Drawing

First published  in the catalogue The 43 uses of Drawing, 2011:6-9

Recently, a curator chastised Richard Serra for saying “in terms of drawing – ideas, metaphors, emotions, language structures result from the act of doing”; she insisted that drawing was a noun. [Laura J Hoptman, Drawing now:eight propositions, The Museum of Modenr Art, new York,2002:11]

The homonyms, a verb and a noun as in “drawing a drawing” do not share the same lexical class. Like a chameleon, the seven letters adapt to contexts. When they denote a process the range of meanings grows: drawing a breath, a sword, a lucky number, a conclusion, a mark on a ground. In a purposeful lack of hierarchy and with a quiet authority, drawing subsumes even writing, not just calligraphy. [E H Gombrich, Topics of our time,1991:96ff] The self-regulating power of the verb renders taxonomy, classification and definition inadequate, letting the other homonym, the noun, to care for itself amongst equally vulnerable definitions of art. The argument that drawing is making mark on a ground is undermined by too many vested interests. Would a tractor ploughing a field or pulling a pole over a muddy ground count? To draw means both to pull and push, which meaning would allow such extensions. If so, must such a drawing be art? No, and there are drawings with classical materials which are not art and which are nevertheless highly valuable, like Ahmad’s surgical corrections of disfigured lips. While the field of drawings expands continuously, as art, it must have aesthetic significance. Panofsky warned “whether or not it serves some practical purpose, and whether it is good or bad, it demands to be experienced aesthetically.” [Meaning in the Visual Arts, 1955:10-11] Moreover, works of art when created might have other purpose. The development from prehistoric drawings, like those of animals in Chauvet Pont-d’Arc cave some 30,000 years ago, to the Japanese artist Yukinori Yanagu reported dipping insects in ink and letting them crawl over a sheet of paper  [Hoptman:167, note 2], points both to sameness and to startling difference. A Line Made by Walking (1967) by Richard Long or Pavel Althammer’s Path (2007) are variously interpreted as drawing, performance or site specific sculpture. In its attunement to Modernism, drawing succumbed to the idea of the “anxious object” while consistently providing evidence of careful attention to form and to the embodiment of the artist’s “first order” intention, the same qualities re-inforced during the growth of professionalism in architecture in 5th C Italy, well documented by Codex Barberinus in the Vatican collection. [Drawings by Giuliano and Antonio the Younger Sangalli. Giuliano’s private sketches are in Biblioteca comunale in Siena as Taccuino Senese.] Drawing developed into a tool for knowledge and invention then, and it is it still.

On closer examination, a pattern of equipoise emerges. Artists across centuries while developing different styles, concepts and aesthetics, all consider drawing an important tool for recording ideas, investigating structures and forms, for inventing new applications of available media and experimenting with unusual media. As in the past, even now, pen and ink offer speed, silverpoint luxuriates in delicate precision of fluid lines, chalk has triumphed in rendering crumbly textures and variety of tonal values, the brush excels in suppleness of lines and delicacy of tone. The surfaces of drawings may be rubbed, smudged, abraded not just accidentally but as a result of the process that may include newer techniques related to collage, gluing, splitting, cutting, and folding. In addition, films like those of Chomet, or the superb software by Ben Fry bring forth exciting new possibilities.

Technical, architectural, CAD, scientific, medical, and art drawings all can appear in dry media, liquid media, and more recently light. A current exhibition [15 July 2011 – 9 October 2011, Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany] displays 60 drawings in a close proximity in black light by Marc Brandenburg (b 1965, Berlin). He alters his free hand drawings by photographing, dissecting, and copying the negatives to forge what he terms “portraits of images”. [Accessed on www.hamburger-kunsthalle.de/start/en_start.html]

Contemporary drawings live in and off remarkably resilient concepts and skills. The open-ended field still includes traditional modes of drawings that set out “… clearly and usefully records of such things as cannot be described in words, either to assist your own memory of them or to convey distinct ideas of them to other people.” [John Ruskin, Elements of Drawing] Alghieri e Boetti (1940-1994) could not have anticipated that his 192 pencil drawings of ordinary magazine covers from the whole year 1984 will achieve a pre-sale estimate of over £1,200.000 at Bonhams in 2011, approximating the status of drawing to painting and sculpture.

