From February 16 through April 22, an exhibition called Confluences of 50 meticulous and loose drawings will sprawl across two upstairs galleries in the Missoula Art Museum. On a recent Wednesday, though, the works were still stored in a cluttered basement museum room, so I went there and assistant curator and preparator John Calsbeek unfurled elaborate, layered drawings that had been rolled up in poster tubes and spread them out on a padded table.
He sifted through paper stacked in cardboard boxes and brought out delicate abstractions of monumental forms. He wore white gloves and pointed out decorative motifs that were borrowed from Islamic art. He showed me that the drawings were done on mylar, a semi-translucent material, and showed me how sheets of this material were layered atop one another. He showed me hidden daubs of paint and marks that indicated how the drawings are to be arranged. He showed me, in short, what seemed like blueprints for the lost civilization of someone else's dreams.
The dreamer of these works is Doug Russell, an artist and professor who lives and works in Laramie, Wyo., and travels regularly to Turkey. "I go to Turkey and I do a lot of drawing on site and make very careful studies," he says. "And a lot of that stuff goes into my brain...I'm not really referring to anything specific when I'm doing the larger drawings. I'm more or less pulling from memory. And in that way, maybe it's similar to a jazz piece, where you have the set structure of the song but then you're allowed to move inside of that."
This tension, between orderly structure and improvisatory composition, is evident in Russell's drawings. At first glance, the pieces in his Ebb and Flow series call to mind M.C. Escher's drawings of impossible buildings and stairwellsexcept, in Russell's work, all of the laboriously constructed forms have been leveled by an earthquake and worn away over time.
Over the course of 12 large, detailed renderings, Russell depicts modern and traditional Islamic buildings in various states of decompositionpartially erased, purposely smudged. They tilt or are turned upside-down. They seem to be built over each other, on top of each other. The canvases are often crowded and confusing, but their composition never appears arbitrary. Russell makes exacting, compressed and layered depictions that capture the chaos of historical change.
"The obvious thing is, I layer the mylar in referencing the fact that there's layers of history," he says. "And again, when I'm traveling abroad and I see a street in Istanbul or a street in Rome where there's a 2,000-year-old piece of architecture in one place and right next to it some more modern building, and then there might be something Byzantine underneath that, and there's, like, a telephone or an internet line strung along the wall from one building to another, it's obvious how nothing really leaves us. It all sort of stays around and gets reused and gets built upon and taken apart and built into something else. So, I think that's just an obvious part of my process: a fascination with that layering and depth, really, of history."
The drawings in the other two series of work that will be on display at the MAM, Edifice and Empire, are quieter, sparer and more abstract than those of Ebb and Flow but they continue the project of documenting an imagined and ruined world.
"Both the Empire and the Edifice drawings are literally abstract but they're also more amorphous and relaxed," Russell says. "If you want to think of it more as an impression of monumental large architecture, maybe it's more of a feeling through the process of drawing of what I feel when I look at some great piece of architecture...They're not meant to depict as much as to express a feeling."
Doug Russell's Confluences opens at the MAM Thursday, Feb. 16, with an Artini reception from 6 to 9 PM, and an artist's talk at 7 PM.