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

Cut and Paste – 400 Years of Collage

29 June – 27 October 2019

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two)

Eileen Agar The Lotus Eater (1939, Collage, watercolour and ink on paper) National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. Purchased 1979.

Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage is the first survey exhibition of collage ever to take place anywhere in the world, featuring over 250 works from the sixteenth century to the present day. There is an astonishing range of practice on display, including works by Hannah Höch, Annegret Soltau, Claude Cahun, Pauline Boty, Natalia Goncharova, Valentine Penrose, Toyen, Edith Rimmington, Eileen Agar, Linder, Penny Slinger, Carolee Schneemann, Cindy Sherman, Nancy Grossman, Deborah Roberts, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Joan Miró, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Eduardo Paolozzi, Max Bucaille, Roland Penrose, Joseph Cornell, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Peter Blake, John Stezaker, Christian Marclay and Terry Gilliam. Give yourself ample time to explore them and to take in the accompanying show Beyond Realism at Modern One, featuring some of the NGS’s finest Surrealist works.

In many ways this ground-breaking reappraisal of collage couldn’t have happened anywhere else. The NGS collection is blessed with significant acquisitions, long term loans and bequests from astute collectors such as Gabrielle Keiller, artists Roland Penrose and Eduardo Paolozzi, providing an excellent foundation for deeper exploration of the artform. Joined by works from the Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, Stephen Ongpin Fine Art, The Mayor Gallery, The Fry Art Gallery, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, Annely Juda Fine Art, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Alison Jacques Gallery, Richard Saltoun Gallery, England & Co, a/political, the University of St Andrews and private collectors, the exhibition is a fantastic opportunity for discovery of previously unseen work. Works from the Murray Family collection, UK and USA, featuring Pauline Boty, Edith Rimmington, Max Bucaille, Franz Roh and Toyen are outstanding.

Cut and Paste isn’t about defining collage but celebrating that there are many more ways to see, revealed primarily in the work of lesser known artists who are among the highlights of the show. These previously neglected works demand greater visibility and more research. The language of ‘revolutionary cubist masterpieces’ by male artists like Picasso persists, yet in the wider context of the show, they become relative to other equally revolutionary masterworks by artists yet to enter public consciousness. Although the exhibition’s chronological layout would have been better served by collage -like juxtaposition of art from different periods confronting each other, there are so many vital examples of this art form speaking resoundingly for themselves that they cannot be ignored. It’s incredibly gratifying and hopeful to connect with pioneering works by women and other marginalised artists, doubly so in what feels like an increasingly fragmented world circa 2019. Part of what collage does incredibly well, often in testing times, is provide an unbridled form of expression and much needed protest.

Raoul HAUSMANN (b.1886) The Art Critic, 1919-20 Lithograph and printed paper on paper Collection: Tate © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018

Admittedly collage is an artform close to my heart in history and practice. The process itself is liberating in its free association, formed from materials immediately to hand and permitting everything in a spirit of playfulness and experimentation. That impetus tests what could be- creatively and culturally. At its best, it’s an art of ‘disruption’ and active dissent that reminds us of how essential art is in everyday life. The grotesque central figure in Raoul Hausmann’s The Art Critic (1919-20, lithograph and printed paper collage on paper) depicts an entire society whose opinions can be bought. The artist cuts straight to the heart of an increasingly absurd displacement of power during the Weimar period, a time not unlike our own in the corruption of ‘post-truth’ politics and ‘fake news’ rhetoric. Seeing John Heartfield’s response to the rise of Nazism in 1930’s Germany affirms the power of collage as vital satire and political resistance. Equally the work of Hannah Höch, presents the viewer with counteraction to gender stereotypes. In Astronomie (1922, Collage, gouache and ink on paper, The Mayor Gallery, London) Höch uses grid elements from crochet, knitting and embroidery design as the basis for a more expanded vision of the feminine- as human and therefore equal. In Höch’s work, ideas of design, domestic and cosmic intertwine. Craft and fine art practice become inseparable in a union of ideas and technique.

