At the Belger Arts Center, Creighton Michael squiggles into knots

For some artists, the grand gesture is most important. For others, the tiniest pencil line blazes a shiny path. New York artist Creighton Michael belongs in the latter category.

Underlining his drawing agility, this painting, drawing and sculpture exhibition at the Belger Arts Center includes about 23 of Michael’s drawings, dating back to 1988. Unless the exhibition is a retrospective, including such old work might suggest that the artist doesn’t have enough work available in the studio. But these Reagan-era drawings look fresh — they have such currency with Michael’s recent work that they feel new. One of the highlights is a 1988 series of six drawings titled “TOR.” These pieces are done with a delicate hand, then partly erased; they seem to represent intense energy, a tiny force field suggesting the kind of knotted bundles and lines he would paint 20 years later. Other drawings, “Harcourt 489” and “Consort 189,” both from 1989, are also abstractions, but here Michael uses a heavy hand to create dense black marks suggesting a more severe energy.

Without these drawings, Michael’s paintings couldn’t exist. The IMPACT series consists of lush, red-knotted lines shape-shifting on concave wood panels. These odd panels are interesting, though they seem too random to advance Michael’s style. He is more successful when painting on a regular canvas — such as in “Haiku 1000,” which combines mold stains with small gestures. The canvas has a tea-stained textile or parchment effect, and the mold stains give the work an appealing organic, domestic quality.

“Notation 998” also stands out for its rigorous mark-making. By combining hundreds of small dots, lines, squiggles and various gestures in a limited palette of white over shades of brown, Michael has galvanized his writerly gesture into a powerhouse painting. Calligraphic in nature and shimmering so that it almost seems to vibrate, the painting suggests a language of movement and of time passing — the physical time it took to make the individual marks.

All of which makes Cursive the perfect title for this rigorously executed exhibition. It’s a beautiful installation, and the best piece is tucked in the back of the gallery — but worth the wait.

That piece, “Grid 4007,” is made up of about 900 tiny drilled holes, into which Michael has inserted small wire sculptures — knotted and circular wires that are drawings in space. Light in the gallery casts beautiful shadows that become part of a three-dimensional drawing. It is one of the most rewarding pieces in the exhibition, demonstrating how simple lines can suggest complex forms.

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