in this exhibition seek out distinctive and personal artistic solutions and identities.

The artists included in this exhibition can all be characterized as mid-career. This concept is important in understanding both the spirit and some of the motivation for organizing this exhibition. As in society in general, and in the art world specifically, there is a constant search for the new. This obsession or fixation with the new raises a significant problem for the more mature artist, whose formidable task is to continue to explore and develop a chosen line of inquiry and not languish or fall into formulaic production. The artists in this exhibition are all producing fresh, creative solutions to ongoing artistic problems. As mature professionals these artists share a high level of confidence in their creative solutions, rich insight based on years of thoughtful production and steadfast clarity of vision.

Los Angeles has a rich artistic heritage. Over the past fifty years it has produced artists of national and international importance including Chris Burden, Charles Ray, John Baldessari, David Salle, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Ed Keinholtz, Sam Francis and Vija Celmins. The artists selected for this exhibition distinguish themselves by adding to this region’s very rich artistic environment.

The senior artist of the exhibition, George Herms, is literally a legend in the history of West Coast art. He has been referred to as “the poet of the urban milieu.”  For close to 50 years he has transformed the detritus of our lives into poetic visions. Like many of his peers, Herms has the unique and undisputed ability of taking the matter-of-fact and often the over-looked and magically transforming it into an object or image full of wonder and contemplation. 

When looking at the series “Calendar Notations” one realizes that Barbara Drucker is probably as close to a pure conceptual object and image maker as anyone currently working in Southern California. Like her colleague John M. Miller, what makes her work compelling is the rigor she applies to her choice of forms and materials, and the integration of object, image and content. Conceptual art making requires a systematic reduction down to essence. In “Material Evidence: Wall of Hair “ conceptual content is clearly expressed but not at the expense of the preservation of poetry and magic. In the hand of an artist as confident and competent as Drucker there is clearly no visual sacrifice. Through the process of conceptual reduction an actual liberation of transformative potential and psychological insight is revealed.

Jill Giegerich came to prominence with her quirky images and objects of commonly recognizable forms. Her contribution to what became known as “New Figuration” distinguished itself by the artist’s unique methods of depiction. Giegerich’s work sets itself apart by its inventiveness, humor and irony. As captured in her mixed-media work “Coils, Figure, Wig” a human torso hovers over an enigmatic landscape as if floating in a dream-like state of consciousness. Potent symbolic imagery can again be found in “Untitled” 2001, one of the works included in this exhibition. As in all of Giegerich’s work the viewer is not quite certain where the forms have been, nor where they are headed, nonetheless one is compelled to follow these fascinating enigmas along their mysterious journeys.

The lush landscapes of Kady Hoffman are about a moment frozen in time. Like earlier surrealist image makers, and even the American painter Georgia O’Keefe, this artist’s imagery suggests that in stillness and in quiet contemplation comes the possibility for liberation. In order to make this transformative moment meaningful Hoffman has charged each depicted scene with realistic credibility - it feels real - yet it’s purposefully ambiguous and equally suggests that it is clearly not a part of our objective reality.  Drawn into the scene because it is somewhat familiar yet intriguing one experiences Hoffman’s world through a leap of faith and is drawn into a different order of reality.

Patty Wickman has deservedly come to the fore of Los Angeles pictorialism with her compelling and complex images of contemporary alienation. As a painter well versed in narrative motifs her works engage and captivate the viewer’s imagination. Wickman seems to be painting a dream. And, as in a dream, at first glance, it all feels incredibly real - that is, until one realizes that what is depicted implies the occurrence or conclusion of an event which one is hardly ready to confront or accept. The viewer finds oneself willingly drawn into Wickman’s world and then fighting for air. The dream has become a quiet scream. Yet as one views this reality within the illusionary world of a depicted image one is not allowed the relief of consciousness - the scream continues on - with the result being a body of extremely potent and provocative work.    

For many observers of the art scene in Southern California over the last 25 years, the career of John M. Miller distinguishes itself for the artist’s unrelenting commitment to a single aesthetic pursuit: clarity of vision realized through a very defined and limited artistic strategy. For Miller this equates to a highly reductive set of markings placed regularly and evenly over the entirety of the picture support. All marks appear to be identical, yet these marks, not quite echoing the picture support, tend to engage the viewer and at the same time keep one at bay. This strategy results in works, which are subtle and demanding, kind yet not accommodating. If the viewer gives these very distilled and rigorous works a chance they can become a guide to a profound sense of the here and now.


Fred Hoffman, Catalog Essay, 2002

Barbara Drucker: Material Evidence

The presence of hair in Barbara Drucker’s installation Material Evidence arouses reflection on a wide range of intrinsic issues like energy and growth, as well as extrinsic concerns like beauty and power. Hair identifies youth and age, gender and generation.