Hannah Höch Astronomie (1922, Collage, gouache and ink on paper) The Mayor Gallery, London.
Hannah Höch From the Collection: From an Ethnographic Museum (1929, Collage and gouache on paper) National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh

From the Collection: From an Ethnographic Museum (1929, Collage and gouache on paper, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh) is a very sophisticated example of how much simple ‘cut and paste’ can reveal and how it can be used to collectively question the status quo. The ‘other’ in this work is cultural and feminine. The head of a Nigerian Benin sculpture is radically turned, fused with the eye of a woman from a fashion magazine and a child’s body, resting on a lion’s foot of power and a contradictory stump of domestic furniture. Framed in a starkly modern, geometric space, the human form doesn’t feel accidental or randomly placed, but designed as a question mark on multiple levels. The expression of this figure, like a mythic Susannah confronting the invasive, violating gaze of the elders, challenges generations of Western Art making. This confrontation with ‘masters’ expands to hierarchies of power in relation to gender, race, cultural identity and social engineering. I’ve always thought of this small, radical figure as a powerful feminist totem of resistance.  Höch’s critical eye is sharp as a scalpel and expansively aware, beyond the individual maker.

The attitude of collage is pivotal in that respect, ripping, tearing or cutting to heighten awareness of reality, or point to an alternative reality. Like Carlo Carra’s Atmospheric Swirls- A Bursting Shell (1914, ink and collage on paper), created in response to the first Balkan War 1912-13, the best examples of this artform are those that explode preconceptions, creating a perceptive shift of some kind. When Carolee Schneemann created Body Collage (1967, 16mm film transferred to digital format 3:30 mins) her ‘intention was not to simply collage [her] body (as an object) but to enact movement so that the collage image would be active found, not predetermined or posed.’ This is a statement against the passivity of looking (or being cast as the passive object), initiating change. As Penny Slinger (b 1947) states very eloquently, ‘collage is not just a technique; it represents an approach to reality.’

Penny Slinger I Hear What You Say (1973, Photomontage ) Penrose Collection, Sussex

Slinger’s photomontage sequence I Hear What You Say | I See What You Mean | Read My Lips (1973) interrogates our approach as viewers/ consumers by collaging parts of the body, creating contradictory frames within frames of internal reference. Initially this fleshy exposure seems to mirror the crudeness of advertising. However, these collaged elements are positioned to play with the idea of being able to read, hear, see and interpret the feminine. The ambiguity of desire and control is juxtaposed with direct means of communication. Using increasingly sexualised visual language to reclaim meaning is a tactic employed by many contemporary artists, often with momentary effect. Here the question is more subliminal, encircling the viewer in their own truth of body and mind, the possibility or impossibility of being seen, heard or understood inside the dominant culture. Linder’s Pretty Girl (1977, magazine and collage) juxtaposes images of soft-core pornography and household appliances, bringing them equally into the foreground as ‘objects of desire.’ Linder’s collage instantly makes its point, infiltrating and subverting the language of mass media consumption. This is art with something to say, above and beyond artistic persona, celebrity or brand.

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) articulated how the practice of collage redefines the artist;  ‘The medium is as unimportant as myself. Essential is the forming. Because the medium is unimportant, I take any material whatsoever if the picture demands it. When I adjust materials of different kinds to one another, I have taken a step in advance of mere oil painting, for in addition to playing off colour against line, form against form etc. I play material against material.’

That material can also be material reality. This provocation of possibility is what excites me most about this artform, from the fantastical collage novels of Max Ernst to the stitch form self-portraiture of Annegret Soltau.

