By Claire Zakiewicz
Main image: Assembly performing at ARTI5160, with Siw Laurent, Mariana Alvierez and Claire Zakiewicz, 2018, photo: Mark Edward Smith
On Salizzada Malipiero, along the street from my exhibition, Alma Zevi presents work by the British painter Frank Auerbach. He won the Golden Lion in 1986 when he represented Great Britain for the 42nd Venice Biennale and is named Britain’s greatest living painter by the gallery. I consider his work, practice, and presence here. What I can learn from the acclaimed greatest painter in Britain and in what ways are his paintings so great? With his expressive gestures and wild colour range, I make connections with my own works and also some of the other painters who have been selected in the main Biennale exhibition. The heavy, uneven, textural paint application, the messy gestures, the crooked forms, the unlikely pictorial resolution immediately draws me in. I imagine his lifestyle. Drawing and painting views from his studio, his neighbourhood and models seems to suit who he is, what interests and motivates him. He is as prolific and active as his physicality will allow as he approaches 90 years of age.
The exhibition is titled From Drawing to Painting and I go into the gallery with collector and curator Caroline Wiseman who tells me about Auerbach and his practice. The small works on paper almost look like abstract scribbles but actually depict the same city scene just outside his studio in central London last year in 2018. Repetition features heavily in his work. The artist, I am told, returns to the same locations day after day, year after year and has painted some of the same models on a weekly basis for over thirty years – on a constant quest, I hear, to find a resolution. This repetitive process results in Auerbach developing intense relationships with particular subjects – people as well as locations. His gesturally mark-making builds up in layers with a wild and, what seems to me, improvised colour palate, often repeating the same scene multiple times with a different set of colours, crayons, graphite, ink, and felt-tip pens. Very musical and improvisational, I think. Auerbach is an excellent scribbler.
The gesture is something I explore in my own work as it connects drawing, music, and dance. Gestures are forms of vitality – spontaneous, intuitive but also shaped by conceptual metaphors – which present a figurative comparison in which one idea is understood in terms of another. Action paintings of the Expressionists were described by art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952: “The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from value – political, aesthetic, moral”, and his essay was instrumental in helping audiences and collectors embrace this new process-led approach all those decades ago.
My own focus on the scribble also felt like a way to shake off what I had been taught about drawing – trying to be precise, beautiful, clever, refined, resolved, acceptable. I wanted to un-learn the movements connected to my own identity, my prescribed patterns – or to see whether that was possible. I wanted to reduce drawing, at least for a while, to a minimal practice, exploring modes of perception, aiming to be present, to find a timeless moment and to examine my intuition and instincts.
Gestures, of course, are not only shaped by conceptual metaphors. Gestural mark making can be improvised, performative and temporal, cohering out of the body, vitality, noise, and objects whose presence and significance extend across multiple modes of perception. Improvised gestural forms have a visible sense of spontaneity, balance, symmetry, and flow. They feel very different to self-conscious and perfected ones. The difference is difficult to describe but I think it is the same difference between a self-conscious actor compared with somebody acting with their attention outside of themselves. Drawn marks reveal a state of mind.
Auerbach throws 90% of his drawings away so the selection on display has been highly edited and curated. Ultimately the works function, for him, as studies for painting and give the viewer an insight into his process. There are many other contemporary artists, in the Arsenale and Central Pavilion of the Giardini, curated by Ralph Rugoff, whose works reflect an exploration of physical gesture, felt meaning, perception, and intuition – a painter that immediately springs to mind is Julie Mehretu. The difference is that her process reflects the use of digital technology alongside gestural hand-made methods. There are many other artists whose work highlights the extent to which technology has infiltrated our lives. I have to admit, I have stop-motion animations playing in my solo exhibition as well as the group exhibition Alive in the Universe, that were created with unhealthy hours in front of a computer screen day after day for many weeks but I got an injury, having been a very active ultra marathon runner, from actually sitting in front of a computer for so many hours and I believe it’s deeply unhealthy.
Now I keep my process away from excessive time in front of computer screens and in dialogue with my own body, connection, and collaboration with other human beings, in direct dialogue with them and the natural world. It seems like a luxury to be able to do this – I worry whether this will become the lifestyle only the mega-rich of the future will be able to afford.
My scribbles are usually a depiction of a musical piece (or noise) and the methods I use to create them include acting and dance techniques. There is a primal, universal and also introspective aspect to my method. When I feel that a drawing is resolved, it is sometimes comparable to the feeling of resolution in music after a period of tension, such as when a DJ finally drops the baseline the dancers have subconsciously been waiting for. However, unlike the experience of music, resolution in visual art is often less physical and more difficult to recognize. This is one of the reasons why, like Auerbach, I edit and analyze separately from the drawing process. It often seems that the harder I try in drawing, the less compelling a work becomes: as Giacometti said, “The more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it.”
Inspired by Auerbach’s drawings I spend ten minutes in the sunshine drawing the scene outside my gallery in a hand-made sketchpad Anita gave me in 2017. I have already filled the book with layers of experiments which are now going to be backgrounds. Until the end of my exhibition, I will draw the same scene repeatedly in another attempt to find a resolution. Looking at my drawings next to Auerbach’s highlights his brilliance. It is difficult to explain how his drawings are so much more resolved but they seem to chime and resonate. In contrast, Julie Mehretu’s paintings, while visually and conceptually compelling, have the slickness of computerised drawings.
Later this evening I go to Mark Edward Smith’s photography studio to perform a drawing onto an enormous black photography backdrop – it is the same size as the drawing I made with him last Monday, which was on a white backdrop. These are the largest drawings I have ever made and having this space to move so much more provides the opportunity to expand on my usual drawing methods and documentation. I have included my own rough documentation here. In case you would like to read more about the specific drawing techniques I am using for this project, go to the diary entry for May 19.