Drawing Biennial 2019 at Drawing Room, London 

Anna Columbine

Michael Landy, Brexshit (2018). Pen and ink on paper

Michael Landy, Brexshit (2018). Pen and ink on paper

Featuring over 200 unique works by a carefully-picked selection of leading international artists, the eighth edition of Drawing Biennial at Drawing Room London opened in February. The combined exhibition and auction has become an important date in the calendar for artists, gallerists and visitors alike, and this year’s offer reinforced the extent to which contemporary drawing remains an exciting site for artistic experimentation. New works by established artists known for their drawing-practice, such as David Haines and Tania Kovats, were a natural inclusion; whilst contributions from those more commonly associated with other media, like painter Callum Innes, offered a rewarding element of surprise.

I travelled down to London on the opening morning and met Drawing Room’s co-director Kate Macfarlane. She was eager to tell me about the exhibition and gave me a detailed walk-through. Each work was arranged in alphabetical order, forming a band running three to four rows deep across the gallery walls. I was pleased to encounter pieces by many of my favourite artists. Simon English, for example, whose St Jude’s Day, Hurricane, Dates are Important (2018) was characteristically melancholy; depicting a strangely indefinable character – part human, part framed portrait­­. And Jane Bustin, whose poetic and subtle Still Water (2018) echoed the layered arrangements typically found in her sculptural assemblages.

Jane Bustin, Still Water (2018). Acrylic, saltwater, beetroot and silk on paper

Jane Bustin, Still Water (2018). Acrylic, saltwater, beetroot and silk on paper

A drawing is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a picture or diagram made with a pencil, pen, or crayon rather than paint.” If we are to accept this description, then Bustin’s pencil-less piece – made with acrylic, saltwater, beetroot and silk – might be more accurately classed as an experiment in alternative paint ingredients. Indeed, many of the donations to the show could not be strictly considered drawings at all: their creators clearly seeking to stretch and test the definition of what a drawing can be.

As we looked around, Macfarlane told me about the selection process. An invitation to participate is sent to each nominated artist in the form of a package containing a single sheet of good quality A4 cartridge paper – not too white, not too yellow – wrapped in tissue, like a gift. The recipient is asked to make a drawing on the enclosed sheet (or a paper of their choice) using any medium and then send it back; donating it to the gallery. “In some ways, this model is a relief and a release for many artists,” she reflected. As I know from my own art practice, working within a set of rules can produce moments of uninhibited creativity.

Yet, it wasn’t compulsory to use paper and several of the artists set their own creative boundaries, choosing to leave the material behind entirely. Franziska Furter’s three-dimensional Waveland/griddinafour (2018) for instance, comprised of a delicate fisherman’s-style net made of plastic beads and nylon. Regardless of its linearity, without a ground, its precarity as a drawing was obvious. It drooped slightly as it sat on the wall and would have presumably lost its ‘image’ once removed from its support. (Like many of the drawings submitted to Drawing Biennial, Furter’s contribution was reflective of her wider artistic practice – which encompasses drawing and sculpture – and explores the intangibility of the line in waves, particles, computer-generated grids and other such phenomena.)

Franziska Furter, Waveland/griddinafour (2018). Plastic beads and nylon

Franziska Furter, Waveland/griddinafour (2018). Plastic beads and nylon

I was particularly drawn to a few other sculptural rule-benders, which lay flat in a vitrine towards the back of the white-cube gallery space (an area reserved for the more fragile, sculptural or oversized works). Inside sat Jorge Queiroz’s Gone and never to return. (2019) – a yellow rectangular piece of silicone with lines scoured into the surface and the outline of an absent figure rendered in iron and gouache. The thickness of the silicone added a weight that turned the piece into more of a three-dimensional object than a drawing. It suggested something manufactured and unnatural. Stood before it, I imagined trying to squish the surface with my fingertips, inviting a gestural drawing of my own.

Presented nearby, at first glance Leo Fitzmaurice’s Chamois (2018) (a ‘shallow sculpture’ which forms part of a larger series of ‘folded drawings’ based on domestic cloths) appeared to have been worked upon with pencil to look like the object referred to in its title – a type of leathery yellow cloth often used to clean and polish cars. Yet the effect had in fact been achieved through perforation. As well as expanding the notion of drawing, the ‘readymade’ humorously reminds us of how affordable and resourceful the practice can be – performed quickly and intuitively, using whatever materials are available.

