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

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