Sunday, 30 June 2019

Why do I draw?

Terracotta container in the form of a boat used for the ritual of charcoal making

I have often been ‘accused’ of being an illustrator rather than a fine artist. This is a criticism I have had to shoulder at various times and I have tended to just shrug it off and get on with what I was doing. But there has to be something in this accusation because it has been a recurring issue.
So what is it that is the problem for other people? I think it’s to do with words. We have as a species developed a particular form of communication based on words. The thing about words is that they have to stand for other things that are not themselves. The word apple has to stand for all the types of real apples that there are, red ones, green ones, old ones, eaten ones, Korbinian ones or the ones in my garden. A word operates like a trouser press, it smooths out all the wrinkles and gets rid of that lived in feel that trousers have developed by the end of the day. Words like 'illustration' are like that. Some drawings are made to correspond exactly to a word; at this most basic level you will find a child’s alphabet poster. A is for Apple, will be illustrated (I’ve now used the illustration word) by a drawing of an apple. This drawing may be very simplified, in fact it needs to be a sort of general apple, because this is what the child is learning, the word apple is an umbrella term for all the various types of apples that the child will encounter during their lifetime of language use. The thing about this sort of drawing is that it reinforces the idea of the word by also being an umbrella drawing, but there are myriads of other drawings of apples that don't relate to words in such a direct way, just think of Cezanne's.  I have worked as an illustrator and the client does at times want an exact correspondence with words; "do what I say", I have been told, and "show me what I am thinking about" and when I have done that, yes I would agree that that is an illustration, but even that isn't as straightforward as you might think. Some of my illustration work was done when I was working as an industrial interior designer. Although I was working for a variety of clients, I was also clearly problem solving. My drawings were used both to show possibilities and to think about solutions. Which is what I am still doing. But instead of using drawing to think about how to get people to use space in more productive ways, I'm using it to get both myself and hopefully others to think about what it is to confront the problem of being human in a time of great uncertainty, both politically and ecologically. It is perhaps here that the 'illustration' issue lies. I see my work not as an end in itself, but as part of an overall task which is how to live a 'good' life. How do I as an artist responsibly act in relation to the world around me? My drawings therefore 'illustrate' my intent. This is directly in opposition to what my old art teacher told me. He said I was never to be didactic, never to tell a story, never to use art to do anything that took art outside of itself. An exploration of the formal properties of art and its making was what I should always be concerned with. My answer at the time was to read Ernst Fischer's 'The Necessity of Art'.  Fischer believed that it was the rise of a class society that broke the previous unity of all things, and that before the advent of capitalism, animals, humans, plants and minerals were all one interconnected experience, the division of labour and the advent of private property causing an alienation that was now the central issue that art had to confront. Therefore the function of art was to help restore a sense of unity with the world. His thoughts still ring bells for me. 
Communication systems shape what can be communicated, (McLuhan’s the medium is the message), and words tend to clean up communication. The more we as humans use words, the less we use other forms of communication. For instance, many entities use chemical communication systems, think of how the soil will communicate with a tree and of how we ourselves have the potential to communicate by smell far more than we actually now do. Words also restrict and determine the boundaries of things; they are not very good at fuzzy edges. I believe that everything in this universe is interconnected and all things are constantly changing their relationships within this interconnectedness. So what was once part of a star might now be part of my fingernail, what was once an apple in my garden; is now a pip lodged in a vast fatberg somewhere under Leeds. Because of the way words operate I don’t normally think about my body as an interconnected fuzzy integration of bacteria and cells, I think of it as a discrete whole, something I call my human body. Because this wholeness isn’t an interconnected knot of hazy undifferentiated connections, as soon as the word 'body' has been uttered, there is a sort of out of sight out of mind trick. Because the word for human being doesn’t include the words ‘defecated pip’, I don’t very often think about the trip down the sewer system. But if I was at the centre of a series of chemical interactions I may well be much more aware of what we as humans call smell and perhaps be more able to detect certain types of changing relationships. Not all of them of course but certainly different ones to the ones words can cope with. Think of when you are cooking in the kitchen, the smells combine so that you become aware of various amounts of different spices and other ingredients, but you can also at the same time appreciate the smell of a vase of flowers on the window sill, all in one sniff. But now think of how a dog might understand the world, and how it does this without any words.
Making a drawing or an object can be more like a fuzzy, unclear, non-boundary type of situation. The moving of materials around becomes a hand/eye/substance engagement. As the substance is moved it both reveals itself to the mover and in turn shapes the mover’s movements. A hand can only move within a particular set of directions and a stick of charcoal will only allow itself to be gripped in certain ways and it will only break off when applied at certain pressures and when rubbed against certain surfaces. (Try drawing with charcoal on a sheet of smooth glass). The coming together of the mechanics of the human body with outside of the body materials, is something that communicates things but in not quite so precise a way as words and that is why I’m writing this as a way to explain why I draw.  I may be very clumsy in my word use, but I can try to at least get some aspect of an idea communicated within a system that tends to prioritise words. However what drawing or making as communication systems lose in preciseness they gain in offering different types of communication, ones that accept fuzziness; ones that don’t need hard boundaries, ones that aren’t about definitions and above all ones that are always about interconnectedness. The things I make in clay are as much about clay as my arthritic fingers and as much about my somehow surviving to be this age, as the fact that as this solar system stabilised the third mass from the sun, this enabled a magnetic core to rotate at a certain speed and this supported the maintenance of average temperatures that kept water unfrozen for a large part of the time. My various interactions with lumps of clay or with paper and ink communicate things about which words are totally inadequate to communicate; and that of course is the point. 

