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In this time of forced introversion and on-line communication, The National Centre for Drawing’s 2021 Drawing symposium delves into the question of what Drawing is and does now, how it connects us to the present and makes us present in the world.


Eight very different artists from all over the world talk about the role of drawing in their practice and the drawings that inspire them.


Gerry Davies (UK), Maria Kontis (VIC), Anita Fricek (Austria), Margaret Roberts (NSW), Peter Bonner (USA), Aida Tomescu (NSW), James Nguyen (VIC), Lucienne Rickard (TAS)

Anita Fricek discusses a sketchbook of subway drawings by New York based artist Guno Park in relation to her own work By Bus to Public Housing Gardens and Nature in the City. Margaret Roberts discusses Helena Almeida’s 1975 drawing Inhabited Drawing and her own drawing We went to school here.
Gerry Davies discusses Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawing A Cloud Burst of Material Possessions, which has guided his work for more 30 years. Maria Kontis talks about Vija Celmins drawing as it relates to her drawing work.
Aida Tomescu talks about drawings by two artists that are crucial to the foundation of her work. Peter Bonner talks about a drawing by Titian as well as drawing that’s being done in New York today.
James Nguyen talks about Gabrielle De Vietri’s Fossil Fuels + the Arts and Cameron Rowland’s Public Money, in the context of his own drawing practice. Lucienne Rickard talks about Robert Morris’ Blind Time as it relates to her durational drawing.

The Symposium

Drawing is often described as a ‘tradition’, as if it were stuck in a holding pattern of orthodoxy. However, Presence: Drawing Symposium 2021 showed us how drawing functions as a vehicle for, and receptacle of, human intelligence — a constantly evolving thing. In this context, drawing eschews associations of conservatism or conformity, instead reflecting the central meaning of tradition as a process or activity ‘long-established and habitually done.’ The Drawing symposium showed us how drawing is investigative, embodied, adaptable, alive —it ‘draws attention’, in an attention economy frequently at odds with the slowness or specificity of drawing. Moreover, the settling point of the 2021 symposium’s lively discussions on drawing rested on the idea of ‘humanity’ as a shared understanding of the condition of being human. Presence is after all, the state of existing, occurring, or being present, together.
The symposium began with a Welcome to Country by Gadigal elder Uncle Allen Madden — a reminder of our presence on unceded Aboriginal land and the continuity and agency of Indigenous culture. Following this was an introduction and welcome to both the live and online audience from Head of Drawing Maryanne Coutts and NAS director and CEO Steven Alderton. Drawing staff then chaired panels between two distinguished speakers each of whom discussed a selected artist’s work and their own with the passion and insight of committed practitioners, exploring different ideas regarding Drawing and Presence. There were four panels followed by discussions between the two speakers in each panel, and questions from the online and live audience.

With Anita Fricek in Vienna moving towards midnight and Margaret Roberts in Sydney at the start of our day, the pair did the groundwork for thinking about drawing as it occupies space and time in terms of both physicality and social currency; drawing as a social practice, documenting people in public spaces, as well as the idea of ‘place’ in relation to time and space. This gave rise to a consideration of the image/object relationship.
Fricek started by showing Guno Park’s impressive concertina book which is comprised of a panoramic sequence drawn live in the New York subway. She followed with a description of her own series of drawings based on a tour of market gardens By Bus to Public Housing Gardens and Nature in the City. While Fricek’s work uses her phone as an intermediary quite deliberately, the parallels between the two artists highlight the immediacy of drawing as a means for direct engagement with human activity in a world that is often dominated by the mechanical. In Fricek’s case this is a response to an increasingly threatened environment.

Margaret Roberts (centre) at the Drawing Symposium 2021

Margaret Robert’s more formal presentation considered the substance of drawing. Helena Almeida’s 1975 work Inhabited Drawing, a drawing made by placing a hair on a photograph, introduced ideas about the delicate relationships between represented space and actual space, illusion and being. This set the scene for Margaret’s recent work We went to school here which laid an historic place over the top of a contemporary one.
Following these presentations, the two teased out these issues in a conversation that was far ranging but circled around ideas of drawing as meaning-making, encompassing and traversing time. As a practice drawing takes place in a specific time and place, however, as an artefact drawing exists in an atemporal flow- we can look at a drawing or any image from any ‘time’ and see its meaning in the context of the present.

Gerald Davies (UK) and Maria Kontis (Vic) touched on themes of world-making and labour, the photographic image and memory. Drawing is often associated with immediacy and directness, but Davies and Kontis demonstrated how intensive processes can lead to pictorial spaces that materialise through highly focussed and often prolonged graphic labour. These pictorial spaces can present a world of the past or imagine a world of the future.

Gerry discussed Da Vinci’s  A Cloudburst of Material Possessions (1505-12) in relation to his own work which explores ideas around the global climate crisis by imagining scenarios in which humans deal with the threats posed by floods, pollution and rising sea levels. He described his miniature drawings as ‘thinking drawings’ doing the graphic labour of reaching for a resolution.

Maria talked about Vija Celmins drawings, and their influence on her ideas about what drawing could be, as well as the role of the photograph as a source for drawings. Kontis discussed her fraught relationship with the photograph as document of a moment in time, a trace, and an object, and how her translations of photographs are not simple copies but rather function as a re-describing or re-making of a memory.

Aida Tomescu (NSW) and Peter Bonner (USA) spoke of drawing as a practice that enables unpremeditated response to visual stimuli and to the experience of being in space. Their own work involves a synthesis of observation, erasure and remaking, and their presentations focused on the initiation of working processes more than the question of what constitutes a complete drawing.

Taking drawings by Titian, Cézanne, Matisse and Tony Tuckson as examples, they concurred that these artists demonstrate an awareness of the fundamental interdependence between form and void in visual perception and proposed that their openness to poetic ambiguity in how the seen or sensed subject is drawn, constitutes a significant commonality across centuries. 

Lucienne Rickard working on Extinction Studies

Lucienne Rickard (Tas) and James Nguyen (Vic) both touched on the relationship between drawing and various cultural institutions. Lucienne reflected on the time that she spent drawing at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery as part of her work Extinction Studies. This work involved the creation of detailed drawings of extinct plants and animals that were then erased. Lucienne’s project at the Museum encompassed many conversations with patrons who were visiting the natural history part of the institution and were therefore not there as an art audience. In this institutional context these conversations became an important part of the work. Lucienne then spoke about Robert Morris’ drawing Blind Time and other works from this series. 
James Nguyen also spoke about the importance of conversations with and around institutions and how those conversations might be part of a drawing practice. He discussed Gabrielle De Vietri’s Fossil Fuels + the Arts which traces the relationship between arts institutions and fossil fuel companies and Cameron Rowland’s Public Money which involved the artist convincing the Whitney Museum to invest $25 000 in Social Impact Bonds. James then described how he had to negotiate ethics approvals to work with family members as part of his PhD research at the University of New South Wales. Part of James’ practice involves thinking critically about these processes and highlighting the underlying ideologies and motives that drive these forms of institutional bureaucracy.

National Centre for Drawing

The National Centre for Drawing at the National Art School promotes and nurtures practice, research and scholarship in drawing in all of its manifestations. Positioned at the core of an educational institution and cultural precinct, it enables a range of audiences to engage more deeply with drawing. Through the practice of drawing, curatorial projects, exhibitions, publications, conferences, lectures and other special events, it nurtures a curiosity around drawing that is grounded in precedent but extends towards the unknown.