Art Review in The Globe and Mail, May 21st, 2011.


Larry Eisenstein: Defying the laws of optics


Larry Eisenstein at Loop Gallery
Until May 22, 1273 Dundas St. W., Toronto;

Larry Eisenstein needs to draw. Like Proust scrambling to ink his every memory, or a graffiti tagger constantly on the lookout for a fresh surface, Eisenstein is compelled to fill empty space – in order to both negate and own the passage of time. As he explains it, not drawing makes him anxious, yet individual drawings, once started, fill him with completion anxiety. Talk about approach-retreat syndrome.

In a varied and strange career history, one that includes major and minor exhibitions, an enviable gig as a baseball illustrator for a major league team (I mean that literally -- he drew portraits of players onto baseballs), time working as a teacher and a nearly two-decade-long hiatus from art making, Eisenstein has had plenty of years to figure out why he does what he does. But the jury, he says, is still in seclusion.

For now, us we mere spectators can revel in the latest iterations of Eisenstein’s long view; namely, his spectacularly intimate new show of works on paper, Doodactic, at Loop Gallery. Comprised of several sets of related works, Doodactic showcases Eisenstein’s otherworldly pen-and-ink creations, works that resemble internal organs, sea creatures, alien landscapes (and alien life forms), single-cell animals, scatological ooze, ice flows and stalactites, pollen and snowflakes, jellyfish, R. Crumb-style popping eyeballs and luscious organic patterns that would make William Morris drool.

What this diverse assembly of images shares, however, is the first thing every visitor to Loop Gallery comments on – Eisenstein's reality-defying ability to render his weird visions with the most microscopic ink incisions this side of brain surgery. If his artist statement claimed that the drawings were made by a team of well-trained voles, you'd want to believe it – because otherwise, you have to accept the fact that Eisenstein's practice defies the laws of optics.

For instance, in one 5- by 8-inch drawing, a fleshy cloud hangs in the top quarter, bulging with hundreds of irruptive bursts of skin, tangles of hair, single-hair filaments, and what look like bone fragments. The cloud lets loose a mudslide of blue Jello-y goo, goo that reforms in the lower quarter into what looks like a pulled-apart heart, a loop of veins, and a stick insect. The whole concoction is about the size of an adult’s thumb, and more detailed than a medieval tapestry.

Thin as a kitten’s eyelash, Eisenstein’s pen strokes are also as solid, and as determined, as a busy ant’s back legs (pardon the mixed metaphor, but Eisenstein's ethereal work prompts one to seek real-world, tangible, if atavistic, pairings). There appear to be no under-sketches, no traces of marks made over the top of earlier marks – thus betraying a fanatical process that is both unnerving and awe-inducing.

Despite the overt strangeness of Eisenstein’s tongues-tails-and-tumours topography, his utter representational wackiness, each drawing contains its own logic, a sense of completeness and dreamy plausibility. The works are not so much fantastical as they are near-realist, dream-real, a seamless blend of references to known biologies and Eisenstein’s own gristly hieroglyphics. The drawings are also very sexy. How could they not be, with all that fecundity in motion?

When Eisenstein talks about his practice, he is lucid about the pragmatics and gleefully imprecise about his intentions.

How do you make these works? What kinds of tools do you use?

I have two types of pens – one simulates a brush, the ink flows continuously, and for the detail work I use a pen that has replaceable nibs and cartridges and superfine points. The detail ones are from Japan and are hard to get here. The point is .003 millimetres wide. That’s about the equivalent of 15 bristles on a sable watercolour brush.

You must use a magnifying glass.

No, I don’t. I see really well up close, and I rarely get eye strain. And everybody asks me these questions! Ha! One of the things about working in these dimensions is that sometimes a drawing feels finished very early on, and then sometimes I feel trapped inside the drawing until I’ve basically destroyed the whole thing.

How important is it for the viewer to be aware of the activity behind the images?

I want it to look effortless, and I want people to be aware of the process. I go back and forth on this. Sometimes I just follow the stroke and allow the object to appear, to develop a life force of its own, a future, a memory, and a present. But sometimes an idea begins the process, I’m trying to make something materialize – I do the shape first and once I feel that something crisp has arrived, I relax and enjoy letting it grow.

But usually I don’t enjoy that first part, and I keep at something until either it arrives or it is destroyed. I get to the finished work by time spent in action, not meditation, but I know the works can look very thought out. And, to be honest, I don’t normally feel all that good about what I’m doing when I start – but once I’m in the work, I kind of leave the room. There’s nothing around me.

So maybe that is a meditative state? I'm watching all the time, but it’s a narrow vision. Being able to do anything you like on a blank piece of paper can be a very traumatic experience! Ha!

This interview has been condensed and edited. Larry Eisenstein will be giving an artist talk May 22 at Loop Gallery from 2-4 p.m.(free).