An Identity With the Process

By Janet Goleas
Drew Shiflett “constructed drawings”
To create her “constructed drawings,” Drew Shiflett methodically snips and slices handmade paper into the tiny slivers that she glues and weaves together. Morgan McGivern

    Drew Shiflett works slowly, like the tortoise to everyone else’s hare. Her rhythmic compositions evolve over time, creating an arc that stretches from simple geometries, like grids and parallel lines, all the way to rigorous seriality, minimalism, and the principles of ancient decorative motifs. She employs a degree of precision in her work that is staggering, a level of commitment that is nearly religious in its scope, and a fragile humility that makes it seem okay to be human.
    Her current exhibit, “Drew Shiflett: Constructed Drawings,” the result of winning top honors in the 2009 Guild Hall Artist Members Show, is on view at Guild Hall through Jan. 16.
    Ms. Shiflett’s body of work, now entering its fourth decade, has unfolded over time like a novel or a meandering Hindu narrative. Eccentric, unpredictable, and sumptuous in its use of spatial illusion, poetics, and intuition, the artist’s intricacies have grown to commingle with the sort of big ideas that start with a single drop of water. The Guild Hall exhibit, featuring eight works in total, allows a glimpse of this artist’s minimal/maximal vision.
    Most days Ms. Shiflett can be found in her studio — either here in East Hampton or in Lower Manhattan — methodically snipping and slicing handmade paper into the tiny slivers she’ll glue and weave together until they slowly sprawl into form. Her technique, decidedly low-tech, allows the drawings to define themselves from the inside out, locating identity within the process of their own creation. The works vary in scale but some are immense, resembling wheat fields or the aerial schematics of a lost civilization. As the artist’s subtle decision-making accumulates across the surface, they swell into layers that will serve as scaffolding for what she refers to as “constructed drawings.”
    Ms. Shiflett and her scientist husband, Moses Chao, a professor of cell biology at New York University’s School of Medicine and president of the Society for Neuroscience, began spending summers on the East End some 15 years ago. When the retreat from city life proved habit-forming, the couple found a permanent home in East Hampton. An old garage that sat on the property was gussied up and now serves as the artist’s light-filled studio. The house sits on a secluded village street surrounded by mature trees and bushy coppice, allowing Ms. Shiflett easy access to the daily bike rides that take her through the winding roads of historic East Hampton.
    “For me, bike riding to the beach every day is complete bliss,” she said.
    “It’s very sensual,” she continued, “from the minute my tires first roll over pavement — the wind and the trees, all the smells and colors. I ride my bike in Manhattan, too, but this, this only happens here.”
    She takes the same path each time, captivated by the soft geometry of the sculpted hedges and trimmed lawns along Lily Pond Lane and Lee Avenue. She spends some time at Main Beach and then turns around and heads back home.
    “I don’t know why I go on the same bike ride every time,” she said, “it’s just so peaceful and so beautiful — I never want to miss anything. My friends make fun of me, but I find myself thinking, ‘How could it get any better than this?’ So I want to see it again.”
    Ms. Shiflett’s palette is endowed with the beachy colors of the East End — browns and ochers, slate gray and beige — but the organic qualities within her drawings are derived from an internal vision as opposed to the seductions of light and landscape of the South Fork. Still, its impact on her is profound.
    “Looking at the beach and the tonality of the water, you just feel closer to everything that’s important — all the things you don’t have time to think about when you’re racing from one place to another in your work life.”
    Born in Chicago, Ms. Shiflett grew up in a theatrical family. Though her artistic leanings were evident as a child, it wasn’t until college that she realized her true affinity for the visual arts. The need to more or less masticate the picture plane, something so endemic to her mature work, came later, emerging in graduate school at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
    During the inevitable anxieties that accompanied her M.F.A. candidacy, she began tearing up figure drawings (up to then, her most solid body of work) and assembling the pieces into densely layered collages. Any recognizable images were all but consumed by the process, disappearing into the swollen rectangles that would become the backbone of this body of work. Compulsively maximal, the finished pieces hovered somewhere between painting and architecture.
    As her artistry developed, Ms. Shiflett’s methodology became more Byzantine. Her TriBeCa studio was cluttered with reams of bathroom tissue, gallons of white glue, sticky scissors, and piles of cheesecloth. Her favorite workbench, a vintage barstool, was so layered with glue and pigment that it stood as testament to the weird orthodoxy of her evolving technique. Consumed by the artistic process, the stool was eventually transformed into a sculpture.
    She soldiered on through the 1980s, working against the feeling, shared by so many young artists, that she was doomed to obscurity. In 1992, she received a Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for sculpture.
    “It was such a boost,” she recalled, “it’s hard to keep your sense of esteem as an artist, especially when you feel invisible. To have your colleagues — all professional artists — validate you in some measure, that’s huge.”
    Back at Guild Hall, Ms. Shiflett’s works hold court in the Spiga Gallery, like a lion’s pride resting in the shade. In “Untitled #56,” thousands of lines stack in procession over a length of papery architecture, puckered and pigmented in layers. Thin as eyelashes, the hand-painted marks and inky lines accumulate in rows as they assemble into a fragile geometry of grids and long sequences that seem to inflate and collapse as they mutate into long image fields.
    In the most recent drawing, “Untitled #63,” skinny lines assemble like train cars across a snowy expanse of rippled handmade paper. They morph into a thick dimensional weave that settles into a rectangle in the upper left corner, like the American flag.
    “My Jasper Johns drawing,” the artist said, smiling.
    Taken as a whole, the elements in “Untitled #63” reiterate twin footprints as they splay out in separate and distinct parts, like a complex series of fugues.
    “I’m continually surprised by Drew’s work and the subtle evocations of space and time she achieves with such minimal means,” said Amanda Church, an artist and part-time East Hampton resident. “In this case, patience rewards.”
    As Ms. Shiflett’s subject matter moves across the picture plane, it erupts like a series of paper cocoons. The structural metaphor in “Untitled #29” unfurls into a modern pictograph in which twin palettes extend into a void. Tartan patterns press forward, nudging against common boundaries in “Untitled #62,” and figuration re-emerges in “Untitled #55” like an ode to the corporeal self or a shield against mortality. Its irregular edges curl inward, puckered by glue and wetness.
    As Ms. Shiflett moves through her own evolution she’s like Theseus, who conquered the labyrinth of Crete by tracing his steps with a single strand of yarn. Guided by an internal compass, she has tunneled through, locating the eccentric pictorial logic that will fuel her vision, one line at a time.