Q&A conducted in anticipation of the exhibition ‘Drawing Beyond Itself’, October 2020, Air Gallery, Manchester. Questions from Jayson Gylen.
Pattern and multiplicity feature heavily in your practice as a working process. Is there a conceptual basis for this approach or is it more of a formal tool?
I am interested in how attempted, but often imperfect, repetition can build into an unexpected or unanticipated whole. Multiplicity gives rise to pattern within which variation and difference occur in ways that could never be engineered or imagined. Variation occurs through repetition to greater and lesser degrees in different works. One of my central interests is this experience of unanticipated variation. I resist designating this as either formal or conceptual, in my experience these two things are linked.
Do you see a connection between the repetition and various aspects of reproduction found in your work and the reproduction of images in mass media and the digital sphere?
Absolutely yes, connections can be made on this level. Repetition and reproduction move the location of value around, setting it in ambiguous, sometimes unexpected places. This seems to occur through my own working processes in expanded drawing, using extensive repeat and often echoed in its ‘shadow’ in other media (such as photographic rendition). I use this as a parallel medium, where the potential for reproduction is inherent. In some works such as the ‘In Negative’ series, the authentication of the hand is displaced by its removal in the final photographic materialization of the work. Similarly the symbiotic repeat and recycling of images in varying forms and with multiple uses and intentions in mass media displaces and confuses value.
The ‘In Negative’ (2004-2012) series of works are a drawing/photography hybrid combining a complex set of procedures whereby the initial drawings are transformed through photography into a negative/ inverted print. What for you is particularly interesting about the crossover of photography and drawing? And what have you discovered about drawing through this process?
Around 2004 I became interested in creating something over an extended period of time with the intention of allowing the camera to ‘see it’ or reinterpret it visually as it had previously done in my practice with other sensual experiences. This may sound strange, but it came out of a whole body of work where I had demanded the camera experience a range of senses not normally attributed directly to its abilities. This was pre-digital in terms of everyday experience and applied to my analogue, medium-format, stills camera (a little unwieldy but still capable of some acrobatics!). The relationship I built with the camera was personal. It was asked to listen to the secrets of others, to smell, to drown and to be buried, among other tests and trials. Asking it to simply look with its eye was the last remaining sense and in some ways seemed like an end point to my work over that period. Something had come full circle and I was looking for a way out of my photographic journey. The time spent with the camera was now being spent with pen and paper, often over really long periods of months, even in some cases years. The rendition of these ‘drawings’ as photographic works seemed to eclipse the time spent with pen and paper, it disappearing apparently with the click of the shutter. The negative print seemed to emphasize this absence, also having a similar quality to an X-Ray. Over time, drawing in itself became a new field of experimentation for me, gradually gathering a speed and energy of its own within my practice.
In various drawings, you deploy a strategy of repeated marks which as they are built up on the surface of paper become distorted, the natural consequence of the imperfection of the hand at exact reproduction. What is important to you about the handmade mark? What is significant about this?
The hand made mark when repeated does, as you point out, ‘distort’ gradually. In relation to this I have been interested in comparisons. For example works often begin with a basic geometric shape or line (such as a diagonal, horizontal or vertical line or square) that is ‘copied’ repeatedly, each line ‘repeating’ its predecessor. The initial line or shape transforms through this activity into something different, a new ‘self’ perhaps? Similarly to works where I use layers of colour (for example the ‘Imagined Legacies’, ‘Shifts’, ‘Shivers and Structures’), small discrepancies build up and something imperfect but new occurs. What interests me is how time spent is directly recorded on paper, yet that predictability becomes unpredictable and surprising as it emerges into a ‘work’.
How do you consider rhythm in your work? Is it an important part of your process?
Rhythm is something I find necessary as part of my working process. Through this it emerges almost incidentally as central to the materialized works. I generally avoid deliberately trying to control rhythm as a formal device. I simply notice how it develops in different ways across different pieces, resulting from different situations. In some long-term works, I notice that rhythm is affected by life events, giving the piece a diaristic aspect, folded into the work, but possibly hidden to others. Rhythm results from process in my practice, but it carries the viewer around the work, directing their vision and in larger pieces causing them to move about, being led around the work by varying, rhythmic pulses.
