Sunday, 26 February 2017

Drawing and Time

Drawing like its cousins in communication, verbal and written languages, operates in time and each type of drawing could be said to inhabit a particular tense. Drawing’s paradox is that at its best it operates in the present tense, it creates an experience of nowness of presentness and yet it is often a study of the past, or more accurately the pastness of the present, whilst it also attempts to construct a presentness of the past.
Drawing is what I do as an art practice. Every time I make a drawing I am aware of the decision to make it, the decision to approach it in a certain way and an experience of making the drawing. Each is conceptually, emotionally and physically different and each aspect slips from beneath my understanding as I try to focus on it. The more I draw the less I understand how it works. I’ll try and explain.
John Berger points to three distinct types of drawing; the study and question of the visible, the communication of ideas and the capturing of memory.  He observes that each type of drawing speaks in a different tense and that the viewer will respond with a different capacity of imagination to each approach. Berger by setting out these differences suggests that all drawings can be in some way timed. My own experience of drawing is that like all languages you use a very specific mode, such as description, when you are explaining to someone else what something looks like and yet the same language can at another time be used within a different mode of address, such as poetry, where what perhaps started as descriptive text, now reconfigures itself to suggest metaphoric associations or a changed rhythm of delivery. We use language very differently when having an informal chat in the pub, to having to deliver a speech at a formal occasion. 
Drawings I do in response to direct observation are very different to one's done from memory, it's the encounter with the world that counts. However the encounter with what’s out there for the drawer is an enigma. On the one hand you are recording an observation, you are recording that observation within a certain period of time and you have a sensibility that attunes you to certain things. On the other hand you are forced to abstract, you are not mimicking nature or creating an illusion of the real, you are developing a trace of the mind’s eye as it decides what is of interest and what is not. Each mark made, even though it is made in response to something seen, is though itself immediately an active shaper of what is being shaped. If for example a particular type or character of mark is used to represent a point in space, or an edge to an object, it will itself then activate the imagined space of the surface on which you draw. In response to these decisions, the next mark you make is going to be stronger or weaker, higher or lower, of a different directional nature, has a family of resemblance or difference; you can’t avoid the fact that previous marks are going to dictate future marks’ position and nature. Therefore at some point in the process of looking, the objective regard for what is out there becomes suffused within a subjective response to the process of a drawing’s becoming. It is as Yates explained, ‘I made it out of a mouthful of air’, it happened as it arrived. The sentence I used to explain something in that hurried conversation on the bus just came to me, even so, it still communicated something, one word seemed to trip out another and I speak so often that I no longer have to think about it.
But this is still an encounter. You look down at what you have drawn and up at what you are drawing. Questions are asked. Have I managed to capture anything of the nature of this experience? If so, what is it? It may be very abstract, the nature of the space or rhythm of perceptual encounter. It may be to record a particular shape or set of associations discovered. If it is going to be a drawing you continue with, the process needs a focus. Not all drawings find this focus at the time and it may only be some time later that you notice where the drawing could take itself.


In this drawing of trees by Cezanne, you feel that what he is really looking at is his experience of the space between the trees. Each mark is a tentative grasp of what he is searching for rather than a depiction of a tree. The drawing doesn't have a conclusion, it simply seems to be waiting for another decision, the space arriving as you yourself begin to read Cezanne's attempt to realise his experience. In this way this small drawing always appears to be 'in the now'. 
So what’s there when you stop, when you ‘finish’ an observed drawing? Sometimes the decisions of looking are balanced so delicately in relation to the physical decisions of the drawing, that the result in some ways forces you to stay there forever.  The enigma of the looking can be frozen in a material encounter, which you are forced to unpick in the present tense. It is a present tense in the sense that the observer is forced to re-create the moments of looking, the palimpsest of the drawings surface presenting traces of action as a diagram of simultaneity for the observer’s eyes.  However if I had to nail down this sort of drawing into a type of tense it would be something that suggested that a finished action has an influence on the present, thus it would have to be the present perfect progressive.

