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Published 24/02/2016 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Joe Graham: ‘Anchor is not quite a book about drawing, and yet it’s not quite a book that isn’t about drawing’

His new book, Anchor, presents 14 responses to the question: What is an outline? Here, he explains why he uses drawing as a form of investigation to explore philosophical ideas


Joe Graham is a visual artist who was born in Chester in 1980. He did a BA in fine art painting at Chelsea School of Art and Design from 1999 to 2002 and graduated from the Slade with an MFA in fine art media in 2010. He went on to do a practice-led PhD in drawing research at Loughborough University in 2011 to 2015 and his recent publication, Anchor, evolved from his doctoral research there. The book presents 14 responses to the question: What is an outline? Functioning as a piece of drawing research formed across drawing, print, photography and text, Anchor questions the idea that the phenomenon of outline can be defined in the traditional sense.

Instead, Anchor poses an alternative mode of reply: anchoring it according to how the phenomenon of outline appears. Rather than present a singular answer that defines a narrow understanding, Anchor seeks to outline a wider interpretation across a range of contributions. The artists invited by Graham to collaborate on his project are: Andrew Hewish, Chantal Faust, Claude Heath, Deborah Harty, Gemma Anderson, Gordon Shrigley, Kelly Chorpening, Paul McDevitt, Phil Sawdon, Steven Dickie, Thomas Falstad, Tom Morton and Virginia Verran.

Janet McKenzie: How did your studies at the Slade lead you to embark on drawing research?

Joe Graham: While at the Slade, I was engaged in producing serially developed drawings in combination with video and installation that evolved in tandem. The work I was doing leaned towards being considered as research in a loose sense, for I was using my practice to carry out an enquiry into the relationship between marks on paper and the thought that underpins them, rather than simply producing objects for display. As a result of feedback from my tutors in particular, I became more interested in the idea of thinking through serially developed drawing, where the process of making led to the creation of knowledge concerning what the work was ultimately about.

On completing my studies, I began to focus more fully on treating my serially developed drawings as a form of investigation – one that questioned how drawing may record or capture thought at the point at which it emerges. I had, by this point, begun talks with Loughborough University School of the Arts – chosen as a place that took the idea of drawing research seriously – while I embarked on forming a research question. This question was developed, with the help of one of my future supervisors, to make explicit certain intuitions that resided within my serially developed practice, and this setup provided the means to sensibly embark on practice-led drawing research.

JMcK: What is it about drawing at the present time that lends itself as a tool for the exploration of philosophical ideas?

JG: That is an intriguing and rather challenging question. I’ll answer by way of placing drawing in relation to art in general, given this is the context in which I approach drawing research.  It seems to me that the move towards exploring philosophical ideas through forms of non-lexical expression, such as drawing, has been in play for some time. I think this is partly a result of the continued development of practice-led research as a viable concept, where writing and other forms of inscription, such as drawing, come into contact in regards to questioning how they might express similar ideas differently. Given the investigative nature of this task, the ideas that are being questioned often reveal themselves to be fundamentally philosophical in nature, because philosophy is arguably the realm where we find some of the most interesting questions posed about the nature of ideas in general.

The relationship of something like drawing to this confluence of events is entwined with the idea of the drawn line being a successful means to separate, parse or define a set of understandings, one from another. The idea of line as a tool to separate that which is compacted is related to how characters in the alphabet operate as vehicles for thought. The dualistic form of the line/character means it can stand in for something other than itself, thus forcing a degree of separation into what was otherwise tightly bound. In other words, every line is simultaneously what it is – a mark or a letter on a piece of paper – coupled with what it is not, ie what it represents. It is worth stating here that I follow Philip Rawson in describing drawing as that which is produced via a “point that moves”, and so the line features front and centre whenever I think of drawing.

JMcK: Can you describe your own studio practice and how it has evolved as a response to your research-oriented past few years?