This graphite wash drawing is how I feel about the current political and ecological climate after listening to the news

Things change. At the beginning of the twentieth century it was formalism that was the dominant western aesthetic. But as Tom Wolfe so clearly pointed out in ‘The Painted Word’, what had begun to happen by the 1970s was that artists had by that time had access to a fast expanding verbal and written vocabulary that was now able to ‘talk about’ aspects of the art making process that had before been wordless. (Wolfe had been researching the effect of Greenberg and other theorists on the development of contemporary art) This growth of theoretical frameworks predicated both the advent of conceptual art and a new post-modernist approach to art making that saw a return to abstraction via changes in definition. Artist writers such as Peter Halley redefined abstractionism in the 1980s so that for instance geometric abstraction became an opportunity to express something about the modern human condition. This was where I felt illustration was now going, hiding itself in plain sight within the theoretical core of fine art as a way of shoring up the importance of words and once again avoiding the messy fuzzy logic of objects that simply were, things that slipped back into the world and simply existed alongside all the other messy things around them. My work often starts with me listening to a story, but as I walk about and sniff the air it also is about breathing, about eating and commingling with everything else. It isn’t special, it is just part of the messiness of trying to navigate existence amongst lots of other things. 

A drawing made using pencil crayons after I heard about the falling number of plant species left on the Earth when talking with a gardener

I suppose these things are becoming more important to me because part of my living is supported by the wage I earn from working at the Leeds Arts University. My role there includes both teaching and research and research is quantified by measurable outputs. So for instance if I write a journal article that is peer reviewed, this is a measurable output. Words as I have just pointed out work like a trouser press. Therefore a journal article I have written will have smoothed out the creases and made whatever it was I decided to pick out as the main issue for communication, something that works well in words. But, aaaagh, by the very doing of this I am skewing the meaning of my work into directions that fit structures that have been developed because of the way words work. 
Like 'Catch 22', I am trapped. This is how the 'abstract' of one of my articles reads:

Drawing Research Theory Practice: Volume 3 Issue 1 April 2018: Garry Barker: Drawing and the street texts of Chapeltown
"This paper is a meditation on a field text that explores the concept of the sentient street. The graffitied walls of Chapeltown, a multi-cultural area of Leeds, a Northern English city, talk to an artist embedded within its community and these street texts give rise to drawings that embody that experience. Chapeltown has been a home to various and shifting populations over the last 100 years and during this time its walls have often been a support for the words of street poets, especially those that have messages that go beyond the traditional graffiti tag. Walking through these streets as he draws, an artist meets people and talks to them and their stories become additional texts that can be used to provide narratives to support the development of post-situ drawings. The streets themselves have their own voice and it is this voice that gives the artist’s post-situ drawings their charge, a voice that gives poetic shape to the drawn image. This article seeks to follow these street texts and their affect. Nancy’s concept that a drawing does not become information, but a sense, is used as a guide and as a series of interjections as to the way textual information becomes embedded into the feeling tone of a drawing".
Notice how a certain type of language is used, for example, 'post-situ drawings', instead of drawings done back in the studio, 'textual information' instead of 'reading' a 'field text' instead of some writing responding to lived experience. Not only is my communication twisted by words, it is further distorted by the types of words used because I am writing in an academic context. As I pointed out, the thing about words is that they have to stand for other things that are not themselves. So what is it about a drawing, isn't this the same problem, isn't this the same problem for a perfume? Is all communication simply various approaches to metaphor, does one thing always have to stand for another?