Some drawings are long term encounters with the physicality of the making of a drawing itself. There is no observation of something else, what is observed is what is encountered as the drawing evolves. Artists that use systems and follow ordered processes often work in this area, something I have never really done, I’m too scatty and easily bored, but when done well I’m aware it can be a very powerful engine for the production of work.  Systems are often used in order to visualize the transformation of materials over time. If you look at the work of an artist like Katie Lewis, you will see her engaged with documenting and recording her actions as well as the actual doing and making. When you encounter the work it is finished, documented and recorded. So although the actions in making the drawings reflect a considerable amount of time and effort, it is as if we are putting an emphasis on the final result, which in the English language would be the present perfect simple.  Lewis states,
“I invent and implement systems in order to visualize the transformation of materials over time. I compile data such as physical sensations in the body, the number of steps taken each day, or the manner individuals traverse through a landscape. I devise methods of data visualization using limited materials such as paper, thread, sewing pins, or graphite. The process of physical repetition within a system transforms the materials into intricate visual accumulations. Pins amass on the wall into clusters or swarms, thread weaves into a chaotic web, graphite numbers layer into a black mass, and punctured holes overlap until a surface can no longer hold itself together.”
She regards all the various approaches to drawing as methods of data visualisation. Whether using sewing, pins or drawing with graphite, she is visualising data and this is something I have touched on before Lewis operating at the much more physical end of the data visualisation spectrum.
450 Days. pins, pencil; 234″ x 108″ x 1.5

730 Days. pins, pencil; 56″ x 292″ x 1.5″

In Lewis's drawings time is embedded in her titles as they are part of the recording mechanisms used. 

Drawing from observation or responding to an ongoing data collecting process is very different to visualising what’s in the mind’s eye. Working drawings that set out a scene or plot an idea are about the dreaming of ideas and dealing with visions and future what ifs. This is about action that might take place, the conditional simple tense. Plans and diagrams may be seen as belonging to the future tense as they are indications of what could be built, but drawings of visions, those realisations of images that just arrive out of their own making, these are about becoming. The future simple tense is about decisions made for the future. There is a distinct difference however between those images that project an idea of the future, for instance one of Christo’s drawings for wrapping the Reichstag and a drawing that is a result of its own becoming, something that has risen out of the process of seeing an image in the marks, which could be seen as a spontaneous decision, part of the future simple tense.
Christo: drawings for wrapping the Reichstag

Picasso: Sketchbook page
Christo's drawings for the wrapping of the Reichstag include plans and positions on maps. They are a clear vision of a possible future, whilst Picasso's sketchbook page is a drawing discovering itself. There are no plans here, simply a hand responding to what is going on, each set of marks implying a new image; the spontaneous future simple tense. However as a drawing like this evolves, it can go through the same set of decisions as a drawing from life. If for example a particular type or character of mark is used to represent an idea, or an emerging image, it will itself then activate the imagined space of the surface on which you draw. In response to these decisions, exactly as is the case in drawing from life, the next mark you make is going to be stronger or weaker, higher or lower, of a different directional nature, has a family of resemblance or difference; you can’t avoid the fact that previous marks are going to dictate future marks’ position and nature. Therefore at some point in the process of invention it becomes inseparable from the process of a drawing’s becoming.

I sometimes draw from memory. This is of course about a past tense. The past perfect progressive, I had been experiencing something. However when I recall the past, it is perhaps the past progressive. I slip between tenses as I get lost in my own wanderings, knowing that what I’m really looking for are drawings that seek a universal time, I’m looking for a summery tense, a time that can host a drawing situated intelligence, where drawing was is the medium through which thought is received as concrete  expression. Drawing from memory is both a process of simplification and distortion. As always for an experienced drawer the feel of the drawing at some point takes over as you begin to 'see' things in the marks you make. Reinventing the past is something we all do, so its no surprise that drawings from memory also do this. I like the way Gianluca Gimini set up a very basic situation for people to look at, a bicycle, and then reversed the process, making bikes from the drawings people did from memory. 

Bike drawn from memory

Below is a table of tenses as used in the English language. We rarely think about tense when speaking, we just use the language. It’s only when you learn a foreign language that you are asked to stop and consider how and when you use different tenses. As you go through these different tenses you begin to feel slippage between them, (well I do) and I get a sense that time is very personal, one person's present may be another person's past, for some an imagined future is a reality for others an impossibility. 

