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University of North Texas Resource Magazine online

Research, Scholarship & the Arts at the University of North Texas

Art simply

Humble materials, autobiography characterize Lawrence's work

by Kelley Reese

Under the delicate guidance of Annette Lawrence's graceful hands, the boundaries between sight and sound blur.

Inspired by a notebook of her own childhood piano theory homework, the latest body of work to come from Lawrence's Denton art studio is a series of drawings in which the implied visual movement of musical notes creates a sense of reverberation.

However, the pieces in that series, Theory, are about more than simply invoking sound from image.

"The thinking behind it is based on the hierarchy that's present in the way we know things and learn things," says Lawrence, M.F.A., an associate professor of visual arts at the University of North Texas. "It's the idea that what is valued is what is written, or that what you hear isn't given as much esteem as what you read."

Being in the work

Annette Lawrence, associate professor of visual arts, investigates knowledge, power and the passage of time in her intensely personal art.
Exploring that idea is familiar territory for Lawrence, a 39-year old New York City native whose pieces are held in numerous private and public collections, including the Dallas Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Lawrence's work also has been recognized as an important part of the national visual dialogue. Pieces from her Drawing Blood series were exhibited as part of the prestigious 1997 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Since 1989, Lawrence's art has taken many forms in its investigation of the ideas of knowledge and power while also considering the passage of time. But, almost always, it has been intensely personal.

Early text pieces, which explored the larger African American cultural experience, were partly about figuring out how she would fit into the paradigm, she says.

Drawing Blood, a series she began in 1990, used the dates of her menstrual cycle as text in spirals among marks made with her blood. She says that was the first time everything came together.

"I had been trying to figure out how to be in the work or use text that was substantially connected to me but also
connected to everyone at the same time," Lawrence says. "And people still continue to react to that series (which concluded in 1999). It's interesting how in our society, where the blood of violence and destruction and injury is seen as entertainment, these little marks of blood, which are part of a process that makes life possible, are forbidden or seen somehow as taboo.

"I don't even list blood as part of the materials. I just say mixed media, because the whole sensational aspect is not what I'm dealing with," she says. "That work is about the same thing everything else is about. It was just a way to say, 'This counts.'"

'A lot with a little'

Clockwise from bottom left: From Lawrence's Drawing Blood series, 11/97-11/98, 1998, mixed media on paper, 30 x 14 inches. From her Theory series, Theory #8, 2002, acrylic/graphite/ink on paper, 48 x 48 inches; Red Theory, 2003, acrylic/graphite/ink on paper, 36.5 x 48 inches; and Red Ellipse, 2002 (Installation 5), graphite/acrylic on paper, 88 x 92 inches. (All courtesy of Dunn and Brown Contemporary.) In her studio, Lawrence draws, photocopies, projects and traces the elements in her work many times before completing the final piece.

From that point on, Lawrence's work has maintained some sense of autobiography. She has used everything from her own blood and images of her ancestors to floor plans of her home and her childhood musical exercises in her art.

In her drawings, text — usually in the form of words, numbers, symbols or musical notes — is used as image alongside mathematical forms of spirals and grids.

During the past 15 years she has created a distinctive visual vocabulary that employs humble materials — brown craft paper with ink or acrylic paint but only in a palette of black, white, indigo blue and iron oxide red — as part of a piece's content.

"The materials are a really important part of the language to me in that they're fairly minimal," she says.

And her drawings seem to teeter precariously on the precipice of simple.

"I don't mind them being right on the line of not enough, but they have to be enough," she says.

Her sculptures, which are temporal pieces made from postal string, follow the same sensibility.

"Doing a lot with a little bit is such a core value for me," she says.

Usually large-scale installations, the string sculptures respond to the architecture of a space.

In 1994, when she needed a way to display paper-bag books during her residency at Project Row Houses in Houston, she built panels with string. Four years later, while working as a guest artist in Johannesburg, South Africa, she created a string installation solely for its own purpose.

"I wanted to fill the space with something that was very simple and substantial at the same time," she says.

Since then she has been invited to create 10 other string sculptures in galleries and museums around the country. A string installation she created in collaboration with Annette Carlozzi, curator of American and Contemporary Art for the Blanton Museum of Art, is showing at TestSite in Austin through Oct. 17.

Lawrence's drawings are also included through Oct. 9 in a group show in Dallas marking the fifth anniversary of Dunn and Brown Contemporary, the gallery that represents her.

The sculptures and the drawings are at once powerful and subtle, and Lawrence says that is part of the point.

"I like understanding things that I don't get immediately. I like having a time release on understanding or appreciating something," she says.

Start to finish

Lawrence installing one of her string sculptures in 2000 at the Dallas Museum of Art. "Because of the size of most of them, I don't know if I can do it or not until I do it," she says. "It's all very theoretical until it goes into the space and then it's like, 'Oh good, this does work.'" Courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art.

While the drawings may seem simplistic at first glance — appearing just as distorted circles among a series of lines, in the case of Theory — it soon becomes apparent there's much more to be considered.

Likewise, the process she uses to make the drawings is anything but simple.

"I usually think about what I'm going to do for a very long time before I start it," she says.

Figuring out how to do it is the next step.

"It's just working and looking, working and looking, and judging how it feels," she says. "With the Theory drawings, it wasn't until I put the staffs, the lines, vertically that it was there and as soon as I did that it was like, 'This is it, this is it.' It was a huge epiphany moment at like 4 o'clock in the morning."

Once she knows what she's doing and how, creating art becomes simple labor.

From start to finish she will photocopy, trace, project and photograph the images many times to deconstruct and reconstruct them visually before painting each drawing.

In the case of the sculptures, installing the intricate and immense pieces is simply a matter of "climbing a ladder and tying knots," she says.

A new series of work, which she says is still in its nascent form, occupied her summer.

The inspiration is five years' worth of the daily to-do lists she keeps in her pocket.

"It's basically my musings on the mundane," she says.

Interpreted through her eyes, under the guidance of her hands, the result will undoubtedly be anything but ordinary.

For more information about Lawrence and her work, go to