LIKE A BAT OUT OF HELL: DRAWING WHILE DRIVING WITH WARD SHELLEY, JESSE BERCOWETZ AND MATT BUA - A PORTRAIT OF THREE ARTISTS AND THEIR PROJECTS FOR “STREET SELECTIONS” - THE DRAWING CENTER, NEW YORK, NEW YORK

 

Ward Shelley, Jesse Bercowetz, and Matt Bua, "Drawing While Driving," (performance)


Ward Shelley was wearing safari pants and a flannel shirt. His left leg was raised in order to rest his foot on the driver's seat. His pants had a big hole in the crotch that revealed his dark blue underwear. He was going on and on about his newest insights regarding spaceships, tunnels, platforms, and maybe his father's sailboat. I assume he was just about to get into the nature of beehives when I notice Jesse Bercowetz staring at me, without a word, like a hungry animal. I decided to jump to the back seat and sit with Matt Bua.


Matt, who is known for carrying his 18 Volt drill with him on blind dates in the Upper West Side, mumbled something about U-Haul, bankruptcy, and as far as I remember, some Championship Truck Competition. On request, Matt summed it all up for me, beginning with his typical high-pitch sigh: “Well, we plan to demonstrate all the great features of U-Haul's new line of trucks. Even though we can barely drive the things, much less show how nice they are. But when a company such as U-Haul is about to file Chapter 11, they go to drastic measures to keep their heads above water. That's why they'll hire us: For our high-profile artistry and our extraordinary business sense. We believe that they are pushing the avant boundaries by allowing us to let the U-Haul create our work.”


“We got it!” exclaims Jesse, 'Drawing While Driving!' The master plan! A genius grant! We will return!”
(Don't worry, up to this point I didn't have a grasp on their project either.) As Matt spoke, Jesse and Ward, who just returned from Graz, Austria, where they had built a suspended cardboard tunnel , were desperately trying to make sense of Matt's thesis and threw around ideas that barely related to it. These guys never sleep. Nor do they ever have enough money to get a decent haircut or buy this lady dinner. When asked why they would need the sponsorship of U-Haul: Jesse has already spent all his savings on Styrofoam and green fur to be attached to his secret “laboratory”. Matt “hid” his entire inheritance in one of the 150 large wooden crates stacked inside his loft. And Ward's finances? Uh, just look at his pants.


Anyway, the threesome is ready to tear down the city. They have created a number of drawings that give detailed insight into their rebellious minds. Though they sketched their past and future projects quite nicely, the precision of the information is deceptive and doesn't reveal anything about the possible results. They are even less interested in being precise. Each artist also works on separate projects, which creates confusion in the group, but also new points of departure. In the end, they can't wait to build their own erupting volcano made out of plywood and foamcore . They won't stop tinkering with their spaceships until they are ready to take off and they'll keep tunneling through foreign realms until their visas expire.

Ward Shelley, Jesse Bercowetz, and Matt Bua, "Drawing While Driving", (performance)


So here is the skinny: one person was strapped into the back of a truck, another one was driving and the third one was riding shotgun while giving advice via walkie talkie on what to draw to the one in the back. The artistic outcome is unpredictable and chaotic, yet the idea's narration gives you a beautiful taste of coincidence, danger, and speed found in road movies but with an uncertain ending.


The idea of “Drawing While Driving” might mirror its final result. This is like seeing yourself reflected in the puddle of oil accumulating on the asphalt below the truck-a mirror that reflects the threatening proximity of laughter and crying: two great gestures that step in when any other method of communication fails.
In other words: If you had asked Jackson Pollock to describe the process of his work, you would have probably gotten an idea about the actual result. Ask the same of Mr Bercowetz, Mr Shelley and Mr Bua a hundred times and you would get no less than 150 completely different, but highly entertaining visions, which, in the end, completely fail to describe the finished product. And still, those visions may define the artistic result insofar as the outcome will be a distorted reflection of the ideas that serve as a (sometimes) purely imaginary structure around the drawings.


In case of the Drawing Center show that means video monitors, suspended from the ceiling and strapped together with bungee ropes, wires, extension cords and, yes, clothes among which you might find some of Ward's old pants. The videos show scenes of the truck group's adventurous enterprises that have neither beginning nor ending: A bunch of men in orange prison suits lifting a truck, a marker attached to the bottom of the truck, tracing the erratic movements of the mighty crew. Other scenes actually show Jesse Bercowetz strapped in the back of the truck scribbling like a mentally disturbed four-year-old: vaginas, sturdy stick figures and, uh, what have you. The drawings are displayed on the gallery walls surrounding the monitor sculpture.


Within the group's past projects there are quite a number of examples in which performances, drawings, collages and objects mirror the physical installations they inhabit. Their “MIR” installations and the installation “Corrections” serve as good examples. In the performance “Drawing While Driving”, it is the act itself, the story web, and its outstanding characters that build a physical and fictional structure for the actual drawings.


Jesse, Ward, and Matt are the evil triplets of Carolee Schneemann, who, in the mid '70s suspended herself upside down from a harness to create huge, swirling drawings as she swung from walls to floor in a paper-covered room . “Drawing While Driving” appears to be the 2003 Jackass-version of Schneemann's trance drawings.


Their work also differs from Jean Tinguely's “Drawing Machines” of the '60s, which addressed the power of the consumer society. Whereas Tinguely's machines supposedly leave the artist unemployed, Matt's, Jesse's and Ward's work does everything but. Rather than giving up their roles as sometimes heavy-handed artists and “men”, they seem to emphasize, and simultaneously ridicule, certain artistic and male stereotypes. These guys have brains and hands and no time to complain about the artists' role in a Capitalist ociety.


Jesse Bercowetz, Ward Shelley and Matt Bua have less control over their “drawings” than Pollock, Schneemann, and Tinguely have ever dared. Furthermore, they have proved numerous times that they don't suffer from vertigo. So their “master plan” comes across almost naturally. And once again, you really do need three people to drive a truck to its full efficiency: one man driving while peacefully whistling a Swedish Death Metal Song; the second riding shotgun, informing the third via walkie talkie about the beautiful blond that just walked by; and the third man is suspended in the back of the truck, holding his walkie talkie in his left hand and his magic marker in his right. Then man #1 steps on the gas and drives like a bat out of hell. We were a little bit nervous but incredibly excited about the result. At least one thing is now crystal-clear: to blame it all on U-Haul isn't quite fair.


Sabine Heinlein New York, New York 2003