Conference Report

Drawing International Brisbane Symposium
Griffith Centre for Creative Research, Brisbane

Kicking off at the Gallery of Modern Art with a keynote address by Deanna Petherbridge, the Drawing International Brisbane (DIB), a brainchild of the new Griffith Centre for Creative Research, was off to a strong, thought-provoking start. 

With a gentle, pleasing wit, Petherbridge pre-empted exactly which debates DIB would cover over its two days, three nights and ten exhibitions, musing whether the inclusion of not one but three keynote speakers would position them in a ‘good cop/bad cop’ situation. She was not far wrong. With Hannah Matthews’s address the following morning, theoretical battle lines were drawn between Petherbridge’s rigorously practice-led research and Matthews’s own contemporary take on the drawing discipline. With Barbara Bolt’s address on the final morning, taking a position somewhere between, a discourse between practice-led and theory-led research was firmly established, and appeared throughout the symposium. This was an excellent way of provoking healthy levels of thought and debate in DIB right from the outset, framing the symposium with the pertinent examination of what contemporary drawing is.

Anybody familiar with Petherbridge’s seminal text, the Primacy of Drawing, knows the author is astute, easily demonstrating a diverse and even-minded grip on the many theoretical and practical applications of drawing. Indeed, a keynote address entitled ‘Some Thoughts on the Co-option of Drawing’, promised a symposium of challenging ideas and discourse. Petherbridge seemed intent on cautioning against various trends she had observed of late, notably including the unquestioning institutional inclusion of drawing based only in its contemporary popularity, or being, as she put it, ‘a sexy thing of the moment’. Observing a lack of knowledge of drawing and critical thinking that is still present, Petherbridge encouraged artists to ‘come clean’ in their admissions of intent, process, theory and practice, and offered some challenges to collaborative and performance drawing, which would turn out to be one of the bigger discussions of the symposium.

Matthews’s keynote address stood starkly separate to Petherbridge’s. Matthews’s approach as a curator, seemed to reverse engineer conceptual gravitas to better fit a curatorial rationale. Citing some of her own curated exhibitions, notably the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art’s (PICA’s) Drawn Out, Matthews presented a series of works of expanded drawing. These works parallel the conceptual concerns of drawing, but do not necessarily operate within the discipline. Many of the artists Matthews discussed have added layers of media between themselves and their drawings, forming a paradoxical distance from the immediacy they initially set out to investigate. In contrast to the practice-led Petherbridge, Matthews’s address effectively encapsulated the theory-driven approach to drawing, promising some fireworks in the final plenary session.

There were, of course, some standout papers delivered. ANU’s Christopher McAuliffe’s excellent presentation on the TV drawings of William Dobell examined an aspect of the artist’s practice that is often overlooked. The rapid, spontaneous ballpoint drawings made while watching TV contrast so strongly with Dobell’s usual level of high finish, and are put to one side, explained away as experiments. The notion of unfinish is a key characteristic of the drawing discipline, perfectly exemplified in this series of Dobell’s journal works, not to mention issues of sequence, observation and spectatorship. McAuliffe’s argument for Dobell’s incredible foresight, in terms of being acutely aware of the perceptual shifts to drawing engendered by the moving image, was well constructed and engaging.

Griffith’s own postgraduate candidate David Nixon’s paper, ‘Being’, ably demonstrated just how perfect a marriage between practice and theory can actually be. This was refreshing, given the charged nature of some of the symposium’s debates over the theory and practice of drawing. Nixon, a printmaker, presented a strong but sensitive deconstruction of his own studio practice. Parallels with music made by the artist were a fitting analogy, considering not only his imagery (abstract, but not formless), but also its inherent beauty. The work, lino prints which feature the perfect, negative space of dots drilled into them, are printed before being drilled again, documenting the beautiful destruction of the lino itself.

If any paper delivered at DIB demonstrated the breadth of contemporary drawing’s potential applications, it was Caity Reynolds’s ‘How to use Specious Reasoning to Explain Almost Everything’. Reynolds’s paper encapsulated just how diverse, fun and irreverent drawing can be. In the artist’s own words, her work documents ‘the vulnerable, pathetic and unmonumental aspects of human experience’ through drawing, offering a puckish and refreshingly human alternative to the cold, white-cube telemetry of vast swathes of ‘the contemporary’. It is here that drawing’s connection to humour through its history of cartooning and animation, which is constantly being renewed, can offer a rich and self-deprecating alternative to the po-faced and the self-serious, a disease rife within certain artistic communities. Thankfully, drawing still manages to get away with it.

Throughout the symposium, an updated vocabulary of the drawing discipline emerged, most notably in the descriptor of the artist. The ‘draftsman’, or ‘draftsperson’, appears to have been banished in favour of the term ‘drawer’. The only time the draftsman would appear in conversation was, tellingly, in regard to the realm of commercial drawing, such as architecture, design and cartography, which are all considered somewhat outdated in the digital world. 

Strikingly, the digital would be a topic that would appear again and again throughout the presentations of DIB, and in some of its accompanying exhibitions, but often as a backdrop against which to set studio projects. Digital drawing software has all but replaced commercial drawing; to continue to make storyboards and architectural plans by hand still happens, but for reasons of status or tradition, rather than necessity. With the distinction between commercial and artistic drawing obscured, drawing has been allowed greater autonomy in terms of the conversations between different forms of drawing, as well as in its own right. 

The fundamental processes of drawing are transposed into the digital world through software, fluidly expanding as metadrawing. Drawing may no longer be strictly necessary with all of the digital tools now available, but it continues to find relevance because, or even in spite, of it.

Perhaps the best demonstration of the digital versus analogue debate came through in the symposium’s various accompanying exhibitions. Drawing, prized for its gesture, intuition, repetition and accessibility, stands at the forefront of the overlap between the tactile realm of paper and the frictionless, disembodied world of the screen. The performativity of drawing was extemporised in several of the exhibitions, seemingly in an attempt to bridge this gap.

The exhibition Under Arena, which took place in one of the underground reservoirs of Spring Hill, featured several artists performing their work in a variety of subterranean spaces, some with collaborators performing through music and dance, and some with the aid of various digital projection devices. Carolyn McKenzie-Craig’s Graphesis, exhibited at Bosz Gallery, documented such performativity through drawing, video and photography, forming a thoughtful social critique using irony, self-parody, and a humorous affectation of the scientific via Muybridge.

In terms of being the first instalment in a forecasted biennial symposium with international project-based events in off-years, DIB has established an atmosphere of rigour, a questioning of the drawing discipline, what (exactly) it is, and how it has come to be, a healthy starting point for such a project. 

William Platz. From Under Arena, at the Reservoirs. Photograph Emma Wright. 

Kellie O’Dempsey. From Under Arena, at the Reservoirs. Photograph Matthew Lloyd.

Drawn to Experience. Installation view.

Carolyn McKenzie Craig, from Graphesis.