"The Big Draw"

By Steven Wells
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Feb. 20, 2009

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"We should have a grouch! At the opening! A grouch in a clown suit! Ha! A ha ha! A ha ha ha ha!"

The artist shrieks and clutches his genitals. He's naked apart from his beret, and smeared head-to-foot in chalk, clay, pigs' blood and cocaine--the horribly sticky mixture that coats the floors and ceilings of this modest South Philly row house after the explosion of an art bomb of planet-shattering proportions.

That bomb was "The Big Draw." Twelve artists locked in a house/gallery with one huge roll of paper and lots of sharpened pencils. No one sleeps. No one is allowed to leave. For 24 hours. It's Big Brother meets Gitmo meets art. The ferocious tiger of creativity will be lured roaring out of its cave by the stinking raw meat of sleep deprivation and the savage clashing of a dozen massive egos.

What art is likely to result? No one can say. This is a unique experiment. Apart from maybe the Bayeux Tapestry--the 230-foot-long celebration of the 1066 Norman Conquest of England stitched by a team of medieval French birds back in the day.

Okay, I lied about the clay, pigs' blood, cocaine and locks. And the beret. And--after last-minute pullouts--there are only 10 of them. Five women and five men. All white, all young. All but one moved to Philly from the suburbs of lesser cities. And all disappointingly nice.

I'd been hoping for the odd shrieking fit, a couple of full-blown nervous breakdowns, a drug overdose or two, much vigorous physical coupling, gratuitous nudity, lewd dancing, fist fighting and drunkenness. Plus lots of tantrums. None of which actually happened.

My House Gallery is part of Philly's groovy and utterly punky lo-fi DIY arts scene. Instead of waiting for the bread-head galleries to recognize your genius, why not cut out the tasteless bourgeois parasites and turn your own house into a gallery? Which is what 23-year-old sculptor Alex Gartelmann and his roommates have done.

For "The Big Draw" Gartelmann asked a dozen young Philly artists for 10 words that sum up their work. He then synthesized those words into a question that, boiled down to its bones, read: "What would your ideal sociocultural realm be like?"

The artists: Andrew Brehm, Aimee Christopher, Katie Elia, Hannah Heffner, Jim Grilli, Jenny Kanzler, Adam Oestreicher, Fernando Ramos, Nora Reneck-Rineheart, Hop Bryan Rice and David Staniunas.

I join the 24-hour drawing marathon at 2:10 p.m. on Saturday--40 minutes after kick off. I expect to discover several artists already naked, covered in fluorescent paint and wriggling on their bellies across the brown paper like snakes high on hallucinogenics. But no, they're still talking. About gentrification and mortgages and house prices and suburbia and gated communities and not quite feeling part of the community one has recently joined.

In short it's the sort of stuff you'd expect to hear at a suburban dinner party rather than a gathering of young minds made irresponsibly giddy by the prospect of blasting off on a punk rock rocketship adventure where absolutely anything could happen.

I rejoin them at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday. I've slept and showered and eaten properly. They haven't.

Luckily these kids are deodorized; otherwise you suspect they'd stink. A few have made it through the night by taking a caffeine and creatine sports supplement provided by Alex that, while it might be legal, probably shouldn't be.

"The two hours before dawn were the worst," says hollow-eyed 26-year-old Aimee Christopher. Actually she's not hollow-eyed. In fact they're all looking remarkably chipper. This is why we send people in their 20s out to fight wars and attend the Glastonbury festival. If this were a bunch of fortysomething artists, at least three of them would be dead.

They're working on a strip of paper taped to the wall. The highlight is what looks like a Viking being unexpectedly sodomized by the Grinch. There are also lots of cockroaches, courtesy of 23-year-old Hannah Heffner. They symbolize the ability to survive civilization, she says. But only after I kinda make her. Turns out artists desperately craving sleep can be made to say almost anything. Which is why sleep deprivation is the favorite torture technique of tyrants and terrorists everywhere. And why parents of newborn babies are always babbling idiots.

The art I can see looks great--one huge screwball fuck-off psycho-doodle-doo. It's the Bayeux Tapestry recreated by Philly artists--some of them off their formerly suburban tits on sports supplements. "And change!" says Alex. They all swap places to embellish or deface each other's work. This is when the Viking gets a Grinch rooting him up his Scandinavian shitter.

Flashback: I'm in fifth-grade art class. We've been split into teams of four and told to paint an alien planet. I do an awesome carnivorous alien mushroom with crazy waving fanged tentacles. Then another kid, tasked with painting the background, can't be arsed painting around the tentacles so he paints over them. So I hit him. His mate piles in and hits me back. So I throw the brush water at him, miss and ruin the painting on the next table. A riot ensues. It consumes the whole school and rapidly spreads to others. The army is called in. Order is restored only after the deaths of 15 students and three police officers. All art is banned in English schools for a generation.

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