JG: While my studio practice has evolved in numerous ways, it has also stayed remarkably consistent during my past few research-orientated years. I have remained focused on using serially developed drawing as a means to draw out my ideas from the process as it unfolds. The evolution that has occurred has been a kind of expanded awareness of what my practice is doing, in terms of being an active and focused investigation of the relationship between thinking and drawing. Rather than remain implicit, as it was prior to embarking on a PhD, this investigation now takes place in more explicit terms.

I am currently producing a series of line drawings where the aim is to draw a line around the temporal development of my “think” as it expands in space. Here, both thinking and drawing are described as forms of rhythm, where the rhythmical form of one seeks to represent the rhythmical form of the other. Rhythm is employed because it is something that bridges time and space. Visually, they look a bit like automatic doodles … although the term automatic doesn’t bear up too well under scrutiny, so I tend not to employ it. The term doodle, on the other hand, I like very much.

In research terms, this process is geared towards testing a hypothesis that I put in place prior to starting each series. This means I treat my drawings as a form of “test results”, using them to search for that which is invariantly understood from within the variation each series displays. This methodology is Husserlian in scope, but it reinforces the method of drawing I employed at the Slade. Here, elements of concern would be looked for within the variation each series of drawings displayed, and whatever appeared to be important (essential, or invariant) would be noted as indicating what the work appeared to be about.

JMcK: Which artists have most influenced you?

JG: Artists that remain influential are those who focus on mark-making. Some, such as Henri Michaux, don’t fit too well into any category but constantly emerge, whereas more easily classifiable types, such as Cy Twombly and Agnes Martin, often fade for a while before suddenly springing back. Michaux is probably my principal source of inspiration, where his development of the mark (trait) in tandem with his writing has long been a place of intrigue. Twombly’s use of the autographic line – the signature – continues to resonate, whereas Martin’s peculiar oeuvre has steadily taken hold over a number of years, bolstered by a recent Tate Modern retrospective that really drew me back into her carefully calibrated world.

Added to these are contemporary artists such as Raymond Pettibon, Charles Avery, William Kentridge, Paula Rego and Mona Hatoum, all of whom influence the way in which I think about drawing, mark-making and writing working together, Susan Hiller, whose writing, installation, poetry and performance I have long admired, while stranger figures, such as Antonin Artaud and Len Lye, surface from time to time. Although completely different figures, their approach to mark-making has parallels – for example, the oscillating and rather disturbing gris-gris drawings Artaud produced while incarcerated towards the end of his life provoke a powerful relationship to his writing on theatre. Lye, a pioneer of both film and animation, worked the other way around, producing a fantastic range of animated marks and “marked words” that became a kind of theatre of their own, managing to float free of the surface of the screen.

JMcK: How did you choose the 14 artists involved in Anchor? What sort of feedback have you had from them in terms of how the project has impacted on their respective practices (other than some very fine drawings)?

JG: I picked the 13 artists (14 including myself), writers and curators on the basis of their proven interest in drawing. Although not all of them draw, they all think about, and deal with, drawing in a variety of ways. This set of diverse approaches was more suited to the expanded nature of the task I was taking on – outlining an understanding of outline, via the act of “outlining” (that is, making work) – where the traditional relationship of outline to drawing was used as a starting point, rather than anything too proscriptive. This choice reflects my background as a practitioner who draws, but it also allowed me to move slightly beyond a book purely on drawing – after all, the topic of outline far exceeds such a categorisation. This kind of selection also serves the notion of “expanded drawing”, which remains a current (if ill-defined) theme within drawing research.

In terms of feedback, the book has provoked a number of very positive conversations from contributors, both in terms of how the framing of the question allowed them to make new work, and how the kind of thinking the book was promoting might be developed further. However, I also think that, for most of the contributors, this book probably took a bit of getting used to – it is quite an eclectic object when held in the hand: not quite a book about drawing, and yet not quite a book that isn’t about drawing. My main aim was to draw the reader in, so by spending time with a really original book designer (CHK Design) and printing using lithography, we were able to make the publication into something that is a pleasure both to handle and look at.

