Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Is there a bias in contemporary drawing?

The publication of the Manifest International Drawing Annual (INDA) this month caused me to consider whether there is a bias against figurative realism in contemporary drawing surveys. The INDA values skill and craftsmanship in drawing practice and considers classical realism as worthy of critical attention, however, in the 2008 Jerwood Drawing Prize catalogue there are 63 finalists and no realist drawings, with only three artists come close to realism. On looking through 'Vitamin D New Perspectives in Drawing' only two artists out of the 109 selected by UK curator Emma Dexter in 2005 practice figurative realism.

The drawings in the INDA that come under the heading ‘figurative realism’ can be sub-categorised as:

a) Classical Realism: still life (figurative), or life drawing (figural)
Drawings done from life using the sight-size method of drawing taught in the ateliers of Florence where an arrangement of objects or people are set up in the studio and meticulously drawn over a period of months. Here the focus is on traditional craft skills and honed observational skills. e.g. the drawing by Dorian Iten.

b) Drawings using photography as source material
These drawings need not be dismissed as ‘photorealism’. It is possible to use photography as source material and for it not to be ‘mere illustrative copying’. I saw ‘The Painting of Modern Life’ at the Hayward and enjoyed it because it was about considering photography as both the subject and object of paintings and the dialogue between the two mediums. e.g. Chuck Close developing his pixelated portraits or the work of Vija Celmins, which questions reality and representation. On the subject of transforming photography, I read with interest Sickert’s biography by Matthew Sturgis in which Sickert looked down on the use of photography in painting, favouring painting from life, before using newspaper clippings as source material for his portraits.

In the UK there is an attitude that dismisses figurative realism as illustrative and skill in observation and making doesn’t seem to rate as something to be valued. This style of drawing is dismissed as being merely ‘illustrative’ or ‘passé’ because it is ‘traditional’.

I consider that the work of Paul Emersley demonstrates skill and craftsmanship in the use of charcoal. My understanding of craftsmanship is that it is a firm grounding in the technical and material aspects of making. Charcoal is my chosen medium because it relates to my subject matter and when I was at art school I found it difficult to find examples of artists who really push the medium technically. When I attended a workshop at an atelier in Florence last year I was delighted to see many more examples, particularly the work of Dorien Iten, which is included in the INDA.

The introduction of a rigorous approach to drawing on fine art programmes might have the result of producing drawing surveys that include the variety of the INDA rather than more of the gestural ‘teenage bedroom’ aesthetic that we see so much of in painting and drawing in the UK today which relies on freehand drawing from memory. I have nothing against that style of work but I don't believe that it should be a dominant ideology of drawing to the exclusion of other approaches.

Drawing is essential to thinking and making and fine art students encourage students to question how their current understanding of drawing impacts upon their practice, with all categories of drawing given equal focus. In order to undertake a ‘diagnostic review of drawing’ the full range of possibilities in drawing need to be available to students. The current bias against skill, craftsmanship, and classical realism in both education and drawing surveys means that one needs to go to Florence to see technical proficiency in the visual language of classical realism, or be satisfied with seeing the occasional Paul Emersley drawing. I think that it is far more dangerous for the decision makers to make judgements that are bias against a particular category of drawing because it prevents this type of work being seen as a valid option or something that can be developed.

It is a breath of fresh air that the INDA values all sorts of drawing and that selection is based on merit and not curatorial agenda.