Arts » Visual Art

The Dynamic Doodler

Euan Macdonald suggests big ideas with small strokes.

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"Untitled #35 (Standing Man Being Blown Apart)," by - Euan Macdonald, black marker on paper.
  • "Untitled #35 (Standing Man Being Blown Apart)," by Euan Macdonald, black marker on paper.

The doodle, a design or drawing typically scribbled on a notepad while one is trying to explain to the phone company that a billing error has taken place, is usually nothing more than a physical record of the most mundane moments of one's day. Euan Macdonald's doodles are different, though. A selection of 10 of them are on display at Shaheen Modern and Contemporary Art, and they suggest that this 35-year-old Los Angeles resident has a talent for creating economical drawings that have a witty and sometimes contemplative take on contemporary life.

Macdonald has recently been receiving attention from curators and art dealers on the East Coast and in Canada. He has exhibited in Taiwan, and in 2001 his drawings and video pieces will be included in the show 010101, a contemporary art retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In the meantime, in Cleveland, there is Euan Macdonald: New Drawings and Recent Video Works. This is the Midwest gallery debut for the Edinburgh, Scotland native, who studied at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary and the Ontario School of Art in Toronto.

There is nothing abstruse about this work. The weekend doodler will be able to grasp its meaning as readily as any art gallery devotee. What, then, is Macdonald getting at here? To him, doodling seems to represent an attempt to reach a spontaneous core of imagination. In this, he agrees with the surrealists as well as mid-century artists like Karel Appel and Jean Dubuffet, who turned away from the established art world and advocated an art that allowed free rein for the creator's own irrational narrative impulses. We might express ourselves in an unguarded way, Macdonald seems to say, if we can view drawing as the effort to convert boring moments of everyday life into artistic opportunities.

Although Macdonald's drawings typically have dense, highly concentrated zones of activity, he surrounds all this activity with wide expanses of blank paper. For instance, he'll have a drawing of a palm tree casting a shadow on a car, but there is a lot of blank space surrounding the image. He could easily have cropped the borders and deleted much of that empty space, but since he so consistently includes it -- really insists on it -- we have to assume that he wants us to wonder about why he is unwilling to either draw bigger or, in the alternative, to choose smaller sheets of paper on which to do his doodling. One answer is that this is what drawing means to him -- a small oasis of activity, of life, during a day that is otherwise uneventful. Or this might be his way of suggesting an aspect of artistic creativity in metaphorical form. That is, making art is all about going beyond the white noise of life and claiming a space of one's own, where creativity can flourish undisturbed.

Even so, terrible things can happen in this self-designed space. For instance, there is the drawing "Untitled #35 (Standing Man Blown Apart)." In this one, created this year, a man does indeed seem to be exploding. He's not made of flesh, though. He explodes into dots, jagged fragments, and rectangular chips that look as if they could belong in a computer. These pieces fly outward from the center of the frame. The impression is of great velocity. But how involved can one get in the fate of this person when he seems to be merely a collection of mechanical bits and pieces? Perhaps something else is going on here.

The image can be read as a visualization of the impact that a sudden revelation can have on someone. Emily Dickinson once said that she knew when she had read a great poem because it was as though the sky had cracked open and there was no possibility of words. That's a violent image, but Dickinson was suggesting that a sudden understanding of the meaning of things can produce feelings like that. The violence is constructive rather than destructive. That might be what Macdonald is getting at here. However, why the discrete pieces and the suggestion of computer parts? That tends to cut the other way: Macdonald as an austerely contemplative pessimist. Whatever one's interpretation, this is arresting work that suggests much with little. It's the strongest work in this show.

One of the recurring themes in this exhibit is the artist's interest in time. It's often tough to determine what comes first, second, third in a sequence. In "Untitled (Offices)," Macdonald depicts a cube constructed almost entirely from dots. But the cube is incomplete, because there are hundreds of stray dots in surrounding areas. The challenge is in trying to decide whether the cube is somehow in the process of disintegrating or forming. That is, is it coming together or is it falling apart? Macdonald makes it difficult for us to know where we are in the sequence and thus alerts us to the danger of deciding on anything without understanding matters of context.

He brings up another timing question in his drawing called "Untitled (House)." This one shows two buildings in the Colonial style. They are identical in all structural details. The one on the left is in pristine condition. The one on the right is a shambles, with a collapsing roof, broken windows, and all sorts of other problems. The question Macdonald asks is: Which came first? Was the building first perfect and now a mess, or was it once a mess but now in totally restored condition? Can we simply rely on the fact that we tend to read images from left to right? It's one possibility, but who says that all images ought to be read from left to right? This is a cleverly conceived drawing that treats a complicated issue in a radically simplified way.

This exhibit provides viewers with just a sample of Macdonald's work, but it is evident that this young artist has a talent for creating humorous and often disturbing images with an understated yet provocative style.

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