Lenore Tawney’s Fruitful Place (1966) has a delicate tactility, built up in layer upon layer of torn and cut paper, and augmented by the close, careful hatching of the artist’s pen strokes at its center. Concentric paper rings recede into and project from an imagined perspectival depth until the woven form of a basket eventually begins to suggest itself. This shape is offered to the viewer as a receptacle in which to “place all the fruits,” as dictated by a line of visible text. Torn from an assortment of antique hymnals, the included fragments are poetic puzzle pieces of a spiritual message, given new physical consequence through Tawney’s simple, but deft, manipulation of medium.
Among certain circles, Tawney is lauded as a pioneer of the resurgent fiber arts movement of the mid twentieth century. Creating narrative lines with weft thread or crafting monumental hanging tapestries of totemic presence, she blurred the boundaries between weaving, sculpture, and drawing. While best known as a weaver, Tawney was equally prolific in drawing, collage, and assemblage. She produced a persistently innovative body of work over the course of a five-decade career as an artist while returning to a coherent set of inspirational sources, many of which are brought to bear in Fruitful Place. Tawney’s collages and assemblages are reliquaries of natural and man-made ephemera, from shells and feathers, to found boxes and manuscripts. These works especially are often equated with ritualistic offerings, described in terms of visual poetry, or endowed with sacred connotations.
It is helpful to consider her work as the expression of a dynamic process. In her weavings, Tawney choreographed thread in order to conduct three-dimensional space in the same way that musical notes form a composition; she saw woven threads “like music moving in air.”1 Consistently driven by the desire to make things reach “out and up,”2 she uses strips of paper here much as she used thread. When considered in this light, Tawney’s activity of cyclically pasting the strips of torn hymnal acquires a rhythmic tone.
1. Quoted in Vestures of Water: The Work of Lenore Tawney (Allentown, PA: Allentown Art Museum, 1997), 2.
2. Quoted in Lenore Tawney: A Personal World (Brookfield, CT: Brookfield Craft Center, 1978), 11.
Molly Springfield’s Chapter IX from 2008 first appears to be a careless photocopy of a dry academic text: haphazardly cropped and poorly executed, the gutter is overly saturated with toner and the scanning bed is visible around the book’s edges. But close looking quickly belies this pretense. After noting the sheet’s neat border, we begin to observe the telltale signs of a work of graphite on paper: the burnished quality of the darkest areas, the subtle grain of the fine quality paper visible in the lighter strokes. This work is an original masquerading as a copy, a skilled drawing painstakingly rendered by hand and displayed in a handsome frame, yet faithfully resembling a document created in haste for reference and destined for disposal. With an added wink to the viewer, Springfield’s photorealistic rendering allows us to read the text—a treatise on the practice of drawing from flat copies.
For several years Springfield has been preoccupied with depicting photocopied pages from books on art and philosophy. Her sources are carefully chosen for their relevance to shifting notions of mediated representation. Past projects have replicated photocopied editions of William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and Sol LeWitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art.” The present work is part of a series titled “Drawings about Drawing.” The text is an excerpt from the obscure late nineteenth-century British Handbook of Drawing by William Walker, a contemporary of John Ruskin’s (whose 1857 The Elements of Drawing provides the source for the second work in the series). This series continues Springfield’s exploration of the interchange between writing and drawing, reading and viewing, theory and practice. Ultimately, her work prompts questions regarding the traditional hierarchy of the precious (original) and the ephemeral (copy).
Around the same time that Walker and Ruskin were penning their works on the practice of drawing, a wave of cultural nostalgia for the handcrafted object was cresting across Europe and America. The Industrial Revolution was ushering in the age of mass production, the backlash of which has been the ascendancy—especially in art—of the concept of ‘the original.’ Ensuing technologies from the twentieth century, including the photocopy, have contributed to our current culture of disposability by facilitating low-cost and low-quality reproduction. An object’s cultural value is often directly proportional to its rarity, and facsimiles are more valued the less they betray their status as such. The utilitarian black and white photocopy occupies the lowest rung on this representational ladder.