It may assert celebration or denote mourning, reveal its true nature or confess artifice.

Hair, braided or hanging long, as a wig or rolled into a ball, most often black (but in one instance provocatively blonde), dominates the dream-like ambience that the viewer enters, to invoke a myriad of metaphors and associations, a potent symbol emblematic of cultures both ancient and modern.

Originally a painter, Drucker turned to assemblage and installation for its greater narrative and expressive potential and for the latitude it grants in the use of materials literally drawn from life, opting for the real over the simulated, the factual over the fictitious. Eschewing both the tableau format of Edward Kienholz and the refined order of Barbara Bloom, Drucker’s installation recalls the work of Joseph Beuys and George Herms, to address issues inherent in the broader human community no less than those that are specific to a single society.

Hair is only one of a diverse group of components in Drucker’s installation, that speak of nourishment and nurturing, of nature and the earth, of men as well as women, of death as well as life. Each element a token of experience, a resonant voice, artifacts drawn from everyday life – beans, fabric, shoes and watering can, a rock and broken plate – evoke a culture rooted in an ancient world; plastic bags, synthetic turf and black belts introduce a counterpoint reflecting the values and reality of contemporary society.

In Material Evidence, Drucker stimulates viewer-consciousness using objects that embody the conflict between contemporary society and primary human reality. With clarity and intelligence, she transmits to her audience the heightened awareness of self that is gained through discovery of kinship within difference, of affinity within disparity.

Merle Schipper, October 1994

Barbara Drucker: Calendar Notations

Barbara Drucker’s “Calendar Notations” may initially strike viewers as enigmatic. Their minimalist collections of painted green, white, red and purple Avery dots arranged in rigorously gridded arrays force a kind of mathematical mood. The first question they seem to pose is what kind of formula might have generated their abacus-like patterns. Then, gradually, they come into focus for what they are: highly abstracted calendar pages with colored dots that stand for days. Each of the twelve paintings has seven columns, twenty-eight to thirty-one dots, and top rows that begin where the dots at the bottom of the previous one leave off.

Yet even when this recognition dawns on us, the meaning of the colors remains a puzzle. Red, green, white and purple dots are unevenly distributed throughout the calendar pages, forming a small diagonal line of red here, a vertical rectangle of white there, an L-shaped patch of green, or a swath of purple. Red dots often appear isolated within fields of green or white. One can only guess that they connote something like “red-letter days.” The main concentration of purple falls in an area of the year (somewhere near the end of winter) that suggests a holiday season like Easter. In fact, the color choices are based on a Roman Catholic religious calendar, where red stands for Saints’ Days and purple for Lent, and colors are associated with emotional states such as purity, sadness, passion and mourning. Green stands for “ordinary” days as opposed to “sacred” ones. Yet Drucker has deliberately omitted any identifying text in order to give the calendar a more “generic” significance unassociated with any particular religion and more easily associated with the seasonal cycles of nature that religious holidays often follow.

What the calendar paintings ask us to think about, it seems, is something more like the relationship of the individual to a larger social structure of communal events. A calendar, after all, is a tool for organizing social life, with particular days or periods set aside for social interaction (going to church, celebrating a holiday with family, remembering the social significance of a particular historical event like national independence, or in an agrarian community simply communally harvesting particular crops). The calendar paintings thus become symbols of the reliance of individuals on the social world around them (and that world’s reliance upon the natural world), while remaining open-ended about the specific kinds of things that best hold a community together. 

Of course, just as individuals cannot exist in the absence of a social support network, social structures rarely succeed if they do not accommodate individual differences. And this may in a strange way account for another element of the calendar paintings. While the artist could easily have chosen to use pre-colored Avery dots for the work, she chose white Avery dots and meticulously painted each and every one (even the white ones). Viewed up close, the dots retain the stroke of the brush with which they were painted - the kind of gestural evidence that tends to connote individual expression. And while the act of painting each dot is an attempt to “individualize” it, the painting of each and every dot is like the act of “attending to” each and every individual who will make up the social structure of the whole.

Barbara Drucker’s “Calendar Notations” are highly abstract works, based, as they are, on the format of the calendar. Yet we miss the point if we remain at the beginning point of abstraction, since the artist has invested the forms with aesthetic elements that call attention to the human social and individual lives that are implied by the idea of calendars. While she starts out counting days, for example, she ends up counting people. And what begins by looking like a mysterious mathematical grid grows as we contemplate it into an organically patterned symbol of some utopian social order in which all persons (or dots) have a place that does not unduly distort their individual differences. While forcing us to stare at forms we might consider to be mere abstract divisions of mathematical time, Barbara Drucker makes us contemplate “time” otherwise --- as the interweaving of social and individual life within the cycles of nature.

Peter Kosenko, Los Angeles, CA