Looking at Joanne Lefrak’s new body of work at Box Gallery, one wonders if she honed her artistic chops using an Etch A Sketch. Her scratched-on-Plexiglas, light-generated shadow drawings have similarities to images created with the Ohio Art Company’s two-knob drawing device, at least in terms of line quality and limited tonal range. But this statement is not a slam against Lefrak (or Etch A Sketch, for that matter), for she has developed a direct and more sophisticated aesthetic than the classic toy allows.
Technically, Lefrak’s pieces are produced in a very straightforward manner. With a stylus — or any other tool that scratches the surface of a clear sheet of acrylic — she generates a line drawing that, in turn, is rendered visible by shining a light through the etched piece of Plexiglas. Without the light, the drawing does not exist. From an oblique angle, one can see the marks scratched on the support, but as a coherent drawing in and of itself it doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, if someone blocks the light source, all or portions of the cast drawing disappear — the same way in which a cloud passing in front of the sun obliterates naturally cast shadows. Consequently, the work is about process and installation logistics as much as it is about subject matter and content.
Lefrak’s artwork in this vein was first seen in singular pieces as part of two invitational exhibitions: Alternative Spaces, which opened in February 2009 at the New Mexico Museum of Art, and The Wonder Salon, which opened in November 2009 at Linda Durham Contemporary Art. Her current one-person show features 10 drawings in a pristine, whitewashed environment, an installation so aseptic that I felt inclined to scrub up before perusing the work. But Lefrak’s delicate, ephemeral images lend themselves to a minimalist space; in fact, the walls function as supports for her shadow-cast imagery. Not only does her work hang on the wall — in some cases it is bolted to it — but the texture and color of the wall are formal elements integral to each piece.
Desert landscapes, an abandoned village, playground equipment, one interior, and a nonobjective drawing are featured in the exhibit, the last of which is an anomaly among the representational pieces but also the most intriguing. According to the exhibition checklist, Remembering Sol Lewitt (2010) was “executed as per instructions; in collaboration with Sage Sommer, Zoe Blackwell, and the Book and Dish Club.” Small in comparison to Lefrak’s other works, this particular piece invites contemplation — not so much for its scratched, wavy lines cast on the wall, but for its cast shadow-box effect. The three-dimensional illusion juxtaposed with its two-dimensional counterpart is really fun and forces one to think about shape and form as created by light. Imagine how the shadow-cast box would change in shape and intensity over the course of a day if integrated with the arc of the sun. (There is no need to be concerned about fading, as Lefrak’s materials are inherently archival.) The cast drawing would fade naturally as the sun sets and then be automatically recreated — or turned on — at sunrise. With a bit of strategic placement, this piece could do double duty as a sundial.
Demonstrating her interest in the historical and present aspects of the Trinity Site — where the first atomic bomb was tested, southeast of Socorro, New Mexico — Lefrak has included two isolated landscapes depicting the notorious locale. To the uninformed, Trinity Site (At the Instrumentation Bunker) and Trinity Site (On the Outskirts of Ground Zero), both created this year, present themselves as simple studies in desert terrain, punctuated with a fence and almost Zen-like in tone and mood. But the images are loaded, not only as visual anthropology — in a then-and-now context — but psychologically and emotionally. Sixty-five years later, Trinity Site still registers low to moderate levels of radioactivity and is monitored by the military.
Of less international notoriety but more picturesque in its rendering, the subject of Jail, Santa Rita, NM (2009) is an abandoned adobe jailhouse and an outbuilding. As an etched, shadow-cast drawing, it works well. Like a sun-bleached 19th-century albumen print, much of the detail has been lost, but just enough visual information has been retained to make it interesting. Historically, the soft-toned image references a bygone era of the Old West and frontier justice. It also resembles a Hollywood set piece that might have seen the likes of John Wayne or Ward Bond in a John Ford Western. But this particular image also displays Lefrak’s eye for good composition, with the two structures situated in a perspectival manner that leads the eye into the picture comfortably. One wonders if Lefrak’s original photograph — upon which her scratched drawing is based — is as striking.
In association with a few pieces, one can don headphones and listen to a male speaker reminisce about particular sites represented in the artist’s work. A total of six audio tracks relate to four pieces and run from just over a minute to six minutes each. Unfortunately, the information shared by the speaker isn’t so much enlightening as it is chatty about family and growing up. For instance, Cabezon Butte (2010) has two audio tracks from which to choose: “Night Owl” and “Owl Gold.” Cabezon Road (2010) offers personal commentary in “Rattlesnakes” and “UFO,” neither of which are as compelling as their titles imply. Too bad Lefrak did not recruit a variety of speakers, male and female, to share their stories, or someone from the government to talk about these sites from an official perspective. The spoken word can be a dynamic ingredient, and Lefrak may well find the right combination of oral history and visual content in a future project, but one hopes it will not come at the expense of the delicacy and quiet drama of the cast drawings themselves.
— Douglas Fairfield
Joanne Lefrak: Cabezon Butte, 2010, scratched Plexiglas and shadow, 37 x 49 inches