The big pictures of James Drake come framed in heavy steel. Some weigh 1,500 pounds. Like everything he makes, they're objects on the border. They're both public works of art and private meditations. They're paintings yet they're sculptures. They're intimate as nighttime fears, belligerent as tanks.
Six are on display in his Gallery One exhibit, "James Drake: Place and Passage," at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He makes multiples as well, and a number are on view at the Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St. NW.
They are never quick-hit objects. He shuns the easy read. Drake lives in El Paso where the shallow Rio Grande draws a line between prosperity and poverty, Protestant and Catholic, Mexico and Texas, and the spirit of that border land -- with its whores and its barbed wire, its mesquite smoke and shadows, its machismo and its pieties -- is the muse that he invokes.
Almost everything he makes is airy yet oppressive, metaphorical yet palpable, and -- like the land of la frontera, eerily divided. Every reference he evokes is countered by another. Here's a threatening machine gun, manufactured by the artist -- that may be emblematic of revolution or oppression; here's a heavy hunter's bow, also fashioned out of steel, or a stately altar triptych (hinting at the church), or fields of pure color -- the red of drying blood or the fresh green of fresh hope.
Drake was born in Lubbock, Tex., in 1946. His first language was Spanish. From age 9 to age 13, he lived in Guatemala. Though he earned his MFA in up-to-date Los Angeles, it is El Paso's two-ness -- and its rigid-yet-porous boundary -- that is his central metaphor. He makes Latino-gringo art.
His monolithic steel forms, the style of his big, crude charcoal drawings (they suggest David Salle's) and his acknowledgments of older art (Drake has paid deep homage to Gericault and Goya, and to the Winged Victory) feel more North American than Mexican. But Mexico is present too, in almost everything he makes. One feels its degradations in the "street girls" he portrays. Its Catholicism glowers in the shapes of his diptych and his triptychs. The pikes of its conquistadors appear in his pictures, as does its Day of the Dead darkness. The cooking fires of its poor have burned the singed wood he employs.
It's not what separates the cultures that one feels most often in Drake's art. Instead it's what connects them. Are the weapons he returns to Mexican or Texan? -- that fierce bone-handled dagger stabbed into the halo that surrounds his self-portrait, those pocketknives and arrows. The answer is they're both. Is that eager man nuzzling the smiling whore a Yankee or a Latin? There is no way to tell. The diptych at the Corcoran that Drake calls "Puente Negra" (1989) includes a harsh depiction of two of the 16-foot-high black gates that descend, like steel guillotines, to seal off the railroads between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez precisely at the point where they cross the border. Crossings and transitions are crucial to his art.
The crossing, the transition, that most gives his work its power is that which cuts apart, yet links, the declared and the concealed, the public and the personal. The dark, mysterious bundle hanging from the center of "Avenida Juarez" (1989) may suggest a hobo's bundle, or the meager possessions of an immigrant stealing across the border, but what it contains is known only to the artist. Words like mumbled messages that one can't quite decipher occasionally appear behind Drake's tarry blacks.
Drake seldom speaks explicitly. His "Blue Loveseat" (1989), with its motorcycle engine and its expanse of blue hinting at the sky, is like a dream of freedom, of salvation and of speed. His objects may be massive, even confrontational, but Drake's messages are subtle. He constantly holds back. One feels that reticence most clearly in the triptych he calls "Stroll in Alameda Park" (1989).
"Alameda Park," he explains in the Corcoran's catalogue, "is in Mexico City where we lived for a while when I was young. When I was about fourteen, we stayed at the Hotel del Prado. In the Hotel del Prado is a monumental mural by Diego Rivera. Part of the mural shows Rivera dressed as a boy, holding hands with a cartoon skeleton and surrounded by his wives and family. ... I used to sit, literally for hours, and stare at that mural and think: someday I am going to be an artist. The name of that painting is 'Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda.' Across the street from the del Prado is the actual Alameda Park. ... I suppose 'Stroll in Alameda Park' is a self-portrait, like Rivera's. ... But I am not looking for the viewer to form a gestalt about me. I am not looking for a narrative. This is obviously my stroll. Someone else can have another stroll in my park or in a different park."
Looking at that vast and steely picture -- with its rectangle of verdant green, its panel of singed wood, and its photographs of the artist -- you are thrust into Drake's private world, and yet you're on your own. That sense of drifting across borders is what's best about his art. His drawing isn't great, his squarish, massive forms are a bit too repetitious, his lithographs at times feel a little thin, but when looking at his massive works one never doubts his passion, or the weight of his conviction.
His exhibition at the Corcoran was arranged by Curator Terrie Sultan. Like the other artists she has chosen for the Gallery One series, Drake prefers to keep his secrets. He makes mysterious art.
James Drake: Place and Passage, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, closes Nov. 11. His show at the Fendrick Gallery runs through Oct. 13.