Full-bodied drawing

For Lori Esposito, gesture is everything

Lori Esposito's "Nesting Season." Credit: Submitted image

THE WEDGE — Every drawing is, in its way, a record of an artist’s movements, an improvised performance of marks, smudges and erasures that translate action into image.

The artist Lori Esposito delights in this transformation. In her recent drawings, Esposito’s primary tool isn’t a brush or a pen or a piece of chalk; it is her body, and the mark making is done with her fingers, her feet, her hands and knees and forearms.

“I always warn my drawing students I teach a very athletic drawing class,” she said recently, while installing her show “Everything is Entrance” at Soo Visual Arts Center. “I want that mark-making to be evidentiary of your physical presence on this planet.”

In some cases, her drawings are literally that: documentation of everyday motions, like pulling her fingers through her hair or brushing her teeth, that Esposito captures by making repetitive gestures in wet pigment. But in other cases she uses very similar techniques to reach beyond the physical, producing work that could be described as visionary — even, with her permission, psychedelic.

Those drawings are wild, zebra-striped things. Dark and light contour lines trace convoluted shapes inspired by plants and flowers, but sometimes the images look more like masks or coiled snakes. True to the psychedelic experience, they mix the grotesque with the sublime.

Both bodies of work are grounded in the philosophy and practice of Asian brush painting techniques. Esposito studied Chinese brush painting and sumi-e, a similar Japanese style, in which the artist attempts to capture the essence of a still life or landscape through a few decisive brushstrokes.

Esposito’s innovation was to use that same kind of calligraphic expression to describe not what she saw, but how she moved. And instead of channeling all her energy into one, perfectly expressive brushstroke, she works and reworks her drawings, building up layers of abstract forms before molding them into recognizable images.

That these images tend to resemble stems, leaves and conical flower blooms has to do with a deep — possibly genetic — interest in botany.

“I had a grandfather on my mother’s side who used to work for the police because he could identify where bodies were buried based on what plants were growing there,” she said.

Today, we might call him a forensic botanist. In Tennessee in the 1930s and ’40s, they called him psychic.

Esposito was born in California, but she’s moved around a lot in her life, and the place she currently calls home is a farm near Coolville, Ohio, where she lives with her boyfriend, Duane McDiarmid, who is also an artist and traveled with her to Minneapolis for the opening. Located in southeastern Ohio, on the edge of Appalachia, Coolville is a fitting place for someone with an affinity for plants.

“It’s the furthest north region of southern plant cultures and the furthest south region of northern plant cultures,” McDiarmid explained. “It’s an incredibly rich region of plant biodiversity.”

Inspiration grows in the fields and forests around her barn-studio, and the setting affords wonderful opportunities for observation of plant life. But it’s through gesture that Esposito’s work comes alive. Through her movements, she’s attempting to capture “a sort of aura image of a plant,” she said.

Esposito’s action drawings depict another kind of aura, the wake her body leaves as it travels through space. And she’s found beauty in even the most mundane tasks.

“The drawing process is deriving from something that isn’t stylized,” she explained. “Like: How do I really cross my legs, like when I’m sitting and waiting? Or how do I fidget in my chair?”

For her drawing “Action: Crossing Legs” — one of two drawing performances conducted for the SooVAC show — Esposito laid sheet of synthetic paper on the gallery floor, covered it in a gloopy mix of vegetable shortening and blue pigment and then drew with her feet, making repeated motions that mimicked crossing and uncrossing her legs. The gesture created two sets of overlapping, striated arcs, resembling a shelf mushroom growing up the side of a tree.

Esposito said gesture became more important in her work as she saw it deemphasized in life. It is digitized and shifted online, where emotion is expressed with the simple swipe of a finger across an iPad. Esposito’s response was to make gesture into a kind of ritual, a physical act meant to calm the spirit.

“I think it’s important to bring into balance our physical bodies with that shift,” she said.

“Everything is Entrance” runs through June 22 at Soo Visual Arts Center, 2638 Lyndale Ave. S. 871-2263. soovac.org