The Idea of Line and Form

The Idea of Line and Form. An essay on ‘Line of Thought’.

Parasol Unit, London, February 28th-May 13, 2012, for Site95 magazine, New York, May 2012

Read article here

A line begins from at the point at which the pencil touches the paper, or the moment when a thought begins to turn into, let’s say, a clearly considered idea. We might think of drawing a line, something immediately visual that contains the trace of recognisability. Through movement and space, by shading or the decision to leave the paper blank, the drawn line defines boundaries, divides, creates the idea of a frame, a window, a moment to see in and see out. While the line in writing is the seeming linear movement of words on the page as I write, the words are formed and held together to produce meaning. More broadly, we might consider the line as that which determines the spaces in-between and excluding one place from another. The idea of line in the visual and conceptual parts that make up what we know as Contemporary Art might seem to contradict easy resolution in traditional art historical discourse, while the show that I wish to reference here provided an antidote to the overloaded thematic exhibition, instead creating a time for a fresh contemplation of works we might expect by well-known artists together with a new younger and international artworld. Gallery and art foundation Parasol Unit in London brought together 15 artists working from the 1960s to the present day under the title “Line of Thought.” The exhibition prompted thoughts about how the seemingly simple line is consciously and unconsciously present in disparate motifs and concepts in often unrelatable forms of artistic production. To present such a show now, in the heart of contemporary art gallery land of East London, is discursively creative in rethinking approaches to contemporary art making.
To think of a line of thought one at first might think of how we use language in order to position one’s own ideas or thoughts. To construct an understanding of an idea for oneself and for others that identifies a beginning, a middle, and an end. Although this is the basic format for any piece of writing, it is also an approach taken to create an order or to justify our thinking, to make sense of it. In everyday instances the key element is the finale of such a process, so we might consider the line of thought as associated to the preparatory moments. Although we might assume that these moments are based in language, there is a space where the visual is determined by the nonvisual, the moments where a memory is linked to another, when conversation or experience play with our thinking. When approaching a work of art, the line of thought culminates in the final work of art, while the process of making informs our response to it. The line of thought might instead be the gestural action of art-making, the link between the subject to the body of the artist to the surface of the canvas for example.

