Mette Stausland, Recent Drawings
Written by Nancy Roth
“Charging the paper” is the way Stausland describes the first step in making a drawing. The initial marks break the “ice” of a neutral surface, introduce the possibility of reading the mark as “figure” in contrast to ground, of locating it with respect to the edges of the surface, of sensing whether there is a sharp or subtle difference between it and the ground, whether there is space behind the surface or not.
The first steps are critical, for in many ways they set the terms for the whole drawing. To “charge” the paper is to energize it, to create tensions; “drawing” is drawing that energy out, adjusting the differences in line and texture, pattern and space, drawing the consequences, playing the hand, realizing the potential of what was there at the beginning. The process of amplifying or discharging or distributing the energy, balancing marks with respect to one another and to the edge continues until she reaches a “solution,” her term for a finished drawing.
As the work progresses, she may decide to erase lines or whole areas of drawing, and to draw over them. She often turns an unfinished drawing over and treats what shows through on the other side as the “charge” for a new drawing. In other words, the first marks never disappear entirely. They may work as palimpsests — marks that show through in a support that has been used at different times for more than one purpose (the term comes from the study of ancient and medieval manuscripts), giving the earlier image or text a presence within the lines of the new one. But whether they really are older marks or not, whether they are appropriately called “palimpsests” or not, there are often marks that appear to be “under erasure” in these drawings, evidence of roads not travelled, decisions reversed or reconfigured—lines quite literally erased–with faint traces still bearing witness. There is a sense of time, in other words.
Even such as statement about time” may be “under erasure” however. For one absolutely reliable feature of any of Stausland’s drawings is the relationship—“balance” may be the most accessible description — of figure to ground. Because that is the case, there is no one “right” reading of tonal and textural difference as space or time. Any such reading will change if one looks long enough. When the balance is as exact as this, just a slight shift in the viewer’s perception – and given that perception changes constantly this is a near certainty — can shift a palimpsest into what seems the more recent mark, can flip what seemed a vertical view over into what seems like a map or diagram, can make a space-filling, closely-patterned area seem to be receding from, rather than pushing out of its boundaries. It is the balance, then, that makes the drawing seem to change, or come alive, or “breathe,”as Ina Boesch put it. 1.
Only “balance” is too simple. It may be better to say that something is recognizably right, the way a sentence is recognizably right to a speaker of the particular language in question when it works, when there is meaning and grace. These drawings are not sentences, of course, and yet it is helpful to suppose that they have a particular syntax. A term current both in linguistics and mathematics, syntax refers to the formal structures (syntax is distinct from semantics) that any given language uses to arrange comparatively stable cognitive objects, such as words, into thoughts—eventually perhaps sentences. If we take these drawings to employ a particular syntax, a unique way of transforming, say, isolated perceptions or memories into intelligible structures, there is no further difficulty in accommodating enormous complexity; there are, perhaps, traces of a new syntax — an evolving set of patterns recognizable to others as something like thought.
Having trained initially as a dancer, Stausland has long understood movement to be expression, and has a dancer’s experience with careful, patient repetition to teach eyes, ears, muscles and brain to respond together, quickly and fluently. Although an accident made it impossible for her to continue toward a career in dance, it did not change her understanding of art practice as movement, nor did it affect her expectation that it would take consistent practice to achieve precise control of that movement. In dance as in drawing, there is a kind of freedom in accepting a boundary, making a decision to do this thing and not another. That is the freedom to find out what is actually possible for this particular person in this particular time and place.
The decision to make pencil drawings carried with it a wistful curiosity about what might be possible with painting, with colour, or in three dimensions. But one person has only so much time and energy. The limits of pencil and paper offer maximum freedom within those limits, a framework in which some kinds of movement become so practiced, so familiar, that the response can be instant, unstudied, inventive—and still perfectly reliable. If she switches scale, from one size paper to another, it can take weeks to “recalibrate” hand and eye movements to the new proportions. With commissions to draw over a whole wall of a building, however, no such adjustment was needed: the scale of the entire body represents a kind of “default” position—for a dancer. Over time, such consistent drawing as Stausland’s expresses a unique way of being in the world. Or to put it another way, it shows how, with intense concentration and almost continual practice, it is possible to be fully oneself within the limits of pencil and paper.
“Recent” drawings refers to those made since 2012, when Stausland had a three-month residency at the Joseph and Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut. The program seeks out “visiting artists who exemplify the seriousness of purpose that characterized both Anni and Josef Albers. Residencies are designed to provide time, space, and solitude, with the benefit of access to the Foundation’s archives and library.” (http://www.albersfoundation.org/about-us/residencies/2016, accessed 3 September 2017). Stausland did spend a great deal of the time on her own over those months, and also made use of her access to the archives and library, in particular to learn more about Joseph Albers’s long and systematic study of colour. Her practice changed, or perhaps solidified over the time in Connecticut, focussing even more closely on possibilities available within defined boundaries. She stopped using pastels, for example, a feature of the work until just before the residency. Scale, too, was confined to three readily available sizes of paper at this point, excluding very large – scale work.
Stausland’s recent drawings are all made using one kind of pencil, one kind of drawing paper, and one kind of eraser for softening and adjusting marks. She works in series, usually on a number of related drawings at the same time. Once a series is completed, she may shift to another size of paper, but the proportions and quality of the paper will remain the same. There are other stable factors, too — for example a studio space that enables her to work on a horizontal surface and view the drawings on a vertical one, or a situation in which there can be breaks between concentrated working sessions. This is, in short, a physically as well as intellectually disciplined practice.
Such consistency means that to look at one of Stausland’s drawing is to enter into an environment or setting or world with an internal coherence, an identity of its own. This world is clearly related to the world any one of us respectively perceives — and projects — through our own senses. But what any one of us sees on the paper is unlikely to refer to anything we have seen in the world. The internal structures of the drawings are independent of conventional categorization of perceptions as “visual,” “acoustic,” “tactile, etc. In short, Stausland is not drawing what she sees, and so is free of any obligation to achieve visual “likeness”; if anything, it’s just the reverse: she’s seeing what she draws, responding to it, finding configurations that “work” in the sense of having a stability, durability, and a particular character. She’s not exactly drawing what she thinks, either, because although thinking is important, it is by no means the only process guiding the pencil: memory and perception and association and irony and sheer chance figure in as well. She is drawing something like being, a very specific relationship to the world that is her own, yet which uses, in some sense even exposes the tools we all have to sense an order in them.
Decisions about how the drawings will be installed, the order and configuration in which a viewer will see them represent a further aspect of a solution. Stausland has said that sometimes a drawing has to wait a while for a suitable complement, a new drawing that sets up a productive resonance when the two are shown together. There may be echoes in the forms, contrasts in composition or in the roles the areas of intense patterning play in the overall balance. Stausland selects and orders drawings for exhibition with the same full engagement, the same physical perception, subtlety and consistency of judgement that govern every other aspect of her drawing.
It takes time to look at one of Stausland’s solutions, time to sense the issues and appreciate their resolutions, to notice how various aspects of the structure are weighted, balanced against one another and against the edges. There are subtle disruptions in areas that appear evenly patterned as well, and variations in what might be called a tempo of the marks. Barely visible lines may seem to be in the distance, although they may also seem to be in a layer, and the drawing oriented as a map, a horizontal surface. They may be palimpsests from an earlier state of the drawing, implying time, a history opening up behind or below the surface. A viewer with sufficient time will make decisions, brings associations of his own to relationships visible in these drawings and the way they can change. Someone who can reflect on his own perception, be aware of what happens for him when he is looking, will discover things both about the drawing and about himself.