PER­CEP­TION AND PRE­CI­SION

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

In this nar­ra­tive, all sorts of medi­ocre and ham-fisted in­di­vid­u­als play var­i­ous roles in the great march for­ward, while some­one such as Rees, and es­pe­cially with draw­ings like those ex­hib­ited at the Mu­seum of Syd­ney, seems al­most an em­bar­rass­ment. But as al­ways, the turn of a new cen­tury and the rise of a new gen­er­a­tion brings with it a re­vi­sion of the re­cent past; just as the early 20th cen­tury crit­i­cally reap­praised the great Vic­to­ri­ans, we are now in a po­si­tion to re­assess the dog­matic his­tory of modernism that held sway a few decades ago.

Rees’s draw­ings of Syd­ney Har­bour are al­most shock­ing from a modernist per­spec­tive, both be­cause they cel­e­brate the art of draw­ing, which modernist teach­ing tended to re­sent as the very heart of clas­si­cal prac­tice, and be­cause they so dra­mat­i­cally demon­strate that the pro­ject of reach­ing out to un­der­stand the phe­nom­e­nal world is far from over — that the world is, in­deed, un­fath­omable in its mys­tery and in the in­ex­haustible chal­lenge and op­por­tu­nity it presents to an artist.

In the old modernist story, artists are told they don’t need to copy the world any longer but can ei­ther ex­press their in­ner feel­ings, or de­pict an oc­cult in­sight, or sim­ply make flat pat­terns. But as any­one who has ever tried it should have re­alised, and as Rees’s views of Syd­ney make strik­ingly clear, draw­ing has noth­ing to do with copy­ing.

Copy­ing im­plies the re­pro­duc­tion of like to like, so that one may in­deed copy an­other draw­ing, for ex­am­ple. At a pinch one can even make a drawn copy of a black-and-white pho­to­graph, since that is also a two-di­men­sional pat­tern of tones. But a draw­ing can­not copy the world, which ap­pears as solid, three-di­men­sional, ex­ist­ing in space and at vary­ing dis­tances from the sub­ject. It is not even one thing, but many, and ul­ti­mately even th­ese things dis­solve into the com­plex­ity of op­tics and the phys­i­ol­ogy of per­cep­tion at one ex­treme, and the sub­tleties of moral and af­fec­tive en­gage­ment at the other.

Learn­ing to draw is any­thing but nat­u­ral; it is a so­phis­ti­cated in­tel­lec­tual process — a pro­found form of brain train­ing, to use a cur­rent ex­pres­sion — that in­volves overcoming many habits of per­cep­tion that are use­ful as short­cuts in deal­ing with our en­vi­ron­ment but en­tail dis­count­ing or ig­nor­ing much of what we ac­tu­ally see. More pre­cisely, it is learn­ing to be­come con­scious of the raw data of per­cep­tion in­stead of fall­ing back on what we think we know.

The process, as we can see it in Rees’s draw­ings, could be de­scribed in two phases, one of which is an­a­lytic and the other syn­thetic. The an­a­lytic phase con­sists first of dis­tin­guish­ing the mass of vis­ual data in a view into dis­tinct bod­ies — trees, build­ings, fences, wa­ter — with their own vol­ume, spa­tial di­men­sions and dis­tance from the viewer, then in turn­ing solid vol-

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