Modern Art Oxford's latest exhibition asks where drawing is, in the new digital world we all live in. Is there still a place for pencil and paper, and is that what drawing is these days? Has drawing itself gone high tech? The exhibition is jointly organised with The Drawing Room, the only gallery space in Europe that's dedicated to drawing, and the artworks are split between the sites. Given how much drawing must go on that seems surprising, but of course this is about drawing as a finished medium, not a stop en route to a final piece in sculpture or paint.
David Haines' giant hyperreal work Meatboy and Bob Starr
The city of Oxford houses lots of drawings from the last 500 years, not least in Christ Church Picture Gallery and the Ashmolean. But contemporary drawing is a different animal - as likely to be drawn from digital images as life, to be worked in pen as well as pencil, and to be commenting on the validity of photographic images as to be trying to replicate a likeness. Many of these 14 artists are working great fictions - creating something that's hyperreal, but not real. Like a good writer they're aiming for something that could be real, yet we and they know it isn't. It's a fascinating balancing act.
Barbara Walker's narrative is easy to encapsulate - she's highlighting the soldiers missing from photos of WWII, that is the huge number of soldiers of colour, often in Colonial regiments. Her pictures use a blind embossing technique to fade out the faces we're used to seeing, the white ones, whereas the people of colour are lovingly drawn in fine detail. The pictures aren't big; the impact is.
David Haine and David Musgrave both painstakingly recreate shadows and paper folds, to give perfect trompe-l'œil. Musgrave's work focuses on the paper itself, Haine's on the fact that paper has been handled and loved. His huge picture 'Meatboy and Bob Starr' is a riot of textures - shaving foam, transparent plastic, rich brocade, skin and hair, almost obscene in its perfection, set against a background of pixels.
Nidhal Chamekh has created three huge canvases, showing the same scene but from different angles, with different details emerging in each. The scene depicts the death of secondary school teacher and poet Fadhel Sassi, killed during the Tunisian bread riots in the 1980s. Chamekh's family knew Sassi, and these arresting and dramatic personal portraits are drawn using charcoal made from bread.
Recit d'Arrangements No.V by Massinissa Selmani, courtesy of the artist and Selma Feriani Gallery. c. ADAGP
One of the few artists to use colour, Massinissa Selmani's drawings are tiny experimental narratives, composed of pictures put together from a variety of sources which have been repurposed. He blends them into one scene that viewers try to make sense of, but which defy straightforward decryption. He uses colour to highlight, or perhaps distract, and this emphasises the ability of photojournalism to do exactly those things.
Karl Haendel's art is extraordinary in its solidity but is mounted on insubstantial cardboard displays. His series is called Weeks in Wet Sheets and depicts the results of Google searches around the idea of water and wetness. A strange array of artwork results, from a baby with a huge soggy nappy, to a cat happily asleep on a radiator. Some works make political points - the poor hippo is balanced on a most unstable and untenable base, sliding slowly off the face of the earth, and the sushi is now fish-less. This is the glossy, uncaring world of the pursuit of beauty at any cost.
Part of Weeks In Wet Sheets by Karl Haendel
At the other end of the gloss spectrum is ruby onyinyechi amanze, whose titles are long, scrappy and beautifully crafted, much like her pictures. Photographic images jostle with impeccable drawing, paint, patterns, trailing ideas, and blank space. They're not a coherent whole, but an amassing of vital parts, a reflection on amanze's own multi-ethnic identity and nomadic life.
ruby onyinyechi amanze's 'that low hanging kind of sun, the one that lingers two feet above your head, (never dying) house plants in exchange for your freedom... orchids in exchange for your love, who are you kissing, when you kiss a mask?'
While the more concrete art is found in the Piper Gallery, the main space is more conceptual. Here Kate Davis' Disgrace series lurks. In response to the beautiful yet vacuous Modigliani nudes, Davis has drawn around her own body over the top, leaving Modigliani just peering through. Her marks look like random scrawls though they are anything but. Again, Ciprian Muresan's works look confused and obscured, but are carefully created by copying and overlaying all of an artist's works, to give layers and layers of meaning, an information overload.
The greatest departures from traditional drawing techniques come from Ian Kiaer and Kathy Prendergast. Kiaer's works are made up of large sheets of acetate, rescued from architectural sites and bus stops. He uses the record of boredom etched into the sheets to comment on the environment's effects on people and art, and the unknown that's such an intrinsic part of nomadism. Prendergast, on the other hand, knows exactly where she is, having studied and painstakingly coloured in 100 copies of the AA Road Atlas of Europe. Each copy has a different double page spread coloured, leaving just the cities pale, rendering the whole a constellation of population centres. The atlases are laid out in roughly the shape of Europe, removing all the boundaries, geographical and political, between countries. It must have been a labour of love, though a purist might ask if this is really drawing since the individual marks aren't aiming to convey anything. At any rate, Prendergast's work is unusually horizontal, making it a true slice across the world.
The main gallery space - Kathy Prendergast's Atlas (foreground), Ciprian Muresan (left) and Ian Kiaer (far wall)
Of the 14 artists from 10 different countries whose work is depicted, none had ever shown work in Oxford, and most not in the UK before. This is a truly cutting-edge exhibition, and one that David Musgrave feels is accurate in its representation of contemporary drawing. It's "not nostalgic, but straightforward markmaking in a digital culture". Taking away the pressure for drawings to imitate real life in a photographic way has been a revolution, and one that informs rather than sidelines drawing.