Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2014

December 6, 2014
Gosia Wlodarczak at the AGNSW (2014)
Gosia Wlodarczak at the AGNSW (2014)

One cannot travel very far in any discussion of drawing without coming across a famous statement from the great Neo-classicist, Jacques-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: “Drawing is the probity of art.”

“Probity’ means both ‘correctness’ and ‘goodness’, but also ‘moral integrity’, which allows us to imagine Ingres was saying: “to thine own self be true.”

This Shakespearean motto could be applied to any of the artists in Drawing Out, the inaugural Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial at the Art Gallery of NSW. Curator, Anne Ryan, has taken landscape as her theme, and it’s an appropriate starting place. Landscape is one of the few areas in which Australia may be said to have contributed something original to modern art’s global patrimony.

The Biennial grows out of the discontinued Dobell Prize for Drawing, with the change reflecting a more rigorous curatorial focus. On the negative side, it means the AGNSW forgoes a source of revenue and denies artists another opportunity to have their work hung at the state’s major venue. It seems the search for quality is also a blow against d2emocracy at a time when the Gallery needs friends and supporters.

This has not been an issue for Anne Ryan whose task was simply to put together the best possible exhibition. She has chosen ten experienced artists: Tom Carment, Joe Furlonger, Ross Laurie, Ivy Pareroultja, Ana Pollak, Peter Sharp, Mary Tonkin, John R. Walker, Gosia Wlodarczak and John Wolseley.

The first thing viewers will notice is the clean, uncluttered nature of the display. Each artist is represented by a relatively small, but distinctive selection. It’s not a collection of mini-surveys but a series of windows on to a recent body of work covering no more than a 2-3 year period.

This compression finds its most extreme expression in Gosia Wlodarczak’s large, performative drawing executed on the glass window at the end of the room during the first week of the exhibition. Like many of Wlodarczak’s works this drawing is ephemeral, and will disappear when the window is wiped at the conclusion of the show. The emphasis is on the act of drawing, which has been recorded on video, not the finished product. Wlodarczak has worked quickly and spontaneously with a pigment pen, capturing her impressions of the view of Woolloomoolloo, as well as any activity in the gallery that registered on her peripheral vision.

Gosia Wlodarczak drawing directly onto a window in the AGNSW, overlooking the landscape of Woolloomooloo

Gosia Wlodarczak drawing directly onto a window in the AGNSW, overlooking the landscape of Woolloomooloo.

In some ways the piece is only incidentally about ‘landscape’. It is more about the activity of drawing itself, with its play of rapid perceptions and responses, and the sheer physical effort of working on such a large scale. By using the window as a support Wlodarczak asks us to reflect on the difference between ‘looking at’ and ‘looking through’, as the real landscape remains visible behind the semi-abstract depiction. The transformative techniques of art are laid bare.

The idea of immersion in the landscape is a common theme in this exhibition. Ross Laurie, Ivy Pareroultja, Ana Pollak, Peter Sharp, Mary Tonkin and John R. Walker all respond to a place that has become familiar to them through the experience of living and working in that environment.

Sharp’s case is slightly different: a celebration of the arid landscape of Fowlers Gap, near Broken Hill, where he has been taking students for almost 30 years. Repeated visits, and the constant stimulus of watching how the students respond to this environment, have allowed Sharp to gradually feel at home on the edge of the desert. He has taken the startling step of trying to bring the landscape into the gallery by exhibiting a boulder from Fowlers Gap that will be returned at the end of the show, and a large wooden sculpture made from fallen tree trunks. A wall of semi-abstract charcoal drawings records the stones, seeds, leaves, bones and other fragments found near the boulder. It may sound gimmicky, but the effect is strongly evocative.

Ana Pollak has taken an equally innovative approach by making drawings of the Hawkesbury, where she lives, into an animated video. The film is not simply a series of snapshots, but a continuous metamorphosis, as she captures the changing play of light on water. The piece is set to minimalist music specially composed by Michael Harding, creating a meditative, mesmeric atmosphere.

