The show was spread across two very different, but equally appealing spaces. First, several works were ensconced in the pastoral environs of the Gairloch house. The rooms of the storied, historic landmark have a warm intimate feel, wonderfully conducive to viewing the works on display. Afterwards, we took a short trip down Lakeshore road to Centennial Square where a dozen more works were more conventionally hung in the institutional exhibition space of Oakville’s Central Library. Spreading the exhibition across two spaces not only suggested how works are received in different settings and spaces, but also provided the viewer with a temporary pause to consider and think about the work one had just viewed. We visited the exhibition several times over the course of the summer. Here is our account of the show:
Out of Line reveals a variegated stylistic engagement with the medium of drawing by a selection of premiere Canadian artists. As with most of our ideas about art, our conception of the drawing medium was bequeathed to us by the Renaissance. Fundamentally, drawing signifies a human impulse towards mark making and, within the practice of art, the use of line to make a picture. It was during that efflorescence of formalized art making that drawing was used as one of the deferred stages for making easel paintings. Easel painting as we commonly understand it only emerged as a distinct artistic form during the Renaissance. During this era, drawing was relegated to an inferior status, enlisted as part of the preparatory stages in generating fully realized works of art. But it is precisely that drawing is thought of as part of the process involved in artistic creation that potentially lends the medium a greater spontaneity and dynamism, and conceptually, greater volatility.
Drawing was also associated with observational exactitude as European artists were trained to produce sketches from nature and studies of the human form. Both Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt are two classical artists particularly remembered for their exquisite draftsmanship. We should also recall that before the advent of photography, and for sometime after, the important documentary role drawing played in news reportage and illustrated journals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Pencils developed early in the nineteenth century, and Ingres and others produced highly finished portrait drawings with the new tool. It was precisely during the nineteenth century that artists such as Delacroix produced drawings as finished works of art. With the Impressionist impulse to paint directly on canvas without the need for deferred stages of execution, drawing was properly freed as a more autonomous medium. Though our conception of the medium’s purity can be traced at least as far back as the Renaissance, it really shifts into high gear with modernism. With Greenbergian modernism we have the fullest expression of media purity: the conception that each media has it’s own sphere of competency and expertise.
But the impulse to draw far predates that of painting. Practically, drawing allows for greater rapidity in the means of using line to sketch impressions. Chalk, ink, crayon, graphite and charcoal are media we usually associate with drawing. And conceptually, drawing suggests a more primordial connection between the mind and the hand. Whereas the painter’s hand must return to the palette between strokes and daubs, the draughtsman may employ line more or less continuously, suggesting an immediate connection between eye and mind.
It is this history of technique and concept of medium specificity that the exhibit Out of Line submits to critical examination. As the rebellious title suggests, the exhibit underscores the traditional importance of line in drawing as well as suggesting a transgression of strict disciplinary boundaries, bringing drawing out into an “expanded field.”
The first image that greets the viewer in the Gairloch House is Drapes by the Toronto based artist Luke Painter. Painter’s modestly sized picture features virtuosic technique in depicting a curtain, vertically segmented into five parts, with each section featuring a different art deco pattern drawn from historical sources between the first two World Wars. Painter’s picture highlights the use of line and drawing in decorative pattern making, but more importantly, the piece emphasizes drawing as a medium for simulation and dissimulation. Here the medium is virtuosically employed in the service of rich pictorial effects and illusionism. Drawing here is successful insofar as it simulates the illusion of cloth, floor and variegated patterns and surfaces. The patterns are further animated by the rectilinear pleating of the curtain that creates a rhythmic effect as we horizontally scan the picture’s planar surfaces. Painter’s astute use of color — note how the complementaries green and red create an optical buzz across different segments of the curtain — remind us that “drawing” need not always be simply shades of charcoal, graphite greys and white, but can shimmer with color. The tiled floor produces a shallow stage for the image, further reinforcing the use of line as an underlying armature to organize perspectival space in Western picture making. Here the Albertian trope of painting-as-window-onto-the-world is playfully displaced by the drapes that deny, instead of frame, our view into depth. The picture is freighted with connotations and serves as an impressive emblem to open the show.
Drawing in Canada
As we continue to an adjacent room, the exhibition offers quite a different example of the drawing medium. Artist Howie Tsui’s Of Malingerers, Skulkers and Dupes (2012) boldly throws drawing into the “expanded field” of the beholder’s physical space. Suspended from the ceiling of a well-lit room are five deerskin parchments with various illustrations on one side. Tsui uses acrylic ink to illustrate scenes of soldiers from the War of 1812 maiming themselves in order to avoid serving on the battlefield. The artist employs a cartoonish drawing idiom reminiscent of nineteenth century caricaturual illustrations. But in Tsui’s work the support itself is presented as an object for consideration, and points to the multi-modal forms in which drawings may take shape. Here, the deer parchment alludes to historical periods where paper was just one of several media associated with drawing, and that the support itself, may greatly determine how the artist’s line is perceived. Naturally occurring tears and holes in the deerskin create fissures and negative space when viewing the illustrations. Moreover, by hanging Tsui’s artwork, the parchments become a sculptural object the viewer can freely circumambulate and inspect. The relation between Tsui’s work and Eva Hesse’s post minimalist sculpture Contingent (1969), made out of cheesecloth, latex and fiberglass are striking both in their similarities and differences. And the importance of drawing to Hesse’s practice was examined in 2006 at the Walker Art Museum.