An allegorical drawing of Chapeltown using pen, ink and wash

Charcoal drawing using charcoal I made myself

I made some charcoal and I used it to make a drawing. As the drawing arrived there was a moment when it began to remind me of something, a certain type of space, a certain type of atmosphere and at some point I left it there in this becoming. Notice the coming into being impression of a feeling or imprecision of communication here. The intent is not clear. But then the world is not clear, I don't know what the weather will mean to me today. Will it uplift my spirits or just be a background against which I will get on with my work? This image was for a brief period in my life important, but like the weather, I can't focus on it for too long because I have other things to do.  But I do still carry on making these things called drawings and just as the weather carries on weathering, I for some reason seem to carry on drawing. It has over the years become just something I do. Of course I also write about it, a lot, (and make much more solid things, such as ceramics). But the writing is partly because it is hard for other people to accept my drawings as a serious form of communication without the presence of words, hence the exhibition catalogue, art magazines, journals, art books and the writings of art critics. So...why do I draw? Because as well as looking, I also smell, hear, taste and touch things and find these simple acts of great comfort to me. Drawing has over the years become a sixth sense and is also a comfort to me; it calms me down, eases my anxiety and offers me a way of communicating that is more like a crumpled pair of well worn trousers. 

Further reading
Ernst Fischer: The Necessity of Art

Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore: The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects

Tom Wolfe: The Painted Word
Peter Halley: Notes on Abstraction
Published in Arts Magazine, New York, Vol. 61, June/Summer 1987
Nancy, JL. (2013) The Pleasure in Drawing New York: Fordham University Press
Drawing as thinking

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Non western aesthetics: Japan (Part one)

Muqi Fachang: Six Persimmons
One of the main reasons I have been drawn towards a study of non-western aesthetics is because of the dangers now threatening us as a species, in particular climate change and global warming. I believe that because of these threats we need to change entire sets of behavior patterns. In the West we have tended to separate art out from the rest of what we do and in doing so apply certain aesthetic ideas into very elite areas of human experience, which leads to a situation whereby most people dismiss art as totally irrelevant to their lives. For instance the long Greenberg influenced debate surrounding the specificity of painting as an art form, or Danto’s writings on the specific nature of art as something defined and bounded by the art world itself. When faced with the reality of existence and how precious life is these sorts of art bound definitions seem irrelevant. This is why I have in a recent post celebrated the writings of John Dewey, a philosopher who did value the way art could reflect real life experience and why in earlier posts I have looked at object orientated ontology as a way of using philosophy to help see how everything is both connected and relatable.

I have touched upon the issue of non-western aesthetics a couple of times recently, looking at both Indian and Chinese approaches to aesthetic form, but this time I would like to dig a little deeper and open out ideas that might help us to think of how to apply aesthetics to much wider areas of our experience. This is because I believe that aesthetics is fundamentally about what we care about and if we don't care about the wider world, we won't have it to care about for much longer. Aesthetics has a much greater relevance within Japanese culture than is accorded to aesthetics in the West, therefore it is perhaps useful to explore how this situation arose.
In her fascinating book, ‘Bonds of Civility’ Eiko Ikegami describes how the people of Japan incorporated aesthetic awareness into the very social fabric of their daily lives. Japanese people becoming both producers and makers of aesthetically significant productions. Ikegami points out that identity, culture and meaning are emergent properties and that by focusing on aesthetic issues people within a very structured and hierarchical society could develop meaningful relationships with the world and their place in it without coming into direct conflict with those that sought to hold on to power. In our own society we also have many disenfranchised people who feel that they have no meaningful relationship with the world. Our current art practices are not designed to help with this and in many ways totally ignore or turn away from the problem. If you walk through the local streets where I live in Leeds you immediately sense that something is wrong, litter and rubbish is tossed everywhere and very little effort is put into the aesthetics of day to day communication between people. If people's lives don’t matter why should they bother? But their lives do matter, and so does the life of the planet. If people don’t value their local environment, they definitely won’t value the rest of the Earth outside of that locality.

