I have found it difficult to make art in a pandemic, it is difficult to consider the idea of art when so many people in the world are suffering and when you realise that the industry that drives the thing you spend your life engaged with, might only ever be within the grasp of those small amount of people now ruling the world. ‘Ordinary working people’ do not have original visual art in their lives, just look at Rightmove, the incidence of original visual art in homes outside of London is very low. Most of us get our art from municipal galleries and museums, the experience of which is a little like being allowed into the homes of rich people from the past and often is. It is possible to book a visit to Manchester Art Gallery for a socially distance walk around to see how some museums are trying to confront these issues. It is easy to detect efforts to reposition and re contextualise the collection. Among the usual gathering of colonial wealth and privilege are many more pastoral scenes, of working life, farming, families, people in cafes, dragged up from the vaults to punctuate what is, as in most municipal art galleries, a sort of visual history of rich people. In addition, they have bought the keyworkers print by Craig Oldham and Sonia Boyce’s multi-channel filmed performance takes on even more relevance when everyone is wearing a mask. It is an uphill task for a museum to be classless when its foundations are so compromised. After my visit, I found myself wondering about a ‘peoples art,’ and what that might be. I tasked myself to find a working class drawing and came up with this by Edward Woore, pencil on paper circa 1900. He was linked to the arts and crafts movement and a member of the guild of master glass painters and therefore passes the working class test, although he may just have been one of those privileged Victorians that became fascinated by working class culture, a bit like middle class people now, buying workwear jackets from the past to wear formally. In the drawing, poverty is cast as a figure, skeletal and in chains, he, and it is he, wears robes like the grim reaper in Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal. The man being stared at is week with hunger and clutches what seems like a piece of bread, he is gaunt and desperate, gripped with worry, terror even. There is a painting hanging on the wall behind the man, as if he is a man of means who has hit on hard times. It is interesting to consider if there is such a thing as working class art and to think about what characteristics it might have and how to measure that. Perhaps the BBC could ask Vic Reeves and Grayson Perry to team up and investigate. Man with chip, riding third class on a one class train.
There is a luxuriousness to the work of Silvia Bächli, the luxury of the expansive whiteness of the paper allowed to be empty, the luxury of the simplicity of concept, the luxury of unfinishedness, the luxury of playfulness, the luxury of the amount of freedom with which she approaches her drawings and the luxury of the effortless economy of her line, which is all evidently something which has been developed steadily over a life time’s work. Seen on mass, as collections which is often how they are exhibited, Bächli’s drawings are spectacular. It is interesting also however to look and think about just one drawing. Untitled, 2013, gouache, 60cm x 80cm, contains loosely rendered lines in black on white paper, the lines follow a sort of graph or waveform type movement, across the landscape format, from left to right they then overlap, perhaps three times, or alternatively three loadings of the brush. Depth is created through the play of scale between each peek and trough. Then the thing is left, she knows when to stop, there is no temptation to add or take away it’s done, I would like to imagine, in a flash.
Silvia Bächli is not fazed by repetition. Her drawings often visit the same ideas; grids, lines, intersecting lines, limbs, heads and as in this drawing, something in between figures and nameless forms. Things that spring to mind; figures passing in the street, plant life blowing in the wind, a macro shot of a well-used hair or tooth brush, musical wave forms that measure time, the microscopic wow and flutter, the sounds created through the analogue playback of vinyl records. With astonishing confidence Bächli weaves in and out of abstraction and figuration with ease, finding increasingly acute angles from which to consider the most mundane of subjects and non-subjects; a pair of tights, a grid, dots, nipples, corners, tree roots, mesh, stripes, the marks made by different paint brushes. It is as if sometimes, she allows herself to be totally seduced by the idea of dragging a paint loaded brush (water) across an empty piece of paper. I wonder if she ever makes a mistake. I think not.
