Essay by Paola Catizone.
Limits are necessary if form is to emerge in the material world. Without limits, entropy ensues. Drawing may well be the most limited of all art disciplines. The variety of tools used in drawing are, by necessity, restricted. The process of drawing can be described as the result of dragging a pencil, charcoal or marker onto paper or other surface, to produce scratch-like lines.There are, of course, exceptions; Artists like Anthony MCall have made drawing lines with projected light and Fred Sandbank among others has used thread to ‘draw’ lines in space. Richard Long’s drawings are made by walking. Even in these cases, the tools used were inherently limited, in comparison, for instance, to the varied color palette of the painter or to the extensive set of editing tools and effects available to video artists. What is most limiting however is probably the line itself.
While chiaroscuro and tonal values are part of the drawing technical repertoire, when thinking of drawing most of us think of lines. These delineate and contain form, allowing viewers to perceive the presence of an object in space or to sense (kinesthetically) the direction of a movement during gesture or locomotion. Lines create limits by giving information about a body. Viewing a drawing elicits sympatetic identification with the act of mark making, sight and touch sinestetically merging, in John Bergers words; “Drawings reveal the process of their own making, ...” (Berger.J 2005.P70). It is because of these factors, that drawing has acted as a language with the ability to articulate both imaginative and practical meaning, from architecture to choreography, many fields of human activity have used and continue to use it to communicate in many different ways. In art, drawing has been used as a way of noting, conveying and summarizing ideas, as well as a means of problem solving,. In her introduction to Millton Glaser’s book Drawing is Thinking, Judith Thurman writes:‘Its title pays homage to the work of Frank Wilson, a cognitive neurologist whose studies of the hand and brain posit a connection between the manual dexterity of homo habilis and the evolution of homo sapiens....According to Wilson’s research with living subjects, the hand does more than execute cerebral commands, it plays a prime role in their orchestration.” (Thurman.J.2008. p7)
In my drawing, I use two hands and a number of markers, this returns the marks to the realm of gross motor skills, pre-dating manual dexterity in evolution, and reaching back to the realm of locomotion, as in running and walking. These movements are less cognitively informed than the pencil in hand, fine motor skill. It could be conjectured that they are closer to animal movements.
In Drawing is Thinking Glaser mentions Wilson’s research with patients, which proved that the brains of children that were not allowed to draw didn’t develop fully. (Glasner.M. 2008. p14-15)The sensory-motor loop alluded to here seems relevant both to art making and to viewing. Drawing allows viewers to sense the image, somehow experiencing a physical empathy with the drawing gestures of the artist. The relationship between drawing and sculpture is particularly direct, as both require physical involvement from both maker and viewer, who can not only sense the object in space but can track the somatic experience of making it. Drawing, like drumming, dancing and singing, emerges so directly from the body that it has been considered as a primary, natural form of human behavior, present already in pre historic man. It has also been attributed the quality of running parallel to thought, possibly due to its immediacy of execution and apprehension. The relationship between drawing and painting may be less immediate. Drawing has traditionally played a preparatory role for painting and/or shared the same flat surface with it.These two languages, both based on the flat surface, may also coexist happily as we find in the work of Julie Mehretu,Elizabeth Peyton or Franz Ackermann. According to Emma Dexter; “Drawing came noticeably to the fore circa 1995, when artists...became more widely known and appreciated specifically choosing drawing as their principal medium” (Dexter,E,2005.p008). Drawing in itself, rather than as a preparation for something else, will be the focus of this essay.
Truth and Unknowing
“I am unknowing”
(Death to Block in The Seventh Seal,1957, Ingmar Bergman).
The multiplicity of choice, the weight of theory and the anxiety of influence that can plague a contemporary practicing artist about to begin a new work can at times be paralyzing. Physical involvement with large scale drawings can offer both a way of thinking and of finding a direction. Attacking a piece of paper, with both hands, and continuing to do so , often for hours, has become part of my practice. The whole body participates in this mark making. Structure plays an important role, but the limits, set up a priori, are minimal; a set of parameters, mostly to do with the body’s movement, a time limit for the process and sometimes, when music is used, a pace. These pre-arranged decisions can become a container, allowing freedom to enter a state of unrestricted un-knowing.
