Ellen Cherry Charles is the main character in Tom Robbins’s Skinny Legs And All, a novel that twists bold narratives to counterpoint spiritual, ethnic, and regional identities with art and commerce to invent magical illusions that humorously exist alongside contemporary fictional realities. While subtly attempting to bait her husband in the bedroom, Ellen Cherry explains how artists decide what they want to produce. She states, “If there is a thing, a scene, maybe an image that you want to see real bad, that you need to see but it doesn’t exist in the world around you, at least not in the form that you envision, then you create it so that you can look at it and have it around, or show it to other people who wouldn’t have imagined it because they perceive reality in a more narrow, predictable way.”*
For Craig Drennen’s ongoing artistic project, he creates images, performances, and installations based on intuitive interpretations of characters and information generated from William Shakespeare’s 17th-century play Timon of Athens. This play, which was never produced or possibly even finished during Shakespeare’s time, has been fated with edits and rewrites from more than one writer, and the work arguably suffers from this jilted past. Drennen, in a pursuit of a reason to make images, as Ellen Cherry suggests, is not only mining Timon of Athens as a worthy subject matter but is also making works that offer a way to see what appropriation can look like, what technical illusions like special effects or misdirection can do for painting, and how a potentially 15-year-long monologue (Drennen’s proposed project length) can write a new language all its own.
Drennen’s exhibition “Awful & Others,” at Florida Mining Gallery in Jacksonville through May 2, includes 13 works, ranging from paintings on canvas and paper to installations with digital prints, and an artifact—an oversized papier-mâché head catalogued and marked with the date of the opening performance, Awful Inside, enacted by artist Jeffrey Burdian.
When I was in grad school at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where I studied with Drennen, I once heard him proclaim that he was “merely an empty vessel.” Or I may have only ever heard someone quoting Drennen’s postulation, or perhaps it was never a self-reflexive statement but a charge directed at others. Regardless this statement was transmitted, received, and then recirculated like any worthy rumor. The works included in “Awful & Others” are hollowed out of public domain material and represented in new forms.
The gallery/stage at Florida Mining hosts a cast of characters named by Shakespeare and exhumed by Drennen. For this cast there are presently the Painter, Old Athenian, Apemantus—a callous philosopher—and servants who share similar attributes. During his gallery talk, Drennen explained that the images produced for the Painter are designed to be a “quick illustrated history of painting,” complete with drawing, oil, spray paint, impasto, acrylic, and alkyd with trompe l’oeil renderings of blue painter’s tape and reversed Polaroids. The portraits of the oafish servants are marred with aluminum foil noses, asymmetrical eyes, and lengths of rope for mouths. The Old Athenian appears as a digital reproduction from Andy Warhol’s 1974 Blood for Dracula paired with a monochrome painted flat on the wall. At center stage is Apemantus, imposing his awfulness in unabashed public display.
It should be clear; Drennen is not venerating these characters. Allegedly, they were already tossed aside, like castaways on The Island of Misfit Toys. Drennen’s iterations continue to silence them. In the case of the Painter, the large Xs underneath washed-out layers of abstraction are painted over with a depiction of a Polaroid that denies the viewer access to the image. They are bold in design yet they are hushed by exclusion and negation.
The servants are gagged by ropes in their mouths and rendered dumb by practiced simple expressions. By recasting Old Athenian as Dracula, Drennen rewires new connections for the context of this character, yet he is fated for mute speech only. The head of Apemantus attracts attention, but the mouth is sealed shut, it communicates only through the performance of labored and garbled chords of Courtney Love’s 1998 song Awful. Furthermore, by modeling the puppet head of Apemantus after himself, Drennen appears to be signing his name to the evolving authorship of Timon of Athens, and this also conveniently trumps the adage “the joke’s on me.”
Like the theatrical “suspension of disbelief” that allows audiences to accept fiction as reality, Drennen’s trompe l’oeil images convince viewers with the same operative skill. In a world where we do not have to wait long for a novel to be adapted to the screen, where celebrities’ lives seem less real than the characters they portray, and where open source software and hackathons are the new means of creative adaptation, Drennen’s Timon of Athens will take purchase.
*Tom Robbins, Skinny Legs And All, New York: Bantam Books, 1990, p. 179.
**Craig Drennen, “Gallery Talk,” at Florida Mining Gallery (Jacksonville, FL, March 21, 2014).
Drennen also has works on view in Atlanta at SBS Gallery in the offices of Stanley Beamen & Sears, April 4-July 18.
Lily Kuonen is assistant professor of art at Jacksonville University in Florida. She holds an MFA in painting from the Savannah College of Art and Design. She is a native of Arkansas, where she was born in the kitchen of her parents’ house.