Thursday, 1 November 2012

Recycling old drawings

The big studio on the top floor of Vernon Street housed about 70 students. (This was circa 1980s, Foundation was to grow and grow until at one time it reached 300, I think its now about 250 students) As we did morning drawings every morning lots of trials and starts and simply poor drawings would gradually accumilate around the edges of the studio as students tended to discard them, but not actually throw them away. (There is an issue here over how much students actually valued the activity) 
These dirty, (often covered in smudges of charcoal) crumpled pieces of A1 cartridge would at some point become the focus for another morning drawing, one designed to introduce a very old idea about stimulating the imagination, but which also always seemed to trigger a debate over the use of certain approaches to image making.
Students were asked to find an old discarded drawing, (it could not be one of their own, it had to one they had no vested interest in) they then had to flatten it out and rub some charcoal into it to emphasise the folds and crumple.  They were now allowed to make marks across the drawing using any techniques available, but to do this without looking at the images or trying to be ‘arty’ by making a composition or trying to work-up the existing drawing.
Leonardo had advocated the contemplation of  stained walls , “In order to excite the mind,…find in them mountain landscapes, trees, battles and faces.” Cozens had elaborated on this during the 18th century with his ‘A New Method for Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1786) his 'blots' were designed as stimuli for the invention of landscapes, he sometimes suggesting crumpling the paper before a blot was started in order to produce a greater variety of accidental shapes.
Students were introduced to these historical precedents and then told that they had to find images within these now ‘historically stained’ pieces of paper. The tools of choice were an eraser and white paint. Removal was the key to discovery. As images were ‘dug out’ they could then if needed be reinforced or clarified with whatever media was appropriate. Unfortunately students’ responses to these crumpled pieces of cartridge paper were sometimes treated as if they were responses to rorschach ink blots.  There was a tendency when we looked at the images to attempt to use them to perform some sort of amateur psychoanalysis. Looking at this in hindsight it may have been really traumatic for some sensitive young person, but at the time it seemed OK and part of the diagnostic process. However leaving that issue aside, perhaps more important was the discussion that often arose in relation to closed and open forms and centralised and de-centralised images.
As the students’ drawings developed there tended to be two basic differences in the way imagery would be uncovered and these differences would be focused on in the crit.  Students either started to carve out a centralised single image or discovered a series of small images distributed around the A1 sheet.   They also either started to ‘work-up’ the discoveries in order to realise them, or still kept them integrated into the ground by responding to the mark surface as a whole rather than removing the surface and replacing it with another.
There might be 3 or 4 different staff that would wade into the crit and their contributions were usually indicative of their own interests.
One dialogue centered on the differences between 3D and 2D thinkers. If a student had found an image and had started to completely remove the rest of the surface marks, the resulting work was usually picked out as demonstrating an interest in the ‘centralised image’.  This it was often argued demonstrated a strong 3D interest, as the student was attempting to dig the image out and wasn’t naturally interested in the paper surface. (Clement Greenberg still held a hidden sway over many of the debates at that time).  The sculptors on the staff would perhaps argue for its merits, whilst the painters would now point towards an image that still had coherence and connection to the whole surface; the de-centralised image now being promoted. What was seen as best practice if it was a painterly sensibility that was being looked for, was also a prevalence of open forms. These were forms that allowed the eye to keep moving. It was argued that closed forms got the eye stuck in one place and you couldn’t read the image as a whole. 
The illustrator/painter debate would also come up. The more someone had worked up their image the more it could ‘fall out’ of the totality and this was seen as a tendency to be illustrative rather than ‘responsive’ to the needs of the surface; the illustrator tending to ‘trap’ the eyes and therefore fall into the ‘fault’ of freezing the image and not therefore giving it ‘life’. This is an issue that has come up before.  Energy and life were seen as vital to an image’s value. In order to have this energy, the eyes must be in constant movement, so if for instance a form had no visual way out (such as a perfect circle, hence Thubron’s squared circles) there was something wrong. A drawing of a face could suffer the same problem therefore you would not have a defining outside line or edge, as the energy could not flow out into the space around it. (There is no such thing as a line in nature).
Looking back on the arguments now, I can see that these debates must have put several students off. Potential illustrators seeing their drawings dismissed as being lifeless and sculptors and painters being miss-diagnosed. Perhaps the main thing about this session was making sure old drawings were re-cycled, the need for sustainability hadn’t yet reared its head, (hence all students working on A1) and the amount of wasted paper was a crime.
On the other hand students could see from the arguments that staff had very different standpoints and reasons for picking out work and perhaps this helped get over the ‘looking to please’ issue. Less confident students often wanting to know what the answer was. I suppose one answer was, “It depends on who you talk to”.
I was also working at the Swarthmore at this time, so I was very aware that Molly Lord ran a landscape painting adult education class that centred on staining papers with ragged oil paint and then getting her students to find a landscape within the morass of marks. Molly was seen by some as a bit of an oddball, not really a professional but I was impressed by her and thought her own paintings were pretty good. At one time she had a toy telephone that she kept in her bag and used to occasionally ‘answer’ it. Slightly odd but somehow endearing. 

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