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Drawing blood

19 Oct

Aside from Iwona Blazwick’s own categories she set out earlier in the week, I had a few tendencies I wanted to look at in more detail, the first of which under the vague theme of ‘action.’ This is inspired mainly by the winners of the prizes, particularly that of Gary Lawrence and Jessie Brennan as I had mentioned in my first post, in remarking on the size and detail of both the pieces. Similarly, when I did a cursory glance at previous winners, there was a slight reinforcement there (though I was looking for it) with half of those being quite large and intricate works, as if to say ‘size does matter.’ On one hand, it makes me think of a comment made by friend on last week’s Frieze fair – that generally if a work is large and shiny, it’ll sell. Though Brennan when I spoke to her also made the point that the prize choices are more about what we ask of drawing at the moment, and with a rise in conceptual and other practices that veer away from if not the object then making, it would seem that we ask drawing to remain largely in its traditional role of a hand-made medium, and to give us abundant proof of that. Maybe when I was questioning the endangerment of drawing earlier in the week that’s it, that possibly it is starting to be grouped more with craft practices. (Maybe that’s just in a critical, discursive sense, but as note there do seem to be anxieties around that postulated shift.)

But it’s not just these surface or semantic issues I want to deal with, as the idea of ‘action’ in some of these drawings is linked to all kinds of other things; or more, I’d rather look at what these drawings mean in themselves than try and take on zeitgeist shifts beyond my grasp. Particularly, the work of Lawrence and Brennan, but also that in the show of Hilary Ellis, Liz Bailey, and Fran Richardson. It’s not just, as Drawing Prize co-founder Paul Thomas said in his q&a with the winners a few weeks ago, quickly summing them up with, “They’ve all got a sense of place, and they’re all black and white.” It’s more the link between time, effort, and scale.

Liz Bailey’s Bonsai…(2011) is over 2m high, a faint but intricately detailed portrait of an uprooted tree. As the title tells us it’s a bonsai, there’s definitely a magnification going on here. Bonsai is a pruning practice, a control of any number of species of tree, producing a growth in miniature towards a meditative end. The trunk here floats in space, tangled with smaller twigs still laden with withered leaves. As if to emphasize the amount of work gone into this, Bailey includes on her website images of the mounds of shavings and shortened pencils left by the process of producing the work, perhaps in the same way press on Lawrence’s Homage to Anonymous has focused on the amount of pens he used, as well as his own notation on the framing device at the bottom of the piece that it was begun on the 5 October 2010, and finished 12 June 2011.

Hilary Ellis’ Penance 1 (2011) makes that sense of painstaking effort more literally present, tying it with the title to religious and ritualistic practices. Looking at first like a series of staple marks left on a plastic surface, up close it reveals itself as countless perforations, with tiny blue beads held in place with string, sewn through the thick material. It sits somewhere between a sort of computer chip board cast as an anthropological alien artifact, and an obsessive from of punishment.

Fran Richardson’s Drawing Room (2011) is a more serene scene, a detailed charcoal drawing of an empty parlour with heavy, draped doorways out of the carpeted room. Inside the arched doorways is simply blank, as if a way out of the room is an escape from the drawing space itself. But hers perhaps more than any of the others emphasizes that what a large, detailed drawing gives you is that sense of space, a place to enter into that has its own sense of time. Brennan’s 5m long Cut drawing creates a miraculous world of a mini cosmology, a boat that contains all forms of small people and events on it, and our journey along the barge is also the pockets of moments we notice along the way. The use of a sort of Swiftian device is an analogue for the not just the physical time she spent drawing the piece, but also the investment in the making of it. Devised from a series of interviews and oral histories, that can be heard here, Brennan’s time spent with her subject(s) is translated into the swirls and pockets of time hidden all along her piece.

