Taking a line for a walk is a virtual exhibition of eleven artists chosen to illustrate an imaginary journey of a line followed in and out of the gallery space. Works are selected for their use of quotidian sources, mixing of media and difficulty of categorization. Greenbergian puritanical canvasses covered with purile abject cartoons, drawings placed on linen which originate not from a sturdy sketchbook but from the shimmering impalpability of a computer screen. Pages of a book that come off its binding and are caught on a gallery wall. The latter being polluted by graffiti and littered with discarded quotidian materials transmutated into poetically beautiful pieces. Acrylic painting which disguises itself as a three dimensional structure. Writing and calligraphy which become tangible sculptures of animalesque character. A line whose boundaries are defined by opposite ends of its drawn spectrum: the doodle and the digit.

Works are selected also for the slowing down of their creative process. ‘In our culture there is an emphasis on speed and immediate gratification. Art making contains within it the passing of time. Making and looking at art is often a slow process’1 Works are made with much more ‘hard labour’2, to use a definition coined by Paul Hedge, of the Hales Gallery. It could be suggested that the outcome of a reaction against the yBa’s slickness of approach would obviously be one of art of a much smaller scale, more domestic, more subdued, more handmade but nevertheless more powerful. ‘The 80’s characteristic of pomposity, grand scale, high finish and detachment have given way to very different values. The new art is more modest, hand-made and personal’3, Michael Craig-Martin noted in 1994.

Diana Cooper’s Dispenser (above left) is a perfect example of the transformation of this line. A three dimensional drawing of a fantastical dispenser, a line which jumps out of the bidimensionality of the paper to become a pipe cleaner, a piece of plastic, folded cardboard. A creation itself unsure of its own function, channelling and funnelling the dipersive electricity of our life and visualising them in little cotton balls of energy echeved out of see-through blue plastic tubes. A computer circuit which has short circuited by the over-load of data, unable to logically and mechanically process all the information imputted, it has gone haywire and decided to take a more human view of our hectic city life, more whimsical, witty and full of joi de vivre.

Absurdity and humour are also words which have been used to describe David Musgrave’s work4 (above centre). He shares, with Diana Cooper, a similar interest in the confounding of boundaries between seemingly dissonant languages. Overlapping Figures was one of the four pieces in his show at Greengrassi in 2001. Obviously a sculpture, of various corpses overlapping each other; however closer inspection reveals that it is a single drawing. The homunculus is composed by one single sheet of acrylic made by a jigsaw puzzle of carefully cut out shades of different colours placed next to each other. Throughout the exhibition this line plays a confounding game with the viewer: what seems to be masking tape left on the wall by a previous artist turns out to be a distorted painting of a stylised elongated figure in the style of Holbein skull. A bisection of a body turns out to be a relief of an anatomically impossible monster and a surgeon’s nightmare. A framed work on one of the gallery walls ends up breaking all conventions of reproduction having gone through many different processes: a three dimensional plasticine sculpture, a mechanically produced photocopy and finally a hand made biro drawing.

The freedom and fluidity of the drawn line is similarly exploited by Claude Heath, his piece Four Fold Drawing (above right), which was on show at Centre for Drawing, Wimbledon School of Art in 2001, delicately fluctuates between the two and the three dimensional. Similarly to Musgrave, the end product has gone through a series of laborious processes to reach its finished state. It begins with an object, a plant, which is then studied through the tactile sensations of the fingertips and reproduced on paper with various coloured pencils, mimicking, by the contorted interweaving of the lines, the same movement which occurs when the eye follows the chaotic contours of its leaves. However these drawings transformations are not finished yet, they are to become again an object. These images replace the original, as the sheets of paper are mounted onto a rigid support and shown on a glass table, the one, we would be led to believe, where the inspirational plant was placed upon at the start of the inquiry. The human eye, obsessionally and methodically scanning the plant’s axis has come closer to an explanation of the latter's structure and dna, showing its ‘money plant’ qualities more then the plant itself could have by its mere presence. The drawing has excerpted and distilled its ‘plantiness’, using the medium expressive freedom to augment its energy. The intricate doodling of the line is so vivid that, in a moment of distraction it could almost become alive and start growing.

