The lost art

Why can’t artists draw any more?

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

THIS month, a weath­er­scarred boulder weigh­ing more than a tonne will take cen­tre stage at the Art Gallery of NSW in Syd­ney. It will have made its jour­ney there on the back of a truck driven by an oblig­ing prop­erty owner on be­half of artist Peter Sharp after hav­ing been prised from its rest­ing place at Fowler’s Gap, 140km north of Bro­ken Hill in far western NSW. Clus­tered around this mono­lith will be small sculp­tures made from sticks, leaves and other nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als, along­side a weath­ered 5.5m wooden sculp­ture bleached sil­ver by the el­e­ments. “I’ve been draw­ing this place for 25 years or more, and I de­cided I wanted to bring a wit­ness back, an arte­fact,” Sharp says in a phone call to Re­view on his way to the Jacaranda Draw­ing Award in Grafton. “And if we have enough money, I want to take it back at the end of the show and put it back in ex­actly the same place.”

This rus­tic tableau of built and found ob­jects, along with a group of char­coal draw­ings, rep­re­sents Sharp’s ex­hibit in the in­au­gu­ral Do­bell Aus­tralian Draw­ing Bi­en­nial, the re­place­ment for the Do­bell Prize for Draw­ing held an­nu­ally at the AGNSW. First awarded in 1993, the ac­quis­i­tive prize was ini­ti­ated by the AGNSW and the trus­tees of the Sir Wil­liam Do­bell Art Foun­da­tion — es­tab­lished from the es­tate of the Aus­tralian artist — to en­cour­age ex­cel­lence in draw­ing and draughts­man­ship.

It grew to be re­garded as one of the coun­try’s most se­ri­ous art prizes, with judges in­clud­ing Arthur Boyd, John Olsen and Mar­garet Ol­ley, and en­trants in­clud­ing Judy Cassab, Colin Lance­ley, Aida Tomescu and Suzanne Archer. In 2012, how­ever, to the sur­prise of a packed room gath­ered to see artist Gareth San­som win the $30,000 prize with his candy-coloured suite of draw­ings Made in Wad­eye, it was an­nounced this would be the last Do­bell Prize.

Its re­place­ment, a cu­ra­tor-only ac­quis­i­tive bi­en­nial with a cen­tral theme or “uni­fy­ing idea”, will open this month with a bud­get of $60,000 from the Sir Wil­liam Do­bell Foun­da­tion, sup­ple­mented with ad­di­tional fund­ing from the AGNSW, with half go­ing to­wards the ac­qui­si­tion of work and the other half go­ing to­wards ad­min­is­ter­ing the show, pub­lic pro­grams and fund­ing cat­a­logues and other pub­li­ca­tions.

Sharp’s en­try will join the work of nine other artists in the in­au­gu­ral show, Draw­ing Out, which fea­tures land­scape as a theme. It’s an elas­tic con­cept; in her tiny gallery of­fice, cu­ra­tor Anne Ryan re­gards a wall of sketches, prints and draw­ings that rep­re­sent two years of la­bo­ri­ous cu­ra­to­rial ef­fort. Some are artist loans, oth­ers are drawn from the AGNSW’s col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing Hawkes­bury artist Ana Pol­lak’s twominute an­i­ma­tion Flux, and the rainbow-hued works of Her­manns­burg School artist Ivy Pareroultja (“of all the new artists do­ing the Her­manns­burg work, she is prob­a­bly one of the more in­ter­est­ing ones”).

Oth­ers have been cre­ated spe­cially for the show, such as Sharp’s in­stal­la­tion and Mel­bourne artist Gosia Wlo­dar­czak’s tran­sient “per­for­mance draw­ing”, which she will cre­ate di­rectly on a glass win­dow at the gallery over­look­ing Wool­loomooloo in the first week of the show be­fore eras­ing at the ex­hi­bi­tion’s end.

