Crossing lines: ‘Expanded Drawing’ explores the outskirts of a medium

Jack Pavlik’s "12 Bands" grabs your attention before you even set foot in the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) gallery.

Positioned so that it is visible down a long, second-floor corridor at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Pavlik’s mechanical sculpture beckons visitors from nearly a city block away. Its namesake components — 12 thin strips of blue steel — undulate like prairie grass in the wind or kelp in the ocean tides.

It’s mesmerizing. And curious visitors who are drawn down that long corridor may be surprised when they find themselves in the middle of a drawing exhibition.

"Expanded Drawing" pushes and pulls at the definition of the medium. But what unites the elements of the show — paper cutouts, prints, calligraphy and kinetic sculpture — is a celebration of the line, the essence of drawing.

Nicholas Conbere’s landscapes come closest to the traditional definition of drawing, although the majority of his pieces in this show are prints. Still, those prints — made with a combination of digital and intaglio techniques — show off Conbere’s fine draftsmanship.

The large prints stitch together drawings of urban architecture and rural landscapes, suggesting the transformation of wild spaces by development, as well as the way time and the elements can return man-made spaces to their natural state.

Conbere’s circuitous compositions invite the viewer into the shifting environments, but one gets the sense the path he draws would be as difficult to follow as one of M.C. Escher’s impossible stairways. Conbere links a dirt trail to a crumbling bridge to a forgotten stone stairwell, all images that seem to have been drawn from life.

Michelle Johnson puts her pen to a very different use, weaving her spidery calligraphy into patterns that resemble fractals or Buddhist mandalas.

This looks like disciplined, meditative work. Seeing it, you imagine Johnson hunched over a table, slowly building on a pattern of overlapping Ss or Ks until it fills the page.

Johnson works with just one letter or several or sometimes whole words, layering them in different colors. The individual marks on the page begin to look like cloth fibers under the microscope.

Really, "weaving" is an appropriate word to describe Johnson’s exacting, repetitive technique. The MAEP gallery opens up onto an exhibition of modern textile art, which makes for an interesting comparison to what Johnson is doing.

Intricacy is part of what makes Sonja Peterson’s large-scale paper cutouts so appealing. Both of Peterson’s two pieces on display in "Expanded Drawing" are giant webs of paper in which the negative space has been precisely described by a sharp blade.

These webs — sometimes literally spider webs, but more often tangles of vines, thistles or roots — bind the images that form Peterson’s narrative. They’re also a visual metaphor for the food web, that updating of the old food chain concept from science class.

Food is at issue in both of Peterson’s cutouts. One concerns an interesting era in the history of the potato; the other dwells on some of the more disturbing aspects of the fast food industry, à la "Fast Food Nation."

As you’re taking all this in, "12 Bands" is silently working its magic in the background. (Pavlik has another piece in the show that, sadly, was malfunctioning during a recent visit.)

The workings of the sculpture are fascinating. A small electric motor pulls a bicycle chain that turns a shaft that, in turn, pumps 12 whimsically sculpted pistons. Those pistons gently prod the steel bands into a graceful swaying movement.

A spotlight above "12 Bands" projects its shadow onto the white gallery wall. As the springy bands warp, cross and uncross, a kind of live line drawing plays out in the shadows.

The shadow, then, is the opposite of what we think of as drawing. Instead of describing one shape, these lines shift and change. While a pen and ink is static, this dances.

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected].

Go see it

“Expanded Drawing” runs through March 15 in the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S. 888-MIA ARTS [642-2787]. www.artsmia.org.