In 2016, I saw a great show by Felix Droese in Hamburg at Produzentengalerie, the main piece was a life size cut out silhouette of a double decker bus with the heads of passengers at each window, the wheels were also heads, upside down. It had been cut out of black paper with none of the skill and dextrocity of, for instance, Kara Walker. It was rendered rather with the disregard and cack-handedness of a very young child. This lack of formal sophistication is all of the charm of Droese’s work. This drawing ‘Erbarmen als soziale Form’ 2012; roughly translated as ‘pity as social form’, has the same disregard for finesse, detail or the usefulness of accurate planning as the bus piece. Figures in dark recesses look on as a seemingly depressed couple eat a meagre dinner. Like an idea for some sort of poverty tourism tv show scribbled in the pub, it is a rough diagram for an event, rendered in the artists glib and anarchic hand. I am still enthralled by ‘the hand of the artist’, by the marks made by the particularity of the artist’s whim, mood, physicality, choice, materials, thoughts, intuition. I realise it is unfashionable and a lazy method of screening artworks, but I want it all there; I do not want to have to think too much, work too hard to find a way into an artwork. I want to see the anger on the paper. I like to think that in these circumstances, the artist is completely exposed, vulnerable, strengths and weaknesses are all visible and open to scrutiny and criticism. I have been wondering about how this type of work often counters the work of artists who hide and reveal nothing of themselves in their work. Hide behind things, behind other art, behind a mask or costume, behind a medium, behind archival material, behind history, behind the technical skills of others, behind usefulness as opposed to uselessness. This art can often manifests itself as performance (vacuous attention seeking) where artists act or take on other personas, but also in projects that demand expansive and costly production values that utilise other disciplines. The artist will often engage with a community, have people as material, often people with skill sets they admire, making art that showcases the skill/lives of others. The power involved in the control becomes the practice. It is like a contemporary baroque where organisational logistics and elaborate presentation is key and overwhelms any idea or sense of touch.
Recent American madness has made me think about its art, and what responses have been imagined by artists to Trump. I couldn’t really find anything interesting, and ended up thinking about other times it’s gone mad and I arrived at Philip Guston (1913-1980) and this drawing; Untitled ink on paper 23.8 x 32.7 cm, drawn circa 1970s. Among what appears to be a chaotic pile of stuff is a figure upended, represented by two legs one pointed directly up the other stretched across the floor towards the foreground, partly buried by what could be potatoes or cakes, bricks, boots, a book and sacks. A plank with nails hammered into it; an improvised weapon, leans over the pile as if thrown in for good measure at the end of an assault. On the left of the drawing poking out from behind exposed bricks is what could be a severed leg. The setting has the feeling of a cellar, stone flag floors and naked light bulb, odds and ends, things thrown down to get them out the way, and forgotten about, the figure accidentally caught up in the mess. The tone is in keeping with other drawings made in this period, those critical of the Nixon administration shown at Mayfair Hauser & Wirth last year. This one however is not obviously satirical, representing a more general and domestic chaos, antagonistic and grumpy, funny, senseless, the drawing revels in its own stupidity. Political ideology seems to have crept to the forefront of discussion around artistic practice now, but despite this I can’t think of an artist who has or would radically shift their practice to confront the sociopolitical context of the time in the way Guston did then. His rejection of the safety and convenience of a movement, the easy association with a group dynamic and its associated critical discourse, now history, was bold and risky. Luckily, he was good enough to make turning his back on the gloomy seriousness of abstract expressionism in favour of having a bit of a laugh, a positive move. Contemporary artists are more likely to affect the thin veneer of faux activism through social media, liking and sharing and signing petitions in a bandwagon jumping bonanza.
It seems strangely appropriate in the wake of recent local and global events to be considering apocalyptic visions from the early 19th century. It might also be appropriate at a time when social media is saturated with ubiquitous solipsistic proclamations of despair, to note one from a different time that is uniquely beautiful. For as long as humans have had a notion of a violent afterlife, we have lived in fear of it, and sometimes through art and music that fear is given form. As it is here, in this drawing by William Blake, Dante Conversing with Farinata Degli Uberti, pen and watercolour over pencil and perhaps black chalk, 36.7 × 52 cm, 1824-27. It is an illustration of a journey through hell, although the characters in this vision don’t seem that perturbed by the eternal fire, they seem quite calm, calm enough to converse and exchange ideas. It is particularly modern. I always find the drawings of William Blake modern, I think it has something to do with his graphic ability being advanced, considering the overall composition, thinking ahead in the way only an engraver must be able to do. It is quite lovely, lyrical and elegant, the colour is sparing and applied in flat patches over the line. It is everything but violent, perhaps in the romantic age, everything was beautiful, even death. I like to think of Blake’s drawings outside of their illustrative purpose, this variety of media is my favourite for Blake, probably the last version before the printing process, the image is still a drawing but refined, developed through pen and watercolour. It is very theatrical in its construction and layout. I like the way the stage like layers bring us up close to the action. It is so like a stage that one imagines that the different aspects of the set could slide in and out of the picture frame like Baroque theatre sets. Trap doors into hell are opened and souls (Farinata Degli Uberti) are beginning to emerge. The city in the background is northern, there is a suggestion of heavy industry a premonition of an industrial hell, satanic, Sheffield, Manchester or Leeds. Perhaps the gentle nature of hell in this case is partly influenced by the fact that when Blake made the work, he did not actually have that much longer to live.