Part of me feels it’s quite ‘old fashioned’, for drawing to be just an intense looking, that then becomes a long term making. But then that does, on the flip side, also ask a long term looking from the audience. Perhaps not always scale-wise, but more in Baroque architecture sense- of the folds and details being a place of contemplation to get lost in, an idea that implies a sense of time-warp through attention to space. The place we enter into, then, isn’t just that ‘it took a long time to make’, but as Bailey’s Bonsai suggests, that it’s an object of meditation.  Their concentration in developing, the cognition of the piece through to the physical act of drawing it, become foils, parallel and analogous to our looking and time spent with/in the piece.

in Conversation

18 Oct

Last night, the atrium of the JVA was filled with people eager to hear the discussion on drawing between curator, and one of the prize’s selectors for this year, Iwona Blazwick, and artist and curator Deanne Petherbridge, a previous selector and herself an author of a book on drawing. The video of the discussion can be seen here, but here’s some of my own thoughts…

While there was some disagreement – Blazwick made the point that with the rise of installation art, artists inviting us to step in to a real world, drawing itself had to work harder to maintain attention; Petherbridge said it was the other way around, it’s the viewer than needs to work harder – what struck me was the language used to describe drawing as a medium, the tendency to treat drawing like an endangered species. Stressing its unique qualities (‘it’s temporary quality, a what-if-ness’) while defending it against other media.  I wasn’t really worried before, but the way you hear people talk last night, or say the way Jonathan Jones passingly mentioned the Jerwood prize as standing up for draughtsmanship “at a time when photography and video are seemingly the ascendant media in the visual arts.”  Is drawing endangered? I’m not sure how qualified I am to make this statement, but I would feel that despite drawing’s disappearance or suppression in academic curricula, its vitality and importance remains constant. Maybe the worry more is simply that anxiety of prominence it is in relation to other visual discourses, which seems more a clerical (in a societal way) matter than anything else, or something for institutional curators to bicker over the debris. But, back to the talk…

Petherbridge began by approvingly declaring this year’s shortlist as ‘more sober, less of the throwaway, dealing more with pictorial matters.’ Blazwick then began setting forth a series of categories into which she had grouped all of this year’s shortlisted artists:

Technical drawings; drawing as a means of recording and observation; as a way of creating utopian and dystopian visions; as a bridge to the unconscious (‘a pure visual manifestation of that white noise’ of unconscious impulses); as a way of releasing an internal dynamic (speaking here of Leahy-Clark’s newspapers cut pieces which use the ‘scalpel as an instrument of drawing’); appropriation and found drawings; and as a means of destruction and graffiti.

Petherbridge’s responses to these categories were insightful, if sometimes elliptical. Speaking on drawing’s capabilities to easily create another world, Petherbridge pointed out that one of drawing’s predominant uses today has become the planning and sketching out of video games and films, using that fantastical ability towards the expression of violence. It was a good point, though it did also make me think that it was then certain forms of shoot-em-up games and comic book titles that have formed that opinion, which then in her Primacy of Drawing book leads her to completely discount any of the sizable body of work by Manga artists. I get the feeling comic books don’t come under what she would classify as drawing.

At another point, Blazwick was speaking of those found/replaced objects in the show, such as Roanna Well’s Withdrawn (2011) framed skirt in the show; Petherbridge noted this was ‘an ancient activity,’ but I think she was speaking more about how artists find things in the world around them and then try to capture that. Blazwick spoke of the ‘fictive space’ opened by re-placing these things as drawings, but Petherbrige was speaking of Leonardo Da Vinci, drawing the things that he saw around them in fine detail.

Speaking of drawings as a potential preparation for another work, Blazwick mentioned the drawings of Paul McCarthy, whose drawings aren’t so much works in themselves, but mental spaces to sketch out his performances, preparations in a different way.

Paul McCarthy, from White Snow, 2009

Petherbridge noted, ‘for the pre-moderns, drawing was always the preparation for a work in another medium. That doesn’t detract from drawing, drawing is the connection between the past and the future and the idea, it’s part of that process.’ That is as good a statement about drawing I can think of right now.

Simon Leahy-Clark

13 Oct

Simon’s piece Untitled (TN14411) (2011) is a dense cityscape, what looks like a layered collage made from newspapers, with holes revealing more holes revealing more holes. It is just one daily newspaper, with all the text and images removed from the facing pages. Together, it’s a portrait of the day without content, becoming an architectural structure and  a narrative comment. It is the carrier of information laid bare.

Leahy-Clark’s practice has been working for the past few years almost exclusively with newspaper as a material, mostly on these ‘creations through removal.’ Before, they had been shown as a floor-based work, as in the 2007 Creekside Open, and the studio shot below; while recently, as in this year’s Jerwood show, a framed, wall-based paper allows us to look through the careful layers more fully.