In literature, language is framed in quotation marks, while the book frames a use of language in subjects and ideas determined by accepted linguistic forms that have been accepted into the cannon of that discipline. The nature of literature allows for a certain amount of deviation within the structure. So the frame is rather like the line acting as a continuous conceptual guide that creates a method by which to read and within the space we might sort to gain the specifics of a theory or rather suspend belief as we enter an imaginative landscape of fiction. Philosophy might be considered as a form of liberation, having a conceptual intensity that liberates us from the “extended world of material texts, contexts, historicity and style.” Claire Colebrook makes the claim that this liberation might mean that we are able to read certain theoretical text for a “concept of time,” to allow us to “re-structure the very nature of thinking and subjectivity.” (I) This act of framing is not so far removed from the frame around a painting, or the lines that form a sculpture, to which the eye can adjust its perspective to see something else. We might use such expectations of the liberated text in our approach to free art from the discourse of a thematic art history. I might claim that the use of a seemingly simple subject, the line, only highlights the layers of expectations we have as a viewer, and it is by considering these layers of expectations that might reveal a more complex reading of art.
For example, let’s consider the critic’s position in the perception of artworks. The traditional expectation is for the critic to have some prior learned knowledge that relates to what we are looking at. This might be knowledge about the work of art, or a knowledge on the genre of similar works of art, often meaning works of a particular period that help us to allocate this work within a given framing of art. The written word remains relatable, forever returnable, that is not so unlike our desire as viewer to find a line between the artwork we find, rational thought and a language that might articulate this thought for us. At this point the frame becomes the space for narrative. There are, of course, problematics attached to such an exhibition, for surely the definition of line is in part the framing of the works within the space as much as the framing that exists in the parameters by which the artwork exists as shape, or as image found in the frame or on the wall on which it has been drawn, as is the case of several works at Parasol Unit.
The drawn line might be considered as the actual mark, the incision or puncture as described by Jean-Luc Nancy in his description of the distinct. Or rather, it is the line that sets up to create the impression of the distinct that we might describe as the image. The distinct, he explains, “is withdrawn and set apart by a line or trait, by being marked also as withdrawn [retrait]. One cannot touch it: … because the distinctive line or trait separates something that is no longer of the order of touch; not exactly an untouchable, then, but rather an impalpable. But this impalpable is given in the trait and in the line that separates it, it is given by this distraction that removes it.” (II) This exhibition could act as source material to consider Nancy’s question of identifying the distinct for the line here isn’t merely the marking that creates a form, or marks the space of the work of art (although there are several examples of this here).
The line clearly presents the possibility of expansion, while conversely it is a reductive form allowing for return. The line is repeated, constructed, symbolic of representation, yet by its very nature it continually returns back to the trace of form or idea. Helene Appel reflects on the line as representative of familiar objects, that are instantly recognisable in her paintings. Here the overlooked materials of everyday, nylon netting and fishing wire, are carefully inscribed on the canvas presenting almost abstract and at times graphic repetition and rhythm of painting. The labour evident in her work is a gesture of painting, of precise observation and a close consideration of form that renders these ephemeral materials living matter with a new, almost unrecognisable form of representation. As with poetic writing, several of the works in this exhibition present at first a reductionist approach to form and content, yet through the process of painting, forms contain a possibility for an aporia of thought and visual experience. Turning to an artist from another generation, James Bishop’s use of soft shading and soft-edged line abstraction rendered in opaque and luminous paint shift the surfaces when one’s gaze as though the geometric forms and lines are pulsating into our space of encounter.
Presenting works by artists at the forefront of the Minimalism of the 60s and 70s highlights that a reduction of colour and of objectivity is not necessarily a process of simplification or reduction but instead a provocation to test our visual engagement with artworks. While Fred Sandback uses industrial materials to create structures found here, there is little material other than that used to make the line to form controlled structures that seem suspended in situ. The process of making is reduced to simplistic shapes yet these works contain a volume and substance despite there being little there. Pieces such as “Untitled (Nr. 4)” create geometric forms where nothing before was visible and so the viewer is left filling in the blanks, negotiating the moment of looking at the artwork and that of just looking at a wall in a gallery. In one of his statements from 1975, Fred Sandback wrote, “understanding something often means dissecting it into its component parts. My work resists that kind of understanding, as it’s all one thing to start with. I don’t proceed according to rules.” (III) We might say that Sandback then, breaks down the lines of thought between the artwork and the viewer. There is no linearity between contemplation and interrogation. Sandback’s work highlights the moments in between, the parts that are non-visual, non-object that help to determine the meaning of forms within the construction of given spaces. The sculptures have strength in an absence of material that leaves you with empty shapes and forms that are constructs of our imagination.
Here then, the space of the gallery is complicit with the formation of objects, and reduced further, the gallery itself becomes a series of lines creating form in space. Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #103: Not straight vertical lines from floor to ceiling, using as much wall area as is determined by the drafter,” has a fragility of line that evokes the moment of drawing on the page, marking the empty space with something that is non-identifiable yet immediately recognisable as a Sol LeWitt piece. We know that LeWitt had for many years provided instructions for the execution of his works and indeed, this act of passing on authorship is part of the discourse surrounding Conceptual art and themes of repetition and deferral of the artist’s gesture of making an artwork. There is also a ghostly familiarity to his works drawn directly onto the wall, the light gesturing of the pencil line that forms an image of sorts, is somewhat loud in its meekness. It claims the space yet only gently shimmers, almost as if it occurs only in our peripheral vision.
