Timon of Athens is an unfinished Shakespeare play that was never produced during his lifetime. In it, the wealthy Timon gives away all his money to his friends, who then turn against him when he needs their help. Artist Craig Drennen was attracted to the play’s obscurity and to the title character, who becomes misanthropic, writing in his own ambiguous epitaph, “Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate.” Four years ago, Drennen began to use the play as the conceptual framework to make artworks that represent a defining characteristic of each character’s personality. In 2007, he made paintings depicting the play’s Mistresses as lush pink anuses, and in 2008 he painted the Flattering Lords as daisies, a pretty if common flower.
Drennen’s recent exhibition, “[Dramatis Personæ],” introduced two additional cast members. The Painter is represented by a series of eight abstract works on paper (all 2011, ranging from 18 by 14 to 50 by 50 inches), each with a large X centered on the sheet. One line is made with graphite, the other with spray paint. Drennen adds different graphic elements to the works in acrylic and oil; each new medium adds a new color. At the center of each X is a trompe l’oeil painting of the back of a Polaroid, including blue tape that appears to fix it to the paper. A few works contain a stubbed-out cigarette subtly depicted at the bottom, a humorous nod to the stereotype of the heavy-smoking artist.
In this exhibition, we also met Apemantus, the philosopher, who, throughout the play, publicly disparages other characters. Apemantus was portrayed in an opening-night performance in which an actor wearing a large papier-mâché head crudely painted to resemble Drennen repeatedly played a rendition of the song “Awful,” by Courtney Love’s band, Hole, on an electric guitar. Thereafter, the head remained on display, with the performance date scribbled in red across the forehead.
Drennen periodically paints large-scale canvases that treat the entire play. The show included two particularly successful such works, Timon of Athens 8 (92 by 72 inches) and The Actors Names (126 by 78 inches), both 2011. The latter, comprising four stacked canvases of different sizes, features the names of many of the characters from Timon in the cursive font used for the 1623 folio edition of Shakespeare’s works. Drennen manipulates paint the way a director molds actors, creating convincing illusions of alternate realities. He estimates the project will take another 10 years to complete.
Photo: Craig Drennen: Awful Inside Saltworks, 2012, performance, 2 hours; at Saltworks.