Also on show are John Wolse­ley’s de­pic­tion of wet­lands in re­mote ar­eas of Tas­ma­nia and Arn­hem Land; a 14m long, spi­dery panoramic mu­ral from 2002 Do­bell win­ner Mary Tonkin (who has prece­dent with huge Do­bell en­tries), made sec­tion by sec­tion in a rain­for­est clear­ing on her fam­ily’s flower farm in the Dan­de­nongs; ex­pres­sive ab­stract works by farmer and artist Ross Lau­rie, who runs a sheep and cat­tle prop­erty in Walcha, on the North­ern Table­lands of NSW; a group of 12 works by Joe Fur­longer in- spired by the flat Goondi­windi land­scape on the Queens­land-NSW bor­der; del­i­cate sketch­book draw­ings by Tom Car­ment, prob­a­bly the artist clos­est to the plein air tra­di­tion; and Braid­wood artist John R. Walker’s Asian-in­spired sketches of the lo­cal land­scape. For Ryan, the se­lec­tion process has been a hands-on labour of love: she ac­com­pa­nied Tonkin on her sketch­ing ex­pe­di­tions in the Dan­de­nongs rain­for­est. It was fas­ci­nat­ing, she says, watch­ing this in­tensely pri­vate artist en­gage with her sur­round­ings: “That’s the thing about draw­ing, it re­flects our binocular way of look­ing and pro­cess­ing the world.”

Ryan, cu­ra­tor of Aus­tralian prints and draw­ings at AGNSW, knows this is a par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing cu­ra­to­rial as­sign­ment, her choices likely to spark much de­bate, and likely dis­sent, when the ex­hi­bi­tion opens this month.

The decision to wind up the old Do­bell and re­place it with a cu­rated draw­ing bi­en­nial ex­hi­bi­tion has not been uni­ver­sally popular among artists, many of whom were “baf­fled and mys­ti­fied”, ac­cord­ing to 2012 Do­bell fi­nal­ist and for­mer Na­tional Art School di­rec­tor Bernard Ol­lis,

when the decision was an­nounced. Artists rang­ing from Wendy Sharpe and David Fair­bairn to Kevin Con­nor tell Re­view they saw no need for a re­design. The old prize, they ar­gue, rep­re­sented a safe har­bour for draw­ing in a world of in­stal­la­tions, video art and mash-ups, func­tion­ing as a popular, demo­cratic an­nual event that gave draw­ing, long re­garded as the poor cousin of paint­ing and sculp­ture, a rare vis­i­bil­ity and pub­lic pro­file. Why wind up a prize with a re­spected cul­tural pedi­gree and legacy?

Con­nor, who won the in­au­gu­ral Do­bell Prize in 1993 (Boyd was the judge, choos­ing his Pyr­mont and the

City as the win­ner) and again in 2005, tells Re­view that “per­son­ally, I think (shelv­ing the prize) was a mis­take. The prize was a great suc­cess, and I don’t know if this new for­mat is go­ing to be as big a suc­cess. It’s by invitation only, it’s not as open, and it puts more con­trol in the hands of the gallery.” The Do­bell was also a rare pub­lic plat­form to cham­pion the art of draw­ing and “def­i­nitely a fac­tor” in the medium’s slow re­turn to the pub­lic eye in the early 1990s. “Prizes don’t make peo­ple draw, but it was an ac­quis­i­tive prize and so it was a good way of en­cour­ag­ing and sup­port­ing artists in do­ing draw­ing,” Con­nor says.

Fair­bairn, who won the Do­bell in 1999, is sim­i­larly unim­pressed, say­ing that from what he has seen of the fi­nal se­lec­tion, there doesn’t ap­pear to be an overly dra­matic break from pre­vi­ous se­lected works for the old Do­bell.

“If you are go­ing to change and evolve you need to bring in quite a dif­fer­ent sort of draw­ing to jus­tify a change,” he says. Then there’s the ap­pear­ance of many names from pre­vi­ous years: Tonkin and Pol­lak have won the Do­bell; Car­ment and Lau­rie were fi­nal­ists in 2012.

Says Maryanne Coutts, head of draw­ing at the Na­tional Art School in Syd­ney: “My reser­va­tion about los­ing the old for­mat is that, as draw­ing is a fairly pri­vate ac­tiv­ity, there was some value in a prize for­mat that en­abled work that isn’t nec­es­sar­ily known to cu­ra­tors to be seen. It will all de­pend on how the new shows are cu­rated, how the rev­o­lu­tion­ary and new are dis­cov­ered and whether they are val­ued for their un­der­ly­ing qual­ity or merely their new­ness or colour.”