A: He speaks.
N: He does not speak.
Q: Does he speak?
      Action in the present taking place once, never or several times
      Actions taking place one after another
      Action set by a timetable or schedule
always, every …, never, normally, often, seldom, sometimes, usually
if sentences type I (If I talk, …)
A: He is speaking.
N: He is not speaking.
Q: Is he speaking?
       Action taking place in the moment of speaking
       Action taking place only for a limited period of time
       Action arranged for the future
at the moment, just, just now, Listen!, Look!, now, right now
A: He spoke.
N: He did not speak.
Q: Did he speak?
      Action in the past taking place once, never or several times
      Actions taking place one after another
      Action taking place in the middle of another action
yesterday, 2 minutes ago, in 1990, the other day, last Friday
if sentence type II (If I talked, …)
A: He was speaking.
N: He was not speaking.
Q: Was he speaking?
      Action going on at a certain time in the past
      Actions taking place at the same time
      Action in the past that is interrupted by another action
when, while, as long as
A: He has spoken.
N: He has not spoken.
Q: Has he spoken?
      Putting emphasis on the result
      Action that is still going on
      Action that stopped recently 

     Finished action that has an influence on the present

      Action that has taken place once, never or several times before the moment of speaking
already, ever, just, never, not yet, so far, till now, up to now
A: He has been speaking.
N: He has not been speaking.
Q: Has he been speaking?
      Putting emphasis on the course or duration (not the result)
      Action that recently stopped or is still going on
      Finished action that influenced the present
all day, for 4 years, since 1993, how long?, the whole week
A: He had spoken.
N: He had not spoken.
Q: Had he spoken?
      Action taking place before a certain time in the past
      Putting emphasis only on the fact (not the duration)
already, just, never, not yet, once, until that day
if sentence type III (If I had talked, …)
A: He had been speaking.
N: He had not been speaking.
Q: Had he been speaking?
      Action taking place before a certain time in the past      

      Putting emphasis on the duration or course of an action
for, since, the whole day, all day
A: He will speak.
N: He will not speak.
Q: Will he speak?
      Action in the future that cannot be influenced
      Spontaneous decision
      Assumption with regard to the future
in a year, next …, tomorrow
If-Satz Typ I (If you ask her, she will help you.)
assumption: I think, probably, perhaps
(going to)
A: He is going to speak.
N: He is not going to speak.
Q: Is he going to speak?
      Decision made for the future
      Conclusion with regard to the future
in one year, next week, tomorrow
A: He will be speaking.
N: He will not be speaking.
Q: Will he be speaking?
      Action that is going on at a certain time in the future
       Action that is sure to happen in the near future
in one year, next week, tomorrow
A: He will have spoken.
N: He will not have spoken.
Q: Will he have spoken?
       Action that will be finished at a certain time in the future
by Monday, in a week
A: He will have been speaking.
N: He will not have been speaking.
Q: Will he have been speaking?
       Action taking place before a certain time in the future
       Putting emphasis on the course of an action
for …, the last couple of hours, all day long
A: He would speak.
N: He would not speak.
Q: Would he speak?
       Action that might take place
if sentences type II
(If I were you, I would go home.)
A: He would be speaking.
N: He would not be speaking.
Q: Would he be speaking?
       Action that might take place
       Putting emphasis on the course / duration of the action

A: He would have spoken.
N: He would not have spoken.
Q: Would he have spoken?
       Action that might have taken place in the past
if sentences type III
(If I had seen that, I would have helped.)
A: He would have been speaking.
N: He would not have been speaking.
Q: Would he have been speaking?
       Action that might have taken place in the past
       Puts emphasis on the course / duration of the action