In your work there seems to be a sort of paradox between the somewhat mechanical and repetitive gestures of the hand and the works final appearance; as something more fluid, organic and reminiscent of nature. Does this paradox interest you?
There is, I agree, an element of paradox in the divergence between process and outcome in the work. In terms of natural processes, the relationship between time, forces and material results in ‘scapes’ (landscape, seascape, rockscape and etc) on both micro and macro planes. Similarly, a life lived can result in repeated lines, but the two experiences are not the same, however one may dictate or form the other and visa-versa!
In your work small repetitive gestures multiply to form large scale immersive drawings which as a unified form, appearing ‘all at once’ some what disguise this process. There also seems to be a topographical quality to your work bringing to mind land surfaces or perhaps biological structures seen under a microscope. (particularly in the ‘Lines (2011-2020) and ‘In Negative (2004-2012)’ series) Do you see an inter-play between the micro and macro scope in your work?
I grew up with a Neurophysiologist mother whose research and practice centered on EEG recordings from the brain. These ‘traces’ were laid down mechanically using ink on folded paper, resulting in large multi-page ‘books’. These were brought home nightly for analysis. In places, you could see how the recorded pattern altered, spiking here, flattening out there, the result perhaps of a patient’s epileptic seizure during the night, or some other hidden neurological occurrence, revealed by the changing wave patterns of the recording process. So a relationship between process and visual outcome, micro and macro was symbiotic with my childhood experience, as was the experience of time placed on paper to form a pattern, one that had meaning and could be ‘read’ or interpreted, but also, more irresponsibly, enjoyed on an aesthetic, visual level.
The drawings in the ‘Dunkelwald/Twilight Sky’ series (2011-2015) can take up to 6 months to make. Can you tell us about the experience of time in relation to your drawings? does this vary from work to work?
The ‘Dunkelwald’,‘Twilight Sky’ and ‘Lines’ series involve working over extensive periods of time. The first ‘Dunkelwald’ work used a selection of 14 coloured pencils, mostly greens of different hues, to fill in a hand drawn grid in a specific, repeated order. As in an earlier work, the drawing for which was made on graph paper for a negative image (‘Graph paper (ii)’ 2004-5 from ‘In Negative’), the pattern became disrupted by mistakes in the order made along the way. As the work evolved I became interested in the weight of colour as well as the varying pattern (the latter a record of my forgetting or mistaking). This gave rise to the next works in the series ‘Dunkelwaldlight’, 2013-14 and ‘Dunkelwaldsuperlite’, 2014, where I tried to pitch the pressure of the hand to achieve increasing lightness. The extended duration in the making of these pieces allowed me to discover what it was that might emerge unexpectedly, something I might not have imagined. Of course it also allows an extended visual and tactile field to unfold, generally the width of my studio wall. So from a set of simple starting points, orchestrated and physically carried out by myself, something uncontrolled comes about. As in the writing of a novel, the work takes on its own momentum going way beyond an initial ‘idea’.
You often mention ‘extended time’ when speaking about your work. You also work across a wide range of scales from the smaller and more contained to the larger more expansive drawings. How do you see the connection between extended time and expanded or contracted form/ size?
Some larger works happen more quickly such as the ‘Pourings’, yet even a shorter time frame still contributes to and to some extent dictates the outcome – the drying and running times of the inks and watercolour being used as a decision making device to determine an end point for each piece. Some small works can take weeks or months such as the ‘Small Diagonal Lines’ series or the previously mentioned drawing for ‘Graph paper (ii)’ which took 18 months to complete. In a smaller work the apparent ‘disappearance’ of that time seems even more extreme when the work ends and transforms into something seen by others as a visual pattern or outcome. Larger pieces that are made over long periods wear the time of making on their sleeve more overtly perhaps. So the time experienced during making is folded into the work with varying degrees of secrecy or effacement in different bodies of work.
