Monday, 7 March 2016

Drawing with words

Word and image have an ancient interrelationship. The first forms of writing that we find consist of pictograms, drawings that had been stripped down to their essential features and which could be used to stand for a general class of things rather than one particular instance of something. For instance barley is similar to rye and not that different to wheat. So if we look at drawings of individual seed heads we can see a certain similarity.

A drawing that reduces the features of barley and other similar grasses could therefore stand for a group of things that look like barley, the image below is the Sumerian symbol for grain, a symbol that was first used about 5,000 years ago.

Gradually a symbol that looks like something can begin to have a secondary use. In this case the image begins to be used to stand for a sound. The Sumerian word for barley sounded like 'she'. So the barley sign became eventually used to represent the sound 'she' when you wanted to visualise a spoken word.

The barley sign gradually changed shape when the scribes began to use a writing tool with a squared-off end instead of a point. The end of this tool was used to press wedge shapes like these below into clay tablets. Early writings were nearly always done on clay tablets, it's easy to draw using a sharp point, but faster to make little stamp impressions, so gradually the stamps replace the stylus and the writing becomes made up of lots of similar looking forms, grouped in different ways.

Sumarian pictograms were first written and read in columns. Later, as they became cunieform symbols they were written and read in rows.
Sumarian Pictograms

Sumarian Cuneiform script

The evolution of Sumarian pictograms into cuneiform

The point about this short history of writing being that writing has a very close relationship with drawing and in some cultures this relationship is still very close. For a brief history of Chinese characters see

Chinese domino set used to help children learn common characters

There are several links between Eastern calligraphy and the Western tradition of Abstract Expressionism and these links go both ways. The work of Franz Kline has long been seen as having connections with Japanese and Chinese calligraphy and his work has had an impact on how Chinese artists have begun to think about their own tradition.

Franz Kline Figure 8 1952

However the aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy are closely related to the dynamism of ink brush writing; the running of the brush pen, the structure of the character, and the composition of the whole work are always the primary concerns in the construction of an image. As Chinese characters are derived from pictographs, it is often said by the Chinese that the best “painting” must be “written”, i.e. there is no difference between painting and writing. It has been argued that the homology of calligraphy and painting is a significant and unique contribution of the Chinese civilization to global art history, so we must beware of thinking that we can critique Chinese abstract calligraphy in a similar way to abstract expessionism.
Chen Guangwu

You can see the two traditions of East and West merged in the work of contemporary Chinese artists like Chen Guangwu. In particular its interesting to see Chen Guangwu now working between sculpture and painting, the gestural mark becoming something that can be peeled off and repositioned as a three dimensional experience.

One artist that seems to bridge the gap between Abstract Expressionism and more recent text based art is Cy Twombly. See also:

Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly sits in a very interesting position being on the one hand almost too 'knowing' for an Abstract Expressionist, but on the other hand he never lets go of his signature mark making skills. He has always used text within his work, often to refer to classical poetry or figures from Greek myths. 

Twombly's 'handwriting' becomes a type of signature, his words are 'made' on canvas with the same concern for formal principles as any other mark. This 'graphology' being integral to the feeling tone of the image.

However sometimes the 'writing' in a Twombly can become just mark writing, the example below, being what is sometimes called aesmic writing. (Marks that look like writing but on cloiser inspection are simply marks that look like writing)

Cy Twombly

Drawing as text is now common practice in contemporary art in both the West and East, if we look at the work of Mekhitar Garabedian we can see it is on the one hand a type of work that acknowledges Islamic calligraphic traditions, and on the other it sits within a Western tradition of surface markmaking.

Mekhitar Garabedian

Garabedian sometimes works directly onto gallery walls, his work acknowledging the physicality achieved by artists like Fiona Banner, who transcribed an entire film into text and rewrote this on walls in an attempt to reengage with the physical impact that the original film had.
Fiona Banner

The handmade mark in drawing has of course been challenged by the introduction of computer drawing software. Writing has had to contend with its mechanical replacement for a much longer time, initially because of the formalised fonts used for classical architecturally sited texts, such as the familiar Roman typefaces and then because of typefaces cut for printing purposes, therefore before continuing with this post it is perhaps useful to reflect on how the relationship between the various forms of writing and typography have been used historically.

This is not the place to go into a full blown history of typography, there are many of these on-line and in the college library, however within the Western European tradition of typography there is a relationship between 'cursive' styles and hand drawn writing. For instance, during the seventeenth and eighteenth century handwriting style was vital to the social standing of an individual and writing-masters were employed by the rich, so that the messages coming out from their places of residence were always reflective of their social standing. Writing-masters such as George Bickham therefore became important; their original texts were produced by a quill or metal nib which generate thick and thin strokes as the hand moves in different directions, their particular skill being to maintain a fluidity and regularity of movement to their handwriting that suggested both confidence and stylishness at the same time. Typefaces based on their handwriting were then developed and are still used today for formal invitation cards and educational diplomas because it is understood that this style represents elegance, learning and sophistication.

Suffice it to say that handwriting has a message about the status and mental state of the writer. In particular in a time of text messaging hand writing becomes much rarer, therefore writing by hand begins to have a new connotation, perhaps an anti technology one, or statement about the need to maintain a human touch. Meaning is always shifting and this is the case with text as much as drawing.
Look at these examples of writing and make up your own opinions as to what they might mean. See also:

Writing on walls can of course be performative. When children are growing up we often record their growth by marking a wall or doorway; Roman Ondak, in 'Measuring the Universe' undertakes the same activity with gallery audiences, and gradually a series of words and numbers create a wall texture. 

I still associate writing on walls with writing in chalk, and of course writing in chalk means writing on a blackboard at school. 

School writing included the writing of lines as punishment, every episode of the Simpsons opens with Bart having to write out his lines for the day; John Baldessari's, 'I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art' from 1971 being a timely reminder that I should get on with life and finish this post.
John Baldessari, 'I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art' 1971

At some point I will put together a post on artists' signatures.

Above: Two examples of aesmic writing
Joseph Albers used to get students to copy the look of blocks of newspaper text so that they could get a feel of how the visual texture could be replicated. This was still being used as a Foundation course excercise when I taught on the course. The trick was to not 'copy' the individual letters, but to squint your eyes up so that the text became unreadable, and then to draw what you saw. See:

Just as artists tried to develop processes to unlock their unconscious, writers also tried to generate texts that came directly out of their unconscious minds. Here stand David Woodard and William S. Burroughs in front of a Dreamachine, its spinning lights designed to induce trances and help writers tap into their hidden thoughts. Gysin said that "writing was fifty years behind painting.

See: for Helena Hamilton's NOTETOADISTANTGOD, 2010-12, a very interesting durational live performance drawing using words.
for a personal account of a Chinese / American artist trying to work between two drawing cultures.

Also see: for further remarks on graphology.

For an introduction to writing on street walls as art: see

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