PERCEPTION AND PRECISION
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-