i walk the line

new australian drawing
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
17 March – 24 May 2009

Seeing art as artists see it—through a play of sensibility rather than a filter of ideas—cuts against the deadly pedagogy of much current curating, especially at institutions of contemporary art.’1

Under the helm of the present director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), I cannot think of any exhibition I have seen there that answers to the charge of ‘deadly pedagogy’. In fact, recognition of the talent of a young curator (only two and a half years in the job) who has had her own art practice (initially in Brisbane) by allowing her to take over the first two floors of the art museum demonstrates Elizabeth Ann Macgregor’s sound judgment and confidence in her staff.

You do not have to read the Introductory didactic on the wall, or take note of the catalogue foreword, or the first three paragraphs of curator Christine Morrow’s otherwise excellent introduction, to know already that drawing has been an autonomous and self-generative discipline for years. Better to ignore that self-evident rhetoric and get into the show ‘I Walk the Line’ itself. Here, any sense of ‘having read it or seen it all before’, disperses when confronted by fresh and immensely engaging art, which just happens to be gathered under the rubric of ‘drawing’. This large exhibition includes work from across the country by twenty-nine artists, mostly from a younger generation, who explore, cajole, wrestle with and perform the discipline, using all manner of media. Charcoal, biro and graphite on paper, three dimensional objects, cell animation and video—are all present.

However, this show is less to do with audiences applying their attention to ‘how its done’, and more to enjoying the 1990s legacy (all of the works are dated between 2001 and 2009) of plurality of expression and acceptance of open-endedness as a goal. At the MCA, viewers/participants were greeted on the ground level by a work that would normally be intimiste in scale, the charcoal mural done by Richard Lewer directly onto the wall, 03/03/09 (2009) which depicts a woman the artist secretly photographed that day walking in the street. Here also are Gordon Hookey’s twelve poster-like drawings—essentially humorous take-offs of fictional boxers with names like Cadbury M’Callister—which throw an ironic take on the artist’s Aboriginal identity. A curiously irregular structure by Michelle Ussher stands in the space near-by, big enough to walk through and with drawn components upon it. I start looking for graffiti and public stencil art and find them in an extraordinary scroll by Locust Jones, unfurling along a custom built shelf in the room next door. It is the stuff of subterranean imagery and obsessive mark-making. Only after I have felt the force of William Kentridge’s influence here, do I discover the work’s wall label: Everyday atrocities (2008-09) and read in the catalogue that the recent bombings in Mumbai and the Israeli incursion into Gaza are referenced.

James Morrison from Papua New Guinea (now residing in Sydney) underscores the dark, gothic quality of this part of the show with his series of exquisitely molded and drawn papier-mâché objects. They serve as memento mori of exotic plants and animals from mountainous terrain, recalling botanical illustration and old-fashioned floristry arrangements, held in check by Perspex cases. With half-closed eyes, the viewer could imagine them transmogrifying into tattoo designs. The intricacy of these drawing/sculptures is paralleled by Melbourne artist Cassandra Laing’s graphite drawings of the galaxy. These have a sublimity similar to that of Vija Celmins’ images in the same medium, where the American artist made a canopy of black and pierced it with white by leaving the paper sheet untouched or only softly marked.

It is this reversal of expectations of what drawing traditionally comprises, that makes ‘I Walk the Line’ such as engrossing exhibition. For instance, among the works displayed are those using video performance. One comprises a collaboration between twin sisters Gabriella and Silvana Mangano. Although Dennis Oppenheim’s 1970s filmed performance of himself and his young son tracing a line on each other’s back is suggested, there is a different motivation to the Manganos’ video. In their work If…so…then of 2006, the two artists dance pencil marks around one another’s body and play out the ideas of intimacy and touch that drawing so often enshrines.

The unexpected ‘take’ on the discipline is also achieved by John Turier whose clunky drawing machine on the mezzanine level of the MCA reminds viewers that one of this art form’s unique conditions is that it bears evidence of its own making, (literally here) at every turn. The mesmerising biro beards of Laith McGregor’s self-portraits are present, as are those interpretations of his own features by Peter Grziwotz. In the latter’s Shelf Life #3, there was a chance to absorb something of the complexity of one individual’s identity through analogies to propped books, x-ray films, crumpled and dented sheets, small figurative paintings, and photocopies.

The exhibition has an extended shelf life of its own through a sketchbook-style catalogue with a comprehensive introduction by the curator and a shorter piece by Kit Wise. Fully illustrated, I recommend the publication chiefly for the insights that an artist (Christine Morrow), of the same generation as most of the exhibitors, brings to drawing and by extension, to much art practice today. 

notes: 

1. Peter Schjeldahl, ‘According to Mona Hatoum’, Let’s See, Thames & Hudson, 2008, p.236.