 In Japan the aesthetic sensibility must have taken a thousand years to fully develop. Capitalism as an idea has also taken a long time to become part and parcel of people’s everyday lives in the west. But the urgency of the environmental situation might speed the different processes that stimulate change and we might still be able to reframe the way that our society sees itself.
The Japanese aesthetic tradition stems from two religious beliefs. The oldest being Shinto, whereby there is a deep awareness of nature as an energy generating phenomenon, this is reflected in a celebration of the divine nature of trees, rocks, objects, places, animals and people, all of which are seen as being interconnected and sharing the world's resources between themselves.  Buddhism in its Japanese form arrived later but there was a similar aspect to Shinto in that there was no human/God divide as there is in Christianity, both Buddhism and Shintoism seek to open people out to what is already there and to help them to achieve some sort of oneness or peace with the world. In the Buddhist tradition, all things are considered as illusions, they are simply points in time on a journey whereby they are evolving from or dissolving into nothingness. Everything has potential to be something else. Nature is seen therefore as a dynamic force and one that humans need to attune to, rather than try to shape. Both these traditions seek to maintain some sort of balance with nature,  making humans aware that they are not separate from nature. The Anthropocene understood in this context is a product of natural forces; because we cannot step outside of nature if we are ourselves part of nature. Any effect on the planet we might have as a species, is something that is caused by nature and nature it could be argued, will therefore have a solution. Imagine a particularly strange bird that needed to build ever more larger and complex nests, as it did so it began to decorate them with glittery things that seemed to add some sort of extra value to these ever growing larger nests, until one day everyone began to realise all of the Earth’s resources were being used up in their nest making. We are like these birds, unaware of anything else but the need to build our nests but at some point these birds will either die out or change their habits. 

Muqi Fachang's 'Six Persimmons' is a meditation on a movement between nothingness and being, it captures the moment of seeing the differences and yet similarities between a family of objects. A moment caught by a few spins of the hand/wrist and a flick of the fingers, enough to embed the human into the persimmons' action. It is in this holding on to a few moments of looking that we can see the bigger picture. Life is indeed wonderful, the simple yet complex pattern of relationships we find in a simple group of objects, echoing the patterns we find all around us. We are just too busy to notice them. This is why aesthetics are so important. They ask us to look and to see the beauty in the looking.

Gibbons Reaching for the Moon, Ito Jakuchu

At other times a visual image can become an entry into a meditative experience. 'Gibbons reaching for the moon' being both an image that highlights human hubris and folly as well as offering a space for further meditation on the nature of life itself. (I have looked at a similar Zen drawing in the past and have opened out its meaning in more detail here

It has been argued by Donald Richie that, 'if aesthetics in the West is mainly concerned with theories of art, that of Japan has always been concerned with theories of taste. What is beautiful depends not upon imagination (as Addison thought) nor qualities proper in the object (as Hume said) nor in its paradoxes (as Kant maintained) but rather on a social consensus'. (Richie in 'A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics') In relation to this argument, I believe that we as a society need to recognise the fact that our aesthetic social consensus is basically broken and unfit for purpose and I further believe that it is going to be part of the job of artists to help build a new one. 

If we can spend more time appreciating the world around us, we might not be so quick to destroy it. This awareness is something that should unite the arts and sciences. When you look at a field of growing wild flowers, it is not only beautiful to look at and challenging to draw, but the hidden dynamics of soil structure, the below ground fungal biochemical systems, the plant/insect communication networks, the various interconnected life cycles, can all be understood and more importantly seen as an extension of our own eco-system. Scientific research and sensitive observation leads to an interconnected awareness, which can be something that we tune ourselves into and in this tuning we will find ourselves and the field and all the things of that field to be beautiful. 

