Somehow, Gretchen Frances Bennett's drawings shimmer.
The artist pulls from personal photos, film stills, and the deep, ever-replenishing well of YouTube and Instagram to base her drawings off of, preserving glitches, fuzziness, accidental tears, and worn edges in the final product. With colored pencils, she elevates photos and pixels from the mundane to a spiritual level.
There's nothing particularly special about the materials she uses, though she tells me that she prefers non-waxy colored pencils so that the colors gradually build up. But the resulting compositions—complicated by the visual equivalent of the sound of static in a radio transmission—look almost like holographs appearing before you underneath the soft museum light. The pencil strokes are short and layered, seemingly vibrating, as if quietly humming or beaming in from another planet or consciousness.
The title of the Seattle artist's exhibition at the Frye Art Museum is a definition: Air, the free or unconfined space above the surface of the earth. "It speaks to my position on the work, as an observer looking in," she explains. "It's also the space between the marks and how the drawing can shift depending on the viewer's position."
The show consists of Bennett's key works from the past 10 years, plus five new large-format drawings. There is also a slideshow by Seattle photographer Paulo Castillo, one of her former students, though the connection to Bennett's drawings is not readily apparent. On March 15, Bennett is also collaborating with Seattle artist mmuumm (Brit Ruggirello) on a performance to celebrate the opening of the show.
Bennett's piece Narrative Drawing is a rendering of images, videos, and messages that Bennet encountered in her Instagram and YouTube feeds—everything from a Hilton Als post on Virginia Woolf's "frock consciousness" to a video of her niece talking to Bennett's sister, holding a baby. The artist says she likes YouTube because it's like a portal; it's a deep social media platform with no wall, a stream one can wade through and spend all day in or on.
What attracts me to Bennett's work is that she makes concrete what is essentially just code in our computers or on our phones. There's an intangibility to our life online; we all have this cache of likes that get saved on a server, but nowhere else physically. With Narrative Drawing, Bennett turns digital phenomena into something you can touch. "I wanted something for this body of work that was momentary in that way, but also let me manifest in the physical."
Her method of drawing is meditative, and the results can be transcendent. I feel this transcendence when standing in front of Sunburst, a drawing of a still from Céline Sciamma's 2011 film, Tomboy. It's a screenshot that no longer requires a screen, no longer needs electricity—a very literal form of transcending media—and yet it simultaneously captures the essence of its digital origin.
"The thing I'm really getting to," she says, "is not just me as a body in the studio moving through space and showing that and showing the tracery of that, but also understanding myself within a landscape. Whether that landscape is a YouTube impression or the literal landscape."