Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Research Point: Detailed Drawing : Contemporary Artist

Find out about two artists who exemplify mastery of detailed drawing and make notes about their work. Choose a modern artist and one working in the nineteenth century or earlier.

Modern Artist: David Musgrave

N.B. Click on text in grey to link to images

I first encountered the work of David Musgrave "Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing" Dexter, E (2010), Phaidon Press. 

The first image I looked at was Dirty Leaf (2004) Graphite on Paper. This on the face of it appears to be a straightforward, painstakingly detailed representational image of a leaf. However, the stem is in the form of a cross which creates ambiguity and causes the viewer to question the artist's intention. I will return to this image later.
In Transparent Head (2003) Graphite on Paper, out of the very detailed representation of a scrunched up plastic bag emerges in the viewer's imagination a human face. Brian Sholis (1)  writes. ' Musgrave frequently toes the line between abstraction and representation, playing on the human tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects and forms.' 

Anthropomorphism is a term with which I am very familiar in my work as a veterinary surgeon - that is the tendency to see human characteristics in things other than people. In my line of work I encounter the tendency for people to interpret animal behaviour in terms of human emotions. However it is interesting how far this potentially extends. Very rudimentary shapes in abstracted works of art can be 'read' as human. For example in Plane with Paper Threads (2006) Graphite on Paper the drawing of threads of paper apparently randomly stuck to a surface with masking tape making loops in places can be interpreted at reclining or upright stick figures with the loops representing their heads. 

Martin Herbert, however disagrees with this assessment of Musgrave's work. He writes, ' his work is not, as some have suggested predominantly an enquiry into anthropomorphism except insofar as it spotlights a tendency to grasp at anthropocentric lifeboats while negotiating the rushing stream of abstraction.' (2)

Going back to 'Dirty Leaf' Having looked at some more work by the artist including work from his most recent exhibitions such as Red Plane (2011) Coloured Pencil and Plane Embossed with Figure (2008) Graphite on Paper, I am tempted to note the similarity between the shape of the leaf with its crossed stem and the stick figures in his other work. Maybe I too am clutching at an anthropocentric lifeboat because I don't understand the significance of the cross.....

Notwithstanding the fact that the motifs in Musgrave's work are often simple stick figures, his work is painstaking and labour intensive. He constructs originals in the studio and then renders them in an almost photo-realistic way onto the paper. His handling of the materials is  very impressive. I am particularly impressed by the coloured pencil work on 'Red plane' as I find this a very difficult medium to handle. He also seems to use deception much like a 'trompe l'oeil' effect especially with his sculptures. He makes many versions of  his 'Golems' some of which are constructed from fine aluminium painted white so that they look like pieces of paper which could be easily blown away. He has also created a 'Golem' which looks like a stick figure created from bits of masking tape tacked to a wall. However, it is not as it first appears. There are no strips of masking tape - they are carefully constructed in  paint on the wall with variations in shade where they seem to overlap. His work could, therefore be said to be deceptive but Musgrave has said 'I’d prefer the work to be seen to be about fiction rather than illusion, because I’m not trying to fool anybody. You can see how it’s done – if the fact that something isn’t what it appears to be doesn’t become part of the experience, then the work has failed.’(3)

Further Reading: Selected Writing and Texts

Musgrave's writing in the catalogue for an exhibition which he curated called 'Living Dust' is included in the above link. I found this quite interesting to read. He shows a preoccupation with the "necessary void" that falls between the artist's perception, translation into drawing and the viewer's perception and says that 'any identification with the experience of the maker is fiction'. When we are encouraged to look for the artist's intention or to 'decode' a drawing what the viewer perceives is not what the artist did when creating the drawing. What the viewer experiences may be very close to the experience of the artist or it may be very far away.( In a way all images are faulty images)  "Drawing produces its own fossil. The life of the maker might leave fine tracks of intention and revision, invention and transcription but that life is also manifestly absent'.

He also talks about the link between drawing and language and the relationship between codification in drawing and the matter or material aspect of graphite on paper. He talks about how it is much easier to explain the codification in the images - to elaborate what the drawing describes or the idea it conveys rather than to talk about the material of the drawing. - describing a drawing in terms of a list of tonal variations or marks reduces it to 'dust on paper' which is not enough. This ties in with his quote in "faulty images" by Kate MacFarlane: 

'It’s the representation in its material aspect that I want to bring out, but not at the expense of a represented, re-imagined world, because there’s no ultimate fact involved (it never becomes ‘just’ graphite on paper, which is another sort of fantasy). I don’t think there’s an alternative to essentially faulty images – they’re how we build the world we inhabit. What I do is a way to try to live critically with that, but also find pleasure in it.'

(1) Sholis, B in Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing (2010) Phaidon Press
(2) Herbert, M , Transformer in Frieze No 77, London, Sept 2003

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