The posts put up in this blog are part of my own self education, they are also a response to what I strongly believe is the moral duty of an artist/educator. The making of art cannot take place in a vacuum and if you look at any society that has used art forms, be these multi-media ones or very specific ones such as dance or decorative pottery, you will find that the indigenous art form was something that helped that society develop bonds with both its members and with the world outside of the social group. Whether this is the Australian Aboriginal 'Dreamtime' or a Finnish shaman's singing in of animal spirits, a Japanese tea ceremony or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. So as you communicate what it is you are trying to do, try to ensure that what you are doing is of benefit, ask others whether it helps them in some way, check on whether or not what you are doing hinders or helps our relationship with the planet. I'm not suggesting all artists should become eco-warriors but I am suggesting that artists need to think about their role in society and what they are communicating. If Shakespeare hadn't bothered to think about how well his work communicated to others he would never have had any of his plays staged. It is not easy and it is also a road lined with traps. The role of the artist is often confused and mythologised by the media, sensationalism often offered up instead of communication. Sometimes artists can get carried away with their own importance. Consider the case of Christoph Büchel and his moving of what is in effect a mass grave from its resting place at the bottom of the sea to the Venice Arsenale.

A visitor to the Venice Biennale takes a selfie of himself with the sunken migrant ship in the background
The cost of raising the ship and transporting it was over £30,000,000. Two fully equipped field hospitals with staffing could have been put into operation to serve one of the world's huge refugee camps for that type of money. Büchel states that he is raising awareness of the plight of migrants, but in effect what he has done is to set up a publicity stunt that ensures that the one name we remember is that of Christoph Büchel. It is work like this that makes me believe that our aesthetic social consensus is basically broken and that what we call the art world is by that very definition also not fit for purpose. Art doesn't need its own world, it should be part of all our worlds. 

If you go to Venice as well as attending to the Biennale you could visit the church of San Zaccaria. Inside the church is Bellini's 'Virgin and Child'. In response to the painting's position Bellini has painted two marble pillars that operate as a frame in order to echo the painting's positioning alongside real marble pillars, these pictorial devices of framing ensuring that we understand that this image is separate from life and is designed to meditate upon both life and its connection to the world of the spirit. If you visit the church at the right time of the day a sunbeam will brightly illuminate the face of the angel, and then slowly but surely this light beam will move across the painting giving 'divine' illumination as it does so. Both the architect and Bellini must have been aware that this would happen. If you go to Newgrange in Ireland, you will find that its alignment captures a sunbeam from the rising sun during the time of the winter solstice, this is something that is of cosmic significance. 

Bellini: Virgin and Child

As I walk to work in the morning I often draw, it helps me look at things and slows me down. When I draw trees I often notice that they collect moss on one side, and that there are more spiders on the other side. The sun is a powerful shaper of life and where we are in relation to it is fundamental to our awareness of what we are and where we fit in; as important for the moss and the spiders as it is for ourselves. The artist Roger Ackling devoted his entire working life to this idea and his austere approach owed much to his awareness of Japanese aesthetics. His small meditations, whereby he focused the rays of the sun so that he could burn simple lines on a washed up piece of wood, were small acts of thoughtfulness that anyone could aspire to. As simple as choosing to not eat red meat, or to re-use a plastic container, not all gestures have to be grand ones, but if we are to live a more aesthetic life, it will be these small gestures that signify that life and art are becoming unified. 


Ikegami, E (2005) Bonds of Civility Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Richie, D. (2007) A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley

Carlson, A. and S. Lintott (eds) (2008), Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty. New York: Columbia University Press.

See also:

More reflections on tone and emotional value and why the tilt of the Earth is vital to our understanding of these things.  I.e. the influence of the sun on drawing

More on Japanese aesthetics 

Indian Aesthetics

More on Roger Ackling

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Drawing and ritual: Leeds City Art Gallery

Roger Ackling: Bird: Sunlight on wood 1974

There is an exhibition of work at the Leeds City Art Gallery as part of the Yorkshire Sculpture International, that you might easily walk past and not notice, as it concerns small discrete objects that were used as part of three artists' performative works and personal rituals. This small self contained exhibition looks at the work of artists that made their reputations during the 1970s, and therefore I was very interested in how their various sensibilities overlapped with my own, as they emerged as artists at exactly the same time as myself.

