Arts & Culture

‘The Nothing That Is’ brings art drawn on just about everything to Raleigh’s CAM

A detail from Daniel Davidson’s “Land of Me,” 2015, Mixed media on assembled papers, 70” x 46.”
A detail from Daniel Davidson’s “Land of Me,” 2015, Mixed media on assembled papers, 70” x 46.”

The classic, old-school image of drawing is that it’s a solitary pursuit generally practiced alone, with a goal of realistic depiction. Flying in the face of that is “The Nothing That Is,” an ambitious five-part show with more than 85 artists. It takes up almost all of Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum and will be on display through Labor Day.

“There’s this idea that if a drawing is not perfectly photo-realistic, then it’s (expletive),” said Bill Thelen, the show’s primary curator. “That’s wrong and ridiculous. People with a more unique style need to support each other. There’s a lot more to drawing, like the work that goes into it and the camaraderie of drawing together. I don’t think anyone will love absolutely everything in this show, but it does have something for everyone.”

Thelen is also director at Raleigh’s long-running Lump gallery. “The Nothing That Is” started out as a small drawing show he was going to do with two peers, New York artist Jason Polan (the auteur behind Taco Bell Drawing Club, among other interactive drawing projects) and Stefan Marx.

CAM management invited them to expand it to a bigger project. So Thelen and Polan invited other drawers they knew – many of whom they originally met through “Bad Touch,” a 2003 traveling show. “Bad Touch” played Lump as well as Philadelphia, Chicago and London, expanding as it went to eventually encompass 200 artists.

Notable works in “The Nothing That Is” include “Dirty III,” a paper-towel dispenser on which Brooklyn artist Daniel Davidson did elaborate drawings that can be torn off from a roll of paper; and a series of sketches by New York artist Christopher Schulz riffing on actor Seth Rogen’s unlikely status as a “bear icon” to the gay community.

Drawing at Taco Bell

Also notable are a number of pieces drawn from Polan’s Taco Bell Drawing Club, which started coming together after the artist moved to New York about 10 years ago. He would draw in public places and invite other people to bring their sketchpads to Taco Bell with him, and it grew from there.

By now, around 300 people around the country have become members. Joining gets you an actual membership card that reads, “OFFICIAL MEMBER TACO BELL DRAWING CLUB.”

“All you have to do is draw at Taco Bell,” said Polan, who is treasurer and archivist as well as founder. “And it’s funny, if I draw in any restaurant other than Taco Bell now, it feels like I’m cheating on them.”

He paused to laugh before continuing.

“It’s a fun, loose way to interact,” he said. “We have a wide range – Emmy-winning artists, mothers, 3-year-olds – and it’s very non-hierarchical. It seems silly and easy to chuckle at, but I take it very seriously and it’s important to me. A lot of people have produced a lot of artwork there.”

“Besides,” Thelen added, “who doesn’t love Taco Bell?”

Interactive efforts

Taco Bell Drawing Club points up the interactive nature of drawing as practiced by artists like Thelen and Polan, and it manifests in their organization of “The Nothing That Is.” The show is composed of five “chapters” including “Movement” (Chapter 3, primarily video and animation), “Locals Only” (Chapter 4) and “Open Source” (Chapter 5, which promotes social engagement through community-outreach events).

Chapter 1 is called “DDDRRRAAAWWWIIINNNGGG” and consists of works you’d recognize as drawings in a conventional sense. But Chapter 2, “Conceptual Approaches,” takes off on some radical tangents – like a printed-out text exchange between Thelen and artist John Neff, in which a description of a drawing stands in for the actual drawing.

“There are conceptual approaches that aren’t about the drawing itself so much as the idea driving it,” Thelen said. “One of the artists in Chapter 2 is Lucas Blalock, who is well-known as a photographer who also uses Photoshop. In that, he thinks like a drawer would by using the erase tool and the cut-and-paste tool.”

Another world of art

For inspiration in his thinking about organizing “Conceptual Approaches,” Thelen turned to 1953’s “Erased de Kooning,” in which pop artist Robert Rauschenberg simply erased a drawing by well-known artist Willem de Kooning, asked painter Jasper Johns to add a caption (“Erased de Kooning Drawing, Robert Rauschenberg, 1953”) and framed it. Another inspiration was a 2012 exhibit at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art by the painter Mark Bradford.

“Mark is known for big-scale paintings, and his show included a video about him,” Thelen said. “I was talking to him about that as a nice way to show how his mind worked and he said, ‘I consider that a drawing.’ That opened so many doors for me, thinking about it like that. There’s a whole other world of drawing.”

The way Thelen and Polan think of and present it, drawing can be anything you want it to be, not just marks on a surface.

“What you find in the art world is that artists aren’t only painters or drawers or videographers,” Polan said. “They’re just artists. So many approaches are project-based, using whatever medium seems best-suited to solve the problem. Drawing is a good way to inspire conversations with people.”

In that, drawing can be as fundamental as language itself.

“It’s an almost primitive urge,” said Thelen. “If you have time and a pencil and something to draw on, you’ll do it no matter your walk of life. Drawing is like the language of everything, not just art. Whenever I do anything, I always start with drawing to communicate in a visual way, get things down, see it a little differently.”

On view

What: “The Nothing That Is: A drawing show in five parts”

When: Through Sept. 7

Where: Contemporary Art Museum, 409 W. Martin St., Raleigh

Cost: $5; free on First Fridays and for CAM Raleigh members, children 10 and under, members of NARM and Mod/CO, active U.S. Military members and their families, area college students and N.C. State College of Design students, staff and faculty

Details: 919-261-5920 or