Drawing conclusions: the rise in contemporary drawing

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And what are these needs? Well to start with, drawing is cheap. For those struggling with the high costs of studio space and materials, it's a medium that's financially viable as well as a manageable means of production.

Andrew Schoultz
image © Andrew Schoultz

What's more, it's hugely inclusive. Everyone, at some point, has experienced the act of drawing at some level, a participation which affords even the most casual observer a sense of involvement in the medium; a visceral engagement in its use that conceptual art forms often lack.

Yet despite this refreshingly egalitarian glow, it also appears that much of today's output seems directed towards highly individual, even arcane expression, a practice exemplified by intricate, almost obsessive mark-making.

On the one hand, this wholly supports an ethos by which today's artists seem to demand an intimate, personal and evident engagement with their art.

Painstaking detail and labor-intensive mark-making represent artistic endeavor for which the artist alone is responsible. No third-party construction teams, no assistants on hand to dab a brush as directed. Such art is about making in the purest possible sense.

A parallel explosion in use of craft elements - beading, glittering, collage, embroidery - as well as the growing popularity of zines and artists' books - mirrors this quest for hands-on, highly personalized involvement.

Yet more intriguingly, demands for creative ownership may well serve needs besides a revision of artistic involvement.

Art, of course, has always been about reflecting and interpreting the world, but the early 21st century seems to have required a particularly profound re-appraisal of exactly what the world involves. The outlook is an uneasy one, marked by a growing sense of schism and dislocation, and in particular, the notion of circumstance veering out of control.

To return briefly to Pop Surrealism, true to its 'surrealist' label the movement is marked by subversion of apparent reality.

Typically, this takes on disturbing, anxiety-ridden form; bio-morphed figures inhabit scenarios laden with threat; an undertow of violence is darkly enhanced by imagery plucked from childhood. And importantly, unlike Surrealism, which investigates the interior spaces of the human psyche, Pop Surrealism obliquely focuses on physical, actual realities.

Those genetic hybrids, ruined landscapes and constant simmer of threat don't merely exist in our nightmares. They're with us now. The movement itself may have had its day as far as the art market is concerned, but the zeitgeist it portrays is clearly here to stay.

Consider, for a moment, Jean Dubuffet's famous description of L'Art Brut

"Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses - where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere - are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professions. ... we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade."

Sara Thustra
image © Sara Thustra

Though written in the 1950s, the proclamation reads now like a perfect manifesto for the kind of anti-establishment art scene we've been discussing. Yet quite apart from epitomizing a 'purer' alternative to the mainstream, the kind of art Dubuffet describes now carries connotations far beyond those of his original assessment.

The 'simplicity' of naŠve or folk art harks back - in popular nostalgia at least - to carefree, less complex times in which a sense of place and purpose were clearly defined. It's little wonder that its revival coincides with acute apprehension regarding our own, turbulent times.

By contrast, much outsider art is clearly associated with not belonging - a characteristic most evident in its embrace of art produced by the mentally ill.

Yet here again there's a definite connection. Such work often originates through its use as a therapeutic tool; a fact that throws interesting light on the intricate, involved delineation of much recent drawing and painting.

Indeed, in its conspicuous efforts to order, pattern and negotiate space, such complexity provides almost casebook examples of conflict-solving Gestalt.

More interestingly still, a significant proportion of contemporary practice doesn't just seek to interpret complex realities, but actually sets out to create them through construction of highly personal, alternative worlds.

Paul Noble's well-known drawings of fictional 'Nobson Newtown' are devoid of human figures, yet imbued with visual invention and idiosyncratic textual comment. A clear intention is to provide a reflection of the mind of their maker: as Noble himself puts it, "town planning as self-portraiture".

Other artists' fictional worlds provide similar arenas for grappling with issues that echo or parallel our own.

Michael Whittle, a recent graduate from the Royal College of Art, creates intricate drawings melding religious iconography with motifs garnered from heraldry, alchemy and science. The resulting images, snapshots of impossible states, underpin the artist's own desire to "make sense of reality" while also investigating "... man's attempts to come to terms with existence".

Camille Rose Garcia (whose practice, though largely identified with painting, includes much drawing) is well known for deceptively enchanting visions of what actually mounts to a near-dystopia.

In her work, a recurring cast of characters battle to save or destroy a poisoned, dying world. The baddies, unfortunately, seem to be winning.

Art today appears to be grappling with a spiritual, political and therapeutic function that arguably, it hasn't reflected quite so clearly for centuries. And the fact that drawing, the most immediate and spontaneous of mediums, forms a vital aspect of the interpretation of a complex world should come as no surprise.

Mike Brennan

Postscript: Drawing right now - who we're liking

The energy of the California scene continues apace, with San Francisco still arguably the epicentre of new drawing - check out the wonderful work of Sara Thustra, Andrew Schoultz (both above), Sacha Eckesand Simone Shubuck (a San Francisco native, though now resident in New York).

LA practice remains particularly diverse, but artists who make exciting use of drawing include Travis Millard, Adam Janes and Gina Triplett.

Elsewhere in the States, we enjoy the work of Carter, Aurel Schmidt and UK-born Dominic McGill (best known for his epic, 65ft 'Project for a New American Century').

In the UK, artists of note include Sarah Woodfine and Adam Dant, both recipients of the Jerwood Drawing Prize. In Europe, Richard Höglund produces interesting drawings informed by semiotics, and the extraordinary Marc Bauer has further refined his technique to create large-scale drawings as beautifully nuanced as paintings (below).

Marc Bauer, large drawing

image © Marc Bauer


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