Most ar­gue the charm and key strength of the Do­bell was that it was non-cu­rated, demo­cratic and open to ev­ery­one, and that an invitation-only re­place­ment will lock out those un­der the cu­ra­to­rial radar. Sharpe says “it’s a shame it has to be ei­ther-or. It would be nice to have an open prize for draw­ing and a bi­en­nial ex­hi­bi­tion of draw­ing.”

Sup­port­ers of change ar­gue the old Do­bell had out­lived its use­ful­ness after 20 years. In their view, it tended to re­ward a nar­row, con­ser­va­tive aes­thetic (“Dare I say a char­coal semi­ab­stract?” Sharpe quips) of mostly fig­u­ra­tive, monochro­matic, overly fin­ished and quasipho­to­graphic work that failed to re­flect changes in Aus­tralian con­tem­po­rary draw­ing.

The Aus­tralian’s art critic Christo­pher Allen says bluntly: “That’s just bull­shit. Some­times, as in all shows, the stuff was bor­ing, there were some things that might be a bit pre­dictable, but there was al­ways a great va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent ap­proaches, so in fact there was a pretty wide va­ri­ety. Whereas the prob­lem with what they are sug­gest­ing now is that it seems like they’re go­ing to have some ar­ti­fi­cially cooked up thing where the real dan­ger is that the draw­ing is go­ing to lose its speci­ficity and be­come another bland, all-pur­pose con­tem­po­rary art show. The next thing you’ll prob­a­bly find is a video or an

in­stal­la­tion or some stuff sit­ting on the floor.”

THE ar­gu­ments have thrown re­newed fo­cus on wider con­cerns about what many see as a fun­da­men­tal de­cline in draw­ing skills. Coutts, ref­er­enc­ing Bri­tish artist Banksy’s cri de coeur — “all artists are will­ing to suf­fer for their work. But why are so few pre­pared to learn to draw?” — says draw­ing fell out of favour and fash­ion in the 60s and 70, be­fore slowly com­ing back in two decades ago. “Hav­ing been at art school in the 70s, that was my ex­pe­ri­ence. We were a gen­er­a­tion of artists who had to teach our­selves to draw be­cause our teach­ers didn’t be­lieve in it.”

Allen, who says a “ter­ri­ble deskilling” hap­pened through­out the course of the 20th cen­tury, re­counts a re­cent chat with an artist who be­moaned not learn­ing the ABCs of art at school. He says patchy teach­ing has re­sulted “in a lot of Aus­tralian artists to­day whose work is hand­i­capped by their lack of draw­ing skills”.

Archibald Prize-win­ning artist Cherry Hood says “a com­pe­ti­tion in it­self will not make any dif­fer­ence to the way draw­ing is be­ing phased out of art school cur­ricu­lum, the com­pe­ti­tion is fol­low­ing the trend”.

The prin­ci­pal of Syd­ney’s Ju­lian Ash­ton Art School, Paul Del­prat, says he is be­mused by the lack of foun­da­tion skills he sees. “If you were a singer per­form­ing in the Opera House and did not un­der­stand har­mony and coun­ter­point, they would boo you out of the Con­cert Hall. Whereas in art a lot of peo­ple have not stud­ied anatomy and form and struc­ture. And most of the peo­ple who se­lect and judge art have never ac­tu­ally picked up a brush. It is an in­cred­i­ble sit­u­a­tion.”

Sharpe says bluntly that she meets “scores and scores” of young visual arts grad­u­ates with­out even the most ba­sic draw­ing skills: “It’s some­thing a lot peo­ple can’t do any more.”

Michelle Bel­giorno, an artist and trustee of the Do­bell Foun­da­tion, says: “There has been a loss of skill, ab­so­lutely. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, we don’t have that kind of draughts­man­ship broadly ex­hib­ited to­day. I don’t think it’s highly val­ued. No­body seems to want to see a beau­ti­fully ren­dered fig­ure draw­ing, maybe be­cause we have so much visual im­agery around us, from the cam­era, on movie screens, com­puter screens, TV, that is life­like.”