Simon Leahy-Clark, studio image

Each cutting then becomes a portrait of the paper’s structure, but also of the day itself.

Simon Leahy-Clark, Untitled (The Stage I)

The countless scraps from this process have led to a new series of collage work, a body of work that began through seeing an image of collagist Gwyther Irwin working in his studio in his 2008 obituary. An image of a piece in that line of work featured in this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, and can be seen here.

Simon Leahy-Clark, Gywther Irwin II, 2008, 175cmx135cm, newspaper on canvas

Simon is currently working an a large-scale work, an image of a large boat liner that has been docked for decades – images of the work in progress can be seen here.

Giulia Ricci

11 Oct

In the first of a series of short pieces focusing in more detail on some of the artists in the Drawing show, to get an idea of their work beyond, I’d like to being with Giulia Ricci, an artist with one of the several moving image works featured in the show. Her short digital work Order/Disruption (2011) begins as a tight geometric pattern of blue and white triangles, a uniform surface that then slowly begins to warp and bend in places. Unidentifiable shapes emerge, pushing out from the surface then retreating. It’s immersive feel sucks you in, giving an underwater glow that then with the shapes for me begins to feel quite claustrophobic, like someone stuck underwater, which contrasts with its calm demeanor. This animated, digital version itself came out of hand drawn experiments with that same pattern, like below.

Giulia Ricci, Order/Disruption no.19, 2011, pen on paper, 33x34cm (photo by Vijay Sebastian)

Ricci in her practice begins with the grid, as a limitation and a structure to work within, and a boundary with which then to react. The process began working years ago with collages made with crosswords, using the boxes as a readymade form; this then developed to her current practice working more with boxes as a basic unit.

Giulia Ricci, Order/Disruption no.22, 2011, pen on paper, 21.5x30cm

Drawing from the legacies of both minimalism and the more craft-based artist movements of the 1970s, as well as artists such as Agnes Martin, Ricci looks at textiles and tiling, using the pattern’s form as a sort of foil for rationality, shapes that then get altered, bent and swollen with the irrational, the emotional, the human.

Giulia Ricci, Untitled, 2009, pen on paper, 33x34cm (photo by Vijay Sebastian)

More work can be seen on Ricci’s blog here, and she also has a solo exhibition on at the Ring Here Gallery on until the end of October, not far from the Jerwood space, featuring a range of works including a vinyl pattern on their front window.

The Story of the Ghost

5 Oct

richard tuttle, 44th wire piece, 1972

I want to steer away from generalising, to avoid speak about drawing as a cohesive thing, but in order to do that, I feel the need to start the discussion somewhere. And ‘somewhere’ is, unfortunately, a general place.

In his correspondence with John Berger about drawing, James Elkins calls drawing a ‘ghost subject.’ It’s apparent on the surface it as it morphs between its poles, of on the one hand a realist/naturalistic depiction, that carries with it the weight of time and effort; then on the other hand its existence as pure, primordial mark making, a quick, emotive and expressive motion captured. Drawing isn’t so much a medium as an approach, a method.

It’s spoken of as either ‘the most ignored of art forms’, or the ‘primary medium’; either underrated or the foundation of all other art forms. Outside of the arts, we can see how it’s used as a tool for excavating the imagination- look at its place particularly in child psychology and the cognitive sciences, where drawing is used an interpretive tool, a way of insight and analysis of the mind.

It seems that drawing works among all these, in something like the role of the Freudian subconscious – where plans, dreams, and intentions are formed and become visible. As such, there is a tension in drawing. Between the inside and outside, between personal expression and the interpretive potential/surface of the drawing itself.

