This drawing is by Sigmar Polke, Untitled, 1988, watercolour on paper, 70 x100cm. It appears to contain at least one figure on the right, which may or may not be wearing a German helmet from WW2 with a swastika on the front of it. There are two big eyes, too wide apart and a pig like nose, a body, too small, if it is a German soldier from WW2 it’s more of a caricature. The figure seems purposeful, striding or standing with legs apart staring at something unknown. The line describing the body is interrupted and then restarted with yellow paint instead of black. From the left of the image some kind of force emanates, a flash or an explosion represented by force lines from the bottom left hand corner and patches of two different types of yellow paint. It is as if Polke has stopped and started the drawing a number of times, the different layers of drawing, some nebulous others decisive and descriptive, might not have had an intended relationship. The linear parts appear to be over the top of the stained watery parts and the lines have different intensities, some grey, some black and some blacker. The paper has buckled under the weight of the wet medium, this only adds to the action. There is some sort of structure and ornamental swirls that might describe an interior with furniture. The figure could be on the phone, a confusion of lines in the centre fractures any straight forward interpretation but there is an all-over quality to the picture, things are evenly distributed and balanced. I like Sigmar Polke, I once held his hand during a ceilidh in his honour upstairs at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool after his show ‘Join the dots’ opened in the Tate in 1995. Someone’s very good idea was to give him a hearty Liverpudlian/Irish welcome, the traditional local lobscouse stew and the ceilidh seemed appropriate. During a Barn Dance you tend to hold lots of people’s hands one after another which is part of its charm, the innocent contact with others involved in a common joyous act. Through Sigmar Polke’s hand I felt his enjoyment of the situation and what I decided at the time and still believe was his innate sense of fun.
The radical experimental art of Kurt Schwitters stands out in its singularity, although aligned at different times in his career with different groups of artists, there is always a sense when examining his work that he was out on his own in terms of his originality and shear invention. Restlessly exploring materials and processes to make his work; this drawing alone, Merz 370 Blue Spark, 1922, collage of cut coloured paper 20.6 x 17.1cm involves sticking, overlapping, scratching, angling, pealing, tearing, and everything else you might imagine a collage of the time to contain. The avant-garde nature of this simple collage cuts a swathe through the work of his contemporaries who more often than not relied on a veil of knowing criticality via; politics, shock, melodrama, flamboyance or a sort of contrived eccentricity to make their work stand out. Schwitters achieved his goal with economy, here the simple alignment and misalignment of papers, slightly different shades of brown and grey is unselfconscious and confidently different. His Oeuvre incorporated; painting, sculpture writing and performance, including singing and sound poetry. He was an innovator to the point of inventing a completely new art form so ahead of its time that even now, contemporary artists, curators and thinkers organise whole exhibitions and conferences in an attempt to unpick his ideas and examine his legacy. Some of the most critically engaged international exhibitions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have had Schwitters’ Merz at their centre. Yet considering his continuing impact his profile remains in lots of ways modest compared to other influential artists, one could argue that now, a decade and a half into the twenty first century that his influence is far greater than that of Duchamp who every artist worth his salt has been falling all over since the 1950’s. Schwitters’ project continues in the work of many contemporary artists and curators around the world. It also lives on in the Lake District where he ended his career. Go to Elterwater, visit the merz barn where he carried out his last big experiment and listen to the brilliant Ian Hunter tell his stories of Schwitters, including one of him performing his Ursonata on pub tables in Ambleside of all places.
It is the complicated and intricate nuances of human relationships that are at the centre of Amelie Von Wulffen’s series of water colours that this drawing, Untitled, 2013, Watercolour and Indian ink on paper 31 x 23.5cm is a part of. When I look at this set of surreal drawings, I am immediately reminded of Louis Bunuel’s film ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’, upper middle class France could easily be the background to the action, but in this case fruit, vegetables and other assorted food stuffs replace human beings in the drama. In this drawing some fruit have fallen out, a lemon has lost its temper with an apple while a confused banana looks on embarrassed by the situation. Two quite full wine glasses, along with dinner plates, a table cloth, a landscape painting on the wall, a chair and the suggestion of expansive gardens through patio doors, pin point the socio-political context, however the polite order of things has been broken. The wine glasses, faceless in this work have themselves been anthropomorphised in another drawing in the series, being seen to have what appears to be a post coital cigarette. The atmosphere of different social situations, sometimes painful and hard to watch, sometimes sexual, sometimes very sexual, the anxiety of social faux pa’s, and the awkward silences after the cringing realisation that someone has spoken out of turn, are all palpable in the narratives. Amelie von Wulffen is a prolific and versatile artist, producing an array of different works in different media, this large series of watercolours could be exhibited with large scale oil paintings, sculptures, painted ready made’s, collages and animations. There is a general air of self-parody in much of the work, von Wullfen pokes fun at the very communities that she belongs to. An animation follows the day to day aspirations of a contemporary artist, still surreal, ‘At the cool table’ includes scenes where Francisco Goya appears from beyond the grave as the artists’ friend and guide. The joy in the making of these works is apparent, von Wulffen’s combination of graphic skill and comedic prowess is unmatched in contemporary art.