The doodling line is also the main means of expression used by Mikey Cuddihy. A professional doodler, one may say, whose telephonic distractions end up covering whole rooms. In a paradoxical mutation a biro mark on an envelope becomes an installation, as the one Strange Territory at Unit 7 Gallery of 1997 (above left), where it covers all available surfaces, not only the walls and floor but also pipes and radiators. This line is made by a similarly shaped pigmented object and uses the same baroquely intricated curlyesque as Claude Heath’s and yet it so far from his analytical studying. It takes us in a world of absent minded daydreams and instantly recognisable compulsions. ‘By using doodles and a kind of automatism I’m trying to tap into a `free' self; I’m interested in an unselfconscious order. I need the freedom to question current orthodoxies: that decoration is weak, that lightness is synonymous with superficiality.’5 Certainly not superficial, as great courage and convictions are involved in scaling up an image that belongs to a very personal, small gestured world into something so monumentally public and under widespread scrutiny. Slightly irreverent but innocently so, the line, as a naughty child is unaware of the consequences, complexities and complications of its actions. A breaking of the gallery’s own taboos of pure spaces attacked by these playfully profane drawings.

David Shrigley (above centre) could be said to be an invader, a polluter of the clean ‘white cube’. The interference of ‘dirt’ is carried out by his drawings, made of very cutting, witty, abject lines. Cartoons which originally belong to the world of books, end up being exhibited in galleries. The viewer is confounded, confused and liberated by the vision of these drawings placed on the walls of a London’s west end exhibition space. The line has wandered out of something which might have belonged more naturally in a newsagent stand next to the adult comic Viz and has ended up at the Stephen Friedman Gallery. There is repulsion and attraction as we experience Shrigley's cathartic stream of subconscious thought. We are repulsed by the forbidden and politically uncorrect subject matter and attracted by the liberating freedom of seeing them in such pristine surroundings, which makes them in a paradoxical way publicly acceptable. We are allowed to laugh out loudly about the disturbingly sinister and macabre jokes. Laughter in the gallery’s sanctity; it is doubly disordered, by the presence of these drawings and by our reaction to them.

Kate Scrivener also uses artistic language which belong to the written world but her work is much more subtle in its approach and subverts our expectations of an art object in a gently anarchistic way. A Small Plot of Land (above right) is a painted bonsai tree on a plinth. On its leaves, with egg tempera over white paint, are applied minute, painstakingly executed letters. Words which recollect stories of fictional and real accounts of natural disasters. A delicate play between the veritable and the invented is created. The ‘figus’ is the same size as a book and as such we are invited to read it. However we are forbidden to touch its ‘pages’, as these are protectively encased under a Perspex box. This creates a tension between ourselves and the piece of work, a push and pull so distant from Shrigley’s but in a similar way, it makes us aware of our body, our reactions and our surroundings. The exhibition is taking place not in a commercial gallery but in a small museum, in between the gift shop presents and a modest collection of natural history artefacts. The slightly misplacing surroundings, the displacing of the plant, produce a line which plays a game of hide and seek between real antiques and the artworks, a game with the confused experiences of ‘reading’ a sculpture, a play with the visual and written language.

The line as drawing and as writing. Often uses the same tools, the pen or the brush, yet belongs to completely different idioms of communication. The oriental characters, in their pictogram form, are the ones which have more similarities with drawing itself. It is within the discourse of language replacing illustration and representation replacing phraseology that Xu Bing’s work is found. The installation The Living Word (above left), made for the Sackler Gallery in Washington in 2002, is a superb example of the successful marriage of these seemingly unreconcilable worlds of expression. The character ‘niao’ in chinese is the word for bird. Xu Bing takes us on a journey retracing the steps which brought the visual changes to the word, the closer we get to its origins the closer the calligraphy resembles a bird. The characters are made of three dimensional acrylic forms, and while the modern description of the meaning of the word is fixed on the floor, as is regresses to its ancient format it literally takes off and surrounds the viewer in a flight of birds. What is a more truthful, a contemporary dictionary definition ‘set in stone’ or the ancient pictogram which, by only representing the word as an icon, leaves the imagination free to imagine it? Xu Bing’s art ‘works a bit like a computer virus on people's brains. It creates breakdowns in people's normal thinking processes’6 Xu Bing ingeniously makes the viewer question the barriers between the visual and written language; with an elegant line playfully creates a discourse between the pictorial and the cerebral. A discourse which is usually only debated within the symbols of semiotics and not by the nuances of chinese pictogrammic characters.

Nicola De Maria (above centre) however, uses archetypal images and a language of symbols more readily understood by a western audience. Moons, stars, simple shapes, patches of colour form the core of his visual jargon. His concerns could be considered to be of less substance or importance then those of Xu Bing or other contemporary artists as his oeuvre is pertained within the parameters of art typical of the last century. This is a conscious decision, a knowledgeable choice. He states he would like to ‘turn all darkness of the world into a glazing of joy and hope…where the war between a few angels and a lot of demons is won by the angels’7 A defiant stance to be taken after the turn of a millennium riddled with cynicism. Discarded objects covered with intensely pigmented paint and collages find themselves inside the exhibition space. This is filled with childlike drawings, unselfconsciously executed words on the walls, surfaces covered in bright, blissfully resplendent colours. He shows the magical lyricism of this line in installations brimming with light and energy, dancing in an unabashed enjoyment of life. The painting cannot be contained within the boundaries of the traditional canvas and so it escapes, spills over, to form a world of pure unadulterated escapism.