Although as regular artviewers we might be well aware of the thought processes that go into such works, the fragility of these pieces still exist in the final presentation. The prepatory element or line of thought between concept and representation has somehow ruptured in the moment of encounter. The LeWitt drawing is a particular case in point. The markings on the wall are reminiscent of a mistake, the tracing of something, a coding for placing an artwork on the wall and someone forgetting to rub away the markings. While it is this presence of marking that gives it an immediacy, of “capturing and holding the transient experience” which, as Rosalind Krauss points out, was the description used by Freud to characterise photography in his 1930 book, “Civilization and Its Discontents.” (IV) LeWitt’s drawn lines or Sandback’s built line structures reduce the information that a photograph puts in, yet the motif of line also refuses the descriptive engagement of event to paper that we expect from writing. It is neither descriptive nor visual enough to be maintained in our associative modes of contemplation. Krauss makes the claim that the camera acts as a “registrar of visual impression” just as the gramophone works with “equally transitory auditory” impressions, while the line in several of these works highlight the arbitrary nature of an register of an impression.
The choice of works in the exhibition might be telling of the state of contemporary art and how we consider an engagement with line as subject. Thinking of photography for example, here it slides in and out as a means of determining or obliterating assumed notions of representation. Part sculptural form in Jorge Macchi’s “Horizonte,” 1995, in which springs continue the line of the horizon beyond the means of sight found in the little photograph; or as abstraction in Nasreen Mohamedi’s “Untitled,” c.1960s.
Described as a Post-Conceptual artist, Macchi’s practice has a gentle poetry that combines with, as Curator Ziba Ardalan describes, an “openness with which he perceives life.” (V) His wide source of references and materials shift the between fine art practice and an aesthetic of the everyday, with newspaper cuttings and found maps providing material. At first his work might seem to take a purist approach to line and form, yet this is imbued with a poetic collusion of disparate visual language. (VI) As Tom Morton describes “Horizonte,” “This is much more than an elaborate and ill-conceived hanging mechanism. Extended by the springs, the non-existent ‘line’ of the horizon in the photographic image becomes something awkwardly physical, and we begin to wonder at what strange apparatuses, what unnecessary armatures, hold up out perceptual impressions, and our romantic beliefs.” (VII)
Mohamedi’s interest in developing written and visual language and personalised symbols into grids, diagonal and free-floating forms, is in part, influenced by the abstract painting of the early 20th century, while it speaks of the symbolism found in Islamic architecture. Mohamedi presents the perfect antidote to the spare minimalism of the 60s and 70s in the west for her practice not only contradicted the figurative, narrative art that was prevalent in India at this time, but also took forms found in western abstraction and minimalism to prove an alertness to the conditions of her environment. For her, Islamic architecture was reductive, and so her representation of these places create a visual language that can easily be associated to abstract painting, something almost familiar, while the evident fusion at play takes it back to an unknown, other’s personal experience is presented in pare down form. The black and white of “Untitled,” c.1960s, gives the impression of the imperfect image as here, details are saturated to become blocks of non-colour. There is a movement that exists where line fizzes into something undefined while the knowing of not-seeing only highlights further the faltering expectation of the photograph.
In this exhibition the line is not always visual, and at times, it is just the notion of the line, which stands in to form a linking between idea to object, or object to idea. The methods by which artists interrogate ideas to produce artistic output might represent the sometime uncertain, interrupted and confused line of thought. We might suppose there is a discourse on rational line versus the scribble, which one supposes is artistic prerogative to some extent, especially when so rationally articulated here by younger artists. Conrad Showcross often takes failed theories and methodologies in physics and metaphysics, to create ambiguous structural and mechanical forms that sit somewhere between geometric realisations and an appropriation of ideas from art history, for when looking at “Harmonic Manifold 1 (5:4)” 2011, one immediately might think of the sculptural machines of Jean Tinguely for example. The cast bronze sculpture surrounded by drawings forms part of a series of works that resulted from the artist’s investigation into the harmonic spectrum. Fascinated by the idea of the mathematics behind the music that we might find most enjoyable, the artist wanted to present the ratio of numbers in a visual rather than aural manner. The visual form represents a desire to return to the subject and interrogate its essence beyond what is visually there, thus we might consider a link between artistic production and the striving for comprehension through philosophical thought. The artist contradicts the desire for concept over content to an extent where lines of thought between experiences that might seem unrepresentable in visual form become static objects representative of this contradiction.
What marks this exhibition as relevant to the discourse on contemporary art practice is how the re-evaluation of the line in the context of an exhibition of artworks in the latter part of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century highlights that in order to deal with such a theme, one has to consider the artistic and thematic with a broader consideration of other discourses. For, although the line is the visual manifestation of a gesture of the artist, this gesture is also a social and physical statement of intent. Furthermore, to consider the line in the global artworld we now reside in, social context for which the line is devised as well as the visual and vivid depiction of it, must be addressed for us as viewer to engage with the object of art. Here multiple languages of artistic production and intent become evident. The hand is used as an instrument for composing line, marking the page with written thought or visual representation. (VIII)
We might think of the written mark as limited to specific uses of language, to form and content written in language, but language deviates within itself, suspends belief or meaning, changings from one moment to another instantly, just by the simple deviation of use. If we think of how we frame moments to find consolation where our imagination is matched with the identification of words, we can find something similar to how we identify with the visual, the represented. Artists allow this to be taken one step further, where moments of the visual become identified with the vivid and possibly non-representable. We are no longer articulating the process of making, but also the process for thinking. The line of thought therefore, is much more than a drawn point to point.