Joanna Pitman, 'Skills from the top drawer' (The Times, 10/03/2009)

Anyone can make a pencil drawing: an HB pencil and some paper is all you need. Anyone can do it because drawing can encompass anything, from the toddler’s wondrous line left after casting a pencil over paper to the sublime works of Albrecht Dürer, who in 1514 made a drawing of his aged mother with such devotion, sincerity and love as to transform her lined and sagging face into a work of great beauty. Dürer was celebrated during his lifetime for, among other things, his astonishing gift for drawing. But how many artists today can say that drawing is their primary practice? We tend to think of drawing as a provisional statement, made in preparation for some other, more important, work. Symbolic of certain basic traditional artistic skills, drawing has become undervalued in a contemporary art world that is packed with big, brash paintings, installations, photographs and video works. It certainly doesn’t sit with art’s big boys at Sotheby’s high table. But a new exhibition at Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art (mima) demonstrates that drawing is not only very much alive as an artistic practice, but that it can strike surprisingly contemporary attitudes. Eleven living international artists for whom drawing is their principal means of expression have been chosen for The End of the Line, and some of the work is radical and unexpected. Monika Grzymala, for example, a 39-year-old Polish artist, has taken drawing boldly and riotously into the third dimension. In the first room of the show, the visitor’s eye is drawn up to find vertical parallel pencil lines descending from the ceiling to about halfway down the wall, at which point they work themselves free and fly energetically out into the air, entirely liberated from any surface plane. The pencil lines have turned into strands of lead tape that fan out wide and then begin to weave in and out of each other like the tracery of a spider’s web before reaching the floor some metres from the wall. Grzymala is taking the language of drawing beyond our expectations, testing its limits, and in doing so creating an awareness of its many possibilities. David Haines, on the other hand, pursues a more traditional drawing practice, his soft pencils working like brushes to cover every millimetre of his large sheets of white paper. Haines, who was born in Nottingham and lives in Amsterdam, is an extraordinarily rigorous draughtsman. He has achieved perfect mastery in the imitation of reality with his pencil, not so much as an aim in itself but as a better way of presenting a convincing vision of the subjects he wishes to illustrate. Adding detail upon detail, he builds up a true world within the compass of his paper, shading and colouring softly with patience and delicacy. The finished drawings are pale, imbued with a peculiar translucence, as if the white paper is blazing through its graphite covering. The viewer is initially taken aback by the photographic quality of Haines’s realism. Could this really be a pencil drawing? Is it actually the work of a computer? You draw closer until you are virtually breathing on the glass, and then you see that these meticulous works are indeed made with the humble pencil. It is only once you have got over the extent of this extraordinary feat of artistic endeavour that you notice the drawings’ subjects, which are brutally at odds with the meditative nature of the artistic method. Haines draws young men in tracksuits, trainers and balaclavas engaging in strange, furtive and sometimes violent rituals, and set in urban wastelands. Two malevolent-looking young men in tracksuits and hoodies grip a third as all three teeter on the edge of a high flat roof, staring out at the industrial cityscape and the possibility of death. Trainer and tracksuit brand names recur as motifs, like fetishised objects repeated throughout the works. Haines leaves it up to us to find our own metaphorical resonances. His light meticulous realism carries heavy and insistent messages. He is one of several artists who can demonstrate the capability of contemporary drawing to carry complex arguments. Jan Albers’s drawings are both abstract and figurative, all of them full of explosive spirituality. These are large colourful works, intense at their centre and at times spreading beyond the paper and on to the gallery wall. Albers, who was born in Germany and brought up in Namibia, makes portraits from several layers of paper and card, which are cut, punched and placed on top of each other to create intricate matrices of cross-hatched lines that seem to radiate from the centre. As the marks and lines multiply on top of each other the image emerges as a fully embodied work, glimmering in all its hallucinogenic fullness. Here and there a pair of eyes can be made out, or maybe a couple of Amnesty International badges pinned to the surface and hidden in among the complex features of Albers’s worlds. In the West, drawing used to be the starting point of art education. Students learnt about line, composition, perspective, texture and value. But then in the 1960s a more academic approach to art education pushed drawing aside as a throwback to the past. Drawing’s decline was then routinely blamed for what was seen as the “aesthetic bankruptcy” of much contemporary art. Drawing needs to be lifted out of the purgatory of preparatory craft. There are signs that it is making a bit of a comeback in art schools. Even in our world of noisy installations and conceptual art, drawing clearly retains its validity and power as an art form. The scale of this show demonstrates that it is regaining the respect that has always been its due, but so far without paying the price of being commodified and turned into the object of consumer lust, a price that other art forms paid a long time ago. Exhibitions such as this one may promote a new drawing fetish, especially if collectors are looking for high aesthetics at lower prices; but its primary role will be to show us that drawing has returned, in a strikingly new and contemporary form.

Subject Exhibition

The End of the Line: attitudes in drawing, City Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol
With: Kate Davis