Working in this way, is often an attempt to break trough habitual ways of making marks, of seeing , perceiving and even thinking. In my practice, limits are established so that something new may emerge, if it’s only a set of marks that have escaped the tyranny of habitual thinking and seeing. There is a destructive, even aggressive quality to this process, the body’s movements and its resulting marks seek to shatter and fragment a habitual perceptual reality or schemata. There is a sense of entering ritual space, in which apparently senseless actions and experiences have acquired symbolic value. Energy has to be managed,in order to stretch steadily over the span of hours, and movement has to be optimal and fluid, so as not to cause physical harm.
This practice is durational, as it is only through extended time that the mind gives up its grip on pre-conceived ways of seeing and knowing. It works like a body koan; repetition and endurance ultimately defeating habitual thinking. According to Francis Halsall: “As Gombrich describes,the process of drawing does not sequentially proceed from observation to transcription. Instead the drawer works according to schemata. The artist, Gombrich argues: “begins not with his visual impression but with his idea or concept”. (Halsall.F.3013.p11). This schemata, this pre-conceived idea, is what I want to bypass, with the support not just of sight, but of all the senses.
Emma Dexter’s dual classification, divides contemporary art into “..two main trajectories; the Post-Conceptual and the Neo-Romantic” (Dexter.E.2005.p 006). According to this classification, my drawing practice would probably fall within the category of Neo-Romanticism, as I am seeking marks coming from something ‘Other’ than myself, or at least in collaboration with this, ideally more truthful other. In Zen terms the small mind seeks to expand into large mind.This sense of otherness infuses Stones and Flies, Richard Long in Sahara, a documentary of the artists work in the Sahara Desert. Long at some point talks of having encountered other structures in his walk through the desert ‘perhaps made by others thousands of years ago...my work is not personal, it’s part of what it is to be human...” (Philip Haas, 1989, Milestone Film)
In the insistent pursuit of the open space of practice and its romantic quest, the body, and the drawing hands become the conduit for this non-personal truth. The only way to keep going is by focussing on something, usually breath (this is at the core of many meditative disciplines aimed at lengthening concentration), and movement. Movement too has lines.The appearance of the ‘other’ is neither angelic nor demonic, it has no mythical dimension. It rather functions as a clearing of the decks, an attempt at paying undivided attention to the nuances of every action as if performing them for the very first time. This is an attempt at finding a way back to pure, direct perception,unmediated by cognitive filters, habits or pre-conceptions. Marks are blind, drawings embodied, born of impulse. Questioning experience through a visual practice, breaking down the image into its basic components. Marks, lines, space, are freed from fixed meaning, closer to the present moment.
Millton Glaser says on his interview in his book “Drawing Is Seeing” that : “ Drawing with humility provides a way for truth to emerge”. Drawing Is Seeing, P11.
In a talk given to a group of community artists in DKIT in 2004, painter Brian Maguire once said that the prisoners he worked with in Portlaoise Prison, had a quality of honesty in their art work. This honest mark making was often carried out by men serving forty years sentences and already deemed by the state and by large sectors of society as having, perhaps irredeemably, strayed from a shared ethical truth.The direct, physical confronting of the unknown, that can be experienced in mark making has little to do with conventional morality. Mark making may be a practice in which the senses are cleared and the world seen more directly, through body, hands and eyes rather than through a set of notions. It is a returning to the evident, basic fact of being. The resulting image bears testimony to that experience and endeavour, however unsuccessful it may be in achieving its ultimate aim. The viewer may bear witness, as Robert Morris quoted in Francis Halsall’s essay Styles ofObservation and Embodiment,Using Drawing to Understand Robert Morris -Untitled 3 L-Beams- (1965)( Halsall. F. 2013.p7) “I want to provide a situation where people can become more aware of themselves and their own experience rather than more aware of a version of my experience (Newman and Bird 1999:97).
While this process may appear to have performative elements, the intention is not to perform, but to share with others a mode of being which is usually experienced internally.
Scale. Being Inside the image:
During a tour of Becoming, Alice Maher’s recent retrospective exhibition in IMMA, I overheard curator Sean Kissane say that while some of Alice’s large scale drawings might appear to be abstract, they were in fact figurative drawings ‘zoomed in’. He was referring to two charcoal drawings resembling nets or constellations in an astronomical map. They in fact represented the metal knitted vests of medieval warriors. Tacita Dean’s Fatigues,(2012), large drawings of snowy mountains made of chalk on board are another example of large scale bringing a quality of abstraction and immersiveness to the image. Both maker and viewer are engulfed within a larger reality, that physically surrounds them. Being inside the image, we are associated rather than dissociated. Robert Morris Blind Drawings and Matthew Barney’s ‘Drawing Restraint’ also seem to be attempts at transcending what Caroline Jones called the primacy of “Eyesight alone” (Jones 2005) or what Duchamp termed as ‘Retinal Art’( Halsall. F. 2013. p20). Small scale art is a predominantly visual affair, large scale involves the skin, muscles and bones. Vision is linked to rational thought, and to a sense of distancing detachment or dissociation from the object. Kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses bring about associated perception; we are in the story or image. Covering the eyes allows the sense of touch to awaken, large scale images may do something similar.
