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.
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.