James Steventon Artist | Writer | Runner

Ancient & modern:
the myths & reality of drawing

Legend has it that the ancient Greeks Zeuxis and Parrhasius once held a competition to establish who was the better painter. Zeuxis unveiled a painting of grapes so realistic that the birds flew down to peck at them. Zeuxis, keen to reveal Parrhasius’ painting, grasped at the curtain, not realising that it too was a painted illusion.

The story offers us a means to navigate this year’s Jerwood Drawing Prize. One could easily substitute Zeuxis for Roland Hicks’ image of the detritus of drawing activity – the shrapnel of broken pencil lead and the skirt of a pencil shaving, seemingly trapped under a strip of Sellotape.

As Parrhasius, Daniel Crawshaw presents the object itself: an old pan, the base of which has been scratched through a lifetime of use until it now resembles the surface of the moon, touching on both the sublime and the everyday.

In the tale, Parrhasius is deemed the victor: Zeuxis deceived the birds but Parrhasius deceived Zeuxis. However, the Jerwood exhibition is not attempting to deceive. Rather, it is an investigation into what drawing can be. As such, the artists are in collaboration rather than competition.

The material qualities of drawing are at times examined, with rough and dirty media such as graphite, chalk, charcoal and carborundum. There are digital prints, too, as well as wool and thread – even burnt light on paper (a photograph?).

Thomas Gosebruch’s entry is rendered in oil paint, that staple medium traditionally signifying painting. What sets these works aside as drawing is the intention of the artists to question rather than answer.

Selection panellist (and painter) Dexter Dalwood notes: “An important condition of drawing is that… it is explorative”. Co-panelist Salima Hasmi adds that “one is compelled to test it by presenting to a wider audience”. Drawings are an exploration of territory, whereas a finished work might be seen as a definitive proclamation of the explored, like a conquering flag, only to be eventually usurped by another, just as Parrhasius’ curtain followed Zeuxis’ grapes.

A number of works in the exhibition also test the potential of drawing to express realism, whose shadow often falls upon those who feel they ‘can’t draw’. But seen in the light of investigation, who would ever claim that they couldn’t explore?

As marks made on a surface to test and resolve ideas, writing too might be considered a form of drawing. Certainly this writer does not seek to provide a definitive answer, but to invite the audience to consider what drawing may be and to take part in the exploration.

Originally published in ‘Five responses by five writers’, part of the inaugural a-n Writer Development Programme led by a-n News Editor Chris Sharratt. The five texts produced by the programme participants Lydia Ashman, Sunny Cheung, Anneka French, Manjinder Sidhu, and James Steventon are available as a small publication at Jerwood Visual Arts as responses to the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2015. Also published on a-n, October 2015.

James Steventon Artist | Writer | Runner

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