The lost art
Why can’t artists draw any more?
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