Illustrator Andrew Selby calls drawing “a way of reasoning on paper,” but in his reason there is also that uneasy split:

Drawing becomes interactive, in the truest sense of the word, because the modes by which one thinks, questions, and comments through drawing transcend media and platform concerns…The purpose of drawing here is to continually question content, exploring the codes and conditions by which the content could be absorbed by a third party, creating ‘mnemonic symbols or a pictorial symbology’ (Heller, 2002). Or, if you prefer (I don’t) it is what the nineteenth century essayist Rodolphe Topffer described as ‘a language of signs.’ Whilst the process of my drawings has been described by others as private, expressive and reflective, I try never to forget that it must function as the framework to communicate a subject to an audience.” (in Drawing – The Purpose, eds. Leo Duff and Phil Sawdon, Intellect Books, 2008)

In a how-to book like ‘Drawing – The creative Process’ by Simmons and Winer, they say that drawing requires “learning to see clearly and objectively” but also involves “brevity and immediacy.” They list five types of drawing:

– Descriptive drawing

– Ornament and illustration

– Drawing as social commentary

– Drawing as means to clarify or crystalise an idea (preperatory drawings for painting, sculpture, architecture and invention)

– Drawing as a means of self-expression

These all inevitably overlap. Even in archeology and architecture, it sits on the threshold of the imaginary, mapping dig sits with accuracy but still sitting as a representation off site and on page, or in architecture where in its cross sections gives impossible perspectives of material-to-be.

For me, it stands right at the axis of the issues at stake in the perception of any artwork- of how much we read the artist themselves into the thing in front of us. Drawing has the benefit/bane of being seen as the most direct route to the maker’s brain. Maybe in the same way that Derrida spoke of speech having a privileged mode of meaning, speech = truth just as drawing = truth. Of course, over the years and in this years exhibition itself, we see multiple examples playing with and refuting that, but it still clings on as drawing’s starting point or essence, the centre which then requires to go back to, be continuously references and refuted anew.

Throughout writing on drawing (itself a contradiction?) you find passages like the following:

Much of the magic of drawing lies in its inherently subjective nature.  For drawn marks provide parallels with experience…Stemming from the artist’s use of drawing as a means of visualising thought came the feeling that drawings were intimate works which brought one close to the artist’s process of creation.” (Susan Lambert, Looking at Drawings, 1984)

I can’t deny that drawing does expose itself, that largely you can see the marks and how they were made. But I feel its also a MacGuffin to see it as a royal road to the maker; maybe that’s treating the composition of drawing as more ‘finished’ than its intended to be, but I think the signification between viewer and artwork carries enough of its own import and struggle to be then attempting to cast that as a link between the viewer and the artist.

Over the next three weeks, I’ll be looking at a few of the individual artists in the show in more detail, seeing what they do outside of the brief glimpse the Prize shortlist allows us, and in between that looking at some of the themes and ways of approaching some of the stuff I’ve sketched out above by the artists in the Jerwood Space. Right now, these themes fall roughly under Action (ie elbow grease); Inaction – looking at some of the ‘found’ works included; Dream, looking at drawing’s particular place in depicting surreal and imaginary situations; Books, more as a physical starting point for a few of the works who used, yes, books as a starting point; and then lastly what I’m calling ‘The Ouija Board, or Guided by Voices.’

Decade Analysis

2 Oct

before finally going in to some of the artists, methods and themes in this year’s Drawing Prize show in a bit more detail over the next month, I wanted to do a quick survey of previous winners of the Prize. This interests me not so much to try and get a zeitgeist litmus test, but more to get an overview of media and size. The prize has been now going for seventeen years, and ten years ago became the ‘Jerwood prize’ – these rounded anniversaries give an excuse for a bit of perspective. Obviously the taste and exigencies of the judges for each respective year weigh in, but let’s assume that the fact of there being 3 members for each year’s panel acts as a sort of mediating stabiliser for that particular variant. For the purpose of this exercise I’ll just draw up each of the ‘first prize’ winners, though the list of other winners for each year can be seen here.