The exhilarating freedom of applying childlike scribbles to an otherwise unspoilt territory, knowledging ignoring the boundaries set by society’s restrictions by the almost sacrilegious action of covering with painterly graffiti the white cubes walls, is also a strategy used by Federico Herrero. From a younger generation than Nicola De Maria, he strikes with a bolder mark. His work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2001 (above right) and proved to be freshly irreverent and colourfully anarchic change from the rest of the art which surrounded it. His interventions in the Arsenale created a sense of displacement and a need of reassessing convictions in what constitutes a work of art. It seemed as if the restorers of this new space had, by a lapse of attention, forgotten to renovate this room, leaving the bare walls covered with ruggedly shaped marks. Retracing the steps and looking for the tranquillising sign of a rectangular white label to show us the ‘truth’, one discovered that the pink rectangular entities were in fact the work of art. In the subtlest of ways these painted forms reminded us that this ever fascinatingly permutating line is to be searched for and found in our everyday life.

 

‘This work simply allows the viewer some room to meditate on our relation to the material world around us’8, a statement made regarding Ceal Floyer’s art. Her work subtly deciphers and describes quotidian experiences; in it the line becomes a whisper, almost lost within her linguistic minimality. A sketchbook image (in this case at the Lisson, the piece entitled Ongoing Projection, 2001, see above centre) is projected on an internal corner of two gallery walls, thus producing the impression of being folded at 90 degrees. This intangible object is made of pure light, its body dissolves in the ether as soon as we near to touch it. Magically, occasionally punctuating the passage of time, a flickering page turns. It is empty with no images on its superficies, relying on the viewer to fill it with his own conjectures. The book is left open allowing the line to flow onto the surface of the papers in the adjacent room where the whole of the ink contents of a single felt-tip are absorbed by each of the sheets of blotting paper. Capturing the entirety of what could have been drawn with the pen, the sum of all its expressive possibilities is in one loaded and intense rounded shape. The line reverts to the classical medium of paper and to the archetypal contour of the circle. Paradoxically this basic shape made of unassuming materials, contains within itself the totality of all.

It might be easier to finish the chase of this ever changing line with its placing on the most obvious of surfaces: the canvas. The king of Painting, the true ruler of the pigmented decisions made during the much debated art of 20th century; within its loaded historical discourse we find the works of Monique Prieto. She uses a language made up of coloured shapes, anthropomorphic and whimsical, made from acrylic and applied on a hard support of stretched linen which hang on a wall. An anomaly, using almost obsolete and antiquated techniques, for has it not been implied that this practice has now become defunct? However this line once again plays a game with our prejudices and expectations. These drawings are made with a computer program and share more affinities with the newest technology of programming than with classical painting.

Drawing will always be present in man’s expressive manifestations and will only withstand the passage of time by developing hand in hand with technology and progress. We have been taken for a walk into spaces where this line has completely engulfed, involved and evolved into something magical, lyrical, challenging, informative and often life changing. A certain theatricality is created which does but enhance the viewer's experience and showing the potential of this walking line to become, by freely using different media to suit different meanings and by escaping from the single sheet of paper onto the three dimensional, an all enbracing and all encompassing experience which may well bring back life to the much tired art world and will not be forgotten as a new –ism or at the next turn of the century.

Gaia Persico

 

1 Diana Cooper interviewed by Jean Crutchfield in December 2002
2 Hedge, Paul. ‘Hard Labour’. Art Review, vol.53, December 2001-January 2002, p.46
3 Chalesworth, JJ. ‘Manifacturers’. Art Monthly, July-August 1999, p.35
4 Gardiner, Andrew. ‘David Musgrave’. Untitled, Spring 1999, p.29
5 Mikey Cuddihy own statement from web site www.ftech.net/~amnesty/cuddihy.htm
6 Xu Bing Interview from web site http://virtualchina.org/archive/leisure/art/xubing.html
7 Cane, Andrea, ‘Testa di Pittore. Interview with Nicola De Maria’, Domus, n.669, February 1986, p63
8 Fortnum, Rebecca. ‘A Slight Intervention". Make, n. 83, March-May 1999, p.27