Pushing Paper: contemporary drawing from 1970 to now

A British Museum touring exhibition

2 April – 4 June 2022

The Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney

Detail-Nja Mahdaoui The Memory Triptych (2009 Indian ink, acrylic and gold on parchment) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum’s touring exhibition Pushing Paper: contemporary drawing from 1970 to now celebrates drawing as ‘a fully independent medium’ and reveals what a vital means of expression, innovation and renewal it can be. How we process ideas as human beings, what we know about ourselves, the world and our ability to reimagine it, is richly evidenced in this show. Pushing Paper is an exhibition of possibility and cross-pollination, which feels particularly timely, given that freedom of expression is increasingly under attack globally. Drawing is one of the oldest and most immediate forms of human expression with a deep, shared ancestry. It can be an artery of conscious and unconscious thought, a way of bearing witness and altering perception. Drawing reveals that there are many ways to be and see the world, and that the human mark matters, whether it is drawn, scratched, sculpted or walked. Even at its darkest, drawing is abundantly hopeful in what it enables us to see. Expanding the idea of drawing in its own right and making it more visible is arguably even more requisite in a post-truth digital age. Supported by the Bridget Riley Foundation (BRAF) this three-year project, co-curated with partner museums throughout the UK, is a fantastic opportunity to see contemporary drawing in its infinite variety. 

Drawn from the British Museum’s graphic collection of over 50, 000 drawings and 2 million prints, the collaborative approach to curation, in partnership with the Oriental Museum, Durham, the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea and the Cooper Gallery, Barnsley, has produced a fascinating and deeply moving show. Presented in five thematic sections: power and protest, systems and process, place and space, identity and time and memory, the exhibition features 56 diverse works by artists such as David Hockney, Philip Guston, Rachel Whiteread, Cornelia Parker, Tacita Dean, Anselm Kiefer, Sol Le Witt, Anish Kapoor, Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry, Peter Doig, Roger Ackling, Liliane Lijn, Minjung Kim, Susan Schwalb, Nja Mahdaoui, Hajra Waheed, Marcia Kure, Hamid Sulaiman and Rachel Duckhouse.

Detail -Susan Schwalb Untitled, 1980, (metalpoint with graphite and burn marks on prepared paper) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Susan Schwalb’s Untitled, 1980, (metalpoint with graphite and burn marks on prepared paper) creates an astonishing sense of drawing as a living, organic force. Rooted in the Renaissance tradition of silverpoint, practised by Albrecht Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, there is a flourishing, dynamic sense of becoming in Schwalb’s series of four images. The feathery, smoked and scratched marks are powerful and delicate, melding process and idea to such a degree that they become a point of ignition in the viewer’s imagination. There is an uncanny sense of movement, flickering into light and illumination, that really captures the human drive to make art. The hand-made mark often demands that we pause, question and engage our senses fully in what we are looking at, in a way that the scrolling images saturating our daily digital lives do not.  Schwalb’s work is such an invitation for active reflection.  Her four drawings suggest parts of a flower and therefore the propensity for growth, coupled with the fiery inference of potential destruction. The fascination found in a naked flame is invoked here as mark and line, fan and flume, expand the idea of Renaissance metalpoint as precision rendering. Schwalb presents a Renaissance of drawing in fluidity and abstraction. There are so many lines of potential enquiry emanating from Schwalb’s quartet, revealing what a hopeful, essential act drawing can be. The spirit of exploration and ancestry of the artist’s chosen medium evolves before your eyes, and it is a joy to see.

Liliane Lijn Hanging Gardens of Rock City 1970 (Collage of magazine cuttings touched with green crayon, on a support of a greyish photograph of the New York skyline) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Liliane Lijn’s Hanging Gardens of Rock City 1970 (Collage of magazine cuttings touched with green crayon, on a support of a greyish photograph of the New York skyline) presents a ‘utopian idyll’ of ‘green walkways suspended across the rooftops of Manhattan.’ Collage is an intuitive way of drawing that pivots between the act of cutting and sowing creative seeds of regeneration. Reconstruction of found images in this context takes New York Skyscrapers, temples of capitalism, and reappropriates them as accessible, linked green spaces. In Lijn’s hanging gardens, there’s no apocalyptic Babylon, but ancient wonder in imagination. Through a 2022 lens, Lijn’s Hanging Gardens of Rock City is a vision of what is needed today, platforms to reimagine and subvert dominant systems of power. Lijn also captures the spirit of awe and optimism in iconic New York architecture, ancient adornment repurposed for the New World, not as the domain of corporations and billionaires, but possessed of a different kind of inheritance and intention. The same year Lijn’s created her Floating Gardens of Rock City series of collages, the first Earth Day was held, a rallying point for US environmentalism and activism. Lijn’s Hanging Gardens bring an element of playfulness and ‘what if’? to this ongoing debate, gently suggesting an alternative trajectory in fantasy architecture. It is now widely acknowledged that capitalism/ consumerism has brought our planet to the brink of collapse, in the context of the Anthropocene period we are living through, Lijn’s Hanging Gardens optimistically heralds what still might be possible.

