Drawing Conclusions - the Rise of Drawing in the Contemporary Art Scene

Author: Mike Brennan

Not so long ago, drawing became the new painting. From small-scale and intimate to wall-sized, highly-worked or resolutely low-fi; whatever its format, the re-appearance of a once side-lined medium marked a dramatic shift in its fortunes and indeed, assumptions about art in general.

But why the change? Was it that, in an art scene increasingly driven by fads, drawing became du jour simply because it hadn\'t been for a very long time? Or were other, less obvious factors at work?

In fact, the re-emergence of drawing was far from market-driven, and its increase in profile a far slower process than any newly voguish status might suggest.

To understand something of its current impact, it\'s necessary to look back at the closing years of the 20th century. A time when, to the eyes of many, the art scene looked very different indeed.

Throughout much of the 1990s visual austerity and a certain restraint governed the work of a new wave of artists; many of them British, many high-profile.

Figures such as Darren Almond, Damien Hirst, Martin Creed, Rachel Whiteread and a re-discovered Allan McCollum typified an art scene driven by hands-off, conceptual practice and stringent theoretical undertow.

Even artists whose work, by contrast, seemed more ludic and theatrical - Maurizio Catellan, the Chapman brothers, an ever-enduring Jeff Koons - shared a taste for slick, expensive, mechanized output. And in fact, looking back, there\'s a certain synchronistic poetry to the fact that Marc Quinn\'s \'Self\' portrait, a principal icon of the era, quite literally froze the blood.

Further tendencies underpinned the general sense of pristine, chilly surface. Graphic design in the late 90s exulted in the hard edges of its newly perfect digital genesis, while on a popular level, serious flirtation with \'minimalism\' induced homeowners to replace comfort with pristine surface and spacious void.

Clearly, any attempt to rapidly define a moment in art history is doomed to over-simplification. A vast array of artists stand in lush counterpoint to Hirst\'s surgically steely cabinets or Whiteread\'s pale, negative spaces. The work of Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, Daniel Richter and Jörg Immendorf - to name just a few - all manifest an obvious delight in exuberant mark-making or absorbed, painterly gesture.

Yet it\'s certainly true that what generally made the headlines - the dissected sheep, the on/off lights, the unmade beds - were essentially \'conceptual\' works that side-lined direct artistic intervention. And it\'s also true that, with the internet truly coming of age in the \'90s, such highly publicized aesthetics became instantly and widely accessible for the first time in any history. In the mass public eye, art had gained a hard, new edge.

Yet elsewhere, a wildly contrasting vision was being far less well documented. On America\'s West Coast, in particular, the long-gestating seeds of a brimming alternative scene were beginning to bear considerable fruit. Its influences were multiple and diverse, yet shared the fact that all lay well outside the contemporary mainstream.

In LA, for example, the \'underground\' drawings of Ray Pettibon - linked initially to the rock scene then distributed through short-run zines - had garnered fervent admirers throughout the late \'70s & \'80s. A major exhibition in 1992 succeeded in raising his profile both throughout the States and abroad.

Yet Pettibon\'s work was merely the best-known facet of a burgeoning counter-culture. One which, since 1986, had found a major advocate in the now legendary La Luz De Jesus gallery in downtown LA.

This space, located incongruously above an offbeat gift store, focused entirely on artists whose backgrounds and influences sprang from an array of popular cultures such as illustration, folk art, comics and tattooing. And this output, crucially, tended towards an intricate figurative craftsmanship more closely associated at the time with illustration than so-called \'fine\' art.

The gallery and its stable of artists proved a speedy and influential local success, and in 1994, Juxtapoz, a magazine founded by Robert Williams (himself an artist and friend of famed underground artist Robert Crumb) also began to showcase this growing wave of alternative art.

Utterly at odds with the rarefied, theory-led aesthetic dominating contemporary practice at the time, this new sensibility came to be regarded as a movement. Its roots and position were defined by not just one label, but two: Low-Brow, or Pop Surrealism.

Resolutely populist - bordering, even, on kitsch - its appropriation of popular style and content within a fine art context questioned long-held assumptions regarding the parameters of art itself. Revisiting the earliest tenets of Pop Art, it nevertheless totally dismissed that movement\'s later associations with Warholian mass production.

And in San Francisco, too, similar trends were at work.

In the 1990s a group of artists including Chris Johansen, Clare E Rojas and Barry McGee emerged to form a distinctive new scene. Their work, though sharing much with the Low-Brow phenomenon, differed in several important respects and became known as the \'Mission School\' in recognition of its essentially San Franciscan flavor.

