Monday, 11 November 2013

Walking the brush...

In the Saturday 8th November Guardian Review section an interview with painter Simon Ling reveals this painter's decision to paint on location and in the streets as opposed to through the use of mediated imagery.

Ling says

"I paint in the street because the texture of decision-making is different. It feels sharper and healthier and quicker. One day, I saw a group of schoolkids approaching and I thought: "Here we go." But then one of them said something really perceptive: "That's live." And that is the reason I do it. I want to make this a live, but slightly shifted, version of the world that has me both in it and looking at it."

His reflections on his painting practice reveal the importance of embodied experience in the production of his work and the value he places on the conflation of the objective and subjective  within a single image. What is most interesting perhaps that through embracing this duality within the work, he acknowledges that what results is a 'slightly shifted version of the world'.

His words echo ideas expressed elsewhere on this blog, that through the activity of drawing, a new or shifted understanding of the drawn subject emerges and captures not only what is seen but what is felt. The capacity for drawing to achieve this was discussed at the symposium in July. 

One question that Ling's reflections prompt, is where else we might find this type of activity- we've noticed it in drawing , where else can it be found? Does 'walking the line ' describe artists who draw on location or something more? If something more, what is the 'more' and what makes it significant?  We might also consider the role of  the medium in the negotiations that the media initiates between artist and site. Wet versus dry, scale are all factors to be negotiated and refined according to site.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Walking the Line: A First Response. Ian Heywood

Definition Trouble
Gerry Davies and Sarah Casey reject the search for a definition of drawing. Rather, both are looking for drawing in new forms, seeking settings in which it becomes ‘something else’, not what it is usually. For Gerry this place is caves, where drawing seems difficult, almost impossible. It is not only hard to do but, with the example of Turner in mind, may even be hard to recognise as drawing. Sarah turns to practices like conservation and archaeology, interested in how materials are looked at, touched and understood, sometimes in conjunction with drawing. Even though observation, documentation and handling are not the same as in the context of art, she is looking for both resemblances and possibilities. Is there something there to be used, learnt from or played with?

What is the context for this wariness of definitions and the desire to shake drawing loose from old habits and familiar forms?

However aware of the history of drawing an artist might be, today the past has little or no normative influence on the present. A practice like drawing begins anew each time, not only with each artist but each drawing. Artists have to find a practical, convincing way of answering the ‘What is drawing?’ question, although of course they usually add the qualifier ‘for me?’ Needless to say, it would be rare for an abstract conjectural form of this enquiry to preoccupy the mind of the artist when he or she begins a new work, but the definitional or identity question is addressed, because drawing is determined by what, at the point of making, the artist does.

Expecting or requiring artists to explain –define, interpret, locate, defend– what they do and why they do it, particularly when they are obliged to take on the outlook and language of ‘theory’, is not always beneficial, either creatively or in helping others to have a full encounter with works. Yet if making a drawing gives drawing an identity then the implied philosophical question about the nature of drawing, about what it is or can be, receives a practical answer. The inevitable reflective moment, often coming later, takes up the latent question, typically as an enquiry into what drawing has been shown to be in this particular case. The questions posed are about the aesthetic presence of the work, its meaning and its significance: What is it? What does it mean? Why does it matter? To answer, however tentatively, is to form an idea of an expressive artefact as an example of ‘drawing’ with certain qualities relevant to its status as drawing, that is, drawing as such.

One of the reasons posing the definitional question in contemporary art is often seen as a bit of mug’s game is that for whatever definition is offered it is invariably very easy to find a counter example, taken by someone, seemingly authoritative or in a position to know, to be ‘art’. More fundamentally, any reflective determination will inevitably fail because of the condition under which it arises, the open horizon of art practice itself. Drawing, and art more generally, are haunted by questions they are necessarily unable to answer.

Ruskin: Seeing and Drawing, Observation and Imagination
If philosophical, identity questions dog contemporary practices of art, earlier critical and theoretical ideas about drawing, which began to appear in systematic form at just that point when it ceased to be obvious what drawing was, become a resource for further thought.

Gerry cites Ruskin’s preference for ‘seeing’ over ‘the drawing’.

I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw. (Ruskin, 1970, p.13)

At first this sounds odd, but thought through is characteristic of Ruskin. The action of seeing nature is what learning to draw develops in those who accept its demands. Over and above being an advanced manual skill –never simply manual of course– drawing is a spiritual exercise resulting in a vision of nature, a glimpse of intricately organised material things, organic and inorganic, but also something wonderful, significant its own right and in its contribution to the fulfilment of human life, which today we might think of in terms of ‘well-being’.

This is not the place to go any deeper into Ruskin’s relationship with nature. However, I would like to say a bit more about The Elements of Drawing, his drawing course for working men and women of Victorian Britain.