I was particularly interested in the work of Roger Ackling. For much of his career he made work using a magnifying glass to focus bright sunlight onto the surface of found wooden objects, and in the process burning lines and dots, which for him became a sort of meditative mark making. The wood he used was usually found, often on a beach, but it could be from anywhere, and his only tool was the magnifying glass. He in this way was able to re-assert the position of the sun as central to all things seen. His work reminds us of the power of the sun to transmit energy to the Earth and in doing so power vegetable, animal and mineral life. These small drawings on wood, are objects that have a sensibility that could have been arrived at thousands of years ago. I was reminded of constructions like Stonehenge and Newgrange, constructions that were also celebrations of the sun, but on a larger scale. There is a lot of hand eye co-ordination and control in his drawings. Each line positioned very carefully in relation to the others, until a perfectly formed rhythmic surface is developed. 

Roger Ackling

Ackling's friend Richard Long tells of Ackling suggesting driving to Cornwall trailing a pencil on a piece of string on the road, and returning by the same route trailing a rubber. This was back in 1968, a time when Ackling had already developed a minimalist sensibility, one that would find full expression in the use of a magnifying glass and forgotten wooden fragments. It is also worthwhile thinking about the fact that in making work of this sort he was dealing with sustainability issues well before they were seen as essential.

Keir Smith made drawings in an indirect way, as part of a method of investigating his subject matter and developing ideas. In the early 1980s Smith began to start turning process into performance, creating a series of sculptures and installations as a way of documenting his interaction with the landscape.

Keir Smith

Keir Smith

Smith at one point was making drawings by using metal stencils and then scorching or burning images through the stencils onto paper. The stencils were kept in special handmade leather pouches, which were worn by the artist as a sort of tool belt, the perfomative act and associated equipment being just as important as the drawings that emerged from the process.

Every profession has its tool kit, leather belts designed to carry as wide a range of tools as possible have always been excellent aids for performance artists as much as make-up artists.

Probably the most well known image of an artist carrying his kit out of the studio is this one of Courbet, notice the roll of canvas, folded easel and stretcher bars

Martin Rogers was known for his artist's books as well as a wide ranging idiosyncratic practice. The present exhibition presents some of his drawings for objects as well as the objects themselves. These objects are made beautifully as if by a cabinet maker and they suggest that they have emerged from a society that used them for complex rituals, rituals that in particular would involve some sort of rhythmic sound making. The drawings on display show Rogers thinking through the various possibilities and forms that these objects could possibly have, as well as visualising their making process. 

Martin Rogers 

All three artists had a performative aspect to their work and to some extent this exhibition of objects and drawings misses the point that these artists were trying to make. The boundaries between art and life were becoming blurred, artists such as Alan Kaprow were very influential at this time, his "happenings" and "environments" were the precursors to what would be called performance art, and his essays set out a series of approaches to understanding the paradoxical relationship between art and life and the nature of meaning. The putting of this type of work behind exhibition glass, if we are not careful, re-introduces the divide between how we think about life and how we experience it. 

The other artist that I remember being of vital importance at this time was Robert Smithson, the detail below of a drawing of stars from one of Keir Smith's drawings in particular reminded me of Smithson's cosmological approach. Smith's drawing of a drawing held down by stones, suggests that the artist should be making drawings out in the landscape and not in the studio, especially as in this case, if the drawing is of star patterns seen at night. 

If we take a typical work by Robert Smithson, such as his ‘St. John in the Desert’, whereby an old engraving of St John is surrounded by collages of electrical diagrams, force-fields and other technical readouts from science manuals and place it next to his essay on Robert Morris; we can think of these two visual/written texts as containing ideas that could flow between each other, intellectual energy at times being converted into electrical flow and vice versa. This perhaps gives an idea of how Smithson's influence worked at the time. 
Robert Smithson: St John in the Desert