Allen says it is a deep shame as draw­ing lies at the heart of all art-mak­ing. “It’s a pri­mary process of learn­ing, in­ven­tion and dis­cov­ery. In a sense, draw­ing has al­ways had some kin­ship with the spirit, the idea, the con­cep­tual, it’s about this idea you have be­fore some­thing is fully em­bod­ied in paint, colour, in ma­te­rial like bronze. And it’s another way of look­ing, it’s the way we en­counter some­thing out­side our­selves in the world. And this is why it de­serves to be an es­sen­tial part of any ed­u­ca­tional course. Even the sim­plest form of draw­ing — a cou­ple of bot­tles on a ta­ble in front of you — is a whole in­tel­lec­tual ad­ven­ture.

“Back in the Re­nais­sance, Vasari said draw­ing is the fa­ther of our three arts: paint­ing, sculp­ture and ar­chi­tec­ture. So un­less you can draw, you re­ally can’t do those things very well, and I think it’s the same thing to­day. Peo­ple in the art world have this id­i­otic idea that learn­ing to draw is some­how ter­ri­bly con­ser­va­tive, but it is the op­po­site. Learn­ing to draw is giv­ing you free­dom to do things.” Con­nor says the joy of draw­ing lies in the need for a work “not to be re­solved, un­like paint­ing and sculp­ture. Draw­ing is not about the hand, it’s about the mind.” Ryan sees it as an “in­tel­lec­tual as well as cre­ative dis­ci­pline”. For Hood, “draw­ing is the vi­tal life of art mak­ing. Artists who prac­tise draw­ing for the sake of draw­ing ben­e­fit by see­ing the world in a dif­fer­ent way. This has to show in their art­mak­ing prac­tice.

“The more some­one prac­tises draw­ing the more they see. Art is all about see­ing.”

RYAN un­der­stands the wide­spread dis­ap­point­ment that the $30,000 prize will no longer go to work­ing Aus­tralian artists, but she coun­ters that first, no prize is truly demo­cratic (“it’s like a sausage fac­tory, most artists don’t re­ally want to know what’s in­volved — all prizes are sub­ject to dis­cern­ment and judg­ment in any case”); and, sec­ond, the new for­mat re­mains ac­quis­i­tive so money will still flow to­wards artists. She says while there are great ben­e­fits to a prize, “there are vast lim­i­ta­tions as well”. She cites the fre­netic sched­ule of hav­ing to “col­late, phys­i­cally sight ev­ery­thing, thought­fully judge” up to 800 en­tries in just one week: now, there will be a more schol­arly, se­ri­ous fo­cus and more time to as­sess and re­search work. This as­pect of hav­ing more time will also ben­e­fit artists, says Sharp who, although a fan of the old Do­bell, be­lieves a bi­en­nial for­mat will “give you a chance to do a project over a pe­riod of time. I would have never done this [in­stal­la­tion] if I hadn’t been asked to be part of the project”.

Another ma­jor draw­back, Ryan says, was that the prize for­mat didn’t cap­ture the true breadth and di­ver­sity of Aus­tralian con­tem­po­rary draw­ing: some works were ex­cluded sim­ply due to size or lo­gis­tics (“you can’t show an in­stal­la­tion for a prize very eas­ily”); also shut out were bod­ies of work from the same artist.

Bel­giorno be­lieves the works shown “were typ­i­cally too nar­row”, and failed to re­flect changes in draw­ing prac­tice: “video, draw­ing in space, draw­ing on glass, wip­ing it off, art that

Anne Ryan, cu­ra­tor of the in­au­gu­ral Do­bell Aus­tralian Draw­ing Bi­en­nal

King Street, New­town ( 2013) by Tom Car­ment, above; Gareth San­som with his 2012 Do­bell win­ner Made in Wad­eye, be­low left; Maryanne Coutts and Paul Del­prat, far right; Peter Sharp’s 2014 draw­ing The Things You Pick

Up, be­low right

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