Published  14/10/2002
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Antony Gormley Drawing – book review

Antony Gormley Drawing

The new publication, Antony Gormley Drawing, reveals the working processes behind the sculptures of one of Britain's most significant artists

Anna Moszynska. London: The British Museum Press, 2002.
Antony Gormley Drawing, British Museum, London (Prints and Drawings Gallery), 24 October 2002–21 April 2003.

reviewed by Dr JANET McKENZIE

The book has been published to accompany the present exhibition at the British Museum. Gormley (b.1950) completed a Cambridge degree in archaeology, anthropology and the history of art before travelling to India. He returned three years later to study at the Central School of Art, Goldsmith's College and the Slade School of Art. Drawing is a central part of Gormley's art practice. In the Foreword to the book he reflects that, 'A day passed without drawing is a day lost'.

Using the human figure as the central form in his work, it has been necessary for his work to have a firm grounding in the drawn image. Drawing, for Gormley is, in fact, a form of thinking. He also has a strong dialogue with his chosen media which include strange and unorthodox materials, 'Using the intrinsic qualities of substances and liquids: a kind of oracular process that requires tuning in to the behaviour of substances as much as to the behaviour of the unconscious, like reading tea-leaves, trying to make a map of a path of feeling, a trajectory of thought'.1

If the most basic definition of drawing is "the record of a tool moving across a surface" (John Elderfield, The Modern Drawing),2 then perhaps the most interesting thing about drawing - as distinct from other forms in the plastic arts - is the very directness of the transmission, be it impulse, feeling, perception or concept. Drawing reveals the subtlest movement, the most clinical analysis, the most precise drama. Modern drawing gives room for alternative reactions - functions assumed by different signs are at once explicit and suggestive. In this sense drawing is as much a record of the subtler elements of our culture as any written or verbal record.3

Antony Gormley is an artist who is as articulate with words as he is with a wide range of drawn images. In 1979, while travelling in Italy he wrote that drawing was for him, 'A kind of magic, a kind of necessity'. Drawing for him is a way of fixing his inner reality. Through it he can form a mental diagram, 'Drawing is not so much a mirror, or a window, as a lens which can be looked at in either direction, either back towards the retina of the mind, or forward towards space'.4

Gormley's drawing is a parallel activity to sculpture. When he is working on his sculptures, he uses numerous small-scale sketchbooks, in which he makes diaristic jottings, mostly in pencil. The drawings in this new publication, on the other hand, are completed works in their own right. They are executed on separate sheets of paper in a variety of media. They have an autonomy, as opposed to being studies or cartoons for a more important work. Gormley states that, 'Drawing is a half-way house between the materiality of sculpture and the mentality of imagination'.5 In her text, Anna Moszynska observes the distinction between Gormley's sculptural process and that of his drawing.

In contrast to the slow unfolding of the sculptural process, drawing offers a direct method of trawling the imagination, of unlocking the collective and personal unconscious, and unravelling experiences that are deeply and intuitively felt. It allows the hand to give free expression to that which is buried in the recesses of the mind. In this respect, Gormley's drawings are not didactic, illustrative or symbolic. They are highly personal, poetic, meditative responses which bear witness to the experience of a single existence in

The range of drawings in this splendid new book is visually and conceptually exciting. The drawings illustrated here all date from the early 1980s. Prior to that, when he travelled in India in the 1970s, he made thousands of drawings as a diaristic record of his journey. When in 1974, he applied for a place at the Central School of Art, Cecil Collins who interviewed him asked whether anything in his portfolio actually displayed his creativity. Gormley was prompted by this question to explore with drawing, rather than simply record. Paul Klee's writings enabled him to see in drawing not just a reproduction of the external world, but the chance to reveal an inner reality. Klee's theories connected with Gormley's practice of Vipassana meditation, where the body is seen as the channel for awareness.7 Underlying Gormley's ability to make the complex theories of Klee relevant to his own experience, was his intelligence and his knowledge of culture and the manifestation of human experience learnt during his study of anthropology at Cambridge.

Gormley's work has an affinity with the work of artists who are not themselves closely related, including Samuel Palmer and Joseph Beuys (though drawing was important for both these artists). This is seen in highly charged moods, enigmatic images, deep blacks, references to dreams, and to the cosmos.