If drawing an object is a way of making it more visible by virtue of the attention and time given to the act of drawing it, making an abstract drawing may be an experience based on touch. Touch is the first of the senses developing in the embrio, the others emerging from it. Cells in our bodies still ‘communicate’ with each other via a rudimentary form of touch. Blind drawing can be a way of allowing the cells and tissues of the body to speak, the ‘other’ is the microscopic, impersonal yet intimate realm of fluid, fascia and nerve.
Drawing with the whole body is an attempt at entering the substance forming our material self. Abstraction here is a consequence of the zooming in mentioned in relation to Maher’s work. Bishop Berkley’s famous quote of “To be is to be perceived” gains specific value here, as through drawing we bring our reality into being through a perceptual effort.
Large scale, places the imaginative realm around us rather than inside the body, where Christianity would have the soul reside. This surrounding Anima Mundi includes us and connects us to all things.
In Emma Dexter’s words we are using drawing ...‘Not as a window into the world but a device for understanding our place in the universe’ (Dexter.E.2005.p5). Mentioning the universe, here, Dexter places us in relation to the ultimate sense of scale and to sublimity. The ground or surface of a drawing can channel the sublime through incompleteness and through the characteristically unfinished quality of drawing. The white of the paper showing through the gaps between lines becomes a (non teistic) ground of being. This dreaded ‘Continuous Incompleteness’ (Fay.B.2013.p11) is possibly exorcised in painting by the frequent practice of filling all space with paint, overlapping a new world above the basic layer of the working surface, an illusion that safely covers any empty space with colored certainty. Anita Groener’s drawing installation shown this year at the RHA is a perfect example of a way of reconciling the minute and figurative with abstract installation, small and large scale. The way drawings are displayed is an important issue which is however beyond the scope of this paper.
Working at close proximity to a large piece of paper, sight becomes secondary to an overall spacial awareness. From this vantage point ‘inside the image’, full control over a decision making process is partially lost. Decisions are still made, but in an intuitive way. I decide, for example, to direct movement and marks from the chest into the finger tips and into surrounding space, or to ground my feet firmly on the floor. I may decide to make curved or jagged marks, to coordinate breath to the pace of mark making.
These large drawings surprise me on completion. There is an element of chance in them and they also serve to loosen up at every level. The body loosens up, but so does the way of seeing and envisioning, giving rise to a more poetic vision.What I am interested in is experimenting with body, perceptions marks and space. I have recently worked on drawings that are a combination of this ‘unconscious’ process and of a more deliberate style. Oscillating between immersion and detachment, stepping back regularly to assess the overall image as an outsider/onlooker and to make some compositional decisions. Moving between these two modes is like moving between two worlds, and strengthening the link between them.
Patience , Weaving, Resistance
Louise Bourgeoise once said that “drawing is a knitting, a spiral, a spider web, an organization of space” ( from Brian Fay’s talk in IMMA for the launch of the What is-Drawing? Booklet as part of the What Is? IMMA series. Winter of 2013.) Weaving, knitting, sewing, are themes that have recurred in myth and literature; Odisseus Penelope wove a cloth that she un-did every night, as a subterfuge to ward off the contending suitors, stalling while waiting for her husband’s return. While this image of female faithfulness could be read as both manipulative and submissive, it also constellates qualities of truthfulness and patience, of holding steady and focussed in the midsts of a possible war.
The Morae, or fates: the virgin, mother and crone, were greek classical figures representing youth, maturity and death. They are also symbols of human fate, working at their spinning wheel, respectively building, stretching and cutting the cord of each individual human life. Ariadne ran a thread through the minotaur’s labyrinth in order to rescue Theseus. In Buddhism, Indra’s net represents the web of connections linking all corners of the cosmos. Drawing patiently and in a sustained way, making tiny marks over a large surface, mirrors this mythical mesh, the weaving motions that repair the tears in the web of connections, a symbolic gesture signifying a drive to nurturing, healing and mending, consistently and regardless of how hopeless the circumstances.
