Bringing art right back to the drawing board
VISUAL ARTS:AS INGRES famously proclaimed: “Drawing is the probity of art.” But he was speaking at a time – the first half of the 19th century – when paintings were still constructed on formidable armatures of preparatory drawings. Elaborating on his theme, he went on to describe a painting as effectively little more than a colour-tinted drawing.
Some of the plein airpainters were already shifting the emphasis away from drawing in that sense, and the Impressionists were to do so decisively within a few decades. In fact, look much further back in European painting and you will find individual painters who eschewed the rigorous, drawing-based approach to picture-making. Ingres’s views represented the high point of a particular academic tradition.
What happened in the second half of the 20th century was of a different order, however, to the shifts of emphasis on drawing evident in art history to that point. Drawing was simply displaced from the central position it had occupied in art education and dismissed as irrelevant. While this extreme view has been reversed to some extent, and drawing is now routinely described as a vital part of the curriculum, other factors have contrived to further diminish its importance to the visual arts. Prominent among these are the extraordinary rise and effectiveness, not to mention the irresistible appeal, of digital technologies. But also the exponential diversification of visual-arts practices, so that drawing itself, never mind drawing regarded as a particular set of skills, is now a purely discretionary component in any artist’s vocabulary.
THAT’S THE WAY it is, but does it matter? Or, to put it another way: is something valuable or even essential lost with drawing’s demotion? A lot of people seem to feel that it is, and their concern has ensured that, from the late 1990s onwards, there has been a noticeable revival of interest in drawing, expressed in the form of many individual and survey exhibitions. One such is Into Irish Drawingat the Limerick City Art Gallery (it will then tour to venues in the Netherlands, France and Northern Ireland). It is curated by an artist, Arno Kramer, whose work is fundamentally rooted in drawing. It is a sequel to an earlier, larger show that Kramer curated, Into Drawing, a survey of contemporary Dutch drawing, which also showed in Limerick.
It’s interesting that Kramer, and his fellow countryman Tjibbe Hooghiemstra (another fine draughtsman), who have been visiting and intermittently working in Ireland for many years now, gravitated instinctively to the west coast. Hence the role of Limerick as a primary venue for the shows Kramer has originated. There is another reason that Limerick and the southwest in general have been particularly active in mounting drawings exhibitions, and that is the presence of artist-curator Jim Savage, who has been exceptionally energetic in organising drawing events (and is included in Into Irish Drawing). The annual Open Drawing Awards Exhibition, which runs in the Church Gallery in the Limerick School of Art and Design from January 30th, is one significant sign of the local commitment to drawing.
All of which would be to no avail if there wasn’t something interesting about drawing in the first place. Kramer doesn’t claim that the work of the 22 artists he invited to exhibit amounts to a systematic survey of Irish drawing now. He cheerfully acknowledges that he doesn’t know enough about the field to have done that. But what he has done is to come up with an open, generous and bracingly diverse selection, one that blithely ignores some of the invisible but emphatic divisions that segment the Irish art world. He hasn’t, in other words, just rounded up the usual suspects from one or other of the generational or stylistic camps.
He notes that he has long been struck by the promiscuity of Irish artists in terms of the modes of expression they employ. Drawing is just one, albeit significant, aspect of what they do. This applies to such artists as Gary Coyle, Kathy Prendergast, Alice Maher, Eamon O’Kane, Isabel Nolan and Katie Holten. Yet drawing is absolutely central for all of these artists, in that it’s not an incidental vehicle but integral to what they are trying to do. Coyle, notably, uses drawing as a means of exploration in works of ambitious complexity. Tom Molloy makes meticulous, exceptionally beautiful drawings, always within the framework of a conceptual scheme.
Eamon O’Kane’s wall drawing House and the tree, which links the tree with what is made from it, is terrific. In fact there are two, related wall drawings by him, where one would have been more effective in purely dramatic terms. Still, outstanding. Good too to see huge drawings by Gerda Teljeur and Timothy Emlin Jones, in which the graphic patterns reflect the rhythmic movements of the bodies that made them in a dance-like way. Stephen Brandes uses scale to extend narrative in his linoleum drawing. Nick Miller’s grid of portrait images in coloured wash is extremely effective.
One of the strongest works has to be a sequence of drawings by Martin Wedge. Small in scale and made with tremendous pace and spontaneity, they have a magical, fantastical quality, though they are grounded in the everyday. They manage to be both brutal – in their observational ruthlessness – and tender at the same time. They bear comparison with Claire Carpenter’s dreamy, richly textural images, which are quite different but strangely complementary, and a show featuring work by the two artists would be fascinating. There’s a lot more worth seeing: Anita Groener, Niamh O’Malley, Brian Fay, for example.
Kramer has on the whole steered clear of the well-made academic drawing, which is not to say that he is interested in work that challenges the boundaries of what drawing is. Almost anything can be described as a drawing so long as you’re willing to extend the definition to fit. But the show is clearly not about that kind of deconstruction and redefinition. Kramer seems pretty sure about what drawing is for him: a committed engagement with the process, an all-or-nothing activity. “The drawing balances perpetually on the verge of a confession,” he writes eloquently. A confession “concerning life and death, love, the mind, this world, nostalgia and yearning”.
- Into Irish Drawing, curated by Arno Kramer and featuring work by 22 Irish artists. Until Feb 22 Limerick City Gallery of Art, Carnegie Building, Pery Sq