Notes from looking at the drawings

Judith Mottram, 2001


Let us take pleasure to indicate the delight in curiosity, and revelling in feeling the delicacy of line, the subtlety of nuance, and the tenuous links between memory, recognition, and constructions of meaning. Uncertainty? I'm not sure where I am, or what I am looking at. Am I comfortable with this state? Discomfort does not suggest pleasure, but to be uncertain might also bring with it curiosity, a desire to find out more, the excitement of making connections, of seeing links and references that allow the creation of a new ground, and new awareness, or a new position from which to see. Pleasure and uncertainty are both connected with the senses - do we know what it is that we are looking at? Are we enjoying that looking? Are we sitting comfortably within what we know or curiously within the unknown?

Sense, here, is more than arousal of the faculties. It is not that linked with excess, with indulgence in strong and saturated colour, in sinuosity of line, in extremes of surface sumptuousness. In these drawings it is the distinguishing of reversed entities and the direction of movement, it is based on the relationships of mathematics. Slowly, carefully, and with precision, forms are mapped, turned and linked like the slow dance of our thoughts and emotions entangled, ravelling and unravelling through domestic and social interaction over days, months and years. The pleasure of the feather falling, turning, reflected in the pool.

This running around with words and meanings parallels the reflections of the artist while she is making the works. Words, definitions, phrases and writing from a wide variety of sources find their way into the notebooks, onto the studio walls and into the process. Useful and useless objects, in the everyday sense, are drawn or suggested. The ellipse of the lens reflects, refracts and gives focus. The lines connect, weave webs and separate. The sieve and the colander hover beyond recognition, speaking of transformation and careful consideration more than cabbage and flour. The cage holds but is permeable. Stacked and suspended, movement arrested and function obscure; forms funnel or direct thought and process.

'Out of Thy Symbols is the wall built up'. Rilke's line appears as a useful analogy to that which separates us from the other. The reflection of difference between us and the objects that crowd our lives - the flying saucepan or sweetmeat offered.

The wall is very important for West in the context of the major drawings currently under development. There is a problem with drawing upon the wall, especially if the very construction of space demands the location of elements in relation to perspectival clues beyond the boundaries of the paper. This issue of process, of technique, is central to the objectives of the research programme undertaken by West for her current Fellowship at Loughborough University. At the same time, the development of the works is always motivated by the ongoing pursuit of just what it is that she is attempting to figure within the works. The focus on this other problem, the wall, is anticipated to stimulate change and to focus review.

It is interesting to note that West tends to use an exploration of form in 3-dimensions in a way rather like a sketchbook. She will take a simple household object and subject it to the addition of another medium, to reinforce awareness of inherent characteristics of its form. A sieve might have long 'hairs' attached to protrude from its mesh, reminding us of the passing through of fine filaments or grains. Or nails create a hedgehog of a similar object, turning associated readings from the delicate to the brutal. Actions of speed or slowness inferred through form. Simple drawings developed from these manipulated objects form a storehouse of forms that seep into the larger works. And here perspective effects a similar transformation of entities suggested in the complex balance of image and space. Reflection and movement, gravitation and repulsion - held together or pushed apart by the web of lines, suggested or inferred through the structure of vanishing point and horizon.

This is work in progress, the exploration of the wall continues in the gallery. at this point, the combination on one long wall of the four large works is an unknown future. The work to take place within the gallery, exploring the way in which the drawings will be relocated in relation to the space has an element of uncertainty. Will new drawings spring up at the intersections, in the space between two drawings that had previously coexisted within a much smaller studio space? Will the drawings collapse inwards or grow outwards to fill the space? And of particular concern: how will the delicacy of the lines and subtle areas of colour be read within the larger, public context? There is something enticing about the crisp, defined white room with ceilings high as the room is wide - the chapel in the cathedral - that allows the works to be scrutinised calmly within the studio. Transported to the wide space of the gallery, will the vista subsume the soft scratch and rub, or will the whole space start whispering with line, mark and trace?

In looking at works we tend to refer to other works, by other artists, to check and clarify what we think about the work, what it looks like, what it means to us, what it might mean to others, what the artist might have meant. But these works contain a level of questioning and suggestion that enables us to encounter them, to experience and explore them, without too much prior knowledge or assumption. We can take them as they are, assured that the work marks points upon a quest, indicative of the artist's reflections on encounters with the world.

In relation to other manifestations of the drawn within the contemporary context, this work could be seen as eschewing the use of ironic referencing or stylistic appropriation. There is no sense of hiding the effort, the time spent and care lavished on the drawings under the guise of a knowing nod or faux naivety. The programme is clear but forward looking: Duchamp, Leonardo, Petherbridge, images from architecture (particularly Mosque interiors an Gaudi) and the accumulation of objects from optics and domesticity. The resulting images have a suggestive, diagrammatic reference to plans for objects we do not yet know, perhaps satelites, or instruments of vision, with hints of past and future. Containment is there too, in the suggestion of the holding space, the water tower, the cage, the mesh of lines and the structural web. These works challenge the view that parody and appropriation are the only way for the contemporary artist to reflect history through drawing.

The nature of these works as a part of a research project demands some consideration. The fellowship in the Creative and Performing Arts programme, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board, requires participants such as West to identify questions and methods for enquiry over the three-year term of an award. In this case, the major works exhibited in May 2001 form a part of the first phase of exploration. Apart from seeking to determine the extent to which drawings made in the studio can carry their communication of subtle relationships into the public arena of the gallery situation, the exhibition will give West the opportunity to assess whether it is then possible to continue development of the work within the public space. The challenge is whether the cohesion of form, space and meaning can be maintained within the new context. Is the 'tomb', with its delicate fresco, integral to the reading of these large-scale works? Or will the drawings survive the fracturing of the space in which they are made? And, we might wonder, what is the point of this enquiry and in what way are these matters to be tested?

In one way, the latter question is the answer to the former. At times it feels that we are no further on in determining how and why we are driven to figure our world through drawing or other representations. We take our holiday snaps, our wedding videos and our family portraits. We visually record achievement and terror across the globe. We want to locate moments somehow, to remember what we were doing or what we were feeling. And some of us take things further, through spending greater time on generating things to see, that move on from the entrapment of specific events, taking in other referents and methods and processing these to generate second or third level objects. And so the Social Scientists develop practices such as 'visual anthropology' to explore images in relation to social structures, critics and historians make linkage to other examples or to other areas of human thought and endeavour, and the artists go on making. `This research programme at least marks a will to engage with the problem of what and how. The artist does need to take responsibility for their cultural role, and the interesting question for the future is the extent to which this fellowship will contribute to our knowledge and understanding of artistic endeavour.