Jack Southern: Some of your drawings seem to convey a process of working out how very personal thoughts and feelings could be expressed and communicated visually.
Dryden Goodwin: Yes, I think so, and the drawings in [this early sketchbook] developed a very specific emotional content because most of them are of a friend, Sarah, who I spent a lot of time with in hospital as she had leukaemia. You can see that she is the focus of the drawings; but you can also see that the context of the hospital has a very significant effect on the atmosphere of the drawings. I was trying to distil something about the space of the hospital; the wards, corridor, waiting rooms, and quality of light and express the fragility of that experience for both of us.
Sarah was going through chemotherapy, and I think the drawings express my attempt to explain something of how I felt and how it seemed she felt. I was trying to work something out about the emotional charge in the relationship and its circumstances. The drawings are in some ways an emotional record of spending time being with someone who is experiencing something very intense and trying to deal with it. They attempt to capture a specific point in time, and a level of intensity I think. I am not entirely sure.
JS: As well as an emotional charge, I feel the kind of marks in the drawings show the evidence of a changing thought process.
DG: Yes I think you are right; the marks represent the building of the drawing. And I think some of the marks here, as well as in other drawings, as you mention, are the thinking process made evident, and I like that.
JS: It is amazing to see these works because they are from 20 years ago when you where a student, but I feel like you can see really important aspects of your work being established here.
DG: I always produced a lot of sketchbooks as a student. I think I drew all the time. I just thought I could be a compulsive drawer, but I always wanted the drawing to add up to something. And that is obviously something that is still very important to me now. My drawings have got to contribute to a conceptual framework of thinking, which might open up the spirit of what is contained within each individual drawing.
JS: This sketchbook which depicts the time spent with your friend in hospital is very moving, but it is also intriguing in the context of other bodies of work you have made since, which are also rooted in portraying the intensity of an encounter?
DG: That is something that has re-occurred in my work in different ways, whether it is an encounter with someone, or somewhere. Having drawn from the figure in the life room at art school, I have always been interested in questions around what gives you permission to look at someone in a focused way. When really engaging in the experience, drawing someone can be quite a sensual activity. So the process of making marks in relation to the synchronised action of looking at the subject and the page, allows you to reach through the surface. In some ways you are touching who, what or where you are observing; touching without touching.
The activity as a means to record the encounter is in some respects more important than the drawing itself.
So the process can become about the whole experience, the drawing, the looking, but also the sensing. The drawing is the visual record, but the drawing can become the vehicle to allow the encounter to become accentuated, giving you a sense of what is beyond the visual. So for me the entirety of the encounter and the potential of what that can create is really important. Making the drawing is often like a kind of strange attempt to comprehend the encounter; it can be quite euphoric in a way, the sense of something that is very concentrated.
JS: I guess the potential for the encounter to go beyond the visual can be facilitated in different ways… through becoming absorbed into the intensity of the experience, through conversation and exchange?
DG: Absolutely, and with Linear, 2010, the project I made for Art on the Underground, in which I made pencil portraits of 60 Jubilee Line staff at work, the encounter is taken a stage further because the sense of objectification is shifted and it is very much about the exchange.
Rather like you experience someone who you are meeting in a bar or something, and I like that. In that project I consciously wanted to emphasise the importance of the encounter, by the fact that each drawing was accompanied by a film of the portrait being made, including fragments of conversation between myself and the person being drawn.
The process of sitting with someone, whether it was for example, a train driver or someone in the ticket office while they are working or at moments of rest, were always uniquely intimate. Each gave me an inevitably incomplete, yet rich sense of the person. But interestingly, the intensity always seemed heightened for both of us; we were both exposed and vulnerable. In the process of working on the project, I did not really have any set questions to refer to, I just reacted with a fluidity that the exchange suggested, and I like the way it took the pressure off the drawings even though they were often in jeopardy. In that open, flexible state, it is amazing how the drawing facilitates the conversation to open up.
JS: It occurred to me when you described the heightened intensity for both you and the person you might be drawing, that it offers the potential for you both to learn things about each other that you did not know about yourself?
DG: I like the idea that a drawing is always a time capsule. The forerunner to Linear was a project called Reveal in which I approached strangers in the street and asked to draw them. At certain points I could not monitor the conversation because I would be trying to monitor the drawing. There were all these different levels of revelation going on, with both the drawing itself as well as within the conversation. And parallel to this in my practice; other works have a clandestine aspect to them, where I have not asked a person for permission which creates another charge within an encounter.
To come back to the project Linear for the Underground, I like the idea that many individual encounters accrue to form an entire project. So across the assemblage of the 60 people I drew, a composition emerges that could almost be as tangible as interconnecting marks mapped out on a surface. So that structure represents an underlying and implied drawing. It’s a physical, but also emotional mapping of the space.
