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At CAM Raleigh, flattened raindrops and googly eyes

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Two young artists currently showing at CAM Raleigh use repetitive processes and projects to flesh out ideas toward their mature expression. They make a good pair. One's graphite drawings provide a comic relief to the other's technical eye.

Downstairs in the Independent Weekly gallery, Ryan Travis Christian's show Well, Here We Aren't Again includes 12 drawings and four Styrofoam and found-object sculptures, brought together into an installation by a vertiginous tape work on the gallery floor and a monumental, commissioned wall drawing in charcoal, spray paint and gouache done during a three-week residency at CAM, the first museum show for this Chicago artist.

Neatly framed, Christian's graphite drawings range in size from a sheet of notebook paper to a poster. All of them use classic cartoon vocabulary, more from Disney's bulbous "Steamboat Willie" style than the angular caricature of Warner Brothers. Some are pure abstractions, others are pictorial; all are intensely busy black-and-white compositions that require some blinking and manual focusing of your eyes. The human eye has trouble handling such precise geometric contrasts. You have to look with some concentration to determine whether a white diagonal is a stripe over a black field or a white background appearing between black stripes.

In "Noisy Neighbor," a flatly rendered house with a clown nose and two fried-egg eyes emits, through its mouth-like open front door, a chaotic cloud of squiggles. Stray hands and feet stick out of the cloud like a bar fight from the Andy Capp comic strip. It's hard to tell if this scene is funny violence or just violence.

Rest assured, however, that the eyes in Christian's work are googly eyes, not those eyes that follow you around the room. "Infinitely Unrealized Comic Potential" unlocks your permission to laugh at his work. This parody of a storyboard presents many multi-patterned frames with X's in them—the cartoonist with no ideas—the last of which contains the words "Just kidding, just kidding" and "I'm sorry."

Christian has taped the gallery floor from wall to wall to create a pattern of concentric squares; the piece is called "Lazy Lambee #4" (after tape artist Jim Lambie). It's the second tape work in this gallery's short history—the ghosted lines of Rebecca Ward's 2011 thickly sliced installation are still visible between Christian's tape. Christian's tape pattern mirrors the crosshatching within his huge wall drawing "Guess You Had To Be There," which depicts a doubled-back snake so distended by the width of the drawing that the figure is overcome by its own patterning.

It's hard to go large like this. The three-week development of "Guess You Had To Be There" is documented in a time-lapse video, which shows the artist devoting the first week or so to a more compelling underdrawing—Christian's pasta-jerk figure as Manet's "Olympia," perhaps. For some reason, the artist subsequently obliterated the landscape in favor of the snake.

One possibility is that he's not yet comfortable working on the scale of graffiti rather than studio art. Though Christian has done wall works before, he still seems to be figuring out how to handle the large surface. He pastes on small, inset cartoons because the snake could be monotonous on its own. Likewise, the sculptures, which don't have much to offer in themselves—an over-painted Gideon's Bible is a weirdly referential afterthought—anchor points in the floor pattern where different diagonals come together. It would be riskier to leave the pattern alone, but the reward might be greater.

The U.K.-based Alistair McClymont, who makes his stateside debut in Everything we are capable of seeing, does not lack for confidence. Epitomizing the conceptual artist, he's willing to risk the visually boring in order to reach the endpoint of a line of thought. Witness "Eclipse," 100 sheets of photographic paper hung in a long line on a wall in the main gallery, the middle 98 of which are completely black. Made in response to the spatially inaccurate drawings in science textbooks, the work is a scale image of the sun, Earth and moon in the positions of a solar eclipse.

At one end, the sun is a dessert plate-sized white circle. The moon is a white pin's head at the other end; it's nestled up against the edge of a body representing the surface of the Earth. By representing this scale, McClymont viscerally delivers the vastness of space. There's something frightening about it, a feeling of being out in the middle of nowhere in the solar system, held in place by the massive gravity of a star.

The star of the show is a kind of anti-gravity machine. "Raindrop" is really a vertical wind tunnel that suspends an actual water droplet in mid-air in the exact conditions of a falling raindrop. The opportunity to scrutinize an isolated drop, and to see its underside's flattened, active profile, is thrilling. It's a finicky sculpture: At the mercy of environmental factors too subtle to control in CAM's vast space, the drop may be disobedient. When I first saw it, McClymont had just finished setting it up, and the drop he deposited in the air column hovered there for about eight minutes. On a recent visit, however, eight seconds was barely achievable. (When you visit, if a droplet isn't jittering in the space above the mouth of the sculpture, tell the person behind the museum's front desk. With a syringe, he or she will carefully squeeze a single drop into that space.)

McClymont's second machine-driven water work resides in CAM's basement theater. "The Limitations of Logic and the Absence of Absolute Certainty," named after Kurt Gödel's "incompleteness theorem" that describes how some mathematical and logical problems simply cannot be solved, consists of three fans mounted on scaffolding above two plastic pipes emitting water vapor. The air currents from the fans craft a perpetual tornado from the vapor.

It's hypnotic to watch the funnel cloud writhe, collapse and re-establish. Unpredictably, stripes flit up the length of its coil. And you are a part of it, entering the room and standing in the space, altering the air currents with your own presence and motion. You realize quickly that there are too many variables affecting the tornado's motion for you to take into account. Rather than finding that incomprehensibility frightening, you simply enjoy its visual result.

McClymont's ability to convey his sheer awe at astronomical distances and individual raindrops makes a great counterpoint to Christian's entertaining and visually overwhelming exhibition. CAM's done well to put these two emerging artists together for much of the spring.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Flattened raindrops and googly eyes."

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