Is drawing the new painting? Laura Hoptman, organizer of the much-praised New York exhibition "Drawing Now," up until Jan. 6 at the Museum of Modern Art's outpost in Queens, seems to think so. Simple sketches and preparatory studies need not apply. Hoptman's picks boast as much time, effort and finish as any work on canvas. Intricate ends unto themselves, these pictures have a nearly 19th-century zest for description and narrative.
I couldn't help but think of Hoptman's show while checking out Nancy Wolf's pencil drawings at Marsha Mateyka Gallery here in Washington. Wolf's works, as packed with information as a Bosch painting and as precise as old anatomical illustrations, are of a piece with works in that MoMA show. They'd fare well in Hoptman's "visionary architecture" section, alongside Paul Noble's Tower of Babel-style visions in graphite.
Wolf's pictures are both barometers of the latest architectural developments and cautionary tales about the urban landscape. She juxtaposes versions of contemporary and historical buildings to create desolate uber-cities populated by hordes of tiny figures recognizable from Renaissance painting, commedia dell'arte and Vogue.
I suspect Wolf's reliance on postmodern pastiche kept her out of a show like MoMA's, with its emphasis on innovative style. Nevertheless, her mix of familiar faces and forms forces the eye to roam again and again across her pictures, picking up new details every time. Culture vultures, especially aficionados who have tracked New York's recent architectural developments, can scan Wolf's drawings and find quotations of the latest in design.
From her studio in SoHo, Wolf has kept an eye on neighborhood transformation. She isn't pleased. Irked by the tyranny of the fancy-pants set, who have turned former warehouses into Prada outlets and multimillion-dollar condos, she registers a complaint in "Loft Follies": A massive rehabbed loft building sprouts a ceremonial staircase lifted from an Asian palace. Eighteenth-century ladies and Chinese dignitaries populate the scene; only the well-to-do, it seems, can live here. To underscore her point, Wolf transplanted Christian de Portzamparc's dazzling Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton tower from its spot on 57th Street to her downtown scene. The luxury conglomerate's faceted skyscraper stands implicated in the theft of urban life from regular Joes.
The witty way that Wolf taps centuries-old architectural forms to make her arguments, and the exuberance of her renderings of the posh addresses she reviles, help Wolf avoid mere hand-wringing. In fact, I'm not altogether sure she isn't a bit excited by the architectural and economic clashes she chronicles. She hasn't alienated the Prada shoppers, she's co-opted them.
It's true that New Yorkers of late have been witnessing a rollout of tour de force design from conglomerates hoping to build their own Emerald Cities. But the fact remains that the rich and powerful have been transforming cities for millennia. Baroque Rome, with its powerful popes who converted avenues and piazzas into grand stage sets, was the same kind of place.
Wolf makes the same connection between baroque theatrics and modern-day built environments, lifting motifs from 17th-century French engraver Jacques Callot and inserting them next to titanium tornadoes by modern-day-baroque architect Frank Gehry. In her vision, they're two of a kind.
Gehry's undulating forms hang in the air like dark clouds over a downtown still shaken by the World Trade Center collapse. The twin towers have appeared frequently in Wolf's drawings over the past two decades, and their cataclysmic demise, too, has found a place in "Remains of the Day." She's enlisted a Callot-style dragon from the Frenchman's spooky chronicle of sin, "The Temptation of Saint Anthony," to oversee a scene of mayhem populated by skeletons, rescue workers and the Grim Reaper. While something of a paradox, invoking baroque Sturm und Drang files the recent tragedy next to centuries of disasters and cautionary tales, making Wolf's piece one of the least hysterical reactions to Sept. 11 I've seen so far. Hoptman, who is curator of contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, may have overlooked Wolf for her MoMA show, but the artist's vision places her squarely in the Now of both draftsmanship and culture.
Dan Steinhilber at Signal 66 Washington is lucky to have artist Dan Steinhilber around. His installations and constructions made of materials from the 7-Eleven aisles consistently transform convenience culture into artful gems. Four new works at Signal 66 -- paper-clad wire hangers hung floor-to-ceiling like oversize origami, an abstract painting out of toothpaste, a sculpture out of inflated trash bags and a sculpture filled with soda pop -- are the kind of smart works this city needs more of.
Steinhilber owes much to other artists -- Tom Friedman especially. Friedman, subject of a New Museum survey last year in New York, made a painting from toothpaste not unlike Steinhilber's back in 1989. Still, I can forgive Steinhilber this too-liberal pilfering when faced with his more innovative riffs on the past. His collection of vertical plastic tubes filled with orange, red and green soda glowing nearly as bright as neon is a stunning sculpture on par with any number of great artists working today. Steinhilber has worked in colored water before, but this piece, with its nods to the striped paintings of Washington Color School artist Gene Davis and the fluorescent tubes of Dan Flavin, is his strongest to date.
Hanging Tim Beard's laconic abstract paintings next to Steinhilber's gems isn't doing the painter any favors. His weary colors and loose organic shapes get lost behind Steinhilber's exuberant installations.
Nancy Wolf at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, 2012 R St. NW, Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-328-0088, to Saturday.
Dan Steinhilber and Tim Beard at Signal 66, 926 N St. NW, Friday 5-8 p.m., Saturday noon-5 p.m., or by appointment, 202-842-3436, to Dec. 22.