This drawing by Robert Breer is a notated plan, it was produced in 1969 and in some ways could be considered a prophetic vision of the workings of a future city. It is pencil and felt tip on paper, I don’t know the size but similar drawings a 30 x 45cm. It’s a little like a pitch for the setting of a sci-fi film, some hand written notes on the right hand side of the drawing support this idea, you can almost hear him speaking; ‘In this town everything moves around, it doesn’t matter where you leave things they aren’t there when you come back. Fish swim by overhead. Street signs change every five minutes, the sun does loop the loop like Miami? L.A.?’ These notes are additional directorial instructions to the drawn action; a fire hydrant falls over, some kind of dog jumps, a tree shudders, the sky is the sea, buildings are simple cubes and move around, some powered by what seem at first to be quickly drawn propellers at each corner but then the word ‘ELKS’ across the front of one cube invites us to consider them as antlers. I read this drawing as Breer’s own visual ‘note to self’ for an animation or film idea, there are arrows suggesting the direction of movement of individual parts of the drawing, directions to be applied later in sequential drawings perhaps. What seems to be implied is a drawing that moves, time based but without a beginning or end, a loop. Breer is one of those artist that defies easy categorisation, ostensibly operating in and around movements and artists now considered key within the late 20th century, but always remaining independent and outside of any historical posturing, never becoming so successful that his work became lazy. All of which make his wonderful and understated experiments in animation, sculpture, painting and drawing even more timeless and relevant. His films for which he is perhaps best known have all the attributes of a truly experimental practice, they are uninhibited to the point of inventing a new visual language where figuration and abstraction merge. The structure is non-narrative, frame by frame but abstract, only suggesting partial ideas and objects. Incorporating many different approaches and materials in his films including collage, drawing, photography and sound, Breer explored the technological advances of his time.
Much is made of the link between drawing to an internal wandering of the mind; the idea of precognitive mark making, spontaneous exploration from brain through to arm to hand and sometimes body, physical visual thinking etc. that this in some way gives drawing more of a tangible link to an academic idea of ‘research’. I’m not so sure. John Ruskin’s drawings however, always scream research they are often fragments of things, bits of architecture, a part of a view, botanical analysis, partial figures. They are like snapshots of things he’s involved in at any particular time, indexed and indicative of his wide travels spanning continents, functioning as a visual diary of his activities like a Facebook update, or an Instagram feed/blog. The drawings have an unfinished quality and only carry enough detail to recollect the subject or scene, they are notes and observations. Like this drawing,’ Stone pines of Sestri,’ graphite, pen and washes on paper, 442 x 334mm, 1845, he is identifying a particular tree in a particular location. He’s also saying he’s been there, look how cosmopolitan and well-travelled he is.
Personally, I have always avoided Ruskin, or rather distrusted him. A man with such irrational phobias can’t possibly have anything interesting to offer me. I also resent the power he had over artists, the ability to make or break careers is something surely only artists themselves should be capable of. Thinking about Ruskin makes me more aware of a self-proclaimed cosmopolitan elite colonising the North, patronising the regions, making it better, bringing civilisation to those assumed less fortunate. As if the beauty of the surroundings and the gentle pace of life in the English Lakes was somehow deficient in providing the basis for a fulfilled life. Preaching from the capital, as if there is only one version of art. It is still like this now.
I went to a talk given by a young curator/artist/practitioner/grower, fresh from the Royal Collage curating MA and quickly despatched to the regions in the time honoured tradition. She thought that metropolitan artisan culture had a lot to offer the art world. She talked about curating a team of Southwark Market bakers to the Lake District to engage in a community arts project where the locals were taught how to make a sourdough bloomer. She was curating Turner Prize winning jam. She talked about an honesty stall as if it was radical art. I despaired.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more straightforwardly figurative Cy Twombly drawing than Venus, 1962, pencil, coloured pencil, and watercolour on paper: 70 x 50 cm. It looks distinctly like a figure, or two very different figures in fact. The first is a head and shoulders, there is pink where a face might be, with curled hair around it, there are what look like the suggestions of clothes over shoulders in the pencil grey around the pink, there might even be a tie. Then, within this outer figure there is what looks like a more whole female naked figure, the venus of the title, there are breasts with nipples, there are thighs and a scribbled pubic area. This figure is obviously more likely, the word ‘Venus’ is written in an arc in the upper part of the image above what would be the head, but neither is clear or certain. Some violently used red line right in the centre of the drawing could be another word, ‘face’ or ‘lace’. All of the marks are augmented in a way that makes for a convincingly human like form with a shadow cast behind it. There is often an all over quality to Twombly drawings and paintings where areas of concentrated intensive mark making are spread across the whole rectangular surface, however the marks here are organised differently, the upper part of the paper left deliberately empty, acting as a background/backdrop. I like the way Twombly mixed his drawing media like a child; pencil scratched into wax or oil crayon, or scratched into wet domestic paint, he was clearly unconcerned about its longevity. I also like the way that in this drawing he uses a word as a way of making us interpret through a layer of meaning, in this case the Roman mythology which became a vale through which his work was seen after his move to Rome where he apparently lived near the Colosseum and the Forum, among the ruins. I can think of many reasons to move to Rome, one being to be among its great layers of ancient history and I imagine the everyday experience of ancientness might have fed into Twombly’s work in a way that made him refer to mythology, architecture and statuary almost unconsciously.
