Saturday, June 12, 2010
That may be true, but the idea of the line – be it a squiggle or swirl, a bold paint stroke or a basis for the figurative – is still powerful in this exhibition of contemporary drawings at RMIT. Drawing is also associated with a kind of unthinking, childlike creativity, and some of these works evoke the most instinctual and primeval elements of the psyche.
This is an exuberant exhibition that celebrates movement, dynamism, and the playfulness inherent in the many mediums the artists choose. But it is also a survey of Australian drawing over almost 40 years, with 35 artists represented from the present to as far back as 1973.
Indeed, while Generation X is certainly represented here, Godwin Bradbeer, one of the participants, has suggested that the exhibition is a coming of age of an earlier generation of artists who embraced the figurative despite being birthed in a modernism that abhorred the image. And these various modes of the figurative and beyond are everywhere here.
Curator Irene Barbaris has deliberately hung this exhibition as an installation rather than a salon. Given the small size of the gallery this is an inspired decision, with the works drawing from and speaking to each other; transitions, complementarities and contrasts all abound.
The gallery is still too small for the large number of works, and you really need more than one viewing, as there’s too much to take in at once with so little white space; but Barbaris’s extensive knowledge and sensitivity, as well as the high walls of the gallery, mostly make up for this.
In Aida Tomescu’s ‘Sodium II’, ‘Sodium IV’ and ‘Sodium cyr’ 2009, pastel markings in white and yellow dominate the foreground, against darker, shifting background brushstrokes, depicting a sense of chaos and incomprehensibility. These works struck me as more guttural and primeval than the more subdued yet still energetic earlier works of Tomescu I’ve seen, as if she had begun to dig further down into her psyche.
Spanning both the abstract and figurative, but equally inspired in its seductive use of colour, complex layerings, and seemingly random paint strokes is Graham Fransella’s moody portrait of an outlined semi-human figure. The vagueness and ambiguity of the figure combined with the painterly play of the work’s surface creates a strength and luminosity that stays in the mind like a vivid dream.
Moving further into the figurative is Mandy Martin’s ‘Wanderers in the desert real: Wallerawang power station (triptych)’ 2008. This diminutive set of paintings, in brown and grey hues, feature viscous-seeming sculptural textures that add aesthetic weight and immediacy.
These paintings enact a central paradox, evoking a surprising beauty from industrial ugliness almost abandoned by humans, apart from a small lone figure in the central painting who hurries through, dwarfed by cooling towers on each side and anxious to leave.
Critics have situated Martin in the tradition of romantic landscape painting, and the tiny scale of these paintings, as well as the subject matter, suggests Martin’s simultaneous subversion and celebration of this tradition.
Sarah Tomasetti demonstrates her mastery of a form she specialises in, fresco, in her series ‘Worldlines’ 2010. Tomasetti’s concerns with the numinous, the liminal and with aesthetic pleasure continue here, with the series of 12 frescoes in small boxed frames all depicting the same orbicular shape, presumably the Earth.
The seductively cracked textures and differing colour gradations through and around these surfaces also glory in texture, but these works encourage a meditative as well as an emotional response.
A complete change of mood occurs in Greg Creek’s bold and playful ‘Manifesto drawing’, dominated by a violent splash of off-white on a narrow black surface supported by plywood. The effect is something similar to a very steep, almost vertical slide that turns up at the bottom. It’s deliberately unkempt and slapdash, evoking the rawness of pure creativity.
Exuberance of a different nature is evident in Stieg Persson’s untitled drawing of 2007, a large ribbon-like design of great intricacy that celebrates decorative calligraphy with thriving pulsation.
This theme of decoration recurs in the striking ‘Anonyme’, 1998, by Deborah Klein. In this intricate and precise black-and-white linocut, the highly stylised head-dress of a Victorian woman, shown from the back, becomes itself pure decoration – is this an aesthetic violence or a triumph of the feminine on design – or both?
There’s enough to satisfy the traditionalists here, including Philip Hunter’s landscape triptych, and striking, relatively traditional portraits by Virginia Grayson and Pam Hallandal (who won the Dobell Prize for drawing in 2009).
There’s delightfully intricate and exacting attention to detail, the thing that sketching does so well, as well as a sense of Freudian absence and the melancholy of war, in a sketch by Raymond Arnold of a soldier’s jacket encasing an absent body.
In ‘Ancient Cypress’ Beijing’ 2001 and ‘Prunus (Flowering Cherry) jardin du Plantes, Paris’ 1996, Elizabeth Cross imbues her trees with life, soul and muscularity; there is something tortured about them.
Not so in Helen Wright’s ‘One tree on the island (II)’ 2010, a collage of birds of many different species perched on a tree. This work makes a strong point about conservation in a way that is deceptively sweet, conventional and decorative.
Perhaps the standout of the exhibition for me was Godwin Bradbeer’s Imago XIX, 2007, a striking, luminous image of an Asian face presented as a beautiful, generic object that is at once aestheticised and deeply human; totally lacking in personal revelation, it’s still seductive, even moving. Silver oxide and pastel dust give this image its remarkable sheen and increase its aesthetic power.
Bradbeer’s work has been positioned at right angles to Irene Barbaris’s startling and dramatic ‘Light circle #10: 8 points’, 2010. Barbaris has said this work is an examination of ‘the random line and the structural line’, but it is also a powerful collision of line, unapologetic colour and artificial light.
Noel McKenna’s series of animal sketches and Vivienne Shark LeWitt’s glorious ‘untitled sketch dancing couple’ 1994 reveal artists who are absolute masters of the art of outline, drawing form, soul, mood and even narrative from the barest illustrative details.
Also watch out for a gentle painting by Jenny Watson and an energetic video by Mike Parr.
There’s a related exhibition next door, Constellations: A Large Number of Small Drawings, that’s well worth taking a look at. This exhibition explores the use of drawing in a range of professions, so the drawings tend to be fairly traditional. And sometimes they’re so precise and beautifully patterned you want to eat them.
Both exhibitions run until June 26.