WALK THE­LINE

A draw­ing is a record of an artist’s think­ing and ob­ser­va­tion that can never be fully fin­ished, writes Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

THIS is the 16th Do­bell Prize for Draw­ing, es­tab­lished in 1993 by the trustees of the Sir William Do­bell Art Foun­da­tion and for the first 10 years held in con­junc­tion with the Archibald, Wynne and Sul­man prizes at the Art Gallery of NSW. In 2003 the trustees dou­bled the prize money to $ 20,000 and sev­ered the Do­bell’s con­nec­tion with what even gallery di­rec­tor Ed­mund Capon refers to as the cir­cus of the Archibald Prize.

This turned out to be an in­spired de­ci­sion. The me­dia fuss sur­round­ing the Archibald is such that even the Wynne and Sul­man tend to be­come sideshows, while smaller and more re­cent ad­di­tions to the great car­ni­val are lucky to be no­ticed at all.

De­spite some doubts at the time, the Do­bell has flour­ished and has man­aged to as­sert its own cul­ture, dis­tinct from the crass pruri­ence of con­tro­versy that so of­ten de­bases art prizes in Aus­tralia. Its win­ners have been at least rea­son­able and of­ten out­stand­ing artists and most of those se­lected for ex­hi­bi­tion have been wor­thy of hang­ing.

The op­por­tunists that crowd into other ex­hi­bi­tions do not ap­ply or are ef­fec­tively weeded out in the judg­ing process. Even the hang­ing at the AGNSW — in the up­stairs space usu­ally re­served for thought­ful ex­hi­bi­tions rather than block­busters — is open, spa­cious and gives view­ers room to stand back and en­counter the many dif­fer­ent draw­ing styles.

Among the 49 works hung ( of 586 sub­mit­ted), many are by well- known artists, in­clud­ing pre­vi­ous win­ners and ex­hibitors. But one of the virtues of the Do­bell is its open­ness to young artists; it is a won­der­ful chance for re­cent grad­u­ates who have learned to draw well to show what they are ca­pa­ble of. In­deed, it is mostly the lesser- known in­di­vid­u­als who stand out, per­haps be­cause it is hard to fake draw­ing.

The qual­i­ties of in­tel­li­gence, sen­si­bil­ity and com­pe­tence in a good draw­ing are as man­i­fest as the ob­tuse­ness and clum­si­ness of a bad one. Above all, draw­ing, like think­ing, must re­main alive and be con­stantly re­newed: in some of the pieces by older artists we can­not es­cape the feel­ing that rou­tines have be­come tired, that ha­bit­ual mo­tifs and ges­tures have grown as in­sen­si­tive as scar tis­sue.

This year’s win­ner is Vir­ginia Grayson, whose No Con­clu­sions Drawn — Self- Por­trait will be­come part of the AGNSW col­lec­tion. Al­though the pun in the ti­tle is a lit­tle shop- worn, there can be lit­tle doubt that Anne Kirker, the judge on this oc­ca­sion, made the right choice. Grayson’s draw­ing is alive and alert, even though its id­iom mir­ror. This is, need­less to say, not a flat­ter­ing self- por­trait, nor does it ex­press ease or grace. The im­age of the artist ex­udes a sense of ten­sion, which is partly bal­anced, partly ex­ac­er­bated, by the other el­e­ments of the com­po­si­tion.

A se­ries of im­ages of the suc­ces­sive states of Grayson’s pic­ture forms part of the work and hangs to the right.

It is ap­par­ent from this se­quence that the de­vice of dis­tanc­ing the self- por­trait by mak­ing it an ob­ject in an in­te­rior was con­ceived from the out­set. So was the idea of con­trast­ing the is de­rived from Al­berto Gi­a­cometti, and the whole thing is con­ceived in a more se­ri­ous and am­bi­tious spirit than any of its ri­vals.

The self- por­trait is a pic­ture within a pic­ture, set asym­met­ri­cally on the left of the com­po­si­tion, which rep­re­sents the in­te­rior of the artist’s stu­dio. Grayson de­picts her­self stand­ing and in her work clothes. The fea­tures have been drawn and erased and drawn again un­til any lin­ear def­i­ni­tion dis­ap­pears and the whole sur­face is worn and frag­ile.