This astonishing drawing by the American contemporary artist Ellen Gallagher and included in her Tate Modern retrospective in 2013, is part of a much larger body of work where drawings are two sided and encased in glass. These are then suspended on steel frames and mounted vertically onto small table tops. As objects they are a bit like the screen that separates a prisoner from his or her visitor or a bank cashier from a customer. Clearly referencing Duchamp’s Large Glass, they work as sculptural objects and we see them as such before examining the drawings in detail, in space, and three dimensionally. The collection is titled Morphia apparently in reference to morphine and the dreamlike state it induces. The subject in this case and in some of the others appears to be a head, there are lips and a chin. The head appears to be literally morphing into something else or from something else and from front to back, some other life form, perhaps alien or more probably an imagined marine creature, rare, secretive and yet undiscovered. The way that Ellen Gallagher works and reworks drawings, scratching and spilling wet and dry media to the point where the paper begins to shift, buckle and break, makes the subject if there ever was one, appear and disappear, be both something and nothing. The drawings become almost metaphysical in their complexity defying a straightforward interpretation asking a lot of the viewer. What impresses me more that anything about Ellen Gallagher’s work is the way that she stretches the parameters of drawing, taking it into new territory. Her drawings become other things, scratched into film and projected, stuck onto canvas and hung, assembled monumentally into collections of 60 and more, or made sculptural as they are here sandwiched between glass. The official index note for this work is elaborate; Morphia, Front-5, 2008-2012 Ink, Pencil, watercolour, varnish, oil, gesso, gouache egg tempera, polymer medium and cut paper on paper. Ten parts each presented in a steel frame on a steel table, (51.6 x 42.4 cm). Gallagher rigorously explores the potential of her materials in the same way that she interrogates her subject. The two become one, the object, always dynamic, emerges from the experiment.
There is something about the work of the Portuguese artist Juliao Sarmento that reminds me of a whole host of ill thought out, dull crime dramas that are continuously commissioned for TV. The ones where women are slaughtered at the beginning and men spend agonising weekly episodes figuring out what happened. In that respect, I’m not sure that Sarmento’s position on the representation of women is entirely healthy. But in a way, his works are the same as TV dramas in that they are always mysteries, and more engaging because of this, and so should maybe be subject to the same dispensation. We might deplore the relentless female victim motif but we keep watching because we want to know what happened. This aquatint etching by Sarmento supports my theory, it is part of a portfolio of eight prints produced between 1996 and 1998, with accompanying text by Stuart Morgan, and it is titled, ‘The House with the Upstairs In It,’. It could be a TV drama. If you presented the portfolio to a group of TV executives, they’d probably commission it. In this part/scene/episode a woman’s head has been erased; she clasps her missing face with her hand, puzzled, she might be making a rude gesture or inserting one of her fingers deep up her nose or worse, eye socket. There is violence but not graphic, we have to figure it out, we don’t know, though the suggestion from the dirty marks around the hand is that there was a head and face to start with, and that the erased half finger was also once visible. The subject could also be making some kind of joke, or simply telling us to fuck off. There is something quite dated about Sarmento’s oeuvre, it makes me think of eighties pop video’s where water drips down glass and scenes are shot through venetian blinds in an attempt to break up the picture plain and help articulate metaphorically the complexities of modern living. The beauty of this work though and many other works by this artist is how Sarmento renders his drawing with such assured definition and clarity, while at the same time leaving it up to us to fill in the gaps, to complete the picture and solve the mystery.