Crossing over, crossing a line is still so attractive that it can easily become a whole exhibition, this time also in Berlin. [Die Linie Ueberschreiten, eine Zeichnungausstellung opened on August 5th in Schauraum fur Kunst, Berlin] Jongmoon Choi uses black light and cotton threads for Light Drawing II, 2007, while Jovanna Popic adheres to more traditional pencil and pen on polyester board for Atlas of Motion I, 2011. [Accessed on www.artagent-berlin.de] Iannis Xenakis, a composer and architect “thinks with his hands”, putting ideas onto a paper first. [Accessed in Iannis Xenakis Archives, Bibliotheque Nationale de France. A good example is his Study for the Polytope in Montreal (lightscore), 1966] He participated in a research of interactive thought and production with John Cage and Merce Cunningham. [See also Eberhard Blum, Letters for John Cage II exhibited in the Akademie der Künste, Berlin] These drawings do not record observation as would botanical drawings and other illustration in books on the natural world. They brew, spread and condense in performative range not restricted to verbal-discursive legibility, staying close to the artist’s tolerance of unconventional ideas.

Some will be looking for that elusive place where natural utterance functions as a narrative utterance, others will insist that captivation, aesthetic experience, social bonding, intellectual stimulation and emotional resonance evoke cultural references that signify clearly enough across the globe.

Meticulously drawn portraits, skulls, and groups of animals or plants earned their authors respect from related sciences, e.g. Charles W. Schwartz and Julie Small. On the spot ink “reportage” drawings of the attack on the World Trade Centre, 2001, by Veronica Lawlor successfully compete with photographs. A response to a destructive natural force by an architect calls for several stages. Mario Botta’s primi pensieri are robust sketches for an admirably intricate translation of geometry into Mogno Church as a place of safety. Reminding me of Brunelleschi, his drawings share the commitment to connect the built and the natural, as proposed also by Laurie Olin, and shared by another landscape architect, Dominic Cole, whose devotion to “anything that is not building” embraces both the historical and the contemporary. Complex research forms a ground for a vision, whether it is Cole’s Eden Project or MVRDV’s Tegel Fields, offerings that promise to satisfy Aristotle’s Good Life. Richard Buckminster Fuller insisted that his students use resources responsibly, long before it became the necessity. Those concerns re-appear in Eamon O’Kane’s drawings of buildings.

A group of drawings echoes Tom Piper’s admission “you don’t need to be great at drawing” when designing a set for a play. His subtle sets achieve poetic force with minimum means, as they manifest the pregnant potency of meagre drawings. Rae Smith works through a multitude of drawings believing / knowing “once you fill your head with images your imagination can take over”. Different in the specifics but similar in principle is the role of background research for drawing graphs, maps, and solutions to problems of complex engineering. Sergio Cittolin combines hardnosed science with Da Vinci’s style when translating knowledge into beautiful objects. When a cello player deconstructs playfully a score, as does Anton Lukoszevieze, the Fluxus concept of performance is easily remembered. Relationships between the elements that make up a work of art are crucial, whether the elements are new or old, is not. Laura Laine’s long-legged, twisted, “living” rag dolls display disregard for normal proportions as do Takashi Murakami’s sculptures. His are humorous, hers are haunting. Her line work is admirably willing to suggest silk, fur, wool, leather, hair, etc. Molly Crabapple surrounds detailed portraits with added art nouveau or baroque curls. Catherine Anyango used “match cuts”, a film editing technique that facilitates continuity and connection even between two unrelated elements to replace the verbal by visual in J Conrad’s novel. Found old photographs, fragments of other people’s abandoned stories, are given “new, longer life” in visual essays by Lauren Simkin Berke (echoing Arte Povera). Faked futures imagined from the broken past seem to be the “controlled discontinuities” coined by Roland Barthes. Star Wars meet the book of Revelation in Pushwanger’s parody of western civilization, drawn in rich detail, inspired by Arabic mosaics. Renato Alarcao’s sketch books are a feast of texts and images addressing existence or a fear of not existing, .e.g. Thanatos. A study of older art openly favoured by architects and landscape designers, was problematised for artists by Modernism. Like Picasso, Eamon O’Kane, Anthony Browne, Leon Kossoff and Tony Maidment harnessed existential spirit and personal experience with conviction that older art is worth learning from. The ubiquitous grid is stripped of its dominance by Bobby Baker’s deliberately wrong proportions, shaky angles and smiling hues. Celebration of things essential for living connects four very different modes of drawing: Morgan O’Hara moves her pencils exactly as the conductor moves his arms and hands, Trisha Brown as a choreographer draws the space, Eleonore Mikus confidently progressed to sublime folding/drawing “starting with something small, just a line, and making something big”. Marisol Rendon opens the gates of light to shift ordinary into a fantasy, Brian Fay registers effects of changes through a passage of time.

How can we account for such diverse modes of drawing? One answer is that the diversity conforms to the cognitive principle of directionality that allows even clashing ideas to be communicated without words.[ To the extent to which a drawing is a metaphor for an useful discussion of directionality principle see:Yesharjahn Shen, Metaphor and Poetic Figures in Gibbs R., Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, 2008, Chapter 17. Accessed on http://humanities.tau.ac.il/segel_eng/yshen.html]

August 2011

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