Annegret SOLTAU (b.1946) GRIMA – Selbst mit Katze (der Schrei) / GRIMA – Self with cat (the scream), 1986 C-print © DACS 2018. Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery

It’s interesting to see the pre- modern history of collage (1550-1900) including silhouette portraiture, scrapbooks, early photomontage, botanical clippings, flapbooks, boxed/ dressed engravings and tinsel prints presented in the show. The presence of these works, combining craft practices with expanding knowledge and advancing technology, inform perception of later works. This is particularly true when the idea of traditional ‘female accomplishments’ is ripped apart and reconfigured, as in Annegret Soltau’s GRIMA- Selbst mit Katze (der Schrei) /GRIMA-Self with Cat (The Scream) (1986 C-print). Pauline Boty’s Untitled (c1964, Collage, gouache on paper) is a great metaphor for this type of agency, emergent in the work of unsung female artists throughout the exhibition. In Boty’s Untitled collage, use of Victorian engravings recalls the work of Max Ernst, divided and conquered by vivid blue gouache and a female hand, sharpened by red nail polish and poised to sever the head of a female child in period dress with a pair of scissors. In the foreground a promenade of exotically lush vegetation leads the eye to a vanishing point beneath a god-like hand of action. As Boty suggests in Ken Russell’s 1962 44 min film Pop Goes the Easel, her collages often capture a moment before something is about to happen, which may be humorous or tragic. Pop Art is often packaged in the gift shop as bright and shiny, succumbing to the very forces it seeks to expose, however Boty’s work presents a different slant on a movement which she helped found in Britain. The hand shown in this small collage amplifies the authenticity of her voice, asserts the role of the artist/ activist and subverts the traditional, belittling relationship between Craft and Fine Art, female artists and male ‘masters.’

Valentine Penrose La Strategie Militaire /Military Strategy (c1934, collage on paper) Penrose Collection, Sussex

The subversive nature of collage also leaps from the open page of Surrealist Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s Aveux non avenus- Disavowals (1930). It’s a text that reimagines the autobiography / artist memoir in a non- linear way, fluidly testing ideas of gender and identity. Valentine Penrose’s collage book Dous des Feminines / Gifts of the Feminines (1951) is displayed in the same section, a deliberate counterfoil to Max Ernst’s collage novels on the part of the artist, centring on female relationships, sexuality and experience. Her nearby collage, La Stratégie Militaire / Military Strategy (c1934, collage on paper) sees the head and torso of a classical marble statue positioned inside a piece of ridiculously Baroque furniture, as if sitting in a bath. Hovering askew over a mountainous chasm, with the fragment of a map dangling from one finger, the traditional embodiment of power is rendered precarious, attended by a blank faced figure in robes gazing upwards towards authority. The composition lampoons its subject, but it is also a very knowing refraction of absurd inequality in the real world. Here, Surrealism isn’t escapist male fantasy, but heightened reality, exposing truth.

Edith Rimmington The Family Tree (1938, Photomontage with gouache) The Murray Family Collection, UK and USA

The Family Tree(1938) by British artist, poet and photographer Edith Rimmington (1902-1986) is another illuminating dreamscape in that respect. The use of photomontage and painting is seamless, delivering a powerful perspective on generations, extending to infinity on a jetty over dark, primordial waters. A snake is entwined around the left-hand line of a double link metal chain, not so much bound together as lain side by side. The presence of the serpent feels like an ironic reference to Eden’s mythic fall, male and female bound together in ‘the’ singular family tree of humanity. The eclipse which lights our way could be sun, moon or a pinhole camera, in a timeless progression of darkness and light. It’s an incredibly strong, mysterious composition that ignites the imagination and provokes curiosity about Rimmington’s oeuvre.  Given the year it was created, and the spirit of unrest prevalent in the whole image, this iron chain feels prophetically encoded. Disarming beauty and essential protest permeate this show and it’s an absolute pleasure to see so many works by relatively unknown artists announce themselves. Rimmington subverts expectations of the title/ subject to a remarkable degree, with an enviable command of the artform. Any backward notion of feminine accomplishment is eclipsed entirely by this work. The artist’s sense of agency, intuition and determination is palpable. That’s the joy of this show- reconnection with art empowered, in spite of the spin that surrounds us.

Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage Exhibition Catalogue. National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh 2019. Front cover Max Bucaille (1906-1996) Alice au pays de poissns et des marguerites, 1947. The Murray Family Collection UK and USA.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/cut-and-paste-400-years-collage

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