Drawing the Line (Whitechapel Art Gallery, till 10 September) John Virtue (Whitechapel Art Gallery, till 10 September)
Scene from a different angle
0 h, why can't they be taught how to draw properly!' Thus traditionalists often express their despair of current art educa- tion. And to this oft-repeated lament, Michael Craig-Martin — artist, teacher of art, member of the Tate Board, and elo- quent anti-traditionalist — has composed an answer in the form of an exhibition of graphic art called Drawing the Line.
But it should be said straight away, this is not simply a piece of visual polemic. It is also an enjoyable and unconventional show that entirely succeeds in making one think vabout drawing — and also contains numer- ous beautiful pieces of work. The arrange- ment is anything but the conventional, art-historically chronological one. On the contrary, Craig-Martin has set out to juxta- pose drawings that one would never nor- mally consider grouping together — European old masters jostle on the walls with New York minimalists of the 60s, Chi- nese calligraphy, and inscribed bones from pre-history. The sole restriction is that only pure line drawings are allowed — not ones dependent on wash or shading — and even then Craig-Martin rather winningly admits he broke the rule when 'seduced' by a par- ticular sheet.
It is all very stimulating. As a viewer, one could approach this show as a game that might be called 'spot the similari- ty'. Sometimes it's easy. A red deer antler circa 4000 BC is grouped with a Damien Hirst from 1993, and a dia- gram by the American land artist Robert Smithson of a massive struc- ture he had built called Spiral Jetty. Answer: they're all whorls (though the red deer antler is the best).
At other times it's more tricky. A work consisting of a single white stripe between black masses by the Ameri- can abstract Barnett Newman hangs between nude studies by Degas and Leonardo da Vinci. It takes a moment to see the point. Leonardo's naked male leg is placed in isolation on the sheet much like Newman's stripe; the Degas woman is balanced by a stripe in the form of a door jamb.
It is Craig-Martin's contention that nothing in art is truly new, but as time passes we come to value aspects of it that had been disregarded. Thus in the late 20th century, we admire the simple rightness of the placement of one line on a sheet, where once an artist would have positioned a careful- ly observed figure with the same nice judgment. Or, to take another example, in the past artists used very rapid, unacademic means to put down ideas. Craig-Martin has some wonderfully free and loose avant- garde-looking sketches. One, by Turner, looks like a Jackson Pollock, all hooks and elbows; another is contributed by — of all people — Corot. In these late days we've learned to appreciate looseness, wildness and, indeed, scribble — as in Cy 'Untitled' by Barnett Newman, ink on paper, 1960 Twombly and Brice Marden — as ends in themselves.
Well, I think he makes some of his case. Drawing is a universal form of expression — still generally the best way to record something seen or invented — and there is no one right way to do it. And it's also true that the old masters could be much freer and unacademic than is often supposed.
But I part company from him on the question of skill. 'Skill,' he writes in the introduction, 'is the ability to do exception- ally well what needs to be done. It mani- fests itself in any number of ways. But skill without vision is empty.' All right, but where does vision come from? Quite possibly — in part — from constant exercise of some skill.
A Leonardo da Vinci drawing on show — a sort of box puzzle construction — looks astonishingly as if it might have been conceived in New York circa 1969. But it also looks much better than the minimalist drawing by Carl Andr6 that hangs nearby. The reason could just be that Leonardo da Vinci drew better — which means, among other things, he had remarkable visual sen- sitivity honed by mastery of a difficult skill. In drawing, the skilled hand and the think- ing mind cannot be separated — that in a way is the point of it. Agreed, drawings that are merely skilful are boring, but so too can be those that baldly and schematically pre- sent you with a concept in the form of mechanical line and simple geometry — as is demonstrated by many exhibits in Drawing the Line.
An artist who has triumphantly developed an individual vision is the painter John Virtue, whose recent work is on show in the upper galleries of the Whitechapel. He has concen- trated for years now on one stretch of countryside around the Devon village where he lives, and on two colours: black and white. One might think it impossible to find anything new to do artistically with an English village, gathered around a parish church. So many artists have treated it in so many ways.
But nobody has ever painted any- thing like these Virtues. Huge — up to 18' across — starkly powerful, sim- mering with energy. They are painted in part out in the fields, the artist actually standing on the canvas at times — which perhaps helps him to find, or put, such dynamism in this terrain op the fringe of Dartmoor. One can 'See here and there the clear imprint of a rubber soled boot, in addition to splodges, and splatters, and arcs of dots flying across the landscape like stars in some outer galaxy. It adds up to a vision of the English country- side more cosmic, and more primordial than anything seen before.