DRAWING-IN AND OUTSIDE-WRITING: AN IN-DEPTH STUDY OF WHEN THE CREATIVE ACTS OF DRAWING AND WRITING ARE MOST CLOSELY RELATED
Although for the viewer writing and drawing are discrete disciplines with different rules of comprehension and interpretation, for the maker there is a similarity of process. Certainly the origins of writing reveal this closeness: in the Greek word ‘graphein’, drawing and writing share an etymological root. Examining Medieval manuscripts or, more prosaically, the early scrawls of children, the distinction between drawing and writing is often difficult to distinguish. From a phenomenological perspective writing and drawing are also closely related. Writing retains the potential to slide into drawing; drawn lines can easily become letters.
Asking questions such as: When does a drawing transform into writing? Where does writing start to become a drawing? Can writing be drawing? How do thinking, writing and drawing come together in the creative act of drawing? Drawing – in and outside – Writing has investigated the slippage between these two acts. Individually and together, four visual artists: two UK-based- Rebecca Fortnum and myself, and two Belgian- Ans Nys and Peter Morrens, have developed ways to explore the relationship between writing and drawing, over more than a year of collaborative, practice-based research. Drawing is central to our practices, and all of us use text or writing within our work. Together, we have pursued an investigation into when the creative acts of drawing and writing are most closely related. This paper will give particular focus to the project’s research methodology, and its role in enabling a better understanding of drawing and its relation to writing in artistic practice, and I must credit my colleagues with a lot of the content of this paper; some of it has been written in their own words.
The structure of the project was devised to make the performative nature of drawing and writing more public, given how that moment of creativity— when ideas and observations are first made visible— is most often private. A variety of activities forced into the open a sort of collaborative way of working, where strategies of re-drawing, re-interpretation, re-staging, reflecting and articulating each other’s drawings could be pursued side by side and over time, though without the need or pressure to create collaborative pieces of work. Work was exchanged by post, and the four of us made work in a series of residences.
The four artists
Just before the start of the project, Rebecca Fortnum completed a series of double portraits of children with their eyes shut. For her first correspondence drawings she extended this act of copying to the written page. She is interested in creative writing, so wanted to test how the acts of writing and drawing compare from the maker’s perspective, as well as how they function pictorially. But the correspondence aspect also gave license to work in response to the others, and this opened up other ways of working, into sculpture.
Ans Nys typically works in a figurative way, but specifically for this project became interested in copying. In the first residency, she copied the work of the other artists, and this soon led to a disciplined methodology akin to school handwriting lessons, copying letters until they became abstract; creating new meanings from juxtaposed textual fragments.
Peter Morrens has long used writing in his work and his wordplay and prolific production of work during the residencies provided a less restrained counterpoint within the project. And from early on, he played with the physical qualities of letters, exploring how the liminal drawn/written mark could have more physical presence.
The project in general, but more specifically the residencies, altered Kelly Chorpening’s working method. I had been interested in how projected letterforms could bend across physical objects and spaces. But the project lead me away from this way of working (in small dark rooms) and I soon began exploring a more ambiguous pictorial space where letter-like forms could also be read as objects.
Working in the same studio we observed and discussed approaches, and realisations were sometimes made through the simple act of re-writing and re-drawing each other’s words and images. We thus formed a greater comprehension of the modes of address we chose to use and also gained insight into how tracing or copying can function in the quest for knowledge and understanding. It’s interesting to note how some images or words were taken up, seeming to withhold, or even become amplified by these acts of interpretation or restaging, whilst others fell out of sight, lacking resonance within the group.
Voorkamer exhibition May-July 2011
VOORKAMER is an artist's initiative concept that was launched by Rik De Boe and Peter Morrens in October 1996 in Lier, just outside Antwerp. It’s situated in the historical Holy Ghost site near the town cathedral, and is an amalgam of various buildings in different architectural styles, with 13 separate exhibition spaces.
One major aspect of the project was a large group show at Voorkamer, Lier (In- and outside- Writing) in May 2011, which meant we all resolved our own production for exhibition but also were able to bring the work of other contemporary artists into the debate. For this exhibition we individually curated sections of the show, following strands of our thinking through a range of contemporary practices, whilst Voorkamer itself contributed a larger overview of the subject.