This is a short extract from Smithson’s essay on Robert Morris.
'Descartes' cosmology is brought to a standstill. Movement in Morris's work is engulfed by many types of stillness: delayed action, inadequate energy, general slowness, an all over sluggishness. The ready-mades are, in fact, puns on the Bergsonian concept of "creative evolution" with its idea of "ready made categories." Says Bergson, "The history of philosophy is there, however, and shows us the eternal conflict of systems, the impossibility of satisfactorily getting the real into the ready-made garments of our ready-made concepts, the necessity of making to measure." But it is just such an "impossibility" that appeals to Duchamp and Morris. With this in mind, Morris's monstrous "ideal" structures are inconsequential or uncertain ready-mades, which are definitely outside of Bergson's concept of creative evolution. If anything, they are uncreative in the manner of a 16th-century alchemist-philosopher-artist. C.G. Jung's writing on "The Materia Prima" offers many clues in this direction. Alchemy, it seems, is a concrete way of dealing with sameness. In this context, Duchamp and Morris may be seen as artificers of the uncreative or decreators of the Real. They are like the 16th-century artist Parmigianino, who "gave up painting to become an alchemist." This might help us to understand both Judd's and Morris's interest in geology. It is also well to remember that Parmigianino and Duchamp both painted "Virgins," when they did paint. Sydney Freedberg observed in the work of Parmigianino, if not in fact, at least in idea'.
There was a sort of ‘hippy’ feeling to all this, and one that for many artists at this time, myself included, seemed a positive and morally uplifting direction to take. That desire for everything to be joined up, for an invisible universe that lay behind this everyday world to be revealed in all its complex glory, was I remember vitally important to the rise of conceptualism. We move in Smithson’s essay from Duchamp, through Descartes, touching on Jung and use a late Renaissance painter as a touchstone that can take us into the world of alchemy. Smithson goes on to examine the nature of thermodynamics and then reflect on the structure of time. Old myths and religious beliefs, as rethought by Joseph Campbell were for our generation as important as the more technological writings of Buckminster Fuller. Fuller invented the term 'ephemeralization' or the ability of technological advancement to do "more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing." At the time there was a high degree of optimism that science would soon be fused with some sort of mythic understanding of universal principles and that what used to be called 'magic' was simply some sort of future science. Perhaps we need a dose of that optimism again, and seeing the work of these now all dead artists of my own generation reminded me that art and life always need to be entwined together. 

Every now and again I review an exhibition in the City Art Gallery that I think expands or deepens an idea of what drawing is concerned with, as a reminder to keep going and checking out what is being presented. There will always be a wide range of other approaches to art making represented, at the moment there is an excellent exhibition 'Woodwork' to see, that includes work from various historical periods and from non western cultures. It is easy to ignore something just because it is on your doorstep, make sure you make full use of an excellent local resource. 

Find out what's on here: Leeds Art Gallery  
What's on at the Tetley, where there is another excellent exhibition on at the moment. 

Some earlier posts reflecting on what could be seen in the city art gallery:

Beuys and Cotman
Sculptors' Drawings
Narrative Objects
A gallery presentation of large drawings

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Mark-making: Perspectives on Drawing at GoMA

Jonathan Owen

I was in Glasgow last weekend and decided to go and see the exhibition ‘Mark-making’: Perspectives on Drawing at GoMA. If you are in Glasgow it is on until the 20th of October 2019.
This is a quite small exhibition and it showcases the work of six young contemporary artists - Erica Eyres, Lois Green, Ross Hamilton Frew, Jonathan Owen, Gregor Wright and France-Lise McGurn.
The exhibition curator has organised the work into three pairings, the work being in 3 small spaces that you walk through one after the other. The first pair is of Erica Eyres and Jonathan Owen. I presume they were put together because of their very different responses to photographic imagery. I was particularly interested in Owen’s response to images taken from film stills. As a sculptor he is interested in the possibility of new images arising by the processes of reducing and removing, his Eraser Drawings, made using found book pages, have therefore been described as carvings in two dimensions. Often drawing from cinema history he carefully removes ink from the surface of the page in order to erase the main characters or film stars, reshaping them into new aspects of the scenes they were initially part of.  You could argue that this would be much easier to do in Photoshop, but by doing this by hand, he re-introduces the haptic into the photographic world. This is again something I have posted about before, but his approach is I think unique and well worth looking at in more detail. The ‘ghosts’ of figures left over from the process, remind me of ‘spirit photographs’, which were 19th century attempts to capture images of ghosts and other spiritual entities. At the time double exposures were not really understood and were often produced by accident in the darkroom and therefore they gave rise to a myth about photography’s ability to capture ghosts. If you want to try Owen's process print your photographs onto sturdy paper using an inkjet printer and then use an electric eraser to work into the print.
Jonathan Owen

