Linda Dusman’s composition, “SKRA” from the album i need no words released by I Resound Press in 2011, includes elements of a recording of Mary McDonnell completing a red line drawing from the same series as the one shown here. Press play to hear E. Michael Richards perform this piece on Bb clarinet.
Click to read Linda Dusman’s comments on “SKRA.”
Contemplating Mary McDonnell’s Red Line Drawings led to Skra. The meditative quality of these drawings, seemingly simple “parallel” lines, for me eventually results in “seeing” their intimacy as if from a great distance. I also love the beauty of their primitiveness, a sense of a work of art in the act of becoming itself. Creating the composition followed a similar conceptual process, as I used recordings of Mary making the drawings and the ambient sounds in her studio to accompany somewhat “primitive” sounds on the clarinet–keys clicking, air passing through the instrument colored in various ways–creating the sense of a sonic landscape becoming itself. There is one basic gesture in the piece, moving from hearing pen scratches from inside the paper (from recordings made using contact mics) gradually to the external environment in and outside of the artist’s studio. Work on this piece began while in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I am grateful to Alan Wonneberger for technical assistance in the electroacoustics, and to E. Michael Richards for his imaginative work on extended techniques for the clarinet, another important inspiration for the work.
Translation across media is notoriously ineffective, and when I sat down to write about Mary McDonnell’s Untitled (2007), my frustration and poor results exemplified that difficulty. The idioms lost between image and text are no different from untranslatable figures of speech. Some art begs to be explained, written about, and encased in academic language (conceptual art comes to mind), but McDonnell’s work demands to be experienced.
Both McDonnell’s paintings and drawings preserve and present their creation, acting simultaneously as objects and archival records. Yet the particular invitation of the works on paper in the “Red Line Drawings” series is situated in their mechanical familiarity. (Who has not drawn a line in pen on paper?) Acquaintance with this action increases our appreciation of McDonnell’s skill—forty-four lines, remarkably straight—as well as our understanding of what she calls “incidents” in the process: the inevitable blotches and bleeds of ink. Thus, during sustained viewing the character of Untitled vacillates between approachable and aloof: the intimate scale draws us in, but the fine art context places it just beyond reach; the familiar action recalls a commonplace experience, but the artist’s dexterity repositions it on the authoritative gallery wall. It is in this vacillating, this trembling—echoing the human trembling of the lines—that the complexity of this deceptively simple work is revealed.
McDonnell started these works when she was experiencing artistic frustration while on a residency at The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. In an attempt to still her mind and enter a meditative place she started drawing lines on a piece of paper whose handmade quality had captivated her. One page a day, for several days, the lines proceeded without disturbance. When the first blotch arrived, McDonnell paused before accepting it as a necessity of the process, and then, as she described to me, “that was that.”1 The final number of drawings in the series is around fifty (she is unsure of the exact quantity), and they record McDonnell overcoming a passage of unproductivity through dedication, practice, and repetition. As physical documentation of her mental discipline they connote a schoolchild’s written lines or a monk’s manuscripts. Additionally, the solution to McDonnell’s struggle was also a beginning: besides representing a completed task the artwork resembles the grid of blank sheet music facing a composer, pregnant with possibility.2 The inherent potential of these lines effectively soothed the artist’s frustration, impelling her to bring that mentality back to her studio and subsequent work.
While the artist is undoubtedly skilled, her work proceeds from subjective intuition more than from premeditated technical consideration. “[From] the gut,” she explains, while embedding her fingers in her abdomen. Everything about this series of works could be construed as accidental: the number and placement of the lines, the irregular incidents, even the color of the ink (red was the color McDonnell happened to have the first day she began). Yet these characteristics are only “accidental” in the sense of being unplanned. They arise from the intuition of an artist who has spent her career considering color and form, who stripped these works down to reveal the fundamental tenets behind her more visually complex works: expressive line, lyrical movement, evocative color, careful positioning. In this sense the intuition that McDonnell heeds is both an inexplicable prompting and the automatic response of learned mastery.
The generative practices that led to Untitled reflect McDonnell’s broader creative habits. Beyond facilitating the visceral composition of each piece, the artist has situated herself in and towards life in a posture of attentiveness. In her upstate New York studio she paints amid the “silence” of nature, which she has discovered contains a polyphony of birds and running water. She lives with paintings for months, until she perceives the stirring that reveals how finally to fulfill them. Simone Weil wrote that true prayer is an attitude of attentiveness,3 but McDonnell is more of a midwife than a worshipper. The monolithic “act of creation” really comprises a series of acts, continual preparation for the awaited delivery.
1. All facts about the genesis of this piece, details about the habits of McDonnell’s practice, and record of her words are from an interview she graciously granted the author (23 June 2011).
2. McDonnell has a musical background, and her work’s affinities with music are not tangential. Multiple composers, including Meredith Monk, Linda Dusman, and Fred Hersch, have responded to her art in their own medium, continuing the cross-disciplinary trend.
3. Simone Weil, “Waiting for God” in Waiting for God (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002), 57-58.
This drawing was made at the MacDowell Colony, where I was doing a residency in January of 2007. My studio was in the woods, surrounded by snow, which dampened any sounds that might be heard, and I felt the presence of silence all around me. I started focusing on the sounds that were audible: the ambient sounds of the studio, like a mechanical hum. The sounds I created by moving in the space. The wind and an occasional birdcall. I had been planning to work on painting, but the materials I brought weren’t working out, and I was frustrated. One morning after sitting still a while, with no preconceived thoughts, I got up and walked to my drawing table and started drawing. I drew horizontal red lines by simply moving my hand from the left side of the page to the right. I used an old pen that was in my box and mixed some red ink with gouache that I happened to have with me. At the beginning, in the first few drawings, all the lines were fairly perfect. But one morning the pen hit a fiber and caused the ink to bleed out from the line. I remember pausing, holding my breath for a brief moment, and then letting go, thinking, “Just keep going.” And so I continued on with the line, working with whatever came up, and letting the accidents be. As I did more and more drawings, I became aware of what caused the ink to erupt, which disturbed the evenness of the lines and created a blob, or an incident on the page. Sometimes it was a raised fiber in the paper that the pen nib would come in contact with. Sometimes it was the mix of the gouache and ink, that it wasn’t the right consistency. Or the incidents happened when I broke my concentration, had a lapse of mindfulness, or my thoughts drifted away from the page. It became interesting to me how and when the incidents arose, and how these clusters or centers located a scar, an accident, a stray thought. I laughed out loud, seeing my veering thoughts, my inattentiveness recorded. I started each day of the residency this way, and made fifty or so of these drawings altogether. The experience or act of making a drawing is what became important to me, more so than any one individual drawing.