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What is contemporary drawing?

November 13, 2010

Kitty Hudson examines the role of drawing in contemporary art practice.

Drawings seem to be enjoying a modest renaissance. Maybe it is coincidental that I have visited a number of exhibitions in succession either focusing wholly on drawings or giving them prominence amongst other artistic practices. Not that drawing has ever slipped off the radar – it is at the core of all artistic practice, one of the basic building blocks of art. Yet there is a tendency to underrate it; in most cases it is neither big nor brash, and cannot rely on immediate shock impact. Modesty, subtlety, carefully modulated monochrome, delicate delineation – these are descriptions more commonly associated with drawing. And they are qualities more easily appended to traditional practice, which is why I still find myself pleasantly surprised when a conceptual or abstract artist is proved an accomplished draughtsman; my residual cynicism is gladly dismissed.

The Jerwood Drawing Prize was established in 1994 to encourage and promote debate around current drawing practice in the UK, and the recent display of candidates for the 2010 award bore witness to the enduring power of drawing in the present age. However, the commendable diversity of methods and mediums exhibited also provoked the requisite debate; in my view it was too inclusive. The sheer variety encompassed resulted in too loose a definition of drawing to allow any useful criteria of judgement. There were many works on display which very successfully pushed the boundaries of traditional ‘drawing’ – Kristin Luke’s pencil drawing of coils of tape (pictured), enlarged to the scale of a ‘history’ painting, challenged the genre hierarchy which still persists to some extent in this most traditional of modes. I was consequently perplexed by the winning entry – a small table, covered with circular drinks stains – which, of all pieces, seemed to bear least relationship to the concept of drawing. Perhaps this could conceivably be identified as sculpture, or installation art, but if the definition of drawing has been reduced to anything involving mark-making on any surface and by whatever means, then it has entirely lost its identity.

So how are we to define ‘drawing’ today? The Centre for Recent Drawing was set up in 2004 to ‘facilitate access and dialogue for current drawing practice’ with a series of temporary exhibitions, residencies and an online community. Here, drawing is described as ‘the exercise of the imagination or mind on line,’ an abstract approach to the practice that seems as nebulous as that promoted by the Jerwood Foundation. However, this does not detract in any way from the quality of the work currently exhibited under the title ‘Deliberations from a Collector.’ The show combines the precise, figurative drawings of Michael Landy and Alessandro Raho with the more abstract, monochrome compositions of Eduardo Stupia and the fantastical colours of Heiko Blankenstein (pictured). Using the basic tools of drawing – a pencil and paper – these works from the collection of Stuart Evans represent an inspiring variety of distinct styles, at once timeless and wholly contemporary.

The Wallace Collection’s current exhibition of French drawings from the National Galleries of Scotland, ‘Poussin to Seurat’, served as a telling point of contrast. A small but exquisite selection of works (including Seurat’s Study of a Boy, pictured), distilling the best of three centuries of draughtsmanship, it both justified my idea of what constitutes the essence of drawing while also throwing up more questions. Why were watercolours included? And pastels? This must surely be an issue of curatorial licence rather than a belief that essentially finished paintings can be termed ‘drawings’. And anyway, it is perhaps pedantic to insist on strict definitions when the fruits of all these endeavours are so very impressive and enjoyable.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 28, 2011 9:39 am

    I am currently in Beijing working in lithography and drawing. I am trying to gather together drawing resources and essays on contemporary drawing practices as a resource for myself and fellow artists, since the word “drawing” is often used to only refer to one style of figure drawing done in foundations classes. It is interesting moving from one culture to another where the categories of what is and isn’t drawing change. For example here there is the category of Chinese painting and calligraphy, while in the US works in ink on paper are often categorized as drawings. I find I often say something cumbersome like “I make drawings that are finished artworks not sketches, with ink but not using calligraphic techniques.” I enjoyed this post and the open ended discussion about the definition of drawing.

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  1. What is contemporary drawing? (via Edel Assanti Project Space) « Meili Paper

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