Local influences contributed to a more whimsical, looser approach to image-making than LA tendencies at the time. Street art such as graffiti formed an intrinsic part of the scene, but was generally refined into a figurative rather than textual medium. The legacy of underground comics pioneered by the likes of Robert Crumb was also evident in cartoon-like characterization and a witty, humorous edge.

More importantly still, while painting lay at the heart of the Low-Brow movement, drawing was much more widely adopted by the Mission School artists.

In a nod to the hand-drawn agitprop and pyschedelia of \'60s Haight-Ashbury, they revived techniques such as detailed patterning, hand-lettering and découpage. Materials, too, were frequently unconventional; ball-point pens, markers, recycled paper, wood or metal all found a part in the Mission School look.

This \'regional\' distinction was clearly underlined in publicity for a 2000 show at LA\'s New Image Gallery:

SAN FRANCISCO DRAWING SHOW curated by: Alicia McCarthy and Chris Johanson. May 19 - June 17, 2000.

Straight out of San Francisco, drawings of over 15 artists will be exhibited .... Currently there are important artistic trends developing out of San Francisco. Drawing is at the root of this development.

Meanwhile, however, America\'s East Coast found itself forced (for once) to gradually acknowledge a nexus of creativity occurring elsewhere. While many commentators, curators and gallerists became increasingly aware that some kind of real cultural shift was taking place, others seemed slow or simply unwilling to recognize its impact or legitimacy.

Yet the growing appeal of Low-Brow and related work - especially amongst a generation of new and emerging artists - was undeniable. New galleries opened to deal exclusively in the genre, and Juxtapoz, along with many of its featured artists, began to acquire a cult following. Its international distribution and the broad reach of the internet helped ensure that this new sensibility filtered beyond the US.

The \'unofficial\' Californian scene gathering pace in the \'90s was intrinsically linked to a rejection of prevailing artistic practice - the notion, as Fred Tomaselli later put it, '...that people are a bit tired of the over-rationalism (sic) of the art world, this idea that you can get to everything through the cerebral.'

Yet its ethos was otherwise hugely democratic and unifying, a statement of validity for neglected or side-lined art. There can be little doubt that its emergence provided an impetus behind the current interest in drawing.

But this interest - and with it, the resurgence of a particular kind of artistic engagement - was not, of course, solely confined to America\'s West Coast.

Elsewhere in the States, Laylah Ali\'s first major show of meticulously patterned, faux-naif works took place at Chicago\'s MOCA in 1999 (she had been featured, along with Chris Johansen, at New York\'s Drawing Center in the summer of 1998).

Julie Mehretu, likewise emerging towards the end of the \'90s, fused painting with drawing in a myriad of complex mark-making, while Canada\'s Royal Art Lodge, formed in 1996, produced whimsical drawings, paintings and objects reminiscent of the Mission School\'s output.

In Europe, similar trends were also underway. As the 20th century drew to its close, Sweden\'s Jockum Nordstrüm was gaining recognition for his beautifully rendered, twisted tableaux of far from ordinary life. Switzerland\'s Marc Bauer produced vigorous drawings that exemplified the medium\'s strength, and in Britain the hand-drawn zine was adopted by Olivia Plender, albeit in a highly polished form.

While drawing, obviously, had never disappeared entirely from the gallery, these artists represent just a few of those contributing to its rapidly growing visibility towards the end of the \'90s. A resurgence now so evident that, though prompted by certain definable factors, it nevertheless seems organic, almost essential; a phenomenon that quite possibly identifies as well as answers very current needs amongst today\'s young artists.

And what are they?

Well to start with, drawing is cheap. For those struggling with the high costs of studio space and materials, it\'s a medium that\'s financially viable as well as a manageable means of production.

What\'s more, it\'s hugely inclusive. Everyone, at some point, has experienced the act of drawing at some level, a participation which affords even the most casual observer a sense of involvement in the medium; a visceral engagement in its use that conceptual art forms often lack.

Yet despite this refreshingly egalitarian glow, it also appears that much of today\'s output seems directed towards highly individual, even arcane expression, a practice exemplified by intricate, almost obsessive mark-making.

On the one hand, this wholly supports an ethos by which today\'s artists seem to demand an intimate, personal and evident engagement with their art.

Painstaking detail and labor-intensive mark-making represent artistic endeavor for which the artist alone is responsible. No third-party construction teams, no assistants on hand to dab a brush as directed. This art is about making in the purest possible sense.

A parallel explosion in use of craft elements - beading, glittering, collage, embroidery - as well as the growing popularity of zines and artists\' books - mirrors this quest for hands-on, highly personalized involvement.

Yet more intriguingly, demands for creative ownership may well serve needs besides a revision of artistic involvement.