In con­trast, the small dark pupils of the eyes re­main very in­tense, al­though they ap­pear to be fo­cused on noth­ing more than them­selves in the per­spec­ti­val ren­der­ing of the stu­dio in­te­rior, faintly sug­gested on the right, with the dom­i­nant ver­ti­cals and hor­i­zon­tals of the ta­ble in the fore­ground and the easel on which the self­por­trait proper is mounted.

We have to as­sume that Grayson stands be­tween the ta­ble and the easel when work­ing and that what we are see­ing is the view when she stands back to judge the ef­fect of the whole. In­ter­est­ingly, the edge of the ta­ble cuts off what ap­pears to be her left hand, but is in re­al­ity — for the pic­ture rep­re­sents the back- to- front world of the mir­ror — her right. It is hard for artists to paint the hand with which they are work­ing and Grayson, sim­i­lar to count­less self- por­traitists be­fore her, takes ad­van­tage of the mir­ror’s re­ver­sal to let her left hand stand in for the right.

One of the most strik­ing works in this show is Robyn Yeo­man’s set of 20 sheets that to­gether make up a huge draw­ing of the in­side of a shear­ing shed. She has not done any­thing gim­micky with shift­ing points of view but has con­cen­trated on the dis­ci­pline of mak­ing all the parts fit into a co­her­ent per­spec­ti­val ma­trix. This is all the more dif­fi­cult be­cause the level of fac­tual de­tail that she con­veys on each sheet is such that it is hard to un­der­stand what is go­ing on in any sin­gle part, yet when seen from a dis­tance, the sep­a­rate sheets come to­gether with an im­pres­sive sense of whole­ness.

In a far more ab­stract mode, G. W. Bot’s Win­ter Glyphs evokes gnarled tree roots or leaf­less branches. The whole sur­face of the com­po­si­tion is oc­cu­pied by th­ese strange shapes, which play on our ir­re­sistible ten­dency to read them as sil­hou­ettes and won­der what solid forms cast such shad­ows. En­tirely dif­fer­ent again is Wendy Sharpe’s self- por­trait, in which she de­picts her­self fre­net­i­cally draw­ing with both hands at once in her Paris stu­dio. Full of bright colours and in­ci­den­tal or anec­do­tal de­tails, the pic­ture is re­ally brought to­gether by the face, the least boldly painted part of the pic­ture, the most vague and sug­ges­tive, yet with a look of search­ing and con­cen­tra­tion.

Sallie Mof­fatt’s se­ries of small and slightly quirky self- por­traits, Pam Hal­lan­dal’s Tsunami, An­drew An­to­niou’s Fa­mil­iar Em­brace, Ana An­der­son’s No Fixed Ad­dress and sev­eral other works merit spe­cial at­ten­tion for their var­i­ous qual­i­ties. But there are two other en­tries that sim­ply make you want to go back and look at them again: al­ways a good sign, since it tends to in­di­cate that a work has real aes­thetic and imag­i­na­tive sub­stance that can­not be eas­ily summed up or writ­ten off.

One of th­ese is Gina Bruce’s Self- Por­trait Emerg­ing, once again a se­ries of sheets, this time 30 tiny heads ar­ranged in a 5 x 6 grid.

Some of th­ese are no more than ovals broadly painted in gouache, while oth­ers are just beginning to de­velop the forms of brow, nose and cheek­bones. Bruce’s sim­ple and mod­est work, with its lim­ited pal­ette and eco­nom­i­cal use of brush­work, com­pellingly evokes a sense of

gen­e­sis, of mat­ter evolv­ing into iden­tity. The other par­tic­u­larly ap­peal­ing work — and again a se­ries of draw­ings — is Claire Martin’s 20 Works in Tran­sit.

Each sheet is cov­ered with tiny fig­ures of passers- by in the street, walk­ing or dawdling, strangers glimpsed mo­men­tar­ily in our pe­riph­eral vi­sion. They are drawn in ink or paint wash, some dark and heavy, some faint and trans­par­ent, with other fig­ures walk­ing right through them.

There is some­thing quite fas­ci­nat­ing about the abun­dance, va­ri­ety and once again for­mal econ­omy with which Martin has evoked the hu­man shad­ows that sur­round us in our daily lives.

The va­ri­ety of me­dia and ma­te­ri­als em­ployed in draw­ing — graphite, ink, gouache, chalk, char­coal, among oth­ers — is much greater than the usual oil or acrylic op­tion in con­tem­po­rary paint­ing, and the ef­fects ob­tained are cor­re­spond­ingly dif­fer­ent. It would be very help­ful for vis­i­tors to the ex­hi­bi­tion, there­fore, if the la­bels for each work in­cluded th­ese tech­ni­cal de­tails. This should not be hard to do, since the in­for­ma­tion would be sup­plied by the artist on the en­try form. An il­lus­trated cat­a­logue also would be highly de­sir­able, but at least it should not be too much to ex­pect a list of artists, ti­tles, ma­te­ri­als and di­men­sions.

