Recently I was looking at Renaissance drawings with a Chinese friend. The works we were looking at were vast and made with a complex mix of coloured media. She explained that it’s hard to describe drawings like this in Chinese because there is just one word for “drawing”, which simply suggests a flowing sketch. China’s art has always been based on this kind of free drawing, while European art has a long history of being tightly disciplined and studious.
Today, as this year’s Jerwood drawing prize shows, the west has caught up with China: this drawing is so open, free and unpredictable it can be almost anything – from the study of a work by Joseph Beuys (step forward student prizewinner Bryan Eccleshall) to a construction made of thread by Lois Langmead, who won the other of this year’s student prizes.
In fact, the overall winner’s work was inspired by the east. Tom Harrison was visiting a friend in Singapore when he made his sensitive sketch From Andrew’s Flat, Singapore. A high-rise perforated by balconies floats above what seems a landscape of lilies and umbrellas. It’s a moment of contemplation and subtle mystery – who lives in the high-rise? What is happening on the ground? This drawing is atmospheric and poetic, like a sketch on a Chinese scroll.
Not so long ago, drawing seemed to be a dying art in Britain. Its defenders worried that art schools just taught concept and cut out the craft. But the Royal Drawing School, where Harrison is about to start, is very popular with young artists – so it looks as if we have a resurgence on our hands. Leading artists including Tacita Dean, Tracey Emin and Richard Wright put drawing at the heart of their work; Charles Avery’s huge drawing project to create a fictional world is maturing into a masterpiece of our time; and art students, as this year’s Jerwood winners illustrate, are drawing like mad. Most of this drawing is as free and flowing as China likes it.
If I were judging, I would probably be more purist about what constitutes drawing. This year’s second prize went to a video by Elisa Alaluusua that “draws” the flight of a plane. That’s fine, but doesn’t video get plenty of space elsewhere? On the other hand, this is not the Turner and the cash awards are more like useful bursaries than career-making honours. The real fun is to see so many people busily drawing up and down the land, in so many media, with so many different approaches.
What Britain, China and for that matter the ice age have in common is that drawing – whether it’s done with a stick in the sand or a finger on a screen – is at the heart of all visual creativity. Long may this subtle art walk its unpredictable line.
by Jonathan Jones
Source: The Guardian