Exploring A Fine Line
By Amanda Game
In a recent British Museum catalogue (1) the curator suggested seven thematic groupings as a way of linking the distinct but common approaches evident in artists’ drawings through time.
‘the thinking medium’; ‘the likeness of a thought’; ‘brainstorming’; ‘enquiry and experiment’; ‘insight and association’; ‘development and decisions’; ‘drawings from drawings’.
What these phrases reveal is the complex interplay of conscious and unconscious processes that inform human perception and the vital part that visual notation and the practice of drawing play in those processes. In practiced hands, therefore, such as present in the four artists in this exhibition, artists can not only clarify their own thinking through drawing but can stimulate, through their self-structured languages of line, deeper awareness of the possibilities of our own rich perceptual and imaginative capacities. As the scientist Henry Disney suggests (2) ‘drawing is a powerful heuristic tool’: we learn from it as well as through it.
The lines in this exhibition are drawn in a great variety of ways: pencil on paper, carving into woodblocks, etching metal plates, weaving and bending stems of willow, hazel, ash; assembling 3D wire structures; cutting into and patterning clay surfaces. There is evidence of deep craft and hands-on knowledge of particular materials and processes learnt through experimental time at the workbench and in the studio. The choice of the exhibition title A Fine Line is, in part, inviting us to consider the lines, or boundaries, that exist within contemporary understanding of the relationship between visual expression and hand skills; material knowledge and the ability to achieve expressive objects that echo the depth and complexity of human experience.
Each exhibitor has followed a distinct path into their form of expression, although drawing is a common thread to all. Angie Lewin trained as a printmaker at Central St. Martins and then Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. She worked for a number of years as a successful illustrator in London then moved to Norfolk, retraining in horticulture, but followed this with a return to printmaking, establishing a line of printed fabrics as well as works on paper and then moved to Scotland, first to Speyside then Edinburgh. Her work offers ‘a landscape viewed through plants’; intricate patterns of seedheads, skeletal outlines of dried flowers – layered up through collage or different print processes – wood engraving, screenprinting, linocuts. Present is a homage and acknowledgement of the skills of earlier artists who also applied their lines to many surfaces such as Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden. Lizzie Farey studied painting in Canterbury but for the past thirty years has lived in Galloway creating a unique artist’s studio in the form of a planted field of willow surrounded by woodland which give both impetus to and materials for her work. Her immersion in the cyclical rhythms of the natural world is articulated through weaving together materials grown within it: the intimate knowledge of the materials plays out in the structures she is able to create. Line and place are intimately connected.
Frances Priest studied ceramics at Edinburgh College of Art, establishing an early reputation for bold, slabbed clay sculptures that were widely exhibited and collected. She developed a parallel career in site-specific projects working with communities to explore interwoven elements of place and people through drawing and making. These distinct areas of work are brought together in an emerging series of intricately patterned clay forms that reflect cultural histories of line and ornament. Bronwen Sleigh studied design and illustration at Glasgow School of Art and printmaking at the Royal College of Art. Her constructivist vision represents her direct experience of places – often roadsides or urban intersections – through vivid assemblages of vertical lines both drawn and fabricated with wire and wood into three dimensions. Her command of line and tone create powerful spatial echoes for the viewer as well as summoning links to early twentieth century Soviet artists.
What one senses with each of the four is what artist William Kentridge describes as use of drawing as a ‘rethinking medium’ (3). The idea that close acts of observing things beyond the boundary of self – something channeled through the act of drawing – can shift how we perceive, and consider, the world around us. As geneticist Adelaide Carpenter commented: ‘unless I draw, I won’t look carefully enough to see the unexpected’ (4) – a useful reminder also that drawing has linguistic currency beyond the visual arts.
Priest’s recent ‘Patterns of Flora’ commission for Atlas Arts, a permanent installation of tiles, door furniture and Parian ware vessels at Raasay House for example, grew out of attentive observation of Raasay flora in the company of local botanist Stephen Bungard. She re-thought relationships between pattern and place following her observational drawing of local flora in dialogue with Bungard’s botanical knowledge. As with Farey’s work, line and place became intimately intertwined. This in turn has led her to re-examine pages of Indian designs of the Victorian Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament for this exhibition, re-seeing these patterns in the light of a recent period of travel in South West India.
Lewin’s collages of driftwood and plant images printed on fine Japanese paper – sketches, in the broadest sense, of walks through particular coastal landscapes in Norfolk and the Scottish Highlands – direct attention to the material qualities of remembered environments. Her work insists on the essential physicality of perceptual experience, something echoed in all exhibitors’ works. Farey for example, is developing a new body of work recalling a deep associative connection between her mother and the different gardens of her childhood. She does rough sketches ‘incomplete but hopeful’ to record an impression or thought often on scraps of paper that may later suggest a new structure of willow, an approach that emphasizes a sense of drawing as a form of dialogue beyond chronological time. Priest’s ‘Making Memory’ project with the ‘Living Memory Association’ in Edinburgh inhabits similar territory. The artist works with older participants to devise practical, hands-on workshops which explore the ways in which the physical acts of making and drawing can access hidden memories.
Sleigh’s dynamic webs of intersecting lines suggest the wider currency of visual notation in fields like engineering or mathematics. There is a sense of purposeful decision in the lines, as in the descriptive boundaries of architectural plans or diagrams giving linear equivalents to biological and mathematical structures. The purposefulness is enhanced by the carefully constructed layers of colour of the drawings and the often complex joints and intersections of the sculptures. But works in the end evoke memories and impressions - ‘places of the mind’ to use Geoffrey Grigson’s phrase. The shift between a worked detail of a metal grating, to radial and apparently random collections of lines is associative rather than explanatory.
John Berger suggests that a line is ‘not really important because it records what you have seen but because of what it will lead you on to see’ (5). The work of these four artists leads the viewer on to see new possibilities in the living edges that mark our relationship to place, memory and time. The collaborative venture of this exhibition may also lead the artists themselves to see new relationships within, and between, their evident mastery of line. Amanda Game © 2017
Amanda Game has enjoyed a thirty-five year career as an exhibition maker, curator and events producer with a specialist interest in supporting contemporary makers : their thinking and their objects.
A twenty-one year career in commercial practice, at the Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh (1986 – 2007) has been followed by establishing and running independent studios in North Argyll and Oxford to foster imaginative exhibition making in both public and private galleries. She recently authored (2016) ‘Contemporary British Crafts: the Goodison Gift to the Fitzwilliam Museum’.
(1) Isabel Seligman Lines of Thought: Drawing from Michelangelo to now British Museum/Thames and Hudson 2016, London
(2) Dr. Henry Disney, entomologist, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, quoted on p. 42 Barry Phipps Lines of Enquiry: thinking through drawing Kettles Yard catalogue, Cambridge 2006
(3) p.29 Lines of Thought (op. cit.) quoting 2009 interview with William Kentridge, 2009 The Guardian
(4) Dr. Adelaide T C Carpenter, geneticist, Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge, quote p. 41 Lines of Enquiry (op. cit.)
(5) p. 18 Lines of Thought (op. cit.)