Sometimes black can just mean darkness, night sky, dark ocean. It is about trying to materialise the immaterial and so I try to make substantial the idea of an absence, a void, and I guess the constant thing that I am playing with is this: the darkness inside the body and the darkness in deep space can be evoked and linked through this substance.8

Gormley shares Joseph Beuys's (1921-86) fascination for materials and for their pre-existing associations with the world. 'Each material has the potency to provoke thought on the nature of matter itself, whether animal, vegetable, mineral, or chemical in origin'.9 Gormley uses a wide range of materials: linseed oil, blood, semen, earth, rabbit skin, glue, burnt chicory, varnish, shellac, foodstuffs. Black pigment is the most favoured substance. Pigment is viewed by the artist, not just as colour, but as a carrier of memory - it alludes to its previous identity and history. The artist's own description of his process resonates with the process of alchemy (also shared with Beuys), 'For nigredo is considered part of the prima materia and constitutes the first part of the alchemical process'. For Gormley, the paper on which the image is made often comes to signify skin, the embodiment of humanity, 'The container for the biological processes that make us function'. Moszynska describes the process:

Made of interlaced fibres of rags, wood, straw, and similar matter, paper plays the role of the natural seedbed or geological substratum for the image to occupy. Throughout Gormley's drawings, paper acts as a hardy receptacle for receiving the potent admixtures and tinctures (chemical, mineral or purely natural) that are gathered and blended on top or even, as when the staining occurs, within the porous membrane of the material.10

Skin refers to what lies within, namely, darkness. It refers to the darkness within the body and the darkness without, exploring the vast cosmos that surrounds the individual; inner reality versus the vast outer world. Skin has tactile properties; it alludes to touch, to closeness. Existential separateness and sexual unity (both poignant observations of the human condition) are alluded to in Gormley's drawings and are central to his imagery. Foetal images imply new life as well as gestation of thought and imagination, vital in the creative process of the artist. Moszynska states:

In many of Gormley's drawings, the focus is on creation, life, fertilisation and growth. While the paper itself may act as an alchemical retort for the combinations of materials, it is through the drawing process itself that ideas germinate, are given birth to 'become', clothed in the materiality of the chosen medium.11

Sexual images are given further meaning by the use of blood and semen - poignantly created at the time of the birth of the artist's third child, Paloma. Later, sculptures of Paloma as a baby were created. New life, new forms in art, the process itself; all exemplify the artist's creative impetus. The cycle is completed with images of mother and child, which recall the large-breasted earth goddess of Palaeolithic art. The ephemeral nature of human life is captured by Gormley's fluid images, bound as they are to the earth, the body and the cosmos.

Water, another prima materia used as an expressive tool, is employed extensively by Gormley. The darkness of deep water, especially when one dives into it, becomes a metaphor for containment. In his 'Body and Light', drawings of the 1990s, black pigment and casein are dispersed in water, rather than in pigment and oil and thus become more fluid. Figures diving, figures immersed in deep, dark water reach for light. In Jungian terms water symbolised 'The living power of the psyche, a diving figure, crashing into the depths of the sea, represented a reaching into the subconscious'.

As a child Gormley spent significant time by the sea. There is an impulse in the exploratory nature of his oeuvre that signifies a freedom from an adult world of absolute answers and regulations. Gormley's drawings are, in his own words, 'a journey into the unnamed parts of our internal landscape, or out into the unknown. [They] have immediacy. In a good session, drawing can be like going for a rugged, physical adventure on a blustery day with changing conditions of light and rain'.12 This is an intelligent and inspiring book, which reveals the processes behind the work of a brilliant and relevant artist.

References

1. Antony Gormley, "Foreword", Antony Gormley Drawing, The British Museum Press, London, 2002.
2. John Elderfield, The Modern Drawing: 100 Works on Paper from the Museum of Modern Art, Thames and Hudson, London, 1983, p.20.
3. Janet McKenzie, "Introduction", Drawing in Australia, Contemporary Images and Ideas, MacMillan Australia, Melbourne, 1986, xi-xii.
4. Gormley, quoted by Anna Moszynska, op.cit., p.5.
5. Ibid, p.5.
6. Ibid, p.5.
7. Ibid, p.6.
8. Gormley, p.7.
9. Moszynska, ibid, p.7.
10. Ibid, p.8.
11. Ibid, pp.11-12.
12. Gormley, Foreword, ibid.

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