Ruskin advocates learning the skills of vernacular drawing as part of a basic education for all, a vital part of a national curriculum. ‘Vernacular’ means ordinary, everyday observational drawing, not drawing with aspirations to the status of high art. Ruskin takes his pupils through a series of exercises dedicated to close observation of natural forms (pebbles, foliage, trees) and the development of some standard skills to record the results of careful looking; lines, marks, tone using pen and pencil, inks and washes.

All should learn this kind of drawing, declares Ruskin, because, as we have heard, it enables an appreciation of the structure and beauty of nature and because it offers insight into the minds of great artists. Their works incorporate perfected vernacular skills but add another dimension of expression altogether. The key faculty here is imagination.

While imagination is usually associated with a capacity of the human mind to vary or manipulate the given, or even to invent from scratch, Ruskin insists that in great art imagination does not operate in an arbitrary, capricious or wilful way. He insists on imaginative perception in which the ordinary act of seeing the world around us is transformed into vision, or better a visionary event, the uncovering of profound truth. Imagination adds to what is there but in doing so discloses something of intense significance.

Put to one side Ruskin’s particular slant on imagination. The point here is the distinction between vernacular practices of drawing in which observation –drawing as record, notation, evidence, documentation– and purpose –drawing as guide, exploration, explanation, analysis– are of critical importance, and the art practice of drawing which also includes, in some way, imagination.

Gerry and Sarah want to interfere with this division of labour, to change the terrain of drawing, with Sarah putting it back in contact with some of these vernacular practices and Gerry removing it to places where observation, or seeing, is oddly foregrounded because of its difficulty. In both cases, then, a changed relationship with observation and purpose also repositions and reconfigures imagination. Understanding this strategy for drawing, its technical and practical implications, and its concrete consequences visible in particular drawings is I think what interests me in the event Sarah and Gerry have generously gone to the trouble to organise.

27 June 2013

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Why draw in other terrains?

Why draw in other terrains? A simple question, but one I feel compelled to address now we have initiated this project and blog.

As an artist, my interest is in material and tactile engagement, intimacy, the relationships we have with objects and people, more specifically, in drawing’s capacity to embody these experiences. An interest in how we how we can see the invisible or render an unseen feeling tangible has led me in the past to work with medical researchers, archaeologists and costumes curators and conservators.

 That this would be fruitful was based on an assumption that drawing can be a process of looking, noticing evaluating, empathising and of working out, in other words, drawing enables us to ‘see’. (we have already cited Ruskin’s idea that ‘sight is more important than drawing’).

This led me to question what this type of seeing might share with other research professionals that are required to look closely, examine and handle material objects. And how, though analogy, might forms of drawing be developed that transcribe, record and communicate these different material experiences.

Drawing can also be a form of touching. As Tony Godfrey writes:

‘Whenever two objects or two materials meet...evidence of their meeting is left behind. To examine such drawings is to excavate, to muse over activity in the past. They present us with the archaeology of acts of touching’.[1]

From the drawn mark we can interpret gesture or touch and in this is read subjectivity of the drawer.[2]

If we accept this, and it is reasonable to do so since the weight of a mark, its speed, pressure, direction can be gleaned from the drawing, it follows that an experiential encounter can be embodied in a drawing. So drawing can present us with a record of touching and given drawing is ultimately a medium of analogy, the type of ‘touching’ used in a drawing can mimic or echo a touch seen or felt in life.

So what do I get from drawing in other ‘terrains’?

Drawing with syringe

Some benefits are obvious, such as straightforward borrowing of materials or tools – drawing on litmus paper or the archival tissue used to store garments, drawing with a syringe.

Learning to use ultrasound

Then there is specific knowledge about a subject which can suggest how a subject might be depicted, for instance learning how to operate an ultrasound machine and how the image is derived from reflected sound waves informed the making of drawings which reflect light.

Refelctive drawing of interior of garments made after spending time learning about ultrasound imaging
 Then there is the challenges it presents to me, as an artist with nothing but a notebook confronting unfamiliar subject, being restricted by the conventions or protocols of that environment to draw in a particular way (for instance, in costumes archives this in a small notebook, in cold conditions under supervision, with limited time using only pencil).
Notebook pages with shorthand notes for garments

Notebook of transparent pages made while garments were unpacked and unwrapped

Drawing made on archival tissue then waxed

This includes the challenge of trying to capture both subject and the experience of viewing it. Problems are presented , for instance how to capture the sense of a fluid and unfixed ultrasound image which shifts and ebbs in front of you in a drawing on paper ?

Or how do you draw the experience of not being able to touch or capture the sensation of touching something you shouldn’t?

Garments brought out of storage stacked between tissue

 Or depict the fact of an object being hidden from view? Specific graphic practices are needed to cope.

  Over time with accumulate experience, these become more efficient and refined.