Many of your drawings utilize the grid as an organizing and a supporting structure. What are your thoughts about the grid?
It’s true that I have used the grid for various works as a supporting device. I tend to use it as a convenient, spatially democratic structure to hold something much less predictable, usually something that varies and is on the edge of my control. In some ways this use of the grid in relation to something more fluid, can be seen as an anti or counter-grid. I am aware of the weight of discussion around the grid historically and try to use it lightly, even reluctantly, while still finding it useful. The Shifts, Shivers and Structures which initially came out of the earlier ‘Imagined Legacy’ series, use a partially rotated grid as their starting structure. The turning of the grid, an apparently slight manoeuvre, immediately references new and different fields of interpretation. Again, a simple geometric decision leads the work in a new direction.
You are Associate Lecturer in Drawing at Camberwell College arts. Can you tell us about your experience of teaching on this course? How has this influenced your own drawing practice?
I worked in the Drawing Department at Camberwell College of Arts for a period of time several years ago around 2007-8 while normally teaching on the Photography BA, and again now since 2019. The first experience occurred during the time I began to directly place drawing and photography in specific relationship to each other and the two experiences were intertwined. Extended discussion around the parameters of a practice focused in a particular area (a characteristic of Fine Art courses at Camberwell) encourages an expanded approach to a specific field. Drawing is seen and used in many different ways, and for very diverse purposes both now and historically, as is photography. The course engages in this, opening up way beyond the fine art context and this has been interesting for me to spend time with, practising and discussing with students and colleagues.
What patterns, themes and approaches to drawing are you seeing emerge from students on the MA and BA drawing courses or across Camberwell art school in general?
I see an increasing diversity of approach, often with an emphasis on materiality that has been a concern for a few years now.
What is your earliest memory of drawing?
My earliest memory of ‘drawing’ was pricking a thin aluminum sheet on the reverse side with a simple tool to make a picture of a fish out of the resulting raised ‘dots’ on the front, in the infants at Primary School. A simple thing that really intrigued me, in the class of a favorite art teacher called Mrs Cox. Straight away material and process were symbiotic with image.
Why do you think drawing is important? Why is it important to you personally?
Drawing can be a quick and immediate way to communicate something in a potentially international language. For myself in the studio, I think a lot about the use of the hand and the body in conjunction with the eye, the brain, the mind and intellect, together allowing an endlessly complicated exploration of the self. When work is engaged with by others, there may be aspects of making that can be directly recognized and related to by a similarly embodied being and this is overtly linked to a range of potential readings, allowing a primarily visual but broadly political communication to take place. Drawing is directly connected with space and I think about the movement of the body in space as drawing in a wider way, including the invisible line we trace when walking around or moving from one place to another.
What are your thoughts on drawing in contemporary art today? What is your impression of its position in the art world?
When something is referred to as ‘Drawing’ it can exist in an open field that sits lightly in relation to its counterparts in other areas. With a more fluid identity and often not seen as an end point, it can present a freer realm, where naming and fixing can be avoided. Drawing is often seen as less valuable or of a lower status, but also as central to experimentation and innovation.
The Drawn and Written Photograph – John Hilliard
There is a history in Anna Mossman’s work of deploying the camera to respond to non-visual stimuli such as smell, sound, or a complete absence of light (more a receptive subject than an impartial instrument, it smells flowers, listens to confessions, or is ‘buried alive’ in the ground). This direction of photography to the seemingly un-photographable has more recently been paralleled by an application of the rules of photography to non-photographic practices (specifically, drawing and writing), in turn subjecting photography to their tactics.
In Lap Drawing (2004), a dot is marked in black ink at the centre of a sheet of white paper. A line is then drawn closely round it, following its circular shape. A second line is drawn around the first, and so on, progressively building into a concentric pattern, the original circle inevitably distorting, the distortion compounded with each successive attempt at replication. Similarly, a drawing commencing with a single vertical line at the left of the paper, or another with a single horizontal line at the top, proceeds to develop imperfectly as a consequence of the hand’s inexact skill in copying.