It’s Christmas time, and ‘A goose and two headless men’ by Nathaniel Dance-Holland is an excellent drawing to look at and think about. It’s an extraordinarily strange drawing, I am wondering if the goose has bitten off the heads of the men as revenge for its many cooked and eaten ancestors. Even without heads the figures seem to be jovial and engaged in celebration. The goose too; ironically still with its head appears to be laughing and enjoying some sport with the men, a primitive and drunk game of tag perhaps, in which it not familiar with the drink or the rules has got carried away. In what looks like ink and water colour on paper the drawing is confidently executed, the date is unknown but Dance-Holland practiced as a portrait painter in the second half of the 18th century and apparently took up, ‘comic drawing’ after he retired. The beauty of this drawing is that it could have been made yesterday; it has a sense of humour and irreverence that comes across as very contemporary, the goose is anthropomorphised in its scale, posture and behaviour, like it has been CGI’d for some terrible children’s film. The headlessness seems to have come about non-violently, there is no blood, the shoulders and neck of the two men have become fused into a smooth upper mound, as if it’s normal for some people to have no head. The men seem to be in procession with the goose rather than escaping it, the middle one, merry and shirtless, kicks the one in front up the arse. I like the playful suggestion of violence without anyone really getting hurt. There is a slapstick satirical bent to this drawing which becomes even more pertinent when we learn that Dance Holland gave up art in later life to become a politician. It is terrifying to think that in the 18th century a man could have a successful career as an artist and then a second successful career as a politician. It’s even more terrifying to consider the possibility of present day equivalents; although now they would become TV personalities or pseudo political activists.
Seeking out the exotic is a strategy adopted by many artists making work today, affordable travel allows artists access to new historical contexts and different socio-political environments in which to form their art propositions. It is however difficult to pull off, there is a lot of week work where the sole merit seems to be the fact that it was produced in a country foreign to the artist. It engenders a quasi-documentary approach to film making or photography, ‘Anthropology for the middle classes’ a friend of mine once labelled it, Grande Tourism would also seem appropriate. It reminds me of the first time you go to a foreign country and you spend your time just looking, in detail, looking up, at the tops of buildings, looking at street signs and other infrastructure and marvelling at the difference, the otherness. I wonder if Gauguin felt the same about the South Seas, was he like countless artists today looking for something to give his work an edge, of the international perhaps. Certainly the subjects in Gauguin’s case were different and would appear unusual to the Parisian audience of the time. But there is still a transformation of the image and experience through the filter of the artists approach, process and style. The artists hand in the case of both artists always evident, the subject in lots of ways is secondary. ‘Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit’ oil transfer drawing, 56 x 45cm, 1900 depicts the exotic in more ways than one, we have the fact that the subject represents a primitive existence that challenges the idea of life in the modern city of the time. Then, even more exotic, we have the idea of a spirit and the fact that the way of life being observed might offer some transcendence beyond the realms of the everyday. No doubt Gauguin was wide eyed at the prospect of this way of life and went about its documentation with some urgency. This particular method of drawing leaves a lot of residue, making the image appear dirty, the woman’s face is half blackened as if she is bearded, giving her an air of some Victorian freak. The spirit cowering behind the woman is battered with one black eye, representing either the danger of the exotic, or Gauguin himself. A good artist has the ability to make the local international, bad art manages to render the international parochial.