Scrutiny of historical garments

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, I’ve found that identifying parallels is a useful means of reflecting upon drawing, its capacity and usefulness. I can view my drawing practice, through the lens of another discipline. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this objective per se, but through identifying shared ground, helps me to notice what was going on as I made a drawing, the decisions I made, the relationships within the drawing.

Patina Intimates, invisible drawing grease on paper 

For instance prompted by observing the restricted light of the archives and the use of light within medical technologies of microscopes and x-rays, it dawned on me that light is a substance to be negotiated in drawing. Thus emerged invisible drawings illuminated by light and reflection.

[1] Tony Godfrey, Drawing Today (Oxford: Phaidon, 1990) p.9.
[2]  Berger’s argument that to some extent all drawing is an autobiographical record of the maker. See Berger Permanent Red ( London: Methuen,1969) p.24

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Drawing Underground

A quick post to explain my interest in drawing in new locations.  While researching Artists’ sketchbooks for an AHRC funded project I ventured into the Tate Archive to look at Turner sketchbooks.  After an hour or so silently turning the pages and onto my second Turner notebook I found, in the Yorkshire 4 sketchbook, a drawing that snapped me out of my reverie Inside Yordas Cave, 1816. What a peculiar drawing!  It’s wild and jagged, lacking Turner’s customary measured precision.  Another, a few pages on, is more extreme, like a section from a seismograph.  Of course they were drawn in restricted light.  At the time Yordas Cave in Kingsdale, North Yorkshire was a show cave on the Victorian tourist trail, complete with local guides carrying candles and torches. 

Having now drawn in Yordas I know that even modern head torches provide only sufficient light to gather broad impressions but not enough to uphold the supremacy of vision.  Other senses are levelled up and bear greater influence on perceptions and responses; I felt this effect powerfully, and I think in part, this explains the look of Turner’s cave drawings.  Is he drawing the whole experience? Perhaps inadvertently, is he drawing what it feels like to be there?

My interest in the Turner drawings is balanced between gaining purchase on how we might understand the Yordas drawings, and pursuing a way of working that I find difficult but fruitful.  On the one hand I’m curious about the cave drawings as ‘embodied drawing’ as evidence of Turner ‘being or becoming’ in that place at that moment, and possible relations to Ruskin’s dictum in the preface to his The Elements of Drawing (1857) where he asserts drawing as an instrument for gaining knowledge rather than an end in itself:
  I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw. (Ruskin, 1970, p.13)
This, and developing a ‘first hand’ exploratory practice that can sit alongside a growing corpus drawing languages, many relying on the free circulation of mediatised images, that can contribute to a plural landscape of drawing ideas, debates, approaches and outcomes.  Moreover, one that engages peers and audiences in visual and conceptual experiences that are engaging, meaningful, even exciting.
These images are from my most recent trip underground to County Pot in the Easegill system with cave guide Chris Chilcott and art historian Ian Heywood. 

Gerry drawing in County Pot, Easegill West System.  May 2013

County Pot.  Folded stream cut cave walls and pillar.

Over the last few years curiosity about drawings relationship with sight, haptics and kinaesthetics has led to a variety of graphic approaches with different forms, materials and scales, and to drawing in a range of controlled and imposed conditions - from total darkness and mostly submerged to conventional and comfortable.


County Pot.  Large passage entered through opening in the roof.

The drawings attempt to depict what’s actually there, but are equally informed by the shapes I have to make with my body and the disorientation created by uncertainly about which way up or down one is.  Alongside capturing the complexity and texture of rock formations other impressions crowd in and present their own unique challenges.  How to depict the non visual whilst also retaining a sense of site; how to draw the taste of fellwater, coldness, sounds of cascades and drips, smells of earth and ionised air; how to represent the feeling of ‘being there’ within a drawing of a location and its particular geology?

County Pot.  Large chamber called 'Ignorance is Bliss'.

Old Ing Pot.  Passage and pools leading to flooded sump.

Friday, 24 May 2013

A Situated and Sensitive Drawing

A key question is emerging in our discussions about this project: what do we call this type of drawing which is the focus of Walking the Line? Site-specific? Site –sensitive? Situated? Cross-disciplinary? Locational? None seem fully comprehensive. On the one hand we want to encompass a sense of being in a specific place, either geographically or conceptually, and on the other acknowledge the responsiveness of the drawing in the encounter.  

A 20th century example of this type of situated and site sensitive drawing is found in Barbara Hepworth’s hospital drawings, made in operating theatres between 1947-49.These drawings depict not simply observed fact but communicate what is felt; they convey the experience of being in surgery.
Barbara Hepworth,  Concentration of Hands II (1948)

  In these drawings we see Hepworth noticing particular qualities of the operating theatre – the brightness and direction of light, the concentration in the eyes of the surgeons - and looking for graphic equivalents. We see parallels between the surgical procedures depicted and the artist’s process:  Hepworth uses a bone dry gesso surface, scrapers and sharp points to incise, the edge of a razorblade to scrape back.  These are newly developed tactile and haptic techniques specifically designed to marry with the particular actions and intentions of the surgeons.