The completed drawings are photographed onto large-format (10” x 8”) positive film, from which a print is made, now having negative values. This inversion of the photographic norm (i.e. positive to negative, rather than negative to positive) is in tandem with another inversion: the downgrading of the original and the elevation of the copy. The unique, hand-made drawing has become merely a stepping-stone to a photographically reproducible print – now the first-order form of this work. Moreover, given that photography is now revealed as the explicit medium of choice, the time taken to make an image via the extended duration of the drawing process is radically at odds with the convention of the split-second snapshot. Nevertheless, an emphasis of received photographic properties is detectable throughout the production process, including the devices of copying, repetition, and positive/negative transcription. If this sounds dryly self-conscious as a working method, the results belie any such perception. The original dots or lines are transformed into complex patterns that are now loaded with figurative associations, their readings strongly affected by being cast as delicate light traces on an indeterminate dark ground, and the viewer uncertain of their physical status (the hybrid of drawing, photograph and negative giving the appearance of a photogram).
There are, in fact, more austere works, though these may be equally compelling for their close reciprocity between initial concept and finished object. Substituting freehand drawing for the ruled line, and preceding positive with negative, Lined Paper (2006) commenced as an attempt to negatively predict, through white horizontals and a vertical green margin on a black background, the positive image of a conventional grey-lined notepaper page with a pink margin. Again photographed on positive film and printed as a colour negative, the finished size is A4, a close simulacrum of its intended referent, but with the ephemeral flimsiness of paper now displaced by the authoritative and pristine presence of a colour photograph flush-mounted on aluminium.
In addition to these conflations of drawing and photography, there is another body of work which reworks printed text through photographic strategies, utilising especially the reflexive relationship of positive and negative states. In a 2003 series, ZNVIRXZM KHBXSL, based on Brett Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel American Psycho, Mossman takes a passage, Morning, and rewrites it, inverting words to produce approximately opposing readings. So Morning is now titled Evening, and the original opening sentence, ‘In the early light of a grey dawn this is what the living room looks like: Over the white marble and granite gas-log fireplace hangs an original David Onica’, now reads: ‘In the dusk of an August evening this is what the bedroom of my apartment feels like: Under the black timber and plastic hearth a reproduction Goliath Zerico is hidden’. Mimicking the verbal inversion, a positive original is photographed and printed as a negative, now appropriately saturated with the background blood-orange base of colour negative film. This dystopic version of an already dystopic novel is then re-translated back to ‘positive’, with an inevitable slippage comparable to that occurring through the imperfect copying in her drawings, so that Anna Mossman’s morning and Brett Easton Ellis’s morning just got ‘worse’.
John Hilliard , 2009 ©
(From the exhibition catalogue essay for “Hands On – Photographs by Four British Artists”, curated by the artist and writer John Hilliard, Galerie Raum mit Licht, Vienna, Austria, 2010)
Anna Mossman – Daniel Jewesbury
Photography, as a medium dependent on mechanical and electronic technologies, is often imagined to be an anonymising process. In Anna Mossman’s ‘Lap’ and ‘Lines’ series, the signatory mark of the hand is translated into something automatic; her painstaking, repetitive drawings are photographed and inverted into negative images, in the process taking on new associations far removed from a faltering human hand. Sometimes these seem to be natural (the insistent ineluctability of tree rings), sometimes technological (the mark of a plotting pen on some scientific instrument, perhaps). The drawings themselves begin with a single dot or line, which is translated and repeated again and again, such that small irregularities in the initial mark are amplified and exaggerated, the pattern of repetitions becoming a map of mutations across generations of related, similar, but ever more convoluted marks.
Reversals and negations always imply their ‘original’, sometimes in a causal link (the photographic negative holds within itself the conditions for the existence of a positive, which itself is the record of the ‘world’, as originally transferred to the film) but often in an apparently circular relation – where it’s unclear which gave rise to the other. I’m led by Mossman’s work to a range of considerations of a dialectical or paradoxical nature; and these lead me to wonder how it is that the mark of authorship (of the artist as an individual creator, a ‘genius’) persists in an ‘age of technological reproducibility’? Do these works seek to render uncertain the status of that mark? Or are they in fact seeking to claim for themselves a different kind of distinctiveness, to reassert an originality through technical and formal invention even as they appear to question the ‘mark’ itself as the bearer of authorial significance?
