Traditional skills are to the fore at the Hunterian and in the work of Sarah Longley, whose show explores her relationship with her famous father
Hand Drawn Action Packed, The Hunterian, Glasgow ****
Sarah Longley, Junor Gallery, St Andrews ****
Jeremy Deller: Everybody in the Place – An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992, Modern Institute, Glasgow *****
The contemporary art world sends us mixed messages about drawing. Once a foundational discipline, it seems to be taught less and less in art schools and some artists manage to ignore it altogether, but there are still those in all generations for whom it is vital, not only as a means to an end, but as an end in itself.
Roger Malbert, a curator of touring exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery and author of Drawing People: The Human Figure in Contemporary Art, has put together an exhibition at the Hunterian, Hand Drawn Action Packed, featuring ten artists from all over the world, all of whom place figurative drawing at the heart of their practice.
Veteran South African artist William Kentridge is perhaps best known for making animation from his own drawings. However, the sequence of drawings here – each slightly different from the one before, like a series of freeze-frames – have not been used to make a film. They show his wife getting into a bath, echoing Degas’ drawings of women at their toilette, full of expression, intimacy and immediacy, some of the things drawing does best.
Mumbai-based Nalini Malani started out working in video art in the 1970s, then went on to develop a way of drawing on mylar, a semi-opaque plastic, in paint and ink. Her detailed drawings depict mythological figures and grotesques, combining Greek and Indian myths with social commentary on lives (particularly womens’ lives) in India today.
Yun-Fei Ji, born in China and now living in the USA, taught himself traditional Chinese scroll painting. At first glance, his works are serene and detailed paint sketches of historical narratives and landscapes. On closer examination, however, they are incisive political allegories about the times he has lived through and the fate of displaced people.
Inci Eviner, who will represent Turkey in this year’s Venice Biennale, works in allegory too. The work in this show, Beuys Underground, is about cultural and artistic resistance to oppression, in which tiny animated figures inhabit a drawn panorama producing a nightmarish vision, as if a Hieronymous Bosch painting had come to life.
Drawing brings fine art close to the graphic arts, and several of the artists here play with the conventions of illustration, advertising and the graphic novel. Marcel Dzama’s works, often inspired by ballet and opera, masquerade as illustrations for strange stories of heroines and monster-slaying. Raymond Pettibon combines text and drawing in a way that plays, ironically, with conventions of illustration and advertising. Marcel van Eeden creates a beautifully realised film noir spy story in a graphic novel style, while Rinus Van de Velde makes monumental charcoal drawings sending up the idea of the self-mythologising artist.
Van de Velde, from Belgium, is one of a younger generation of highly successful artists working with drawing, as is Nigeria-born Otobong Nkanga, whose meticulous acrylics (their allegorical quality and attention to line mean that Malbert can claim them as drawings) explore our relationship to the planet and its resources. American Amy Sillman is best known as a painter, but here has created a split-screen film using drawings made on an iPad.
The discussion of drawing and its place in contemporary art will go on, and a different combination of artists would draw out different arguments, but Hand Drawn Action Packed is a valuable reminder of how alive drawing still is in art practice, as well as introducing us to some important artists rarely seen in the UK.
Drawing is also central to the practice of Sarah Longley, daughter of the Northern Irish poet Michael Longley. A solo exhibition of her work opened in St Andrews to coincide with StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, and is based around a series of collaborations between father and daughter.
Anyone familiar with Michael Longley’s recent poetry will recognise Angel Hill, near Sarah’s home in the West Highlands, from which he took the title of his last collection. Indeed, they will recognise the poet himself in a fond portrait in oils, My Father in the Cottage. The core of the show, however, is a series of drawings, beautifully celebrating the natural world – animals, plants and landscape.
Work is included from a number of father-daughter collaborations including The Dipper’s Range and this year’s Ghetto, inspired by the memory of Helen Lewis, a holocaust survivor who became Sarah’s dance teacher in Northern Ireland and a family friend. To accompany Michael Longley’s poems, Sarah has produced both large-scale works in charcoal and small ink drawings for publication. To see both together is instructive: the charcoal works weave together themes and stories expressively, while the ink works are precise and controlled, focusing on a single image: a row of silent violins or a bunch of asparagus (which Jews in Nazi-occupied countries were forbidden from buying).
I’m not convinced that Jeremy Deller has ever drawn – his art practice consists of ideas, usually realised in collaboration with others. But the quality and clarity of those ideas, and the ways in which he engages with themes from British history and culture, means he continues to stand tall in a crowded conceptual field.
His new film, premiered last year at Frieze, explores the history of house music, from its genesis in the gay clubs of Chicago in the mid 1980s to the mass open-air raves in Britain at the turn of 1990s. Using archive footage, he weaves in the social and political context – a moribund pop scene, the bleak years after the miners’ strike – into which the grassroots music of acid house blew like a gale-force wind of fresh air, before showing how the movement was systematically crushed in a way not dissimilar to the striking miners.
The work’s genius, however, lies in the fact that Deller is giving this important history lesson to a class of A-level Politics students in contemporary London. To these bright young people from a broad range of cultural backgrounds, this might as well be ancient history. However, their smirks at the outdated clothing and music gradually give way to a greater understanding and appreciation of a world before mobile phones and social media, and finally to delight when they get a chance to try out synthesisers for themselves. Like the best history lessons, this is not just about rediscovering the past, it is about getting a new perspective on the present.
Hand Drawn Action Packed until 2 June; Sarah Longley until 1 June; Jeremy Deller until 11 May.