Like the repetitive motion of rosary prayers, the gestures of mark making are physical movements with a psychic resonance, completely lacking practical value and creating a parallel realm of symbolic meaning. Repetitive motion also recalls nature, in its cyclical returning circles. Scribbling and doodling are compared by Emma Dexter to dreaming, and to teenage obsessiveness (Dexter.E. 2005.P9). All of these actions share a repetitive insistence aimed not at building in the daylight realm of reason but in the darkness of the somatic and unconscious, in an effort that runs contrary to common practical sense, working ‘contro natura’.
Milton Glaser writes that “Art makes us attentive...” (Glaser.M.2008 p11) This may be the one contribution that artistic drawing may offer the world. The value of the useless may lie in its ability to question our culture’s blind faith in the practical at the service of profit and to the exclusion of the imaginal. Ritual and magic were at the root of art, with cave drawings /paintings as the oldest testimony. Today, working insistently at a labour intensive durational drawing is a way of taking a stance against this all-pervasive practical faith, and of resisting the religion of busyness, production and consumption as the only justification for life. It is a way of crafting an intangible net, and of asserting invisible values to balance out the heaviness of life lived only in and for the material realm.
Small and conscious actions may be all the freedom of choice we still have in the face of global impending catastrophe led by super powers beyond our reach. The role of art and artists may need to be re-defined to take into account the new limits imposed by the economic/social/ecologic decline of our culture and of our planet. A life lived attempting to avoid collusion in the dynamics of human greed that wreck havoc with the earth, and a practice that actively negates the values of late capitalism is a humble form of resistance. Imaginative action may be the last corner of freedom still available to us in the current times as the new limits imposed on art funding and institutions may force a sobering re-assessment of the value of art in the world.
My art practice is in part, a way of taking a stance for a more contemplative, less materialistically obsessed way of living. This feeling coexists with an uncomfortable knowing of the futility and insignificance of my efforts in the face of the difficulties of our times.
Choreography, Video, Collaboration
Two of my most admired artists, Morgan O’Hara and Julie Mheretu, produce drawings so large that teams of technicians is often needed to transcribe the projections of the original drawings. Lines move through the space surrounding viewers in a way similar to architecture. Drawing lines emerging from the body project into space, and travel in an intended direction beyond the reach of the hand. Dancers know this, and often refer to lines of movement. Trisha Brown has made drawings with the movements of her feet on the dancing floor, as a choreographer understanding the spatial relationship linking body, lines of movement and surrounding space. Working with Choreographer Fiona Quilligan has allowed me to take drawing physically into space, to turn the body into a moving mark, to create movement sequences for groups that transformed a small space (Students Gallery NCAD, March of 2013) into a large drawing. Cameras captured the movements and projected them back onto the drawings.
Video has a strange relationship with performative action; the second being immediate and embodied, while the first is possibly the most disembodied of all artistic processes. Video shows something that has occurred in the past and that has been manipulated/edited several times to become other than its original source. It is several times removed from the present moment. Video acts in relation to my drawing events as a recording tool, one that can contain the memories of the events when the movements have stopped and the paper has deteriorated. It has also taken the role of carrying the image of the human figure, as figuration has gradually disappeared from my work.
Music has been a supportive device for some of this work, mostly collaborating with a music specialist (Nigel Wood) or directly drawing to live music performances. Ethnic trance music has been my preferred style, particularly Moroccan Gnawa music. Collaboration makes possible what working alone could never achieve.
While drawing started as a loosening up exercise in my practice, gradually taking centre stage, painting in small scale has been part of my work all along. The relationship between drawing and painting poses questions and offers opportunity for engagements that are both intriguing and worthy of exploring in the near future.
Bellione,C, Morgan O’Hara, Live Transmissions, Attention and Drawing as Time-Based Performance, 2006,Press R3,Bergamo, Italy.
Berger, John,2005, Berger on Drawing .Occasional Press. Cork, Ireland.
Dexter,E,2005, Vitamin D, New Perspectives in Drawing, Phaidon Press, London.UK.
Fay,B,2013, What is Drawing? Education and community programs, irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland.
Glaser, M, Drawing Is Thinking 2008, Overlook Duckworth, Peter Mayer Publishers,INC. New York, Woodstock and London.
Halsall,F,2013, Styles of Observation and Embodiment; Using Drawing to Understand Robert Morris’ “Untitled 3 L-Beams”, John Benjamins. Amsterdam,Holland.
Kingston,A, What is drawing? 2003, Black Dog Publishing. London, Uk.
Haas,Philip.Stones and Flies. Richard Long in The Sahara. Methodact.1989. GB.