Painting and pirouetting on paper

Boundaries traditionally exist between different artistic disciplines. The contemporary approach to understanding art, however, encourages artists to eliminate these boundaries and operate outside their constraints. Instead of artists being strictly visual, physical or musical, today’s artists are a combination of these, as seen through the work of Trisha Brown. Brown is an internationally acclaimed choreographer known for her work in the field of dance. Although most often recognized for the choreography of Set and Reset (1983), her work also includes the pieces Glacial Decoy (1979) and Locus (1975), among others. This extensive experience in the performing arts has led to experimentation within the visual arts as well, all of which are exemplified in her solo exhibition, Trisha Brown: Drawing on Land and Air, currently on display at the USF Contemporary Art Museum (CAM).

The focus of the exhibit is Brown’s drawings and etchings, although videos of her dance performances and choreography are also included. This arrangement – perhaps unexpected due to Brown’s heavy association with dance – is intentional.

According to Margaret Miller, curator of the exhibit and Director of CAM and Graphicstudio, the arrangement is meant to “reverse the way people think about (Brown),” and highlight her lesser-known works.

The exhibit’s display challenges the viewer to redefine pre-conceived notions of Brown, a true “pioneer of the avant-garde,” Miller said. Unlike most choreographers, Brown explores multiple forms of media in an attempt to invent a new vocabulary for dance. She breaks boundaries by reinventing the expectations for the viewer. For example, some of her pieces are meant to be performed in alternative settings, such as on rooftops and in abandoned sites, instead of the typical stage of a dance hall.

Brown often collaborates with other artists and musicians for the creation of her pieces. For set and costume design, Brown has worked with visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Nancy Graves. For original scores, sound artists such as Laurie Anderson and John Cage have been enlisted.

In order to better understand Brown, one only has to view Locus, a piece that explores Brown’s interest in the exploration of her personal biography. “The Locus Cube” drawings, which consist of ink, pencil and felt-tip pen on paper, are visual diagrams of a cube and accompanying numbers. These numbers are not random; rather, each number is assigned to a letter of the alphabet in ascending order – “A” is the number “1” and “Z” is the number “26.” The parts of the cube, which are imaginary and meant to surround the body, are also numbered. Brown spelled out parts of her biography, such as her birthplace and colleges she attended, and then attached each letter with its given number. For example, “Trisha Brown was born in Aberdeen, Wash.” “Trisha Brown” became the number sequence, “20, 18, 9, 19, 8, 1, 2, 18, 15, 23, 14.”

Brown matches these numbers to the parts of the cube with identical numbers to determine the movements she will make. For example, if the number “20” appears on the cube in the front and to the upper-left, and the number “18” appears on the cube in the back and to the lower-right, Brown would move her body from a position that could be described (for illustrative purposes only – not the artist’s actual description) as “front, up, left” to “back, down, right.” This choreography spells out Brown’s whole history – a unique form of biography that assigns movement to memory. This fascination with movement is a recurring theme throughout Brown’s work. In the “It’s a Draw” series, Brown places pieces of charcoal and oil stick between her toes and then proceeds to dance on top of large pieces of paper (8 1/2 by 10 feet each) that are stretched out horizontally across the floor. At times, the artist literally falls and even throws herself onto the paper, using the weight and position of her body to move the writing instruments around the canvas. These drawings become a study in movement. They allow Brown to diagram the thought that forms the basis of her choreography. The movements are choreographed in a sense, but due to the familiarity of the motions, the movements can be seen as improvisation as well.

The markings in “It’s a Draw” are varied – at times strong, dark and consistent, yet at other times soft, light and hesitant. These differences in the marks are the illustrative reflection of Brown’s decision-making process. In fact, in the video version of “It’s a Draw,” Brown is filmed while developing the drawings. She fluctuates through spurts of excited and confident movements, only to temporarily rest and contemplate the next series of gestures. The finished pieces are hung vertically on the wall.

In similar fashion, Brown created a series of 10 etchings while in residence at Graphicstudio in the fall of 2006. Again, the focus is on the movements found within Brown’s choreography. However, instead of drawing with her feet, Brown coated the soles of her feet with ink and then danced on copper plates. The resulting impressions of her heels and the drag of her feet from spinning around evoke a sense of movement and wonder for the viewer. The finished etchings were then used to make prints – 35 prints of each of the 10 etchings were made and signed by Brown.

Now 70, Brown is no longer actively dancing. However, she has formed the world-renowned Trisha Brown Dance Company, a troupe that travels the world performing Brown’s masterpieces of choreography. During one of these performances, Brown created “Handfall,” a series of 32 pen-on-paper drawings of her hands, arms and shoulders. The series of drawings form a sort of mental flipbook in which the sequential arrangement of each creates a sense of continuous and connected movement. Although the CAM exhibit focuses mainly on the interpretations of Brown’s work as seen through the visual arts, there are still chances on campus to witness Brown’s choreography. USF dance students will be performing Set and Reset/Reset, a performance that features the restaging of Brown’s Set and Reset, on Feb. 16-17 and 22-24. The Trisha Brown Dance Company will then perform several of Brown’s pieces, including Set and Reset, Geometry of Quiet and PRESENT TENSE at USF on Feb. 28.

Brown will be participating in a Symposium at USF Theatre 1 today from 10 a.m. to noon. An exhibition reception will be held at CAM tonight from 7-9 p.m.