Drawing occupies an anomalous position in contemporary art. For purists, who think of the brain as isolated originator, hands are considered an obstacle to the expression of art. Viewed solely in context as preliminary sketches for paintings or anatomical figure studies, drawing IS regressive. Conceptualism displaces drawing’s value with a reductionist perception of the brain/body interaction. However, our pedestrian ideas about drawing encourage this. The exhibition at the AGO called Drawing Je T’aime epitomizes the misconception, parading the mediocrity of the AGO’s drawing collection and the paucity of the curators’ imagination.
Texts leading with quotes from artists like Degas, Motherwell, Betty Goodwin and Matisse, assert key elements the drawings are supposed to represent “Drawing is the artist’s most direct and spontaneous expression, a species of writing. It reveals better than does painting, the artist’s true personality.” (Edgar Degas). He almost says something valuable. “Drawing is faster than painting, perhaps the only medium as fast as the mind itself.” (Robert Motherwell). The curators interpret drawing as a quick way to develop artistic themes. Their selections purport to demonstrate ‘artists pushing the boundaries’.
The works are mostly small to medium studies ranging from Renaissance era pieces, one by Jacopo Tintoretto, through neo-classical to modernism. Artists’ sketchbooks are displayed in vitrines. The closest it gets to expand the definition of drawing is an unreadable Joseph Beuys blackboard. Some Canadian works do challenge the stereotype, like John Scott’s The L.E.M., while Eric Freifeld has a strange one called Freddy with skin quality that seems like an affliction. Christiane Pflug’s are wooden and overrated. There are obligatory Käthe Kollwitz’s, a Georg Grosz and Stanley Spenser. One suspects sometimes its name rather than quality that dictates selection.
Henri Matisse’ quote surprises me in its conservatism. “If I trust my drawing hand, it is because in training it to serve me, I forced myself never to let it take precedence over my feelings.” Art is about feeling is it not? Apparently Matisse constantly redesigned his works, documenting the new stages tirelessly. Picasso thought it was detrimental to the work and I’d agree. Emotion and bravery are important.
Then the curators trot out some specious drivel about artists learning to draw by copying the masters and working from nude models. Is this all that drawing is about? We are informed that through “…drawing live models, artists explore the emotional and psychological states that can be expressed by the human face and body, and deepen their understanding of the mysteries and complexities of the human condition.” What nonsense!!
The human brain extends via neural pathways throughout the body. Our senses explore this emotional geography and our hands act as extensions for our emotional projection. Whether you use a pencil, paint, sand, sound, camera or light, you are, in essence, ‘drawing’. Picasso showed this, drawing with light.
When a ‘mark’ asserts its presence, the artist and by extension, the viewer, look upon it to project emotion. We ‘see’ our desire and look for clues in the mark to validate our ‘interpretations’. We see faces in clouds and landscapes in abstraction, manifesting innate predilection for seeing form in space. The sensual, smoky veil of charcoal evokes nocturnal fantasies. Fluid brushstrokes of ink convey the semblance of organic life. We seek out ourselves but are doomed to fail because it’s just a mark. It holds no ‘truth’, …only permitting us the license to imagine.
Considered within the realm of accepted drawing media like pencils, charcoal, ink and the like, ‘drawing’ is done by a body. Fingers, wrists, arms or even the whole body generate the movements. A tightly controlled fine-tip pen drawing presents a topographical record of a specific range of body movements. Drawing from the shoulder engages larger, sweeping strokes that register the human proportions. Whether an artist is left or right-handed affects the trajectory of strokes. The arm wielding a pencil will impart a different emotional charge from the same arm brandishing a chunk of charcoal. Movements can be repetitive, coaxing the form to life, or they can be exploratory like Motherwell’s, Summertime in Italy. Each medium adds its emotional qualities, like the purity of Matisse’s linear drawing Odalisque Couchée.
I want to ask the AGO why this show lacks any representation of specialist drawers like Aleks Bartosik or Srdjan Segan? Where are Larry Eisenstein’s maniacally intense organ drawings? How come Daniel Erban isn’t energizing these banal walls? Drawings are cheap! Drawing Je T’aime is utterly pretentious and it is obvious that you don’t love drawing!
Drawing Je T’aime : Selections from the AGO Vaults. Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto). December 19, 2015 – March 27, 2016.