Gallery  May 2, 2023  Kathleen Cullen

The Mystical Tradition: Drawings of Memory and Mystery at the Drawing Center

Estate of Jordan Belson, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Jordan Belson Brain Drawing, 1952 Ink on paper 7 13/16 x 7 13/16 inches (19.8 x 19.8 cm)


I graduated college in the early 1970s and wrote my Master’s thesis on Carlos Castaneda and Moksha as a form of Liberation. At that time, I was reading Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell, attending Sufi dance performances, going through Jungian therapy, studying William Blake, and even contemplating a trip to Lindisfarne. 

“Of Mythic Worlds: Works from the Distance Past to the Future,” at the Drawing Center is the kind of exhibition that requires repeated viewing. I was drawn to the sense of mystery one feels when you enter a sacred, solemn space. The walls are a calm gray that effectively pulls the volume down. As a viewer, you are forced to slow down, overtaken by the reflective quality of the works. Each one requires ample time looking.

Frames of interpretation are flexible, posed as myth discourses that synthesize different realms, and metaphors as serious notions of the essential qualities of space. Japanese artist Yutaka Matsuzawa’s drawing bridges the Eastern ways of thinking with the West. His works reference Buddhist meditation practices that bend toward enlightenment. A sublimely contemplative nine-square paper collage references the nine-square format used in Buddhist meditation practice.   

Yale University Art Gallery, Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund. © Barbara Chase-Riboud. Courtesy of Lucia Momoh/Jeffrey Johnston

Barbara Chase-Riboud The Foley Square Monument New York, from the Monument Drawings series, 1996 Charcoal, charcoal pencil, and ink over etching and aquatint 31 1/2 x 24 inches (80 x 61 cm)

The Mythic Image also focuses on an elaborate and charming exchange between artist Janet Malcolm and author Marta Werner. Malcolm mediates her observations of Emily Dickenson in her “Open Folios,” with mental images from observation of the stars to language, and history. Werner presents transcriptions of Dickinson’s handwritten prose, which was discovered after the poet’s death. These works highlight the artists’ uncanny imagination and figurative language and read like a mystery novel. Also on view are works by Mohammed O. Khalil, Arnold J. Kemp, and Steffani Jemison, who all deal with the chasm of the unknown or the abyss, and the ways in which light and dark belong not only to ancient and mystical traditions but also psychoanalysis.

In the catalogue for the show, Lauren O’Neill-Butler wrote an essay on the mystical tradition and the exhibition's theme discusses the limitations of mortal language. She elaborates on historicity, the collective and the individual, and memory and tradition.

This exhibit proposes artwork that goes beyond today’s identity politics. It’s so refreshing because there is no artful figuration present. I spoke to curator Olivia Shao about her inspiration for the exhibition, and our conversation is below.


Gift of The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation © 2022 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O'Keeffe Untitled (Landscape), 1960s Graphite on paper 6 1/2 x 8 3/4 inches (16.5 x 22.2 cm) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. 


A&O: Could you explain the background of the exhibition?

Olivia Shao (OS): “Of Mythic Worlds” is intended to slow things down in our fast-paced world, and encourage the viewer to spend time looking and contemplating each work. The exhibition explores several themes of myth, ritual, cosmologies, and belief systems, and hopes to explore similarities in many perspectives and practices, rather than differences across cultures and histories, with the intention to be open-ended and have a multitude of meanings.

A&O: You begin the catalogue for the show with the early works of Mel Chin from the 1980s and 90s.  Was he the catalyst for the exhibition?

OS: I have admired Mel Chin’s work for many years. I was looking at his earlier drawings from the 1980s, alongside other works by several artists as I was starting the research for the exhibition. 

Courtesy of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation, New York, and Alison Jacques, London © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation. Photo by Michael Brzezinski

Lenore Tawney Untitled, 1965 India ink on graph paper, perspex frame 11 3/8 x 18 inches (29 x 45.6 cm)


A&O: How did you discover the work of Cameron? Her drawings are alive and literally afire with energy. It’s as if there is some unknown force working through the paper that can only be grasped within its unfolding. 
OS: I first encountered Cameron’s works in 2007, at a beautiful exhibition at Nicole Klagsburn’s gallery. I was drawn to the intensity of Cameron's work and interested in her history and background, as she is a poet, writer, actor, and practitioner of the occult.  

A&O: You have selected a beautiful drawing by Lee Bontecou of an eye’s internal, depth, mythical quality, a dark hole for a mythical traveler, and a void time that is open-ended. It draws you in and takes you wherever you wish to go. Can you tell me more about Bontecou’s evolutionary path?

OS:- I like your thoughts on Bontecou’s drawing in the exhibition. Dark and light are a theme across several cultures. This idea of duality can also be seen in Daoist thought, where both dark and light are part of the same and each consists of the other. 

A&O: Walter de Maria, a sculptor of thoughts in this post-pandemic drawing, operates on different levels. Is this work of his an anomaly?

OS: Throughout Walter De Maria’s career, he has always maintained a drawing practice. His drawings depicted subjects such as mountains, cats, and castles, with the restraint of a few lines or the faintest mark. These works convey a profound depth and discipline, a controlled energy transferred from the artist’s hand to a line on paper. This energy can also be seen throughout his land works and sculpture.

Courtesy of Amanda Wiles Courtesy of the artist

Mel Chin Garden where the Wild Grass Obscures the True Pearl, 1987 Graphite on drawing paper laminated on plywood 13 x 13 inches (33 x 33 cm)


A&O: I agree. There’s also a real need for us to look more at Jordan Belson now. We seem to be experiencing a zeitgeist moment looking for spiritual grounding and archetypal experiences. Belson’s drawings look inward while manifesting “otherworldliness” where lines decode synapse connections and communicate neural systems of the brain and universal invisible structures. I’m also thinking about Roland Barthes here. Once he stopped writing, Barthes made wonderful drawings for his mother. How long did he continue to draw? Is there a back story to this?

OS: Barthes made over 500 drawings (Contre- écriture) in gouache, pen, crayon, and pastels throughout the 1970s, many for his lover Romaric Sulger-Buel. In Peter Schwenger’s Asemic: The Art of Writing, he argued that the drawings could be a way of overcoming the problem expressed in Barthes’s book A Lover’s Discourse: “Love has, of course, a complicity with my language (which maintains it) but it cannot be lodged in my writing.” And so, it is conveyed in these asemic notes that say nothing and everything. Barthes writes about these drawings in his essay Coloring, Degree Zero, and in a special issue of Luna-Park titled “Graphies.”

About the Author

Kathleen Cullen

Kathleen Cullen is a former gallerist, independent curator, and writer for She was also the former head of sales for Art & Object. Cullen’s role as a director-curator permits her to maintain an independent spirit, presenting new artists “on the edge” by feeling the “pulse” of the emerging art market. It is this inalienable eye that posits her as a harbinger of new artistic expression.

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