Erased / The Primacy of Drawing

March 5, 2011
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Since its re-establishment as a fully independent institution, the National Art School has distinguished itself from its rivals by putting an exceptional emphasis on drawing. Even if a student is specialising in photography or ceramics, drawing remains a fundamental part of the course. The reasoning is simple: nobody ever suffered from being asked to draw. On the contrary, most artists find it an invaluable way of developing skills, clarifying their thoughts, and generally limbering up.

For centuries drawing was the recognised foundation of all art education, only falling out of fashion in the sixties and seventies when it was felt that a young artist’s nascent creativity should not be subject to any discipline whatsoever. Since then it has been creeping back towards the central place it once occupied. Nowadays even the most avant-garde art schools have re-established drawing classes, partly because of student demand.

To underline its credentials as the headquarters of drawing, (with apologies to Julian Ashton’s), the NAS has invited Deanna Petherbridge to be its first Artist-in-Residence for 2011. Not only is Petherbridge a practising artist known for her large-scale drawings, she has been a Professor of Drawing at the Royal College of Art and the University of the Arts, London. Most importantly, she is the author of The Primacy of Drawing: Histories and Theories of Practice, a monumental volume published last year by Yale U.P., and only just released in Australia.

At the moment the NAS Gallery is also hosting Erased: Contemporary Australian Drawing, a touring exhibition put together by Natasha Bullock on behalf of the Art Gallery of NSW. The show, which is a collaboration between the AGNSW and Asialink, has been touring since July 2009, starting in Singapore and then travelling to three destinations in Thailand: Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen. This is an unconventional tour for an unconventional show. Even the choice of the NAS Gallery as the sole Australian venue begs the question as to why the AGNSW didn’t want to play host to its own exhibition.

Would it be unkind to suggest that the AGNSW did not see much potential in this show as a crowd-puller? Erased is so ruthlessly contemporary that many of the drawings by its six featured artists – Vernon Ah Kee, Christian Capurro, Simryn Gill, Jonathan Jones, Tom Nicholson and Raquel Ormella – might be better described as conceptual artefacts. The main problem with self-consciously stretching the boundaries of the medium in this way is that those boundaries are already so distended as to be virtually invisible. At first appearance a conceptual gesture has a certain cachet. After that it tends to rapidly diminish, like an echo in the densely hung halls of art history.

It makes me think fondly of I Walk the Line, the drawing show organised by Christine Morrow for the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2009. That was a smart and entertaining proposition compared with the lacklustre pieces in Erased. This is one occasion when the MCA has been out-contemporaried by the AGNSW, although it is no disgrace to be beaten in such a contest.

From her catalogue essay, it seems that Natasha Bullock has just discovered the word ‘palimpsest’ and wants the world to know. The term usually refers to a page on which traces of an earlier text are still faintly visible beneath new inscriptions, but this is one of those words that has been accorded outlandish metaphorical significance by the art theorists in recent years.

Whatever its wider applications the palimpsest does not lead to a memorable exhibition. Artists have been erasing and redrawing since time immemorial, with Robert Rauschenberg’s gesture of erasing a De Kooning drawing in 1953, being a conceptual watershed. Christian Capurro’s erased pages from glossy magazines are merely a variation on this theme: a vast expenditure of energy for a visually impoverished outcome. The whole point of these works is that there is barely anything left to see, producing a kind of crash diet for eyes glutted with pop cultural pap.

Simryn Gill’s papier maché spheres made from mashed-up atlases come across as a clever one-liner that fails to command attention beyond that first ‘Ah-ha!’ moment. That moment is never actually achieved in Tom Nicholson’s flags bearing a printed image of the face of Marat from David’s famous bathtub portrait. The tortuous relations between art and politics suggested by these works will leave most viewers bewildered. Apparently they originally adorned the rooftop of Melbourne’s Trades Hall, where they must have seemed a poor substitute for the Eureka flag to many builders’ labourers.

I did not find my consciousness of environmental issues to be much advanced by Raquel Ormella’s amateurish whiteboard drawings of the Wilderness Society offices in Hobart. These were shown last year at the MCA, and do not improve upon further acquaintance. I felt equally unenlightened by Jonathan Jones’s elegant arrangements of neon tubes, or white-on-white embossed prints. Does the knowledge that Jones is of Wiradjuri descent radically change the way we look at these works? If they were credited to say, Arno Maurer, we would see them as merely chic, not as “optimistic” comments on race relations in Australia.

Of the six artists in this show, only Vernon Ah Kee’s ghostly ‘portrait’ drawings have any real presence. Reduced to simple arrangements of straight lines that coalesce around the centre of a face, these pictures are masks that lightly veil the skull. Ah Kee’s works are intended as a comment on the dubious way justice is administered on Palm Island. As such, they convey little information but have an eerie, deathly power.

I’m afraid the real action is all to be found in Petherbridge’s The Primacy of Drawing, which I have been dutifully reading but am yet to finish. The book was slow to emerge, costing its author some fifteen years of toil. It is a dense but fascinating story that cannot be absorbed in haste, as it covers all aspects of western drawing from the Middle Ages to the present day. Petherbridge’s approach is transhistorical, meaning that she leaps back and forth across time to discuss themes, ideas and theories. Best of all, she looks at individual works with the practiced, analytical eye of an artist, picking out details that illuminate our understanding.

It may be said with confidence that there has never been a more comprehensive study of drawing. Petherbridge’s research has been prodigious, and the quotations alone are reason enough for buying this book.

As an epigraph for the Erased catalogue, Natasha Bullock quotes that great sage, Lou Reed: “You pass through an ever present past…”

Compare this to Petherbridge’s quotation from artist, Paul Klee: “To each dimension, as, with the flight of time, it disappears from view, we should say: now you are becoming the Past. But possibly later at a critical – perhaps fortunate – moment we may meet again on a new dimension, and once again you may become the Present.”

Reed’s line has the banal profundity of pop song lyrics, but Klee captures the complexity of drawing, the way that the artist’s mind circles around a visual idea, losing it and rediscovering it as the hand works its way across the page. Petherbridge extends this discussion by invoking Heidegger’s concept of “the thinking hand”.

The author was convinced by her researches that it was futile to posit a definition of ‘drawing’, as every attempt is soon mired in contradictions. The problem is compounded by the fact that the word designates a medium, an artefact and an activity. The closest Petherbridge comes to a definition is to call drawing: “the primal, undifferentiated medium in which all art-making floats.” Her preference is to think of drawing as a continuum that may incorporate an infinite range of practices.

If this sounds immensely complicated it does not begin to scratch the surface of a learned volume which helps restore one’s faith in that much-abused term: ‘academic’ The Primacy of Drawing is a model of academic enquiry that blends an acute understanding of history and theory. Too often nowadays we encounter histories and biographies in which a hostility to theory devolves into mere chit chat. Even worse are those books of obtuse theory that completely ignore historical context.

Although my enthusiasm for this book is genuine, one soon learns than personal enthusiasms are often far from universal. Therefore a word of warning is in order for the mythical ‘general reader’: this is a rewarding but difficult book that may eventually take up a place on one’s shelves next to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. The saving grace is that one can always look at the pictures.

Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, March 5 2011