Most obviously, in existing, somehow, both as drawing and photography, Mossman’s works are ‘truly’ neither, and thus they self- consciously render their own categorisation problematic. This ontological ambivalence is not itself so unusual in contemporary art: in painting, the enormously influential ‘sub-
realist’ approach of Luc Tuymans, and the hyperrealism of Gerhard Richter are alike concerned with the same problematisation of representation, with ‘automating’ the painted image, or conversely with ‘individualising’ the photographic image. Thomas Demand is only the most immediate example of those who use photography to trouble ‘reality’ and our understanding of it; but even amongst those photographers who apparently document ‘real’ things, the use of the staged scene (for instance in the work of Gregory Crewdson or Jeff Wall, or even Cindy Sherman) means that the question of what the photograph itself actually is is ever-present. Are these images reconstructions of paintings, or movie stills, or abstractions from other fantastic realities?
What is distinctive, and also unsettling, about Mossman’s ‘Line’ series is their non- representational nature: when we look at the final piece of work, we inevitably read some representational logic into them: “this one looks like…” But as drawings they actually give no reason for these associations – they are simply the accidents of a pre-ordained set of repetitive instructions. They are just lines. As drawings, then, they would have a certain minimalist interest, but as photographs, they have an entirely transformed nature, they are documentary images. Entirely ineffable, inscrutable, non-referential documentary images, but documentary images nonetheless.
Mossman’s series of film images performs a circular motion from photography to painting and back to photography again, with the painted image now rendered as a (pseudo- photographic) negative. The images all show directors and actors discussing the scenes they are engaged in filming, and Mossman selects images from a very particular range of films: Blow-Up and The Passenger by Antonioni, Rosemary’s Baby by Polanski, Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg. This is not simply incidental: even if these just happen to be films that Mossman likes, the selection of these films, and these directors, hints that the images are about more than just the general communicative act in representational art. Here are directors whose own interest is in the
difficulty (or even the impossibility) of communicating, or in the unsettling of commonplace ‘meaning’ as usually constructed in mainstream film.
The brain engages in a great deal of work trying to read a negative image, rendering for itself an approximation of the positive of which it is an index. As we look at the negative, it oscillates back and forth in our mind’s eye between its potential and actual states. Even to an experienced darkroom printer, the examination of a negative is only ever a half- reading; the positive is always an utterly different, sometimes surprising companion. Mossman’s paintings seem to take advantage of this mental approximation, this tendency of ours to complete the picture as we expect it to be; her brushstrokes are often mere suggestions, outlines, hasty areas of shade, and yet we try to make the inverted photographs match as closely as possible the original images from which they are drawn, to make the copy – the copied copy, in fact – a proxy for the original.
An older series of works suggests how cannily Mossman works with these properties of the negative image. The image ‘Lined Paper’ (2006) seems to be at first glance a reproduction of a piece of ordinary A4 from a loose-leaf pad. The viewer then discerns that it is drawn, freehand: so it is a photograph of a photorealist representation, then, of a piece of ordinary A4 from a loose-leaf pad. In fact, the drawing was undertaken in negative, so that the pink margin was drawn in green, and the blue-grey rules in white on a black background. The image only attains its ‘reference’ to the object it supposedly represents through its photographic documentation. If this seems simply to be a clever visual game, we should ponder what it reveals to us about the nature of all photography, which, in attempting to represent the world, can only ever construct a simulacrum of it: a copy of the world that is most convenient to the way in which the photographer (and the viewer) would like to critique it.