From the 1960s onward, conceptual artists began to subvert this logic, creating ephemeral works with quotidian media, like the photocopy, that defied commercial motives and concerns of uniqueness. On the one hand, Springfield pays homage to this ethos, by literally reproducing the words and works of artists such as Mel Bochner, Mary Kelly, and Adrian Piper, and by mimicking their chosen forms of distribution. Yet the artist’s own labor-intensive process has more in common with the work of a traditional draftsman than with the anti-materialist practice often associated with conceptual art.
In Springfield’s current investigation of “the historical trajectory of drawing instruction,”1 she professes an ambivalent relationship to Walker’s Victorian emphasis on rote draftsmanship. Why then enact it? Through Springfield’s process, Chapter IX manifests the cyclical tensions of both art and technology. Walker’s tenets of artistic instruction are as antiquated as the Xerox has now become in the era of the digital scan, and as the notion of the original in the wake of conceptual art. Yet we are constantly negotiating how to move forward without leaving anything behind.
Consider the chain of events by which Walker’s text is transmuted into the present work: originally composed by hand and published via the printing press, a version of which was then photocopied and finally manually re-transferred to the page. Is the final product a drawing or a document? Springfield offers a reproduction of the text equally legible to that of the book and the photocopy, and yet it is a distorted version as well. As we choose to ‘read’ or ‘view’ the work, the graphic marks slide between text and image; though we can read them as words, they have the physicality of depiction, not inscription.
1. Molly Springfield, “Drawings About Drawing,” http://www.mollyspringfield.com/section/47712_Drawings_About_Drawing.html.
A tension between absence and presence hovers over Bronlyn Jones’s quiet works Untitled #3 and Erasure List, both from 2009. In their spare intimacy, both sheets invoke things unseen just as they inspire painstaking examination of their subtly worked surfaces. While her depiction of everyday materials and use of text appeal to the spirit of conceptual art, Jones operates in a register of meticulous craft and aesthetic restraint that summons comparisons with minimalist precedents such as Agnes Martin and contemporary artist Wes Mills.
Beginning with specially selected butcher paper, Jones carefully delineates the sheets with graphite and red pencil until they resemble neatly lined, though gently aged, notebook pages. For the series “Drafts of an Empty Page,” these lines complete the exercise. While Untitled #3 is an early, anonymous example, more recent works in the series depict the grids and proportions specific to varied typologies of the notebook: Moleskin, Reporter’s, Ledger Page, Writing Tablet. They are essentially portraits of writing’s basic substrate, almost reverent in their precision and ostensible blankness. Yet it seems important to emphasize that, due to Jones’s manual process, we are far from the territory of the readymade. In Jones’s own words, it is the “subtle nuances, texture, evidence of the hand,”1 which constitute the works’ essential features.
Erasure List bears typewritten traces of the artist’s thoughts and touch, though the negative imagery speaks more to that which is omitted than to what is included. The empty line between each fragmentary phrase visually conjures the erasures to which the title refers. This structural gesture recalls the ‘intermedia’ strategies especially favored by Fluxus artists of the 1960s and 70s, which blurred the distinction between visual arts and poetry. The repeated words What is anchor each line and form a vertical chain down which the eye easily slips.
But this poetic offering is not an abstract image. The statements flicker between questions and dictums, constructed either around the deficiency or the banishment of words, images, or processes. We, the viewers, are faced with the inevitable desire to fill in the blanks, but we are not necessarily equipped with the tools to do so. Faced with this incompleteness, or staring down an empty page, we approach a state that the poet John Keats called negative capability: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”2 Jones volunteers no answers. The list feels both deeply personal and universally germane.
1. Bronlyn Jones, unpublished artist’s statement.
2. John Keats, letter to George and Tom Keats, 21 December 1817, accessed 19 July 2011, http://www.mrbauld.com/negcap.html.