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Art

Disorderly Construct

Two artists speak to one another through their drawings

Photo: Michael Northrup, License: N/A

Michael Northrup

David Armacost (left) and Nikholis Planck put their artistic conversation/collaboration on display for Disorderly Construct.


Disorderly Construct

Open Space Baltimore through Oct. 15 with an opening reception Sept. 3 at 7 p.m.

For more information, visit openspacebaltimore.com.

A large black table constructed of pressboard and sawhorses stands along one wall of David Armacost’s Highlandtown studio, its surface strewn with dozens of abstract painted drawings on cheap paper. Many resemble doodles, with shared features like squiggles or letters or diagonal lines. A few are even crumpled up, and at first the whole setup seems part and parcel of the studio’s general state of disarray. But the table and its contents are actually a small taste of what will be a huge site-specific exhibition opening at the Open Space gallery in Remington on Sept. 3. When fully constructed, the final table will be about 26 feet square. Hundreds of drawings will lie across it in more or less the same random way. The project, titled Disorderly Construct, is the work of first-time collaborators Armacost, 31, and Nikholis Planck, 23. Neither is particularly concerned that their work could be mistaken for messiness. “It’s not about what this stuff actually looks like,” Armacost says.

What it is about is process, and the artists have developed a unique one. For the past year or so, they have traded several drawings a week—or photos of drawings—back and forth. Each artist produces a riff or a parody, a drawing somehow derived from what they’ve received, and sends this new work back. It has become, they say, a visual correspondence. The emphasis is on quantity and the dialogue between the artists, not on the finished pieces. “This is just a way of explaining that we’ve been doing this work and we might have gotten a show and we’re grateful,” Planck says, “but we’d still be doing this work if we had a show or not.”

Planck, who moved to Baltimore from Anne Arundel County about a year ago, is fast-talking and overflowing with enthusiasm. Armacost—who starts a graduate program in painting at Towson University this fall—is calmer, but when their conversation turns to art, it is a rapid-fire patter, each one interrupting the other to clarify or disagree or agree or finish a thought.

Armacost and Planck began their friendship this way, by talking about art, and strands of ideas from each of them came together, resulting in their current project. “I’ve been interested in authorship in painting and that’s what I’ve done ever since I was in college,” Armacost says, “which is to copy paintings that I liked. . . . With contemporary painting, what it’s so much about is having your style. ‘This is a David Armacost painting,’ and that gives it value. I always had trouble with that.” Armacost says he began copying famous paintings but eventually started copying his artist friends’ work instead, so it was no leap to take on Planck’s as well. For his part, Planck says he has always been prolific and never treated his finished pieces as anything sacred.

“Art’s some sort of search, no matter what it is,” he says. “I’ve shown work before, I guess, and when I think back on it, it was more of a way to feel good about yourself.”

This perspective and his interest in printmaking and duplication, coupled with Armacost’s interest in authorship, helped the pair develop the concept behind Disorderly Construct. They share an interest in art history and a common group of artist friends, so the drawings are full of in-jokes, oblique references to a motif one of their friends might use or to a more famous figure. In July, when artist Cy Twombly died, each of them independently produced drawings that referenced Twombly, without planning it. (In Planck’s case, it was a piece that includes a scattering of “c”s and “y”s. Armacost’s drawings featured a matrix of brush work with snippets of poetic text; Twombly was known for using words and scribbles in his work.)

Armacost and Planck use the word “practice” in the same way someone devoted to meditation might. “It’s spontaneous, matter of fact,” Planck says. “There are no obstacles in the way. . . . We joke that it’s like self-help or group therapy almost.” They say the act of producing so many drawings, working together and off of one another’s work, has freed them to make so-called mistakes and kept them from becoming attached to any particular piece. “If you’ve done a thousand and you’re going to hopefully do 10,000 more, then it becomes not that precious,” Armacost says.

But the project is also a critique. Photographs became a part of their approach in part because Planck and Armacost would sometimes send photos of their drawings back and forth rather than the drawings themselves. The pair has a Tumblr feed (disorderlyconstruct.tumblr.com) and the gallery show will include several photos; some are photos of drawings, but they are not the professional-quality representations that artists usually use to showcase their work. They are taken from odd angles, some are blurred, none are color-corrected. They are, from that perspective, “bad documentation,” Armacost says. “But it is what it is, and we don’t think it’s precious enough to document in that way.”

Armacost and Planck admit their show will likely be frustrating, and that is intentional. The table will fill much of the gallery space, leaving only a 4-foot-wide perimeter from which to view the piece. Some of the drawings will be in piles or far away, and visitors will likely wonder if the table is part of the work or just a prop. There will be several photos hanging along the perimeter and two paintings leaning against the wall, presenting an obstruction viewers will have to negotiate. This is all another attempt to keep the work from becoming something to venerate, rather than the process itself.

“The central idea in all of this is continuation,” Armacost says. “It’s so rad to think that you’re adding to something that started in prehistory.”

Planck jumps in. “And that allows it to not be about ends,” he says. “We’re not gonna, like, end.”

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