Knitting his way to the top
Jim Drain’s unusual creations cause a stir
By Christine Temin, Globe Staff | June 26, 2005
BASEL, Switzerland — The jurors for the Baloise Art Prize came around to New York dealer Carol Greene’s booth at Art Basel the morning of June 13, while artist Jim Drain was still installing his show. That night, Greene’s cellphone rang. Drain, a 29-year-old from Providence, had won.
Art Basel is unquestionably the most prestigious contemporary art fair on the international circuit. And the Baloise prize puts the winner center stage. (There are two awards annually: British video artist Ryan Gander was this year’s other choice.) The award ”catapults Jim to another level,” says Greene, whose gallery, Greene Naftali, has represented Drain for two years.
”Euphoric” is how Greene describes her state of mind on June 14, when important collectors, curators, and critics got an advance peek at the show before it opened to the public.
”Numb” is how the artist sums up his reaction to winning the prize. ”I was really concerned about this work,” Drain says of the pieces that made up his installation, all made since January. ”I was afraid people here would just laugh at them.” They didn’t. They bought them instead.
”Everything was sold during the first hour of the show,” Greene says proudly, at prices starting at $3,000 for the collage ”Ohio, the Heart of it All,” a title spelled out in a necklace of beads, which are juxtaposed with contrasting cut-out images of the killings at Kent State and Edward Hicks’s idyllic painting ”The Peaceable Kingdom.” Drain’s largest work at Basel, ”Dominion,” looks like a terrible genetic mistake and sprouts dozens of knitted ”limbs”; it went for $18,000.
Drain prefers gaudy materials — silver fringe, strings of red plastic beads that look like drops of blood, a bath towel with an image of a bare-breasted beauty lying on a beach, ”autographs” of astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong — in his critiques of America’s macho, consumerist, celebrity-crazed culture.
The heart of his art is knitting. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1998, Drain started using a friend’s knitting machine and found the meditative repetition pleasant and the results oddly suited to what he wanted to say: hard messages couched in softness.
Sitting in the very noisy Art Basel café, Drain talked recently about his fledgling — and now suddenly flourishing — career. The fabrics and the knitting in his work allude to the New England textile industry, now decidedly not flourishing.
His work also has an anything-goes look that suggests the 1960s — a decade before he was born. ”It’s not something I set out to do,” he says. ”But artists in their 20s need to confront the past and exorcise it.” On a practical level, ”everything I like in the Salvation Army store seems to be from that era,” he says, and thrift shops are his mainstays for materials ”because it’s what I can afford. The materials I need are all available in Providence, and there are faculty at RISD who help me figure out how to work with textiles.”
Power collectorsFor Greene, there was no resting on laurels at Basel. The dealer, 38, who grew up in Quincy and went to Harvard, spent the first official day of the fair tethered to her booth, chatting up visitors and showing disappointed would-be buyers who arrived too late to nab a Drain a book of color images of his other work.
”I’m having real power collectors coming around,” she says, jumping up to greet one. ”We’ve also gotten offers for shows in galleries in several European countries.”
Nicholas Baume, a curator at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, had high praise for Greene during his visit to her booth. ”Carol is one of the best young dealers in New York, no question,” Baume said. ”This work,” he added, surveying Drain’s installation, ”continues her support of adventurous young sculptors who mix junky vernacular materials with serious content.”
Thanks in part to Greene’s efforts, Drain’s Basel pieces will go not only to private collectors, but also to two important museums: the Hamburger Kunsthalle and the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, which has superb holdings of contemporary sculpture by the likes of Richard Serra and Damien Hirst.
Baloise winners each get 25,000 Swiss francs — just shy of $20,000.
The money is nice — ”I’m generally broke,” Drain says — but the recognition and exposure are even nicer. Basel is a Eurocentric fair, and the judges for this year’s Baloise prizes were all Europeans, which makes winning even sweeter for a young American.
As for Drain’s future, he returns to his Pawtucket studio later this summer, where he’ll think about the attractive prospect of his upcoming international shows and sales. As of June 13 at least, he hadn’t developed the ego of so many successful artists.
”This award isn’t just for me,” he said. ”It’s for all the people in Rhode Island who have helped me.”
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.