Friday, 24 February 2017

David Hockney retrospective

Hockney drawing in Yorkshire

I was interested to see that the Guardian review of the Hockney exhibition at the Tate gave him a 3 out of 5 score. Besides being annoyed by the crass stupidity of scoring art exhibitions as if they were some sort of X Factor experience, I was surprised to see that the reviewer didn’t spend more time unpicking what his legacy was. Art is a long-lived phenomenon and artists on the whole are very aware of this. They spend a lot of time looking at what was done in the past. I’m very aware that I still spend more time looking at art made before I was born than art made since that time. Not that I avoid contemporary art, I haven’t missed a Venice Biennale for well over 10 years and continue to seek out new shows, but every time I go to London I visit the National Gallery and the British Museum and when visiting any European city I always make sure I go and see the work housed in the local museum.
Technology changes but people don’t. Some problems remain constant; but they can drop in and out of fashion. Throughout Hockney’s career he has questioned the nature of picture making. At times working in one style or another in order to assimilate or simply get to grips with certain approaches to dealing with space or how the surface of an image can be depicted. At others trying to set up experiments in order to open out both the future possibilities of representation and to further understand its historical foundations. His long interest in photography and optical devices is an essential part of his work, not a sort of add on hobby as some critics seem to feel it is.  However, one aspect of picture making continues to come back to haunt him and that I believe is that ‘moment of Cubism’ as described by John Berger is his essay of the same name.  Berger wrote his essay in 1967, Hockney was already established as an artist, and I had already decided that I was going to be an artist. This was 50 years ago and Berger’s essay was written just over 50 years after the high point of Cubism, a 100 years ago now. In 1967 I already knew that Cezanne had opened out new territories of perceptual experience to explore and I was both familiar with Hockney’s work and what seemed at the time, the far more radical work of Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg.  I was trying them all out, expressionism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, abstraction, pop art, neo dada, etc. etc.; often working from tiny black and white images found in battered art magazines brought in by my very knowledgeable art teacher who had recently been a St Martin’s graduate.
Berger wrote that cubism was still the most significant art movement of the 20th century. He implied that no one had really understood its implications, including its main protagonists Picasso and Braque.
Five years on from 1967 and Hockney and I would be found inhabiting the same time and space, Hockney delivering an artist’s talk and myself sat in the audience as a 22 year old art student at Newport College of Art in South Wales. Hockney talked about his drawings and at one point joked that he had put a plant pot into the bottom of a figure drawing simply to hide the fact that he couldn’t draw feet. At the time his laconic delivery didn’t impress me, I think he was still finding his ‘voice’ in terms of how to speak about his work. I was also by then heavily into conceptualism and so viewed his work with a certain diffidence if not distain. Even so, I was interested in what he had to say about constructing images and in particular his awareness of pictorial space as a cultural issue. From his ‘Boys together clinging’, whereby he manages to people the gestural space of abstract expressionism, via the oblique perspective/Egyptian space of ‘The second marriage’ to his games with the picture plane in ‘Play within a play’; he had set out quite early on in his career to ask questions as to how we both construct space on a two dimensional surface and experience it.
For long time periods I wouldn’t think about him, but every now and again he would pop up in the media and I could see that he had this long standing issue with perception and how to recreate it. As I got older and less and less worried about what should be done as art, I began to find his questions more interesting than his answers. However I also think that by carrying on questioning what painting can achieve in relation to the recreation of an experience, he has kept the issue alive, and this is what I think his great legacy is.
He has kept Berger’s assertion that the ‘moment of cubism’ is yet to be fully realised alive. In particular as new technologies advance, and virtual reality becomes more and more commonplace, the problem of simply recreating experience seems to be a more and more difficult and perhaps ‘revolutionary’ question. As screen technologies come to dominate visual communication, they become seen as a ‘reality’ in themselves, several contemporary philosophers questioning whether or not there is any reality outside of our mediated experiences. Therefore the simple act of using drawing to question how we see appears on the one hand almost childish and yet on the other hand it suggests that because of its straightforward simplicity and directness, drawing can work like a mathematical equation. If you get it right you can solve one of the mysteries of the universe.

The way that a drawing can collect all its marks into what could be seen as a simultaneity and present a time based experience to the viewer in that moment of simultaneity, is suggestive of an experience that reflects on and can recreate how experience is experienced. This conundrum is one I believe helps us to continue to see drawing as a fundamental tool in the questioning of our existence and which I believe continues to make it worthwhile putting pen and pencil to paper. Hockney, should be celebrated as someone who has kept these questions alive and I shall try to open out the tricky question about time and image making in the next post.

Hockney: Ken the Printer