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Drawing conclusions: the rise of contemporary drawing

By Mike Brennan

Not so long ago, drawing became the new painting. From small-scale and intimate to wall-sized, highly-worked or resolutely low-fi, whatever its format, the re-appearance of a once side-lined medium marked a dramatic shift in its fortunes and indeed, assumptions about art in general.

But why the change? Was it that, in an art scene increasingly driven by fads, drawing became du jour simply because it hadn't been for a very long time? Or were other, less obvious, factors at work?

In fact, the re-emergence of drawing was far from market-driven, and its increase in profile a slower process than any newly voguish status might suggest.

To understand something of its current impact, it's necessary to look back at the closing years of the 20th century - a time when, to the eyes of many, the art scene looked very different indeed.

Marc Quinn, 'Self'
image copyright © Marc Quinn

Throughout much of the 1990s, visual austerity and a certain restraint governed the work of a new wave of artists; many of them British, many high-profile. Figures such as Darren Almond, Damien Hirst, Martin Creed, Rachel Whiteread and a re-discovered Allan McCollum typified an art scene driven by hands-off, conceptual practice and stringent theoretical undertow.

Even artists whose work, by contrast, seemed more ludic and theatrical - Maurizio Catellan, the Chapman brothers, an ever-enduring Jeff Koons - shared a taste for slick, expensive, mechanized output.

And in fact, looking back, there's a certain synchronistic poetry to the fact that Marc Quinn's 'Self' portrait, a principal icon of the era, quite literally froze the blood.

Further tendencies underpinned the general sense of pristine, chilly surface. Graphic design in the late 90s exulted in the hard edges of its newly perfect digital genesis, while on a popular level, serious flirtation with 'minimalism' induced homeowners to replace comfort with spacious void.

Clearly, any attempt to rapidly define a moment in art history is doomed to over-simplification. A vast array of artists stand in lush counterpoint to Hirst's surgically steely cabinets or Whiteread's pale, negative spaces.

The work of Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, Daniel Richter and Jorg Immendorf - to name just a few - all manifest an obvious delight in exuberant mark-making or absorbed, painterly gesture.

Yet it's certainly true that what generally made the headlines - the dissected sheep, the on/off lights, the unmade beds - were essentially 'conceptual' works that side-lined direct artistic intervention.

And it's also true that, with the internet coming of age in the '90s, such highly publicized aesthetics became instantly and widely accessible for the first time in any history. In the mass public's eye, art had gained a hard new edge.

Yet elsewhere, a wildly contrasting vision was being far less well documented. On America's West Coast, in particular, the long-gestating seeds of a brimming alternative scene were beginning to bear considerable fruit.

Its influences were multiple and diverse, yet shared the fact that all lay well outside the contemporary mainstream.


drawing conclusions - continued

related articles: new contemporary drawing

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