For her first New York museum solo exhibition, filling the Drawing Center’s project space, Toronto-born, New York-based artist Deborah Grant presented a visually compelling and thematically cohesive group of recent multi-panel paintings plus a series of works on paper. Organized by museum curator Claire Gilman, “Christ You Know it Ain’t Easy!!,” titled after lyrics from the Beatles’s song “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” was part of Grant’s ongoing “Random Select” series. The artist reworks images and text that she finds in newspapers, magazines and art-history books, among other sources. Employing a dense and intense drawing style, she creates elaborate, quasi-narrative compositions that address issues of race, gender, sexual identity, religion and historical record.
Grant examines history in a unique way, imagining unlikely pairings of artists and/or cultural figures. Through her research, she often reveals surprising similarities in her subjects’ lives. A 2009 project, for example, brought together the Irish-born painter Francis Bacon and the African-American comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley, picturing their fictitious meeting in a London pub. That they were both gay and had been victims of violent attacks in their youth became areas of examination in the work.
For this show, Grant conjured an encounter between Henri Matisse and the little-known African-American outsider artist Mary A. Bell (1873-1941). The 6-by-16-foot Crowning the Lion and the Lamb (2013), which was commissioned by the Drawing Center, offers the most extended exploration of the fantasy meeting. Made of oil, acrylic, enamel and paper on birch panel, the work features a background of deep red geometric shapes and countless rows of tiny abstract ink markings. Spanning the length of the piece, an irregular centralized band presents a profusion of black-and-white renderings and snippets of text. Here the viewer joins the artist on an associative journey tracing episodes in each artist’s life and highlighting specific works they created. Flowers in a vase, potted plants and religious symbols refer to subjects and interests they shared. A well-known photo portrait of Gertrude Stein on the far left alludes to the fact that the famous writer and collector acquired works by both Matisse and Bell.
Bell’s quirky style of figuration as well as her devout Catholicism inspired Grant’s lively and poignant suite Easter’s Best (2013), five medium-size, acrylic, ink and colored pencil drawings on watercolor paper. Each work depicts a single character—identified in captions at the bottom as Jesus, Mary, John, Mary Magdalene or Mary of Clopas—set against abstract grounds. The figures are highly stylized, colorful and somewhat cartoonish. Mary, for example, wears purple eye shadow and a flamboyant, blue, yellow and pink dress with a pattern recalling Matisse’s cutouts.
In God’s Voice in the Midnight Hours (2013), Grant audaciously plays with Judeo-Christian iconography and biblical themes in 24 small panels, each displaying a vignette with a caption. Some scenes are unsettling, such as the one labeled “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” where a Nazi soldier points a rifle at a concentration camp prisoner who wears a pink triangle on his sleeve. In a more lighthearted panel, Grant seems to embrace all notions of the divine, including Divine herself, the late drag star of Pink Flamingos fame. Grant assigns Divine’s colorful likeness the caption “Our Lady of the Flowers,” connecting the American actor to the character in Jean Genet’s 1943 book delving into Paris’s homosexual underground—another example of the artist’s persistent and potent relay of associations.