Bas Jan Ader
The Comic God
Sketching on Chance
Drawing Distance
Observing the Wrong Bodies

Drawing Distance

On «Black Light» - Jessie Brennan’s recent works

One of drawing’s archetypical modes is that of a place of departure. Drawing seems to be partially rooted on the grounds of separation and loss, as a means of preserving and protecting an object of affection that is about to go. In the Plinian account we can find a sort of classic myth of origin for drawing. To Pliny, drawing had probably begun when a Corinthian girl traced the shadow of her lover on a wall, when he was about to go on a long journey. Drawing was being associated with departure and absence – also as serving the purpose of memento. The girl turned away from her lover in order to draw his contour, she retracted from his presence into a shadowy place. In this place, the place of drawing, a spell occurs, in which loss is forever delayed, countered by a process of coming into being, of passage and retention. The operating modes of drawing are many, as are those of painting, but one of these seems to invoke a sense of arresting transient things in the moment of their manifestation or eminent departure. It is at once nostalgic – when it connects to a past state of the world, and disruptive – when it becomes infused with excess, with the transformative power of the gaze and the gesture.

I believe this to be the case for Jessie Brennan’s recent work – that the description of this mode of drawing is applicable to her own practice. Both in the case of Mourners and Light there is a sense that dying is the place of departure – the place where drawing is mostly needed or vital. A French philosopher once described how, on visiting his father in hospital, he felt an urge to draw his contour, to preserve him, even though he hadn’t drawn since childhood. The hand wants to follow the mind’s urge not to let go, and drawing is once again a means of preserving a light and of opening another, still obscure, new door. The scene in Light is that of a dying man surrounded by objects of a domestic nature – an arrangement of flowers, picture frames, which reveal a deep attachment to particularity and place, and a sense of overabundance of brightness, as if the human figure were the source of the light from the title. In Mourners there is apparently a similar matter-of-factness in the depiction of a farewell, but the open grave around which the mourners gathered draws you in, as a source of reflection and ambivalence. The darkened grave, at close inspection, reveals a shadow world, in the form of a miniature village, and this aperture becomes a place of exchange and passage, a window that is looking back, as the past seems to look back on the mourners. The economic gestures in this composite print seem to belong to the world and logic of drawing, and so does the subject matter – the suspension in the moment of letting go, the urgency that is perceived.

Another instance in which passage and magical transformation come to us is the work Girls in the Night, which depicts a group of young girls in confirmation dresses, standing on a dark soil strewn with small houses. Here the moment of passage is a more conventional one, a common rite, and there is a stronger connection to a socially constructed photographic moment. The work gains its strength precisely from the conventionality and repetition of the figures – little girls made to look like prototypical angels or brides, symbols of purity and passage to adulthood, overgrown and yet proud. The group towers above a tiny world abandoned, as if on the moment of their first step out of childhood, a magical, ritual step. The link between the viewer and an abandoned world of childhood is mirrored or re-enacted in the work itself, in a way that transcends nostalgic feelings precisely through nostalgic imagery.

In Lose Gain Lose the arena is also that of childhood and its archaic rites – spectators are gathered around a ring (much like a bullfighting circle), while children seem to be engaged in a form of game. The references to animal spectacles are clear, with one of the figures wearing a bear suit, and two isolated children clinging to each other, seemingly for protection. The ritualistic prevails over narrative, as if a theatrical moment became detached from its flowing background, and was made to inhabit a more private world. There is no narrative, precisely because the viewer is forever looking for one, eluded by one. Illumination comes only through attention to the drawing itself, and the instance of its production – how there is a perceived struggle for power occurring, a shifting between performance and protection. These children are being prepared for life in a larger circle, and they will never be quite ready for it.

Other works centre on the portrayal of children as seen through adult eyes, children confronted with a foreign gaze, as inWhen the Children Were. Isolated from an original context, a former life within a landscape, situation and photographic arrangement, the children are further arrested, kept still, drawn on. A child’s figure is then a place of projection and distance, a foreign territory where we can judge our own position as viewers.

Another work, Grandpa, apparently deals with regressive compulsions in later life – a frail elderly man is seen riding a hobbyhorse, as a radical figure of nostalgia. He seems to have been drawn back to a world of protection through rhythm and play, closing down a circular life, riding backwards.

In some of these works, childhood seems to be used as the moment of departure, a point where drawing can collect lost things, and redirect them to new purposes. The subject comes from a distance, and is brought closer, arrested through drawing. The distance is either that between childhood and here, animal and human, loss and preservation. These works arrest that distance, delay its effects – they are in a sense a spell against loss.



Francisco Lobo, London, 31st of January 2009