Minjung Kim (b. 1962), Mountain, 2009, ink on hanji paper © The Trustees of the British Museum Reproduced by permission of the artist

Minjung Kim’s Mountain (2009 ink on hanji paper) possesses a powerful rhythm of tonal ascension in wave upon wave of inky tidelines. Kim’s wet on wet technique is masterful in its acute understanding of material through touch. The way water absorbs, and ink reacts is part of the grounded nature of this drawing and the ethereal nature of this landscape. The singular ‘Mountain’ is made up of many successive peaks which gradually evaporate from dark to light. There is a strong lineage of traditional knowledge in this work, dating from the 1st Century BCE, in the ground of Korean Hanji paper, made from the Mulberry tree and in the artist’s reverence for the natural world. There is also the ‘Mountain’ in the mind of the viewer as an imaginative space in play.  It was interesting to see how this work was such a natural draw for people entering the ‘place and space’ themed room and how much time was spent in contemplation of the drawing. Something emanates from these magnificent waves of water, ink and paper which feels like a collective well of burgeoning consciousness. There is a sense of connectivity when looking at this work, of being part of something greater than ourselves. Kim’s drawing captures something essential about our relationship with nature, bringing the root of Eastern spirituality, Western Romanticism and wider belief in divine nature together. The energy in this work is timelessly circular and direct, something sensed and felt through the hand of the artist, the work on paper and in the heart/ mind of the viewer.

Before you read the adjacent label, Cornelia Parker’s arresting Rorschach- style blot Poison Drawing (1997, Rattlesnake venom and ink) floats darkly on the page in free association. The unsettling mirror brown stain could be dried blood clotted thoughts,unlocked from the viewer’s own psyche. Initially the singular drawing is a trigger and feels like a test of projected meaning, in the manner of the original Rorschach test, used to examine the psychological and emotional characteristics of an individual. In a linked pair of drawings, Parker’s obsession with opposites is crystallised in material venom and its antidote. It’s an interesting moral proposition that walking into the gallery, it’s the visual stain of ink and venom in Poison Drawing that first draws the eye, while the white ink and Diamond Back snake anti-venom in its twin, Antidote Drawing 1997, appears invisible. Human behaviour (and creativity) has a double face, the potential for toxicity and cure. The ambiguity of Parker’s work is part of its charm, there’s always intellect behind it. Equally the element of artistic control consistently shifts- the blot will do what it wants to do, making unexpected marks on the folded paper. The inherent danger or life-giving properties hinge on what you’re told each drawing is made of, its material truth. Here drawing meets conceptual art, like ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail. In Parker’s own words ‘the work, as drawing, comes from the materials’ and that raw materiality, combined with concept and belief makes for endless connections and imaginings.

Adel Daoud Charbon de Chair (2014, Charcoal on cardboard) © The Trustees of the British Museum

One of the most powerful works in the exhibition, one that stopped me in my tracks and that I keep returning to, is Adel Daoud’s Charbon de Chair (2014, Charcoal on cardboard). It is a summation of the civil war in Syria, a conflict that has claimed over 500,000 lives since 2011 and of incalculable loss, but there is also a powerful feeling of resistance in this work, a visceral frenzy of marks that insists we do not forget. Despite human erasure, a process of collective amnesia mirrored in the drawing, the artist in exile and the object remain living witnesses. Like Goya’s Disasters of War or Otto Dix’s Der Krieg series of prints, there is horrific trauma and life affirming strength in every line. Daoud’s drawing and its title ‘human charcoal’ is a pure expression of human annihilation and destruction, lived experience that perhaps only drawing could give voice to. With the Syrian war still raging and current obliteration of human remains by the Russian army in Ukraine to conceal war crimes, Charbon d Chair translates to sites of war and genocide around the globe. The danger of forgetting begets compounded horror in repetition. I was reminded when looking at this work of the words of Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel; ‘To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.’ The need for art to bear witness and act as a trigger for memory, not just in the artist’s own time but for all time, has never been greater. It is all too easy to change channels, keep scrolling, press delete or spread denial to millions on social media. Being in the intimate presence of a drawing, an immediately tactile object with its own history, that may be very different from our own, demands that we make sense of the human marks we see before us and grapple with where we stand. A great drawing makes its mark on the mind, soul and heart of the viewer and is never forgotten. The value of such work is incalculable, and I am glad that as part of this touring show, Adel Daoud’s Charbon de Chair will be seen by many more people throughout the country.

Pushing Paper – British Museum collection at Glynn Vivian, Swansea 24th September 2020. Foreground-Nja Mahdaoui The Memory Triptych (2009 Indian ink, acrylic and gold on parchment). Photograph courtesy of the British Museum.

Nja Mahdaoui’s The Memory Triptych (2009 Indian ink, acrylic and gold on parchment) is a brilliant evocation of human memory, how it shifts and evolves, realised in a fusion of drawing and sculpture. There are forms within forms in this drawing, from the tall clear glass vases containing three rhythmically charged parchments, to elements of Arabic calligraphy hidden by partially burnt, curvaceously twisting forms. The letterforms resist semantic reading, yet language, culture and identity are resounding present, not in being pinned down as absolutes, but in enabling growth and freedom of expression. The capture of this billowing movement of memory feels miraculous and precious, with gold overwritten on parchment. There is something very beautiful in what is hidden and revealed simultaneously in this work, about the way that we edit, revise and revel in memory as humans. The delicacy and refinement of Arabic calligraphy is rendered elusive, poetic and tangibly real in this multidimensional work. I would love to see works like Mahdaoui’s Memory Triptych displayed permanently within the British Muesum and partner museums, as an unexpected trigger for reflection on the evolving memory of other works in their collections.

The importance of touring collections, outside London to the rest of the UK and internationally, should not be underestimated. I was delighted to find, in the world class venue of The Pier, an exhibition who’s sensitive and thought-provoking curation made me feel connected to the world once again. Rather than being relentlessly overwhelmed by global events, the sensitive and thought-provoking curation encouraged connective reflection. Many of the chosen works restored my faith that we can in fact, out create destruction.  The marks we make remain crucial. As the amazing diversity and integrity of practice exhibited in Pushing Paper testifies, Drawing stands resoundingly as both noun and verb.

https://www.pierartscentre.com/current-upcoming-exhibition/pushing-paper-contemporary-drawing-from-1970

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