The medium of sculpture is literally embodied in the next room where a series of drawings illustrate the sculptural process. Zin Taylor’s The Story of Stripes and Dots provides us with three drawings using graphite on paper. Abstract forms of squiggly lines and dots, document the artist’s process in envisioning the sculptural work we see on view. The sculpture, entitled A Structure Choreographed to Filter a Room (Fingers Pulled from the Sea and Patterns), 2nd arrangement is made out of plaster and acrylic paint. It embodies the squiggly lines and dots and demonstrates how “line” can be three-dimensionalized and inhabit our physical space. Here both an expanded definition of the medium destabilizes easy categories such as “sculpture” or “drawing,” but also grants us the valuable experience of witnessing how a work of art is envisioned from idea to inception. There are, of course, gaps in this information (the drawings are not, after all, strict blueprints for the execution of the work) and so the viewer must conjecture and playfully hypothesize the steps the artist took between the drawings we examine and the sculpture on view.
Across this piece hangs an astoundingly intricate work by London, Ontario artist Kim Moodie, entitled Float Island (2011). From afar the work appears monolithic, a huge granite surfaced rectangular monochrome extending on its side. But as we bridge the distance its surface shimmers and we realize Float Island is in fact a meticulously detailed drawing containing strange, almost phantasmagoric images, motifs and patterns nested within a larger framework. This work raises the question of the ideal distance to view a work of art, in this case an elaborately rendered drawing that reveals different effects dependent on one’s vantage or view. One marvels at the exhaustive precision required to visualize such a beautifully intricate drawing. Moodie’s work raises also the subject of intimacy and fantasy. We think of the medium as predisposed to a certain degree of personal subjectivity as the artist doodles or sketches alone creating fanciful worlds, at times only for himself.
On an adjacent wall a picture with social reverberations asserts itself. The drawing by Toronto-based artist Jean-Paul Kelly depicts the type of simple illustration of a generic looking suburban home one might receive as a grade-school student to color in the blank spaces. The flat planar style is highly reminiscent of such childhood images. I remember receiving these types of coloring exercises myself and fantasizing what life would be like living in such a home, or who the inhabitants might be. But Kelly has painted in plywood boarding that blocks the windows and denies us visual access into the home. The almost excessive expanse of blank space above the image creates a vertical asymmetry. But the historical specificity of this image, created in 2008, clearly indicates the foreclosure of homes, the death of the proverbial American dream, due to the sub-prime mortgage crises in the United States.
Less successful I think is a drawing beside Kelly’s works — a collaboration between Cape Dorset-based artist Shuvinai Ashoona and Toronto’s Shary Boyle –called Universal Cobra Pussy (2011). The picture depicts narwhals and mermaids on the ice, and above them we see an inverted artic landscape. As usual with imagistic forms of surrealism, the picture feels clichéd and maintains the most traditional compositional techniques, despite it’s self-avowed goal, expressed by the title, to shock or unsettle conventional expectations. The desire to create a solipsistic scene that somehow speaks a universal truth is a failure. Also perplexing are a series of rainbow patterned crayon marks on the walls of this room. At first I thought they were children’s marks left from some youth program that might have occurred in the gallery space. But then I saw the didactic label informing that these were drawings by Derek Sullivan, the whole arrangement, entitled “A Piece of Glass” (2015) and were intended to replicate the refraction of light shining on the walls through a glass prism. Illusionistically, these marks are unconvincing, and as a graphic pattern they are uninteresting. The piece provides momentary puzzlement and that is all. I admit, I am unfamiliar with Sullivan’s work, and the next show at the Oakville Galleries will feature Derek Sullivan’s broader corpus, so I look forward to reassessing this artist more thoughtfully at a future date.
In the final room of the Gairloch house lies one of my favorite works in the exhibition: Krista Buecking’s series of three images entitled “Matters of Fact,” with subtitles such as “codified form A”. The works are intriguing on several levels. First, they suggest how “line” as such can become codified, reified and commodified, or suggestive of particular effects within the broader cultural sphere. Take “codified form A” that depicts a jagged yellow graph line on the plexiglass surface of the image. The line alone against a gradiated blue field resembles a stock market fluctuation, but then could just as well be the read out of a heart rate or pulse monitor in a hospital. The ambiguity between the fluctuations of one’s heart rate and corresponding movements in the market is frighteningly suggestive. But there is more to this image. The background “screen” or field is delicately and carefully rendered with pencil crayons to simulate the gradients of a computer screen. Alongside it, “codified form B” is similarly enigmatic as it depicts unfamiliar ideograms that follow a trajectory of collapse and derangement: a mysterious sign no longer capable of signifying. I think Buecking’s drawings could have done without the sound accompaniment — a news jingle and several other sonic cues are projected from a speaker in the room. The sound component feels forced and I would have liked to have experienced the images on their own terms, a sentiment belying perhaps, my own prejudice towards medium purity no doubt.