Franz Wests drawing of five moustachioed men with quiffs in tuxedos is typically droll and deadpan. Deadpan could in fact describe West’s entire artistic output, as well as, in what is evident in many photographs of the artist, his own facial expression. The men portrayed here could quite easily be either clowns or gangsters; they look both intimidating and friendly, ridiculous in their uniform attire and passive posture. The drawing brings to mind the opening scene of ‘reservoir dogs’, the film director Quentin Tarantino’s early triumph and the figures contain that same combination of camaraderie and menace that the characters in the film have. The drawing has the grainy and smudged quality of old black and white film and the width of the paper is itself cinematic in its aspect ratio. Untitled 1973, pencil on paper, 10.2 x 19.4cm is made on what looks like a reused piece of paper that either has a striped texture or the drawing was made over something with a striped texture that gives the background the quality of a rubbing. The pencil is soft. The paper has an uneven border, it might have been previously stretched or folded. In many ways the drawing is too straight forward and formal but it still contains West’s signature combination of humour and irreverence. Despite its simplicity the drawing has a lot of detail, the men are uniformed in more ways than one, but are also individuals; different heights, hair slightly different, one moustache bushier than the next, different shaped sunglasses. They are throwbacks, Edwardians, Teds in the 70’s, middle aged out of place has-beens. They stand before what looks like a theatre curtain, they could easily be musicians acknowledging applause. This drawing is early but still in keeping with the rest of the artist’s work, it seems spontaneous and effortless, it is easy going. West seems a very singular artist, I can’t think of other artists that make work like him. It’s as if throughout his career and life he looked at what was going on at the cutting edge of art, then did exactly the opposite, poking fun, knowing the secret, being in on the joke. We are left to wonder while he has the last laugh.
In this drawing by Francisco Goya, ‘Prayer’ 1800’s, water colour on rag paper, a pathetic figure, a man, his face haggard and weary, kneels before us, it is as if he has only recently collapsed, and is unable to stand on his feet any longer. His arms are raised, open and submissive. His head leans back and he looks upwards as if pleading. Praying though as the title suggests seems to me far from his thoughts, it is mercy his bedraggled figure seeks. His posture is more akin to pleading with mortal oppressors, rather than the meditative act of kneeling to ask ones God for help. The drawing portrays utter desperation to the point of sacrifice, the person can go on no longer, take no more of whatever it is, assumingly war and its associated mess. This drawing is probably a provisional study for a print in Goya’s’ Disasters of War’ series it is rendered effortlessly in as few strokes as is necessary to represent the figures dramatic pose. It is made with a light touch and the redness of the paper lends atmosphere to the subject. Goya’s disasters series are now familiar to anyone with an interest in the history of contemporary art, they are broadly influential. I find them too depressing to look at with any regularity, I much prefer the Los Caprichos series which although still dark and brutal, have humour and are in many cases ridiculous and banal and much more modern and innovative because of this. I also prefer looking at his drawings rather than his prints, they are looser, often fragmented and more ambiguous, and they are also obviously closer to the artists hand and therefore his thought. This drawing denotes an isolated moment of humanity at its most pathetic. Today when we are constantly fed the desperation of others displaced by war in some or other way, we have perhaps become desensitised to this kind of image and indeed much more graphic imagery of those for whom the point of desperation has passed, given way to an inevitable horror. It is perhaps a guilty pleasure to look at war in this way, a drawing softens the blow, gives an opportunity for distraction from the real. In a drawing we can always see something else, beauty where we least expect it.