As might be expected from an indigenous artist, Ivy Pareroultja has an intense relationship with the country where she was born and raised. She paints watercolours in the careful Hermannsburg style associated with Albert Namatjira and the artist’s father, Edwin Pareroultja. Her work is a reminder that Aboriginal artists do not need to paint dots and circles to signify their attachment to a place. The most striking aspect of these pictures is their vibrant colour, although their status as ‘drawings’ is slightly ambiguous.

Nevertheless, a few thousand years of Chinese art has probably established that it’s possible to draw – and write – with a brush. This is reiterated in John R. Walker’s minimal brush drawings of the landscape near his adopted hometown of Braidwood, in the Southern Highlands. Like a Chinese literati painter, Walker roams around, absorbing impressions of Nature that are jotted down quickly on paper, giving a view of the landscape reduced to its essential features, sometimes its bare bones. The medium may be gouache, but the process is unmistakably a form of drawing.

Ross Laurie and Mary Tonkin both live on family properties – the former in Walcha in the Northern Tablelands of NSW; the latter at Kalorama in the Dandenongs. Their attachment to these places bears comparison with Pareroultja’s feelings for the Arrernte country. The difference is that Laurie and Tonkin are college-trained artists, conscious of the history of western art that forms the backdrop to their work.

Laurie approaches the landscape in the manner of an Abstract Expressionist, isolating and exaggerating certain features, looking for hidden patterns. The result is a series of densely wrought compositions that almost pulsate with compressed energy as the eye is pulled right and left, up and down.

Tonkin is more concerned with the slow absorption of sensations, as she sits in the midst of the forest drawing on a large sheet of paper. Each sheet has the delicate mesh of marks and erasures one finds in Giacometti’s drawings. Tonkin shares that probing analytical quality, although her most impressive feat is to treat each drawing as merely one component of a vast panorama 14 metres in length. Nobody else in Australia is making landscape drawings of comparable scale and spirit.

Of the other artists, Joe Furlonger and John Wolseley enjoy the experience of visiting a remote location and responding to the environment with great immediacy. Furlonger’s views of the landscape near Goondiwindi were made by the side of the road, but they have an implicit grandeur that belies their humble point of origin.

John Wolseley A Clarence Galaxia in the Ancient Sphagnum Bogs – Skullbone Plains, Tasmania 2013 (detail), watercolor, graphite on paper, 140 × 300 cm. Collection of the artist, courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

John Wolseley, A Clarence Galaxia in the Ancient Sphagnum Bogs – Skullbone Plains, Tasmania 2013 (detail), watercolour, graphite on paper, 140 × 300 cm. Collection of the artist, courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

Wolseley is concerned with the small features of an environment, from the wildlife to various kinds of tree, grass and moss. He even invites these features to “collaborate” in the making of a drawing by scraping twigs and grasses across the picture plane. The blotches and smears that partially conceal the artist’s delicate pencil work suggest that Nature remains resistant to his attempted seductions.

This leaves only Tom Carment, one of the most dedicated draughtsmen in Australian art. Not wedded to any particular place, Carment is a wanderer who takes his sketchpad everywhere he goes, using it as others might use a camera. His installation of 128 small drawings, collectively titled From Cape Leeuwin to Kings Cross, is a no-frills record of the large and small things he has seen on his travels. Carment’s drawings are idiosyncratic and unfussy; modestly conceived, but executed as a labour of love.

Carment’s journeys are also recorded in a new book called Seven Walks, in which he supplies the drawings and words, while his friend, Michael Wee adds the photographs. (There is also an exhibition of Carment’s work at King St. Gallery on William St. until 20 December.)

Tom Carment, Scenes of Sydney, (2014).

Tom Carment, ‘Scenes of Sydney’, (2014).

The book may an excellent medium for studying a drawing, but it could never reproduce the range of impressions one takes from this show, with its boulders and videos, its fierce quest for spontaneity, its explorations of the microcosm and the panorama. It may be that “probity” is the only quality these artists hold in common.

Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2014
Art Gallery of NSW, until 26 January 2015

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 6th December, 2014