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