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Paintings of Laughter and Forgetting: Craig Drennen’s Dramatis Personæ

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Craig Drennen, The Actors Names, 2011, oil, alkyd, aluminum foil on canvas, 126 x 78 inches. Image courtesy Saltworks Gallery.

How are we supposed to receive Craig Drennen’s exhibition Dramatis Personæ at Saltworks Gallery? The show consists of ten images: all paintings, two on canvas and eight on paper. Some feature photorealistic beads or backward-turned Polaroid pictures (thus no image, only the black backing). Some works incorporate text, others have thick globs of paint congealed on their surfaces. There is a trompe l’oeil vinyl record—what is this stuff? It has something to do with memory.

The opening reception featured a performance inspired by a character in the play, Timon of Athens. Image courtesy Saltworks Gallery.
Wearing an oversize mask depicting a caricature of Drennen's face, a stand-in actor floated through the crowd interacting with strangers. Image courtesy Saltworks Gallery.

In the epic documentary about Martin Heidegger’s oeuvre, The Ister, contemporary French philosopher Bernard Stiegler discusses the relationship between memory and technology in a manner that benefits our reception of Drennen’s paintings. Drennen has referred to his work as archaeological, and, as such, I suggest we consider the relationship between technology and memory.

The F Word at Hunter Museum

Before the advent of human technologies, memory existed in only two forms: the DNA of a species and in the immediate memories of individual members of a species. When an individual member of that species died, so went all the memories of that species, save what DNA had been passed to offspring.

But with the advent of human technologies, a third form of memory arrived. Stiegler asks us to imagine a piece of flint that has been fashioned into a knife through knapping. This rock, so shaped, not only contains the form of a knife, it also contains a constellation of ideas and processes that can be intelligible to archaeologists millennia later. A new mode of memory is now afforded. Granted, an archaeologist may not be able to describe the individual who created that knife—certainly not in terms of aspirations or of the recursive anxieties that might have plagued that person—but much can be inferred from the knife.

This so-called dead tech does yield some information: the means by which the tool was made and the ends to which this tool could be put, which in turn provide a sense of the game available and the predators hunting them. With these bits of inference we can call forth an image of a person, one maybe not dissimilar to us—like a distant relative in another country.

Craig Drennen, Timon of Athens 8, 2011, oil, alkyd on canvas, 92 x 72 inches. Image courtesy Saltworks Gallery.

In a similar fashion, Craig Drennen’s paintings tend to summon images from bygone moments in our collective history. There was the Supergirl series, paintings whose apparent subject was a poorly remembered Helen Slater action movie. In his Pictures Generation series, he’d recreate photos of artists, such as Gretchen Bender or collaborators Michael Clegg and Martin Guttmann, and cover them with the everyday accretions that can occur in a studio: gloppy masses of paint become puttylike and can absorb a cigarette, a bottle of correction fluid spills onto a portrait of an art world icon, and so on. And now we have Timon of Athens, an obscure play written by Shakespeare.

Dramatis Personæ isn’t the first time that Drennen has presented works related to Timon of Athens, but, where his previous series Mistresses, Apemantus, and Flattering Lords provided humor (Eric Hancock called it “a tour de farce” in BURNAWAY’s review), Dramatis Personæ is mysterious. The paintings are, in some instances, melancholic. In them is a looming sense of impermanence. It’s the melancholy which comes from accepting that, as much as we experience, we forget most of those experiences. In this manner I understand the backward-turned Polaroid pictures in the centers of the Painter series. And yet, there are those new insights that can come only with the honing of a practice.

Craig Drennen, 2011, graphite, acrylic, oil, alkyd, spray paint on paper, 50 x 50 inches. Image courtesy Saltworks Gallery.

Drennen is masterly in his painting. To get close to his paintings is thrilling because they are so tenderly rendered. In spite of the fiction that his paintings are, they are still truthful to my lived experience. I know those beads in the paintings Painter C and Painter D. I know that record imprint (if not that specific record) that is prominently emblazoned onto The Actors Names. I recognize that font in Timon of Athens 8. I’ve seen those spray-paint splatterings before, but I can’t quite place how I know them—these elements of the paintings are traces.

There is mischief and humor in Drennen’s Dramatis Personæ paintings. With titles such as Painter 11b, Painter E, and Painter F, the Painter series of works on paper features backward-turned Polaroids at the crux of bold X’s rendered in graphite or silver spray paint. They are mischievous paintings because they remind us that every repetition always contains a difference.

And so I look at those black backings of the Polaroids at the center of each Painter images, and I am reminded that I usually don’t see the differences right before me. I am also reminded that I have forgotten something, which is a hilarious proposition and a constant source of frustrating humor in my life. The ability to pass through the anxiety and frustration of forgetting and to arrive at a place of laughter is a real feat.


Craig Drennen’s exhibition Dramatis Personæ continues at Saltworks Gallery through March 3, 2011.

Disclosure: Craig Drennen is one of this publication’s editorial advisers. In pursuit of featuring work that contributes to important cultural discourse, as well as our commitment to transparency, our policy is to disclose instead of exclude.