Starting with the Prize in 2001:

Kate Davis, Condition (Blue)

Ink drawing, 128 x 84 cm


Adam Dant, An Anecdotal Plan of Tate Britain

Ink on Antique Paper, 59.5 x 80cm


Paul Brandford, Snatch

charcoal on paper, 39 x 53cm


Sarah Woodfine, Wyoming 2003

pencil on paper diptych, 66 x 68 cm each


Juliette Losq, We are the fictions of the vanished lives and buildings

pen and ink with masking fluid on paper, 86 x 114.5cm


Charlotte Hodes, Wallace Collection Series I 2005/06

Digitally manipulated drawing, inkjet with collaged fragments, 104 x 137cm


Melanie Jackson, A Global Positioning System

digital animation, 10min 1 sec


Warren BaldwinStudy for Portrait V

Pencil and Charcoal on Paper, 101cm x 66cm


Mit Senoj, The Drum

ink and watercolour on paper, 42.5 x 32.5 cm


Virginia Verran, Bolus space (signal)

Pens on canvas, 76 x 62cm

So, on a formal level we could say from this that the Average Jerwood Drawing Prize winner would be a roughly square 78 x 77.4cm in size, most likely a monochromatic ink on paper drawing. Which would fit with this year’s winner, though if we factor in his sizable drawing our new Average size would be a more normal portrait style and quite respectable 96.5 x 126.2 cm.

Content wise, despite the variation, we could say that by and large a certain figurative fidelity is a common factor. Looking at these, the word ‘realism’ doesn’t quite hold across the board but even mit senoj/tim jones’ explosive mindscapes don’t stray into abstraction. If humans don’t feature directly, then their structures, buildings and fabrications occupy the space like an expectant ghost. There’s a sense of directness, and it poses the question of whether drawing forms its content and subject by force of its process – ie does a drawing’s content always feel direct or forthright, because of the act of drawing, or what drawing as an act is meant to signify.  That might not make much sense, but that’s something I want to explore more in the next few weeks, so hopefully it will.

Out of these artists, the only two I was aware of were Dant and Jackson- Dant from his shows at Hales and part of the Hypercomics show at PumpHouse Gallery, and Jackson from her exhibition last year with the Drawing Room last year. I guess I’m drawn more initially to (no pun intended) styles like Dant’s geekish referentialism, and Jones’ surreal bends that remind me of comic book artists like Matthew Thurber and CF, or the PaperRad gang.

For now though, I’ll let you all survey the past decade and next we can start looking at the apparent present/future of drawing…

one-sided introductions

14 Sep

I’ve just been appointed the JVA Writer in Residence, so I wanted to say a quick hello. Quick intro: I’m Chris Fite-Wassilak, a London-based writer and curator, a few of my recent projects can be seen here, some of my writing in the current issues of frieze and Art Monthly, or if you find yourself the west cost of Ireland I’ve curated a show currently at the Galway Arts Centre. I’ll be looking at the just-opened Drawing Prize exhibition in the Jerwood Space in detail over the next few weeks, and the forthcoming ‘Terra‘ show in November, looking to get both some broader perspectives and sustained close-ups, open up some issues and connect things to wider debates.

Firstly congrats to all exhibiting in the Drawing Prize, a great range of methods and attitudes there and it seems about right that the founder of the prize Anita Taylor last night called the show ‘a debate of what drawing can be.’ With a show of this scope it’s impossible for me to comment on each artist in depth, but I’d prefer to veer closer to attempting that and staying away from broad ‘state of what we’re at’ sort of statements that survey shows tend to precipitate, though that is, I think, a big part of what attracts audiences to them. I do want to look more into the psychology behind our approach to drawing, and the work here provides ample fuel for thought.

The winners of the various prize winners have been announced on the JVA site, but I see it partially as my part to at least initially point onwards from there. Congrats to Kristian Fletcher for winning one of the student prizes going with his Lake (2010) drawing, an ominous cinematic scene, reminding me in part of the layered theatricality of some Gerard Byrne photos;  Nicki Rolls‘ winning the other student prize for Sketch (2011), a stand out of the show its sly mix of sculpture and projected animation. I’d seen printed portions of Jessie Brennan‘s the Cut (2011) which won her one of the prizes, as it had been produced in cooperation with project with SPACE , but great to see it all in the flesh, while as you have more than likely heard the winner of the drawing prize iss Gary Lawrence‘s epic Homage to Anonymous, 2011.

This is a starting point, as the selection panel’s choices- so maybe an obvious starting point, and not where I might start, but we’ve plenty of time to get into it further. I do find it interesting that two of the physically larger and evidently time-consuming pieces of the show take the top prizes, and I’d hesitate to align the choice with a more traditional ballast of both size and the definite, visible pain-staking presence of the hand making the mark, but I’ll leave that to ponder until my next post.