The Art of the Obscure
Craig Drennen got his first taste of the international art scene at a very important loading dock in the early 1990s. Beneath the white spirals of New York City’s iconic Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the young Drennen worked late into the night with a team of art handlers, carefully shipping, carrying and installing works of international acclaim. Little did he know he’d one day secure a place in the art world as an honored Guggenheim Fellow himself.
One of the arts’ most prestigious accolades, the Guggenheim Fellowship has been acknowledging exceptional artists, writers and researchers since 1925. This year, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s selection committee awarded fellowships to 173 of 2,830 hopeful applicants — one of which went to Drennen, associate professor of drawing, painting and printmaking at the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design in the College of the Arts. With a Guggenheim Fellowship in the Fine Arts, Drennen has joined the ranks of the world’s esteemed scholars and creatives. Ironically, he’s found his greatest success depicting rejected and failed cultural works.
He’s devoted himself to discarded, overlooked and panned productions for years. For the last decade, Drennen’s work — predominantly painting but also performance, sculpture and installations — has focused on the Shakespeare play “Timon of Athens.” Rarely taught in literature classes today, it’s the Bard’s only known play that never reached the stage during the Elizabethan era. Drennen puts characters from the play on his own stage.
With names such as “The Actors,” “Bandit,” “The Mistresses,” “The Painters” and “The Poet,” many of Drennen’s exhibits take direct inspiration from the script. He’s still working his way through all 31 characters, exploring them with contemporary sensibilities and creating highly abstracted portraits of each.
Drennen credits his fixation on this unsung but complex Shakespearean text to its obscurity, which allows him the freedom to claim uncharted land and avoid tired themes and subjects. He likens these failed works as rooms he can explore endlessly while diversifying his media and honing formal techniques. His art allows him to take ownership of projects eliminated from the popular canon and produce visual reflections on history’s little-known, failed masterpieces.
Drennen’s art has been widely exhibited throughout the U.S. Over the last year, his work has been featured by Art Papers, Burnaway, the Ernest G. Welch Gallery, Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, Swan Coach House Gallery and Hathaway Gallery. He’s also been profiled in Artforum, Art in America and The New York Times.
“‘Timon of Athens’ is a corrupted text of indeterminate history, questionable sources and a dubious relationship to the respected canon,” he said. “That is to say, it mirrors my own position in the art world perfectly.”
Now that he’s received a Guggenheim, of course, some people might disagree.
Photo by Meg Buscema