When an artist is as prolific and difficult to pin down as Rosemarie Trockel, I find myself looking at the drawings for clues that might reveal the real concerns and direction of her ideas. It has been said time and time again that a drawing gets closer to the root of an artist’s impulse and reveals concepts that might otherwise be concealed in more developed works, where meaning is embedded in a media, scale or context. A drawing is simply that, an idea visualised straightforwardly, and when an artist as visionary as Trockel makes a drawing, the result can have major significance. In Trockel, the complexities of her array of approaches; painting, sculpture, installation, appropriated objects, drawing, photography, textiles and sometimes all of these together, can seem impenetrable and often her early textile works that had a clear conceptual framework are used as a default way into her practice. This drawing is particularly familiar to me because it’s a drawing I might have made, I recognise and understand the process and circumstances under which it might have developed. You start to draw a head, it goes wrong, you go a little further and it doesn’t improve, you obliterate it and then something happens in the swirls of the wet paint, you make a point of this and it works. In Untitled, Ink on Paper, 35 x 35cm, 1992 Rosemarie Trockel may have started a drawing with a clear idea, intending the drawing to be tight and economical like other drawings of hers made around the same time, which are more clear in what they represent, but then something has occurred and the artist has become involved in the swirling paint, seduced even by it, losing any sense of intended narrative and allowing the material to dictate the work. I could be mistaken; the motif of the elongated phallic nose is something she has used a number of times, as is the mysterious silhouetted head, but I would suggest the resulting image is almost subconscious and a result of relinquishing control. We know it’s a head, it is in profile, there is a mouth, a swirled eye socket, and the obvious nose or plague beak, there is a suggestion of an Elizabethan ruff. It’s discomforting in its ambiguity, it has menace, it’s genuinely horrific.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Andre Masson invented his particular mode of automatic drawing in order to get as much sexual imagery into a drawing as is possible. One could also imagine him giggling to himself as he explained the work as an important psychoanalytical experiment; ‘ I can make these dirty drawings because it’s part of a stream of consciousness methodology that taps into my subconscious and deals with issues I wouldn’t normally address in my everyday life,’ he might have said. If you google image his drawings it’s difficult to find one that doesn’t contain a phallus and at least one breast. So sexually charged was his psyche that within seconds of starting an automatic drawing his line would find its way towards a bacchanal orgy. It wasn’t until later in life when his libido had perhaps settled some that he was able to take on a landscape without littering it with a tangle of naked writhing bodies. In Rose and Blue Mountain 1956 Masson is able to explore his tried and tested stream of consciousness method to describe something as unsexual as undulating hills leading to a mountain. Although it would not be too much of a stretch of the imagination to see a bodily meaning in the hills nor would it be inappropriate to discuss the idea of climax when confronted with a representation of mountains, the instinctive imagery here is more under control, tempered by experience maybe, the involuntariness measured and tamed. In this drawing it is easy to decipher the shapes and construct in the mind the detail of landscape and perspective. There are two distinct colours involved in the drawing, red providing a background and clouding the detail of dark blue lines, the combined layers avoiding any obvious narrative interpretation. Without the explicit imagery I find this drawing much more radical because we can see so much more of the actual drawing when it is based as it is on such an obvious premise for an artwork, the landscape. It could be argued that Masson had given up on automatic drawing at this stage of his career and that his drawings were more conscious, but I imagine that once an artist has established this kind of methodology to make drawings, a little of it would always be there.
There is a striking similarity to these two drawings; both very clearly represent the product of one of our most basic bodily movements, both can be found in the Moma New York Drawing collection, both have been donated by the Judith Rothschild Foundation, and both were made in 2003. These shits, as I will refer to them, are joyously the same. Shit one on the left belongs to Kara Walker, coloured ink on paper, 22.9 x 31.1 cm. Shit two on the right is Cheyney Thompson’s, ink and watercolour on notebook paper, 15.2 x 22.9 cm. The longer I look the more remarkable the comparison is; each is made up of a long section and smaller nugget, both the long sections have a familiar gentle curve, both drawings have a luxurious volume of empty white space around them for the image to resonate. Walker’s drawing is part of a large collection of drawings all made with the same watery brown paint and containing, generally, imagery recognisable as subjects and themes she is well known for, theatrical groupings describing ambiguous human interactions. Cheyney also has a number of drawings in the collection but not necessarily sequential in the way Walker’s are. His works are more varied in subject and linked only in the style in which they are made. Walker’s brown paint is closer to reality, it is more visceral, it appears fresher, and it has a stained quality, the paint appearing to be smeared across the paper. Thompson’s is a more illustrative depiction but no less graphic, it has the plasticity of the joke shop turd. The implication is the solidity and consistency associated with rude health. Lots of artists seem to become drawn to this particular human movement at one time or another during their careers. This may or may not have something to do with the regularity associated with an inner contentment brought on by success, and the quiet satisfaction of knowing your work is accepted. I’m sure in time the survey show will emerge, a whole exhibition dedicated to the scatological in contemporary art. I see Hamilton’s ‘Dirty Protest,’ McCarthy’s ‘Painter,’ Creed’s ‘Shit Film’ Vim Delvoy’s ‘Cloaca,’ and Manzoni’s “Merda d’artista,” and these two excellent depictions of rich brown shit. It might be quite good, and if nothing else will facilitate hilarious newspaper headlines.