Covid has been great for drawing

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

Drawing Biennial 2021

Drawing Room, until 5 July

Amid the greatly exaggerated reports of the death of painting issued and reissued over the course of the past century, nobody thought to check on the health of drawing, perhaps because what artists did in the privacy of their own studios was considered to be no one else’s business.

Drawing wasn’t a saleable commodity. Yes, Hockney’s portrait drawings attracted admiration, but most artists kept their scribbles to themselves. Then about 20 years ago, just after Saatchi’s 1997 Sensation exhibition seemed to have consigned all traditional art forms to the bin of history, it was noticed that drawing was alive and, if not kicking, showing unmistakable signs of continued health.

It may have been a reaction to Sensation — been there, done that, got the YBA T-shirt — but around the Millennium the world woke up to drawing. The Guild of St George founded by Ruskin launched a national Campaign for Drawing; the Cheltenham Open Drawing Exhibition was promoted to the Jerwood (now the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize); Prince Charles opened the Prince’s, now the Royal Drawing School; the Discerning Eye launched a Drawing Bursary; and the Drawing Room held its first Drawing Biennial. A generation after the closure of art school life rooms was blamed for taking drawing off life support, it was back on its feet.

How’s the patient progressing? The Drawing Room’s tenth Biennial is a chance to find out. A record number of international artists, known and emerging, have donated a total of 300 A4 drawings to this year’s edition, to be auctioned online in support of the Drawing Room’s move next year from the Elephant & Castle to permanent premises in Bermondsey. (Bids start at £300 and bidding closes on 5 July.)

While coronavirus has put other arts in a chokehold, it has been a shot in the arm for drawing. Confined to quarters with exhibitions deferred or cancelled, artists have been left to their own devices: pencils, pens, biros, brushes, felt-tips, scissors and paste, spray-guns and, in reassuringly few cases, graphics tablets.

Having to rely on support bubbles for models has not been great for drawing from life — Barbara Walker’s intimate close-up of her 11-year old granddaughter is the only portrait — but for drawing from imagination lockdown has been just what the doctor ordered. From Richard Grayson’s ‘Weird Shit in Nature’, with its two starry eyeballs and pink rabbit coalescing into a face above a twilight landscape, to Minoru Nomata’s ‘Re-Visions’, with its huge tower half-clad in collapsed scaffolding like an abandoned Babel, this year’s biennial is full of fantasy.

From the observational point of view, being stuck at home has prompted some artists to look around them with new eyes: it inspired Kathy Prendergast’s hyper-sensitive drawing of a houseplant she has ‘lived with for many years, but never really looked at’. Other artists — mostly the better-known ones — clung rather timidly to their brand identities. Michael Craig-Martin applied his tired old retro-pop treatment to a digital drawing of some vegetables that look past their sell-by — no lead in his pencil — and Bob and Roberta Smith produced more posters with sanctimonious slogans. ‘ART TEACHERS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS WORKERS.’ Really?

As a general criticism, there’s too much text. Left on their tods, artists may well have needed someone to talk to but too many drawings rely on words — captions, slogans, speech bubbles — for effect. Some made me smile, like the motivational messages pinned up behind the exercising straw man in Steven Allan’s ‘Last Night a Treadmill Saved My Life’ or the deadpan checklist scribbled under the prostrate nude in Penny Goring’s ‘No Thanks’: ‘Sex — no thanks; death — no thanks; money — I need it; power — you have it’. But wit is most succinctly expressed in the drawing itself, as in Conrad Atkinson’s pair of ‘Shopping Trolleys’ for Emily Brontë and Sylvia Plath, one loaded with butterflies, birds and dried leaves, the other with blackened weeds and a baleful cat.

Evidence of the figurative art revival is here in spades. Abstract drawings by Alison Wilding, Mona Hatoum and Cornelia Parker dot the walls, but figuration rules. For my personal taste there isn’t enough deranged expressionism, though Vanessa Baird lets it all hang out in her two disaster drawings, ‘I have lost my keys and my mobile is dead’ and ‘The day the ceiling fell down’.

What this past year has gifted artists, apart from privacy, is time. Kate Atkin has invested it in a pristine pencil drawing of a solitary tree in Berners Street, Fiona Long in a nature study of ‘Shaggy Ink Caps’ using ink-cap ink (made lightfast by boiling or urine, she doesn’t say which). Raqib Shaw’s exquisite self-portrait in a garden is a modern Indian miniature with added Jack Russell.

My favourite drawing? Clare Smith’s ‘Red Tree’. It has no message that could be put into words; she has simply let the image bloom on the paper.

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