We recently visited MAKE, a progressive art studio in Baltimore; Dontavious Woody was one of the artists we were most interested in meeting, struck by his compelling works on paper that convey an enduring fondness for humanity.
Whereas many of his studio mates use source material from online research, Woody prefers print media - perusing magazines and books to cull imagery that informs the abstracted forms populating his representational narratives. This may simply reflect a preference for the physicality of print, but his resulting body of work also seems to suggest a fundamental aspect of his process; images are found serendipitously, without searching for specific content.
Quite similar to Marlon Mullen or Helen Rae, Woody’s practice culminates in inventive contemporary reductions of imagery from art history or popular culture. Engaging with a diverse range of subject matter, his earlier drawings focused primarily on portraits (often of celebrities or political figures), while more recent works have transitioned to more complex tableaus (as seen above).
The raw honesty of Woody’s depictions warrants reflection on the nature of drawing in general and the authenticity of an isolated drawing. The unrefined mark has historically been understood as a trace of the artist’s process left behind. But also, in the marks that are not altered or hidden, the artist's hand is most distinct - inevitable idiosyncrasies as fundamental as fingerprints.
Artists have always sought means to obscure their hand or deny exposure, from the mathematical rules of the Greek Ideal to Gerhard Richter’s squeegee. Realism strives to hide the hand by refining mark-making in order to approach a consensus of resembling visual phenomenon - generating a series of marks, while constantly editing and shifting them until they collectively appear less like a series of choices made by one person, but rather a consensus - an image that may be called “objective”. Woody’s process does not strive to achieve this.
Woody’s drawings seem to establish the story of a drawing process in which the subject is observed, elements are chosen and described with line; that line remains unchanged, with each choice conforming to the last. It isn’t a process characterized by recreating the image, but of continuing to follow the impulse that led him to select the image - a record of Woody’s exploration of his attraction to an image that we’re permitted to witness and consider.
In the case of Woody’s recent works, he examines images of interactions between figures, often in private spaces, but with the suggestion of an exterior existence that they may confront together - the wedding, a circus audience, or the landscape that lies beyond a window.