WALK into to Edinburgh’s doggerfisher art gallery over the next few weeks and you will be surrounded by drawings that initially look like large fuzzy TV screens. Closer inspection may suggest woven texture. Or maybe a view of the sea from an aeroplane, or contours on an Ordinance Survey map. Yet for the artist behind these mysterious but simple drawings, the work is not about representation, but about the activity behind their production.
David Connearn is a man who draws lines. Vast amounts of them. For over 20 years now, he has been investigating the uncontrollable forces that govern the act of drawing. He starts by drawing a pen line freehand, something which can only be interpreted as a line of ink. Once that line is completed to his chosen length, he then draws another one closely underneath it. And so on, until you have a block of densely packed lines, sometimes up to a square metre, and with edges that would definitely embarrass a spirit level.
The obvious question to what appears to be a painstaking and indeed pointless task is: why?
"I’m trying to create work which is totally opposed to expressing an idea or making a particular representation," says Connearn. "Underneath all attempts to make representations is a whole world of activity you’re not in control of. Each time you approach a work, it comes out differently because the circumstances in which you’re doing it, or indeed the person who is doing it, have changed from how they were five minutes ago. The temperature or weather is changing, the way the ink hits the paper, or the absorbency of the paper, is changing. If the activity is
sensitive enough, or the tool is unresponsive enough, then all these changes in ambient circumstances will be recorded."
Indeed, the complexity of the drawings arises from the subtle changes in shade, indicating where a day’s work starts and finishes, and giving each drawing its own unique fingerprint. "One kind of artist may want to eradicate such accidental differences," says Connearn, "but my work is about them. It’s not about my intentions, but my activity as a vehicle for uncontrollable things. It’s an exorcism from that privileged sense of self which seems to be so important in some streams of 20th-century modern art."
Connearn’s divorce from self-expression seems almost like a religious practice. Did he experience a Damascene moment, a voice that decreed ‘Thou shalt draw lines?’ "My first art school was very keen on figure drawings, but also in interrogating perceptual activity behind the work," he says. He points to how a myriad of possible styles unconsciously influence the artist.
"I thought this was very arbitrary, so wanted to make some radical simplification and make work in which all the material factors are determining what goes on."
Connearn’s first investigation was in 1979 when he attempted to produce a series of drawings (which also feature in the exhibition) determined by a highly specific, fixed set of rules. Connearn drew a single line of 50mm within strict boundaries and at certain angles. Theoretically, such a tight framework should only produce one pattern, yet Connearn was intrigued to see the drawings were impossible to reproduce. "There is a turbulence that exists when trying to be as precise in the real world as you seem to be able to be in the metaphysical world of ideas. This is what interests me."
At the time, Connearn knew that only a sophisticated computer programme would be able to replicate his instructions perfectly, but it was yet to be developed. Happily, he has recently been working with two local mathematicians responsible for a continuous series of computer-generated drawings projected on to a white wall of the gallery.
Future projects include continuing a series of line drawings using pens with increasingly finer and finer nibs. So far, two have been completed. "The last drawing will have 20 lines for each line of the first drawing, which was done with thickest nib. So if that took two months, the last one will take two times 20 months," explains Connearn.
Fatigue doesn’t seem to be a factor in Connearn’s career. He acknowledges completion may take 20 years. "It’s good to have something to do," he muses.
It’s no surprise that Connearn has a history of embracing concentration-dependent activities, from gymnastics to Zen mediation. But for all his ‘renaissance man’ interests, at the heart of this artist’s work is a strong sense of democracy. "Anyone could make this kind of work. People look at it and can see the earnestness of the activity behind it. They can recognise their own capabilities in it - someone adjusting the tension of their knitting is intuitively doing what I do when I adjust the difference between lines. To me there are two types of work - work that gives and work that takes. The second demands people’s attention and support, but also debilitates people, making them feel they can’t be artists. The first allows people to say: ‘I understand this, I can do that myself.’ By pushing my own sense of self out of the picture, I’m making room for other people’s presence."
doggerfisher, Edinburgh (0131-558 7110), until July 28