John Mulloy worked for many years as a community artist. Increasing discomfort with the negative impact of state policy on marginalised groups led him to research a 2006 PhD at the the NCAD (Dublin) on community arts. He teaches History of Art, Critical Theory and Rural Art in Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.
Drawing off the reserve
By John Mulloy
When I first saw Robin Jones’ show, ‘I am shapeful and gracely, a creature of the air I’d say’, my heart sank. How was I going to begin to find a way in to this crowded space, full of flimsy and ephemeral objects? Ok, there was obviously a DIY kind of aesthetic going on, but how could you relate this homemade awkwardness to the ‘shapeful and gracely’ things in front of me? The space seemed to resist looking, and instead gently insisted on my being there, physically negotiating the narrow spaces between teetering forms. I gradually realised that I was actually in a drawing, shaping it as I moved around the space.
The gallery at 126 is a relatively small space, and Jones works with a wide variety of materials to create both three-dimensional drawings and wall-based things, all of which were displayed in such a way as to create interconnecting lines and curves within the space.As Jones himself says, ‘The objects have a certain fragile quality – they seem close to collapse, remaining upright through internal tension, but sometimes overbalancing in slapstick fashion.’This provisional quality is extended to the materials, which include Velcro, flimsy bits of paper, cloth, plywood and dowels simply bolted, taped, screwed and glued together in a seemingly random fashion. There is relatively little colour, with the dominant impression of most pieces having a bit of black paint slapped on. Some pieces bear fragments of writing, with the words all relating to the body or bodily actions such as to ‘suck’ or ‘pout’. There are references to graffiti and rubbish, and some pieces are grouped together in drawing display frames, which are objects in their own right – one of which is placed in the window in such a way as not to be fully visible from inside the gallery or outside.
The idea of drawing is central here, as the work is focused on the relationships between concepts such as the complete and the incomplete, the process and the product, figure and ground, time and space, being and becoming. Many of these ideas have been widely theorised in relation to drawing, but in conversation with Jones, he suggested that his starting point is the approach to drawing described by Kimon Nicolaïdes (1891-1938) in The Natural Way to Draw (1941). Nicolaïdes insisted on the role of touch in drawing, the idea of the artist imagining that they are touching the world and participating in what the model is doing, undermining the possessive dominance associated with the sense of sight – the artist as ‘master of all he surveys’. Discussing Walter Benjamin’s 1917 essay, ‘On Paintings, Signs and Marks’, Andrew Benjamin suggests that a distinction can be made between the Kantian idea of ‘natural experience’ and experience that is linked to knowledge. This latter kind of experience, he suggests, leads to ‘form as a process of forming rather than an already established and determinant end result.’
The constructivist tradition focused on qualities such as precision, impersonality, clear formal order, simplicity and economy of organisation. Jones subverts this through precariousness and imprecision, personalising through little drawings, and a cluttered approach. This reflects the possibility of getting people to look at art for more than 15 seconds, through pressing on our haptic knowledge, making us move through the space, bend and touch things, remembering what Velcro does, rather than simply looking. This turns the whole show into a single drawing, and we have entered the picture plane. Rupturing the distinction between the inside and the outside in this way, Jones creates a tension between the ontology of the art object‘and its becoming an object of experience.’Thus we arrive at the experience of the work through our existing body of haptic knowledge. While this approach is reminiscent of the ‘last of the avant-garde’ movements, the Supports/Surfaces group in France, working from 1966 to the mid-70s, and the pioneering ideas of Blinky Palermo (1943-1977), as well as the playfulness in expanding and exploding boundaries adopted by Eva Hesse, it also resonates with the work of many contemporary artists. For example, many of Monika Grzymalka’s ‘spatial drawings’ incorporate the idea that the actions of the audience affect the work, while other points of reference include the sparse gesturing and informal deliberations of Raoul de Keyser, or the creation of ensembles and ‘pictorial concentrates in a spatial context’ of Silvia Bächli, and the strategies of display used by Roni Horn in presenting her cut-up and torn drawings.
Jones suggests that he is trying to explore the point before a drawing becomes an art object, an idea that relates to Walter Benjamin’s idea that the mark emerges while the sign is printed. He focused on the graphic line, and its ability to confer its identity on the background. The area between the lines thus becomes what Brian Fay has called an ‘ignited space’. In contrast to this, Norman Bryson has described drawing as emerging from the conceptually absent ‘reserve’ – the surface on which the line is created. The reserve keeps at bay the desire for structure and completion, leading to what Bryson characterises as the constant present of drawing versus the closed presence of painting. For Roland Barthes, drawing is a kind of writing, made of scraps, traces of action and vagueness, and it is the gaucheness of the work that liberates it from the reign of seeing, as it retains the gesture not the product. Thus, CyTwombly’s work on paper ‘does not want to take anything; it hangs together, it floats, it drifts between desire, which subtly animates the hand, and politeness, which dismisses it.’
The most obvious feature of Jones’ drawing is that it happens in space, encouraging us to engage with it in real time. Lessing’s classical argument that ‘signs existing in space can express only objects whose whole or parts coexist in space, while signs that follow one another can express only objects whose whole or parts are consecutive’ became the key distinction between visual art and literature.This suggested the idea of the artwork’s stability in space and time – as our eyes scan an image we can do this in any order we like, and take as long as we like. The traditional notion of art as visualmay however be undermined by form: ‘The concept of form suggests that two requirements must be fulfilled and inscribed into perception: the form must have a boundary, and there must be an “unmarked space” excluded by this boundary.’Jones has subverted the traditional inside/outside boundaries of drawing by pushing into space, thus privileging form, and the haptic and the spatial over the visual. Indeed David Summers pushes this further, arguing that all ‘visual’ art is really spatial, whether it operates in real or virtual space. ‘In fact, space can only be represented visually as virtual, but at the same time we always encounter a virtual space in a real space […] The same conditions under which virtual spaces cannot fully represent what they show mean that there may be specifically bounded and qualified apparent regions of space and time for an observer, within which things seem to exist in certain ways.
One thing I began to think about was Walter Benjamin’s idea of ‘nameability’ as being a quality of a ‘picture’ in the same way as ‘translatability’ is a quality of language. The artwork as a generator of prose leads to a disjunction, created by the distinction between potentiality and its finitude which allows the work its afterlife.As Wittgenstein pointed out, ‘A proposition is a picture of reality’ and such pictures contain ‘the possibility of the situation’ that they represent. Perhaps Jones in his ‘picture’ is hinting at a world that is more Beckettian than Utopian, one where ‘All is … all is … all is what?’