The drawings of Erica Eyres are based on images from 1970’s men’s magazines. These drawings have been stripped down to their ‘bare’ essence. The drawing of ‘Mike’, who came from a magazine section called “One for the Ladies” reclines, floppy genitals and all in a pre-selfie time, whereby only the cameraman knew what you were going to look like in print.  Some of the images come from a nudist magazine, including one of middle aged nudes bowling. “They have a distinct awkwardness,” Erica states, “but simultaneously lack the self-conscious, staged quality of the modern selfie.” These ‘stripped down’ drawings have been built up from a minimum of lines, they float in a sea of virgin white; their innocence a strange one as it emerges out of a context of soft porn but also a context of pre-mobile photographic naivety. The drawings feel as if they are slightly distorted, something is not quite right about proportions, perhaps as details from the images were eliminated, the normal reference points disappeared and therefore measurement went slightly off. Whatever it is that has re-shaped these images, the translation of the photographs into drawings is interesting because as always in a translation the translator’s personal interests shape the final form.

Erica Eyres 'Mike'

As I move on through into the next room another set of photographically influenced images, Lois Green’s small monochrome paintings of domestic scenes, line one wall. I was particularly taken with a tiny painting of a clothes horse that could have been painted at any point in the last 50 years. Its tonal range was probably one that a camera would have found very difficult to capture, and above all the surface quality was very seductive, so seductive in fact that I was suffused with a warm almost 1950s glow of familiarity. Green states that ‘her studio practice is currently focused on creating small-scale tonal paintings and drawings from found imagery, photographs and film stills. They are produced by continuously removing and applying (usually) oil or charcoal on a variety of glossed surfaces to describe subtitles and drama in light and tone revealing emotional weight within an image'.
Lois Green

Green goes on to state, 'My work depicts intimate spaces - often domestic settings and the progression of my work is generating more interest in the ambiguities of tone which can bring uncertainty to the reading of an image and question scenes that appear very familiar.’ Her approach is very straightforward and I found very refreshing because of that. Green’s small paintings were presented as drawings, an interesting conundrum that asks questions about where the boundaries are between the two disciplines.
Lois Green

On the opposite wall are the drawings of France-Lise McGurn who often works with painting and drawing to make images that traverse gallery walls, floors and ceilings. She draws on a collected archive of found imagery to create figurative installations which reference notions of sexuality, ecstasy, loss and consciousness. McGurn uses swift brushstrokes, spontaneous lines and repeated marks to create images that feel effortless and have a historical precedent in the work of Henri Matisse.  In this small exhibition of drawings, perhaps the most interesting issue was how by clustering groups of framed drawings together she could suggest that her work was often architecturally focused and designed to evoke mood rather than to analyse culture.

France-Lise McGurn

Ross Hamilton Frew and Gregor Wright were the pair exhibiting in the final room. A room that was kept in low lighting conditions so that Gregor Wright’s computer generated colour drawings could be seen in appropriate lighting conditions. These digital drawings are built up of many layers of different types of digital mark making and a wide palette of colours and suggest that they are in many ways a replacement for painting. Again a question is asked about boundaries between painting and drawing, in this case is it still drawing because it is done on a computer, even though these images are about colour and visual texture? Gregor’s images are suggestive of everything from science fiction landscapes to club interiors and his more conventional uses of drawing materials suggest biomorphic approaches to form making reminiscent of Arshile Gorky.

Gregor Wright

Gregor Wright

Ross Hamilton Frew’s small images were delicate abstractions of line and repeated structures, sometimes opening out into implied variations, all held within a very understated rectilinear format. He seemed to be working with traces of previous printed ephemera, but in the time I was there I found it hard to make the connections I think I was supposed to be making. 

Ross Hamilton Frew

Ross Hamilton Frew

This is what an electric eraser looks like if you have never come across one before.