Daniel Jewesbury, 2011©
(From Source, The Photographic Review, Winter 2011, issue 69, an essay by the artist and writer Daniel Jewesbury)
On the Blank: Photography and Writing – Susan Morris
Mossman photographs her own drawings that, completed according to a simple set of rules or criteria, often take a considerable length of time to make. Through photography, it could therefore be argued, Mossman makes integral to the work something that might not necessarily need to be there; why not show the drawings themselves (they are certainly beautiful and accomplished enough)?
Instead the work is embedded with the indexical condition of photography. Through the operation of the index, the image points to the drawing from which it was derived. But the drawing is itself indexically linked to the activity or movement that caused it; that brought it, unheralded, into existence. The index operates in the drawing where it traces the response of Mossman’s body to the rules she has proscribed for the work. Then the time spent on the drawing (which can be up to 18 months) and the events that directed or ‘coloured’ the mark-making processes, are swallowed up in the instant of the photograph, which obliterates them – only to put something closer to those original, invisible, events in their place.
So the image is an index of an index. However, as Rosalind Krauss has suggested in her essay Notes… (1986), an index is a sign that bypasses the symbolic system, that remains outside or beyond any system of representation. The photograph contains something unsymbolisable. Agreed, we see a series of marks that make up an image, which (perhaps unsurprisingly) looks like a shroud or a veil, a web or a net (in which things can be caught up, or with which things can be covered over) but through the use of photography something is added and something is taken away – the (unsymbolisable) thing of the image is both doubled and absent.
It is doubled because photography repeats it, while simultaneously pointing to something else that (like an echo) also points to another something that preceded it. It is absent because it contains something connected to the body that is unrepresentable or that exceeds representation; that which is caught in the net or covered by the shroud, perhaps.
As Krauss suggests, photography’s physical genesis ‘seems to short circuit or disallow those processes of schematisation or symbolic intervention’ at work within other kinds of representations, such as paintings or drawings. Through the operation of the index, Krauss argues, physical presence is registered as ‘meaninglessness’ – or nothing. At once a readable image and therefore a part of culture, that which is man-made, the photograph contains something that evades all that: the photograph traps or is imprinted with that which is inhuman. Flickering between the visible and the invisible, the photograph confronts us with that within the image itself that is unsymbolisable or absent; where an unrepresentable reality, beyond words, co-exists alongside that which is recognisable as an image.
In Mossman’s work, photography insists upon itself. Through the operation of the index the image points to that which, inscribed within it, is contingent, subjective and therefore unrepresentable. Without the photograph this point would be lost. Through the addition of the index to the image a kind of erasure occurs; a blind field is created within it. Mossman offers to the visual field that which is unseeable. In this way Mossman traces something (the original movement recorded in the drawing, and the subsequent photograph of this movement) that twice evades symbolisation. By being the index of an index, Mossman’s work pulls the mark back towards nothingness; the presence of the unrepresentable. Despite the rules used to generate the work, what the resulting images veer towards (what they perhaps yearn for) is return to disorder or chaos; to a state before things were named, symbolised. The process of photographing the drawings takes the mark closer to the illegibility and incomprehensibility of the stain.
Finally, by refusing to follow normal photographic procedure and print the image positively, Mossman prints it in negative. In other words, Mossman refuses to attempt to re-instate the original, missing, object that is there in all photography; she refuses to cover up its absence. This is interesting because, while being more ‘true’ to photography, the resulting image – as ‘ghost’ of the missing object – actually looks less like a conventional photograph. It also reminds you that the original object is missing. Mossman’s photographic works do not let you forget what is the case for all photographs: that what you are looking at is not the thing itself.
Once it has been made apparent by the presence of the negative that the original object is not there, then the viewer’s reaction might be to attempt to supply an object to take its place; to imagine what should be there in the space in front of them by thinking of what its opposite might be. But the original object cannot be restored by words because the operation of language, which consists of a chain of endlessly substitutable signifying symbols, cannot supply a single, definitive, answer. All you have when you gaze at Mossman’s work is the endlessly repeatable question: what was – or is – there?
Susan Morris , 2007 ©
(From Extracts from ‘On the Blank: Photography and Writing’ by artist and writer Susan Morris PhD, University of the Arts, London).