Leo Fitzmaurice, Chamois (2018). Perforated paper

Leo Fitzmaurice, Chamois (2018). Perforated paper

The decision to still include less conventional ‘drawings’ was clearly a deliberate curatorial statement: an assertion of how fresh, relevant and alive the art form remains. Yet, drawing in its more traditional sense was also given ample representation within the show. Notably, many of these pieces were highly ‘laboured’, as Macfarlane put it, which I interpreted as referring to the amount of time and detailed technique that had visibly been involved in their making.

One of the clearest examples of this was Futures and Pasts (2018) by George Shaw, who has featured in several editions of the Biennial so far (and will present a series of new lithographs as part of (Un)Staged at PAPER in May). Though the 2011 Turner Prize-nominee is best known for his exquisite enamel paintings of the estates in Coventry where he grew up, “he always makes a portrait for us,” Macfarlane observed, adding “in fact, it’s the only time he ever draws portraits.” The meticulously detailed pencil-work depicts Olive – a character from On the Buses, a 1970s British sitcom that he used to watch as a child – continuing the theme of personal memory in Shaw’s wider practice.

The modest size of most of the drawings in the exhibition made them appear as if they been lifted directly from a sketchbook or torn from a studio wall. Commenting on this, Macfarlane reflected: “What the buyer gets with a drawing is the touch of the artist. It’s something that has come direct from their hand and allows you to see the thought processes that have happened as it has been made.” In a sense, acquiring a drawing means acquiring a part of its maker. It offers something authentic and original: an insight into their mind – and the individual personality and preferences of the collector, too. 

Anyone could bid in the auction and prices started from £300 – an amount deemed to be more affordable for those who couldn’t normally stretch to a piece by the kinds of artists included in the show. The money raised every two years is largely what funds the rest of Drawing Room’s programme. It’s an innovative model of sustainability in the current climate of funding cuts.

Drawing has always played a political role and this theme is never absent from the Biennial. “Obviously many artists are very politicized” Macfarlane mused, “and they can’t ignore the political climate at the moment.” The prospect of Britain’s departure from the European Union and the rise of xenophobia of course featured heavily; from Brexshit (2018) – Michael Landy’s overt, somewhat childlike blue and yellow drawing based on the EU flag – to subtler pieces. Interestingly, many of the works with a political message fell into the class of more traditional drawing; made on paper using ink, pen or pencil. Perhaps this approach helped to rationalise the artists’ thoughts and experiences amidst the absurdity of the current political situation.

Adopting her usual style of extreme photo-realism, Joy Gerrard’s Protest Crowd (No Brexit, People’s Voice March, Parliament Square, London, 2018) (2019) depicted the mass protest of the work’s title, bordered on the left by a seeping pool of heavy, black Japanese ink that powerfully evoked the pressing, all-encompassing darkness of the situation. Sonia Boyce’s text-based 2018 (2018) commented on the current tensions within British society following the referendum vote. The delicate tracing paper contrasting with the aggression contained within the racist slur, “Goliwog, Fuck Off,” shouted by an inebriated middle-aged white man; the faint pencil lettering possessing a skeletal appearance, as if Boyce is trying to empty the words of their meaning. Richard Wilson’s tongue-in-cheek colour diagram Proposed US Border with Mexico (2018) satirized Trump’s wall campaign by proposing a 1,954-mile border between the US and Mexico, but which only reaches 50cm above the ground, thus making the construction redundant.

Overall, Drawing Biennial 2019 came together as a radically different snapshot of where contemporary drawing – and the contemporary art scene in general – is right now. The show demonstrated the extent to which artists still regard drawing as a fundamental part of their practice and consider it to be just as innovative and avant-garde as any other art form. I came away with an itch to draw, but perhaps by experimenting with creased lines made using a folding technique, rather than pencil and pen as I would normally. I also had an urge to find out more about several of the artists that had previously been unknown to me; such as Terence Koh. His piece the archer (2019) was made in relief on a blank sheet of A4 paper using a blunt tool and showed the very faint outline of a figure with bow and arrow. The near invisibility of the image was enchanting, and something I hope my own future speculative drawings might one day share.

Drawing Biennial 2019 ran from 20 February – 26 March at Drawing Room in London

Simon English, St. Judes Day, Hurricane, Dates Are Important (2018).  Ink, acrylic and gouache on paper

Simon English, St. Judes Day, Hurricane, Dates Are Important (2018). Ink, acrylic and gouache on paper