Five years ago James Drake began placing a banquet table set with candelabras, a white tablecloth, and a nice spread–turkey, potatoes, cranberries, wine–in wild areas of south Texas. Then, hoping animals would visit, he’d leave the table there with two cameras running. The result of that project is a 15-minute video triptych, City of Tells, on view along with Drake’s charcoal drawings at Rhona Hoffman. The video image on the left shows feral pigs nibbling at the food, then climbing on top of the table. “They ate the flowers, the candles, everything,” Drake says. In the middle image, wild boars pass in the background but never approach. And the one on the right, set indoors, shows a huge python slithering elegantly along the table, never even knocking over a candelabra–“Every square centimeter of its body is in constant awareness of its surroundings,” Drake says. The snake’s owner, a friend, offered the use of his home and his 18-foot Burmese python when he heard about Drake’s project. Because pythons eat only live animals, the owner put a rooster in the room during the taping, and the video ends with a face-off. Drake doesn’t show what followed–though he says the python did what pythons do.

Drake’s usual subject is human behavior. A 1997 video piece, Tongue-Cut Sparrows, showed women outside a prison communicating in sign language with their male partners inside. He became interested in observing animals, he says, because they “behave instinctually, whereas with humans it’s a mix of instinct and calculation.” The charcoal drawing City of Tells, Joy, Folly, Torment shows the pigs at the table, the rendering as dynamic as the chaotic video scene. At times the drawings make the subjects more symbolic: the snake in the large City of Tells, With Signs Following takes up most of the composition, and Drake says it represents “evil or impending doom.” Echo Rattlers Strike Hard Strike Fast Kill, one of several charcoals of people, shows an intent young soldier in uniform; though it’s a self-portrait, Drake says the figure is an everyman. He also made a 32-foot-wide drawing, too big to fit in the gallery, depicting many people around a banquet table.

Though Drake never saw combat, he was a soldier, joining the army in 1967 to avoid the draft while working on his BFA in Los Angeles. He managed to stay out of Vietnam by painting portraits of post commanders and generals, then giving the work to the subjects: “I looked at it as staying alive.” After receiving his MFA in 1970 he returned to El Paso to work in the family weaving business, located in Juarez, Mexico: home-based craftspeople made blankets and rugs using traditional designs. Traveling back and forth across the border, Drake was struck by Mexico’s poverty and began exploring social issues in his drawings, which led to what he considers his first mature work and shows in Houston and New York in 1988. By the early 90s he was able to make a living with his art and quit the family business, and in 2001 he moved to Santa Fe.

Drake always preferred charcoal drawing to painting, and after a 1972 trip to Europe he stopped painting entirely: he felt he could never approach the drama and political import of work like Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. His use of charcoal, however, is as dramatic as a Gericault scene. Close-up the grays are full of energy, but as you pull back the abstract marks materialize into recognizable forms without ever completely solidifying. Drake never aims for photo-realism. “If you just try to copy the subject,” he says, “there’s no energy or life in the marks.”

James Drake

Where: Rhona Hoffman, 118 N. Peoria

When: Through July 29

Info: 312-455-1990

One of the best art documentaries I’ve ever seen is playing this week at the Film Center. With a mix of styles Juan Carlos Martin’s Gabriel Orozco captures the playful spirit of the amazing Mexican multimedia artist. See Movies for more.