Many themes have emerged in the course of the project. The following slides illustrate my chapter within the book, where work by artists I had in mind from the start are integrated with images by artists in the Voorkamer exhibition, including the four project participants: 1) viewing an image by Saul Steinberg, the anthropomorphic qualities of writing, 2) viewing Robert Smithson’s Heap of language, an interest in language as matter, 3) viewing images by Frank Selby, Anna Mossman, Rupert Norfolk, Rebecca Fortnum, an interest in copying and mimicry, 4) viewing images by Dean Hughes, Ans Nys, Rebecca Fortnum and Pavel Büchler, investigating the physical space letters occupy, 5) viewing images by Richard Artschwager, Ans Nys, Benoît Félix and Peter Morrens, how writing can evolve into figuration, and finally 6) viewing a collaborative drawing by Kelly Chorpening and her 7 year old nephew Myles Caby, alongside images by Adam Humphries and Philip Guston, an investigation of form that is nearly language, in a state that suggests both a letter and a figure.
Project outcomes of the four artists
Generally, Rebecca Fortnum’s work explores the conflation of looking and reading. For this project, she focused specifically on the relationship between image and text, where re-drawing and re-reading creates an awareness of text and image as a site of return. She is curious about the process of copying that neutralises the expressive mark and is interested in how we ‘read’ images comparatively. When a face is re-drawn an ‘other’ emerges, neither an individual nor yet quite a clone, creating a sense of provisional or unstable identity. Her book and installation work, In a flushed sky, brought together drawn duplicate portraits of L'Inconnue de la Seine and letterpressed fragments of text referring to the struggle of the governess in Henry James' Turn of the Screw. Through this juxtaposition a new and incomplete narrative emerged.
Ans Nys began the project by reflecting on the other artists’ drawings in handwritten writing in a notebook, gradually evolving towards copying the drawings of the others. This soon turned into an automatic process where writing words – or more precisely, copying mechanically produced text by hand – became inseparable from drawing. Her approach was a meditative labour closely aligned to the experience of learning. Most of her work was the result of ‘practicing' at a desk on lined composition paper, but finally included an all-encompassing wall fresco comprised of letters, lines and the portrait of a fair lady. Her glazed look, inspired by the iconographic Christ figures of the Middle Ages, became reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's Orlando: a person out of time and place with a quintessential writing talent.
Peter Morrens is interested in using snippets of overheard language. Direct, incorrect, coarse and colloquial, his drawings attempt to turn the stuttering and faltering of words into something visual. When removed from their verbal context, the words became perverted, transformed into ambiguous, suggestive material. Throughout the project, he explored how casual scrawls and sketches and the use of sculptural components in drawing could make language physical. This work culminated in the creation of a seven metre high sculpture constructed of letters, whose hidden kinetic properties commented on the dangerous possibility for ambiguity and deception in language.
Kelly Chorpening experimented with ways of materialising the form of language, with an aim to test the fundamental processes of naming and identification that occur in both drawing and writing. She articulated basic forms and gestural marks resembling letters, words and utterances along a stretched horizontal format, creating an experience of the work akin to reading. Michel Foucault described Rene Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe as ‘simultaneously present and visible, image, text, resemblance, affirmation and their common ground.’ Whether on the page or on the wall, the work explored this area of ambiguity between object and word, drawing and writing.
The other outcome of this project, referred to earlier, has been the artists book- launched last night at Central Saint Martins. For it, each of us developed a chapter that represents in some way the narrative of our visual thinking. Images and words flit from one chapter to the next, appearing in different forms, to weave a web of influence and reflection. It has enabled us to identify several outcomes of our work together. There were many surprising affinities: some formal (colours and compositions recur) others conceptual (for example the exploration of the dynamic between an object and its representation) or methodological (transcription was a dominant form of interrogation). And for me, something that became apparent in the process of designing the book was how, as the project continued, each of us, perhaps subconsciously, began to fill perceived gaps in how the relationship between drawing and writing was being addressed. By the end a wide range of approaches were in play: spontaneous, planned, revised, erased; legible, incoherent, gestural, iterative, intimate, formal, casual, monumental. In exploring this relationship between the written and the drawn, we believe we have exploited drawing’s direct and immediate qualities yet also reinforced the notion of drawing as an apt mode of reflecting on artists’ thinking. Ultimately however the project remains open-ended, in a state suggestive of the vast possibilities of the subject. Our research methodology has enabled us to generate new insights into the creative acts of drawing and writing from the artists point of view.
29 March 2012