As I mentioned, another layer to Linear were the films, available to watch on a dedicated website. On the poster sites, members of the public are invited to “Unlock the drawings by watching the films on-line”. I wanted to find a way to imply the 1300 people who work on the Jubilee Line. I tried to suggest this complexity by the detailing of just 60 closely rendered portraits. I am always struck by the inevitable incompleteness of any portrait, this idea was also mirrored in the close editing of the soundtrack of each film set against the accelerated progression of the entirety of the visuals. My focus in each film was an attempt to hone my sense of the person as a time-based vignette. Each small edit, like the making of a mark in the drawing, shaping the emphasis that a portrait had, a further stage in an empathetic process; each portrait a distinctive coordinate within the constellation.
JS: So each individual drawing is a fixed physical record of the encounter with each person, but then the drawings as a whole are able to create a new set of associations and connections that say something about the entirety of the relationships involved? So the drawings as a whole are able to move into a metaphorical realm, which is closer to, or more true to the emotional and physiological relationships which took place as the drawings were being made?
DG: I’m drawn to those possibilities. I am interested in the design of structures of engagement for a viewer in an artwork, how the elements of a project resonate together, for example how a figurative drawing can become more than an end in itself in relation to others. It excites me that in certain circumstances drawings made from observation can be repositories of a whole host of ideas, and can suggest things that are unseen and less tangible.
JS: As in other works you have talked about, this idea seems to re-affirm that there is an intrinsic drive to allow the visual record of an experience you make on paper to go beyond the physical barrier of the surface, and attempt to access something of its non-physical, non-visual and non-verbal essence; the feeling of the encounter or experience?
DG: It is crucial you mention the surface, because I think a lot of my work expresses the surface as something you need to transcend in someway to get at what you want to make contact with. But it is not something that is exclusive to drawing. In working with different media such as drawing, photography and moving image, I like the idea that I am able to activate and access beyond the surface of the paper, image or screen.
I remember sitting as a child and watching my Dad draw; an illusion of space would form on a flat page. There was always something very magical in that.
As well as drawing, many of my earlier video installations have been about the balance between the barrier the surface assumes, and creating a penetrable picture window into another world. I have often used multiple screens, so you are also reminded that the work references the constructions of the real. So you hover on the surface, not literally, but metaphorically.
JS: This idea of being constrained by, or offered access beyond the surface, is obviously significant in reference to how you have combined the mediums of drawing and photography? In other works you drew directly onto the surface of the photographic image. Is this almost an attempt to reach into the photograph and touch the subject in the same way as you have described in drawing from life?
DG: I was just thinking about photography in relation to what we were talking about, and a conversation with David Chandler (Professor of Photography at the University of Plymouth), came to mind when we spoke about the ongoing series of photographs Cradle which I begun in 2002.
He said that when you show a photograph to someone, you might talk about its content and say, this is a picture of my mother, we went to this place, and over here is where we had something to eat, etc.. Often in describing the content of the photograph you touch the surface. It is like a redrawing or retracing of something. The surface of a photograph is unified; if you touch it you are suggesting something else. Finger prints might disturb the surface, it becomes defiled, but a drawing is different, it is all about defiling or altering the surface of the paper.
In the series Cradle I made drawings on top of photographs of strangers I had taken in public spaces in moments of introspection I was interested in the ambiguity of this gesture. In fact I would scratch into the photographic surface with an etching needle. Then I would draw directly onto the surface of the photograph; a kind of annotation. When I made incisions, scratching into the surface, it was like I could almost feel the texture of the skin and the skull beneath the surface. So in a similar way to the drawings on paper, this sense of touch was very important.
But also, in making them, I would get to a point where I am totally absorbed and enveloped by the image. It felt like drawing into the illusory space of the photograph, a kind of thinking into the image. I would lose the sense of it being a surface because I would feel like I was literally, within the picture. In working in this way, the photographic surface also became something you can physically touch. I like that, it becomes something that you can read rather like Braille. It is almost like it represents a quest for dimensions, and that might be physical dimensions, or it might be dimensions of perception.
JS: Yes, and the surface of the physical photograph is so undeniable, you are kept at a distance from its content. But, when working into a photograph in this way, the physical and conceptual distance is challenged or potentially broken down? So the photograph as a representation of the moment of capture is questioned?
DG: Yes, because it feels like re-animating the surface and therefore re-animating that moment in time.
JS: Or re-invigorating that moment in time? And so, similar to the underground drawings in the sense that this process also intensifies an encounter with someone, but an encounter with someone you have never met? So it is creating an artificial narrative or illusion of an encounter, rather than orientating around the true experience of an encounter?
DG: Yes, I think that’s right and that sense of activating and enriching the momentary encounter with a stranger is also part of the Casting series made for a show I had at the Photographers Gallery in London in 2008. Rather than working into the surface of the photograph, I was making drawn transcriptions of parts of photographs I had taken at night on London streets. I would be closely looking at a photograph as I was drawing. I wore these magnifying glasses, like a watchmaker would, zooming into the photograph. So whatever aspect of the images I was drawing would appear three times as big. I would get this sense of my body dissolving behind my eyes. To make this drawing I was focusing on this person here, and the conditions of making it gave me a sense that I was close to that person, a forced intimacy, even though they do not even know the photograph of them exists. So there is something secretive about it. You can see that I have drawn that same person again and again, and that repetition allowed me to lose a sense of my own consciousness and allowed the moment of capture of the photograph to evolve into something else.