JMcK: What remit did you give to the artists in Anchor?

JG: I provided all the contributors with a rough outline to respond to, in the form of a question. In true circular fashion, the question I asked was: What is an outline? As editor, my aim was to test a hypothesis I had developed, itself based on “anchoring” the idea of outline according to how it appears in phenomenological terms. In simple terms, this hypothesis states that a general understanding of outline is to be drawn only via the specific act of outlining that constitutes it. While this is a proposition drawn from my interest in Edmund Husserl’s philosophy, I sought to test it here in practical terms.

In regard to the publication itself, this specific act refers to the act of individual contributors producing original work in response to my question. Each contributor was provided with a physical template (outline) in the form of a page template, into which their contribution would go. This template is the black outline you can see printed on each page of Anchor, with different thicknesses of line denoting the different contributors (crosschecked in the contents page). Not all the contributors followed these stipulations, however, which meant that while some of the pieces fitted exactly into the outer line of the template, other spilled outside it. Of course, providing artists with a box into which their work must fit is bound to encourage some to step outside. This kind of move simply adds to the thinking about the nature of outline as a phenomenon, however, both in terms of what it is, and what it does.

JMcK: You involved writers as well. How does the very interesting essay by Tom Morton, in your view, complement your own writing and the project as a whole?

JG: The lovely piece of writing by Tom Morton is actually a synopsis (outline) of the novel he is currently working on. Tom is someone I have known for a number of years in connection with his curating and his writing on art. I selected him here on the basis of his thoughts about drawing, identified over many essays he has written (his championing of the artist Charles Avery from an early stage is key in this regard). As I provided the contributors with a loose outline to respond to, Tom had the freedom to respond to my question in whatever way he chose. By electing to provide an outline of his forthcoming novel, his contribution fits very well into the project as a whole.

In terms of how it complements my written introduction staged (“dotted”) throughout the book, I would say that my text provides a loose frame around all of the contributions, imagined as a dotted outer line. My text uses the phenomenological premise of the book as a licence to take a more circuitous route around the topic. This means I loop out from sensible beginnings, using the physical description of Rawson’s drawn line to reach the description of contour according to Pliny. Contour then provides the means to slip past the plane on which the line/question sits, into a more playfully metaphysical arena, one that touches on Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology of being. Here, the central concern of the book (to outline the outline) is reconfigured as: seeking the essence, truth or “being” of outline. To summarise – the act of outlining I perform in my text is describing the being of outline via Heidegger’s outline of being.

JMcK: To what other fields within the arts might your drawing research have an application? Anchor was launched at the Royal Institute of British Architects, London, and it seems that architectural schemes might be an obvious area?

JG: In regards to discussing broad topics such as outline, my drawing research could indeed move across a number of disciplines that deal with such notions, such as architecture. This is one of the reasons why the RIBA was interested in launching Anchor, because the terrain it covers – discussing what an outline is – sits well within the institute’s remit. In the future, this kind of practice-led philosophical approach to drawing research means I can potentially assemble a group of architects, coupled with those who think/write about architecture, and put the same question to them: What is an outline? While the responses received would differ in form and content from those which my current selection provided, they would still fit within the phenomenological premise of the book.

That is one of the useful things about using philosophy as a means to structure research projects such as this – as a mode of thinking, it encourages asking broad questions in quite specific ways, which in turn promotes a pluralistic approach to choosing disciplines. Perhaps this kind of approach is being mirrored in other ways at present. After all, the architecture group Assemble have just won the Turner Prize, blurring the boundary between disciplines such as art and architecture. I think my drawing research has the potential to move across boundaries in similar fashion, but only if I can pose questions that are both important and timely, as Assemble did. Rather than become too fixated on which field or category one belongs to, the aim of visual research such as Anchor might be to suggest new ways to ask questions that are in themselves thought-provoking, that is questions that draw us in, and call for thought.

• Anchor, edited by Joe Graham and designed by CHK Design, is published by Marmalade Publishers of Visual Theory, 2015.

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