Art, of course, has always been about reflecting and interpreting the world, but the early 21st century seems to have experienced a particularly profound re-appraisal of exactly what the world involves. The outlook is an uneasy one, marked by a growing sense of schism and dislocation, and in particular, the notion of circumstance veering out of control.

To return briefly to Pop Surrealism, true to its \'surrealist\' label the movement is marked by subversion of apparent reality. Typically, this takes on disturbing, anxiety-ridden form; bio-morphed figures inhabit scenarios laden with threat; an undertow of violence is darkly enhanced by imagery plucked from childhood.

And importantly, unlike Surrealism, which investigates the interior spaces of the human psyche, Pop Surrealism obliquely focuses on physical, actual realities. Those genetic hybrids, ruined landscapes and constant simmer of threat don\'t merely exist in our nightmares. They\'re with us now.

The movement itself may have had its day as far as the art market is concerned, but the zeitgeist it portrays is clearly here to stay.

Consider, for a moment, Jean Dubuffet\'s famous description of L\'Art Brut

'Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses - where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere - are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professions. ... we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.'

Though written in the 1950s, the proclamation reads now like a perfect manifesto for the kind of anti-establishment art scene we\'ve been discussing. Yet quite apart from epitomizing a \'purer\' alternative to the mainstream, the kind of art Dubuffet describes now carries connotations far beyond those of his original assessment.

The \'simplicity\' of naïve or folk art harks back - in popular nostalgia at least - to carefree, less complex times in which a sense of place and purpose were clearly defined. It\'s little wonder that its revival coincides with acute apprehension regarding our own, turbulent times.

By contrast, much outsider art is clearly associated with not belonging - a characteristic most evident in its embrace of art produced by the mentally ill.

Yet here again there\'s a definite connection. Such work often originates through its use as a therapeutic tool; a fact that throws interesting light on the intricate, involved delineation of much recent drawing and painting. Indeed, in its conspicuous efforts to order, pattern and negotiate space, such complexity provides almost casebook examples of conflict-solving Gestalt.

More interestingly still, a significant proportion of contemporary practice doesn\'t just seek to interpret complex realities, but actually sets out to create them through construction of highly personal, alternative worlds.

Paul Noble\'s well-known drawings of fictional \'Nobson Newtown\' are devoid of human figures, yet imbued with visual invention and idiosyncratic textual comment. A clear intention is to provide a reflection of the mind of their maker: as Noble himself puts it, 'town planning as self-portraiture'.

Other artists\' fictional worlds provide similar arenas for grappling with issues that echo or parallel our own.

Michael Whittle, a recent graduate from the Royal College of Art, creates intricate drawings melding religious iconography with motifs garnered from heraldry, alchemy and science. The resulting images, snapshots of impossible states, underpin the artist\'s own desire to 'make sense of reality' while also investigating '... man\'s attempts to come to terms with existence'.

Camille Rose Garcia (whose practice, though largely identified with painting, includes much drawing) is well known for deceptively enchanting visions of what amounts to a near-dystopia. A recurring cast of characters battle to save or destroy a poisoned, dying world. The baddies, unfortunately, seem to be winning.

Art today appears to be grappling with a spiritual, political and therapeutic function that arguably, it hasn\'t reflected quite so clearly for centuries. And the fact that drawing, the most immediate and spontaneous of mediums, forms a vital aspect of the interpretation of a complex world should come as no surprise.

Postscript: Drawing right now - who we\'re liking

The energy of the California scene continues apace, with San Francisco still arguably the epicentre of new drawing - check out the wonderful work of Sara Thustra, Sacha Eckes, Andrew Schoultz and Simone Shubuck (a San Francisco native, though now resident in New York).

LA practice remains particularly diverse, but artists who make exciting use of drawing include Travis Millard, Adam Janes and Gina Triplett.

Elsewhere in the States, we enjoy the work of Carter, Aurel Schmidt and UK-born Dominic McGill (best known for his epic, 65ft \'Project for a New American Century\').

In Europe, Richard Höglund produces interesting drawings informed by semiotics, and in the UK, artists of note include Sarah Woodfine and Adam Dant (the latter have both been recipients of the Jerwood Drawing Prize.

Most exciting of all, newcomer Laura Oldfield Ford creates large-scale, beautifully rendered drawings with astute political commentary at their core, as well as the cult zine \'Savage Messiah, an extraordinary foray into the psycho-geographic terrain of London.

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About the Author

With a background in advertising, copywriting, illustration and web design, Mike currently works freelance as an SEO consultant and web content writer.

His most recent project, clickspiration.com, is aimed at the online advertising and affiliate scheme publishing sector.