JS: It is interesting to think about allowing an evolution of the moment the photograph was taken. From looking at this photograph we know this has captured and preserved this specific moment in time. It has all these signifiers of the street, and the collection of people on the street that we attach a narrative to. Then in focusing on one small section of the narrative, it is given a completely new context that allows it life beyond that moment in which it was preserved and captured by the photograph?
DG: The person I focus on and redraw is always de-contextualised and it is almost like I am reaching back in time, or pulling the past into the present. I like the idea of holding or preserving an idea. But then as a reaction to that I made quite a lot of work about the inevitable loss of a moment, feeling or experience, which is almost quite mournful in a way. But then I got excited about the idea that a sense of loss can also generate something else, something that is not the thing itself. I like the incompleteness of that; how that all accumulates to an incomplete whole. This drawing specifically highlights the inevitable inability to create a portrait that defines and adequately describes someone, it is always only a speculation about that person.
JS: And, I think, the fact that it is redrawn many times and therefore there are multiple version of the figure emphasises that sense of speculation, and the feeling that something entirely new breeds out of that repetition? It suggests multiple ways of perceiving both that person and also that moment in time, in contrast to the static rigidity and apparent certainty of the original photograph?
DG: Absolutely, I think you are right. In redrawing the head and in having many attempts at it, it somehow, cumulatively forms something, but that something does not add up to the original source at all. And you are right that each drawing is like a different conception or sense of connection, which allows a different range of perceptions. Each time you make a print of a photograph it is going to be pretty much the same, but each time you make a drawing it is going to be different, so there is something important about the value of that. So somehow the searching drawings are like animations, it is about the sum of the parts.
I also like the yearning or the expression of a desire suggested by the repetition within the drawing. It taps into the idea of the uniqueness of a drawing of someone in relation to the infinite reproducibility of a photograph of that same person. In a way I am putting the hand back into the photograph.
JS: The clarity of juxtaposing the mediums of photograph and drawing empathises that contrast, and I think highlights that tension between the two.
DG: When making the work I became aware of different interpretations of the record; the moment of capture, in relationship to photography and drawing. By putting them together, they seem to expose ideas about each other. The idea of exposure is interesting. Exposure photographically, but also in terms of how long I would spend thinking about someone while making a drawing. You could make a quick drawing or a slow drawing, and you could take a long exposure or a short exposure.
JS: What I find particularly fascinating about this work in relation to those ideas is the way that we think about capturing and collecting images in contemporary western society.
We effortlessly capture images with digital cameras, which in some ways de-sensitises our relationship to the way we observe and emotionally respond to the world. It could be argued that this has the potential to shape our habits and patterns of conscious thought: progressively distancing us from a sense of a true experience, as we become increasingly comfortable with the de-sensitised nature of the digital and virtual world? And in contrast to that, it is almost as if you are extracting that sensitivity back out of the photograph and transferring it into the drawing through time spent, engagement and concentration; and communicating that through the acute sensitivity of the pencil line. So it is expressing the opposite of the immediate objective nature of the original source?
DG: Yes, that is an interesting way of thinking about it. Almost as an antidote to a psychological state which predominates through projecting yourself virtually, through things like Skype, or images and videos you might look at on the Internet. It makes me think of works I have made with digital or virtual space such as the on going Caul series. I made digital drawings where the line is made by applying pressure to the surface of a digital tablet attached to a computer. In making them I’d be looking at the screen, at images of strangers on the night buses. So through the mark, I would be projecting both through the surface of the tablet, and the surface of the screen, inviting the viewer’s imagination to enter the ‘real’ physical space behind the window of the bus, and around the stranger’s head.
JS: And do you think that that perhaps references questions about our relationship to virtual and digital representations of the ‘real’, and suggests a quest for the ‘true experience’?
DG: I think in a way it is an attempt to transpose a sensitive, tactile, personal gesture into a virtual world, imbuing a digital space with a sense of touch.
In 2002 I made a video installation called Closer in which I use a camera with a zoom lens, and laser pen, to project light, rather like the drawn mark, onto peoples faces in the context of public spaces in the city. Towards the end of the piece where I show close crops of strangers through windows in restaurants, I begin in a focused way to resolutely shake and vibrate the camera. That action felt to me, an attempt to extract a kind of physicality from each person in the frame.
I think the concentration of that act was an embodiment of the desire to get more out of the image. It felt like I was expressing a need for more access, greater density, significance and gravity from the image.
Afterward it occurred to me that I was pouring all this intent and emotion in, when actually it is just an image. So the image becomes an armature for all this thought and feeling in order for it to become much more than the thing itself. I am often trying to reach into an image, but also pull content or substance out of it. And in some ways the quest is to find a means to express the two-way process of this interaction.
Jack Southern has been a practising artist in London since graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art in 2003. He is currently undertaking a residency with Acme Studios, East London, and teaches fine art on the Foundation Course at the University of Gloucestershire.
Drawing Projects: An Exploration of the Language of Drawing by Mick Maslen and Jack Southern is published by Black Dog and is available now