The terms of the Do­bell Prize do not spec­ify the def­i­ni­tion or lim­its of draw­ing, which is prob­a­bly wise, leav­ing it up to the artists and the judge ap­pointed an­nu­ally to an­swer this ques­tion by demon­strat­ing what it can and should be in our time. For the viewer, too, this is an op­por­tu­nity to con­sider the na­ture and scope of draw­ing: the di­ver­sity of work ex­hib­ited, and the dif­fer­ence be­tween those works that are ap­peal­ing and elo­quent and those that are dull or mute.

His­tor­i­cally, there have been two main themes in the the­o­ri­sa­tion of draw­ing. The first, which goes back to Floren­tine the­o­rist Leon Battista Al­berti in the 15th cen­tury, de­fines draw­ing as the de­lin­eation or cir­cum­scrip­tion of vis­i­ble ob­jects. The other view of draw­ing, as­so­ci­ated with the neo- Pla­tonic phi­los­o­phy of the Re­nais­sance, em­pha­sises its in­tel­lec­tual and po­etic as­pect. The poet, et­y­mo­log­i­cally, is a maker, and this view of draw­ing as mak­ing can be un­der­stood as com­ple­ment­ing the ear­lier idea of im­i­ta­tion or de­pic­tion of the world.

The twin vo­ca­tions of mak­ing and im­i­tat­ing, of ar­ti­fice and il­lu­sion, it may be said, are com­mon to all vis­ual art. But draw­ing is the method and process by which they are achieved. Draw­ings have been val­ued and col­lected for cen­turies pre­cisely as a record of this cru­cial aes­thetic alchemy. They are the most in­ti­mate and im­me­di­ate im­age of the artist’s mind, re­veal­ing the en­counter with a world of things and be­ings that have their own ex­is­tence, and the po­etic work of the imagination that con­verts those things into ar­ti­fi­cial and ex­pres­sive forms.

It is the lack of a ref­er­ence to any­thing out­side the mind of the artist that makes the ab­stract draw­ings in the ex­hi­bi­tion ul­ti­mately rather un­in­ter­est­ing. Ar­ti­fi­cial forms without re­sis­tance or ten­sion tend to be­come doo­dles. Per­haps ab­stract paint­ing works only when the re­sis­tance of the world is re­placed by that of the very mat­ter of pig­ment. But that is not a so­lu­tion for draw­ings be­cause the other way that they can be un­sat­is­fac­tory is by be­ing too solidly re­alised in ma­te­rial form. There is of­ten some­thing un­ap­peal­ing about overly fin­ished draw­ings, let alone ones heav­ily and assertively drawn or painted. Draw­ing can­not be a record of the liv­ing process of the artist if that process has come to an end and the re­sults are too em­phat­i­cally stated.

To as­sert that draw­ing has such in­her­ent qual­i­ties is to re­ject the neu­tral or min­i­mal char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of draw­ing as sim­ply works on pa­per. This is a use­ful enough cat­e­gori­sa­tion for art dealers but in­ad­e­quate for crit­i­cal pur­poses. A paint­ing, for ex­am­ple, does not be­come a draw­ing sim­ply by virtue of be­ing ex­e­cuted on pa­per. At the same time, there is no need for a re­stric­tive def­i­ni­tion of what the 16th- cen­tury bi­og­ra­pher Gior­gio Vasari called the fa­ther of the three arts: paint­ing, sculp­ture and ar­chi­tec­ture.

Per­haps the es­sen­tial premise is that draw­ing is not an art form in its own right but some­thing that pre­cedes, or more ex­actly in­forms, the other arts: a process of con­cep­tion. It is the think­ing of the artist, not the kind that can be done with the eyes closed but one that is re­alised through the hand and that takes shape on pa­per.

Con­cep­tual art form: Op­po­site page, No Con­clu­sions Drawn – Self- Por­trait by Vir­ginia Grayson, pic­tured; above, Paris Stu­dio by Wendy Sharpe

Quirky: Top, Self- Por­trait Emerg­ing by Gina Bruce; and above, Win­ter Glyphs by G. W. Bot

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