Hepworth makes clear the situated nature of the drawing experience: “body experience… is the centre of creation. I rarely draw what I see. I draw what I feel in my body”.[1]
Barbara Hepworth,  The Scapel II (1949)

We might see this evident in the quiet composure, the sense of tension, the intent focus of the figures depicted, gathered around the operation, illuminated by the an intense light of the operating lamp. The figures are bathed in light from behind, lending them a mysterious glow, akin a divine light highlighting a sense of mysetry or miracle in the scenario. 
 The experience of drawing in the surgery brought about a change in Hepworth’s drawing, and manifests an increasing graphic specialisation. Hepworth herself noted “from all these experiences and from the paintings and drawings I made, I learned how better to observe the world around me“. [2]In other words through sustained engagement in this particular world of surgery, the drawing became adapted to the specificities of representing the surgical procedures.

Perhaps here we should note a crucial difference in what Hepworth was doing and to the artist simply ‘going’ out to unusual or far flung places.  By contrast consider the nineteenth century naturalist- artist who goes out to record exotic flora and fauna deploying the conventions of the day. The language of drawing is unchanged by the observation, remaining demonstrably that of botanical illustration.  This example of the naturalist might be conceived of as a ‘colonial’ approach- using drawing to record, and gather, without the drawing ‘going native’, i.e. the languages of drawing being altered by the experience.

The difference in short is that engagement with drawing in the example of Hepworth’s Hospital drawings results in innovation within drawing. A specific and specialist technique is refined, developing and expanding existing graphic conventions and an understanding of what drawing can do.

So, folloing this post, we intend to post about our own practices shape our approach to this kind of drawing... 

[1] Cited in Judy Chicago, Through the Flower ( 1985), p.142
[2] Barabra Hepwoth  An Artist’s View of Surgery (1952) reproduced in Nathaniel Hepburn, Barbara Hepworth Hospital Drawings ( 2012) p.83.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Walking the Line in the Context of Drawing Today

Drawing today is characterised by plurality. We see a broad range of practices encompassing diverse approaches, processes, imagery, aims and intentions. Indeed, one of the frequently lauded strengths of drawing is this plurality, its adaptability and ubiquity.
In recent years, innovations in contemporary drawing have come under fire for being mere ‘boundary busting’[1]-  we can probably all call to mind examples of drawings whose raison d’etre is to challenge the definition of what drawing is. The artists in the project stand in contrast to this attitude of innovation for innovation’s sake; for while their drawing is innovative, these are innovations which arise from sustained engagement with the world.  Drawings which ask questions of the world and in negotiating answers develop innovations. 
Essentially our questions about the artists and work we are interested in are about how they produce knowledge.  Or perhaps more precisely, what kind of knowledge can this type of drawing produce?  Again, and a step further, this line of questioning takes us to what, ultimately can we do with this knowledge? Finally, are these ‘utility’ arguments for drawing meaning; is this a special species of ‘applied drawing’ that we are looking at?
Our position isn’t definitional; we are not seeking to establish what drawing is, or seeking to establish a new category with its values, participants and distinctive images.  It’s possible that Walking the Line will need to differentiate to describe distinctive or exclusive approaches, and it may have its ‘manifesto moments’.  If it does it will be one manifesto amongst many and, as Lawrence Alloway expressed in the 1960’s, pluralism is a continuum advancing along a broad front of culture.[2]  Consequently, it is from within an inclusive field of contemporary practices we have noticed a peculiar type of drawing – it is this which is the focus this research project. 
Drawing is a verb, not a noun’, Richard Serra’s well known assertion that drawing is a doing thing rather than a static name is a useful way of appreciating the complexity around making, researching and writing about drawing.  Together drawing practice and research must be doing things and both be on-going, plural, and relatively or simultaneously mobile on many fronts. 
One of things which interest us about this type of drawing is that its characteristics and ethos may be traced back to historical innovations and ideas about drawing- to those of Ruskin or Leonardo for example. However, our intention is not revisionist, to revive drawing from the past, or return to earlier approaches of drawing as a standard for today. Instead, these historical relationships become one of many lenses through which to see and understand possibilities for drawing today. In turn, our enriched understanding of contemporary drawing may come to reflect upon historical knowledge.

[1] Ken Currie, ‘In Defence of Drawing’ reprinted in Drawing Breath ed. By Anita Taylor and Paul Thomas (London: Wimbledon College of Art, 2007), unpaginated.
[2] Nigel Whiteley, Art and Pluralism Lawrence Alloway’s Cultural Criticism (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012), p.62.