In search of order in freedom
Written by Eckhard Schneider
“The line is the feeling from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning.” Cy Twombly
Among all the artistic disciplines, drawing is perhaps the most immediate and personal act. Every sparse sign, every small trace on the ground leaves behind, beyond what is intended, for a brief moment of innocence, the original moment of creation. It is the moment in which material, ground and drawing instrument touch, the moment in which the reality of the materials meets with the invisible dimensions of intellect and emotion.
Anyone who draws continually decides during the process of making, consciously or unconsciously, which way he or she will take between figuration and abstraction, between the presence of representation and the presence of the material. For the artist who draws, an infinite field of artistic possibilities opens up in execution. Lightness, force, tempo, tenderness, heaviness, solidity — each decision in the drawing is open to view and appears schematically. In their originariness, drawings seem like transparent views through a window into the artistic process so that the viewer becomes an accomplice in something other. Drawings are like an unobstructed view into the artist’s insides, into his or her rational cold-bloodedness or felt emotionality. Every dash, every line possesses a directness which, so to speak, addicts us more and more and causes us to pause abashedly in view of their exposed intimacy. It is an ambivalent moment between shyness and voyeurism, of a conflicting simultaneity of looking and recognizing, independently of the question of the figurativeness or the temperament of the drawing.
We find this moment in a drawing that apparently is completely objectively determined, such as Structural Constellation (1950) by Josef Albers, as well as in the drawing, Untitled (1971), by Cy Twombly, which obviously arose from a writing movement of the hand. Josef Albers has drawn a constellation whose structure is oriented toward the ambivalence of form and the simultaneity between the process of drawing and the act of seeing. Executed on graph paper like a technical drawing in two different line thicknesses, it shows, depending upon how the gaze is focused, the plan view or the view from below of an open solid or of two cuboids merging into one another. The viewer is confronted with the special challenge of making seeing and imagining coincide in order not to run the danger of coming to grief in the conflicting tangle of the diversity of information from a visual and mental chaos. No matter how cold-bloodedly the drawing may have been made, the artist’s mental process nevertheless seems to be laid open to view. The uniform grid of the graph paper, the precisely drawn line thicknesses, the lengths, corners, angles — all the decisions made by the artist can be understood step-by-step in their technical and formal logic as if in a pattern book. This kind of drawing offers both aspects simultaneously: the logic of the process of making, and the diversity of shape, which can only be deciphered when the viewer simultaneously sees and spatially thinks.
Diametrically different from this is the drawing by Cy Twombly. Looped lines of white chalk are superimposed in a diagonal movement from the top right-hand corner to the bottom left-hand corner on a dark ground. Executed in various thicknesses and with changing pressure, the lines change between spidery, firm and definite, as well as softly flowing, almost fading traces. The diagonal ordering structure of the recurring movements is vague, almost in a state of dissolution, and hovers, penetrating on all sides and into the depths, in a diffuse space whose blackness, depending upon how it is approached, appears to become increasingly empty or full. Each line strikes out decisively and returns in a remarkable tension between necessity and self-surrender to its starting-point and to itself, and, in so doing, starting with forceful thickness, gradually dissolves into a fine paleness. We become witness to an act of drawing that seems to be both unconscious and controlled, which founds its origin and expression only from within itself and, in its complete autonomy, is neither a merely aesthetic calculation nor an arbitrary individual and emotional excess. Each of these two kinds of drawing is carried out in its own way with high concentration — Josef Albers’ drawing as a kind of intellectual sobriety of geometric order, the result of a beauty and mental clarity lying beyond individual taste; Twombly’s drawing as a kind of intellectual-spiritual relaxedness of a classically valid ideal elevated and preserved in subjectivity.
Mette Stausland’s drawings move in the field of tension between these two poles, between disciplined awareness and intuitive freedom. Her point of access to art, especially to drawing, has been strongly determined by personal experience. As an adolescent, her dyslexia did not allow her to ever quite leave childlike abstraction. The normal development from a kind of childlike abstraction to representation and spatiality, in order then later, as an adult, having to painfully reconquer the abstract origins, was therefore not necessary for Mette Stausland. She was able to translate this original ability as a personal experience into her incipient work on drawing without any great ruptures. In addition there was her experience as a dancer — the physical grappling with time and space in the form of movement, including the associated physical and mental discipline, especially the necessity to repeat. Writing, drawing on a surface give her a further opportunity, with the aid of the line, of bringing her sensitivity for these processes into another dimension and a shapeless form.
Early works from 1993, for instance, concentrate on a kind of lattice made of lines and hatched surfaces. By virtue of the change in the figure-ground relationship, apart from their concreteness as material drawings, the very small drawings possess a vital conflict between perception of surface and space. Both appear like the echo of a mental flickering over the ambivalence between the reality of experienced space and the abstraction in a flat drawing.
In a series of works from 1995/96, she has extended these procedures to large formats of up to 150 by 300 cm. The very personal and rather groping away of drawing in the small formats here expands to an almost ritualized repetition of a firm network of lines and filled-in rectangles. The disturbances, upheavals and irregular staggering of the lines and surfaces transpose the ground and the lattice into a slightly fluttering state of hovering between the individuality of personal handwriting and the anonymity of mechanical repetition. The interaction between emptiness and fullness, opening and closing of the image-space, between linear determinacy and vagueness, real movement toward and away, swings between compulsion and intuition, conscious positioning and automation, order and liberation, contingency and control, gives Mette Stausland’s drawings their unmistakable character. Perhaps this path is based not so much on conscious decision, but is rather the result of a longing for a reality which, before it can be fulfilled in a literary or representational medium, is manifested as a diaphanous membrane in between.
In various series Mette Stausland circles around this core of her works. Sometimes putting more emphasis on the individuality of the single lines, and then sometimes on the dense network of the all-over of a mass of lines. Characteristic for this movement are two groups of works from 2003/05 and 2005/06. The first series is a group of detached line-drawings on paper which shine through a layer of colour. As a rule, the works are made in two steps. The first is the drawing on paper with a piece of charcoal. The second consists of a gently pressed monotype from a wood-block or a lithograph stone. The forms appear to have come about in the continuous movement of lines without interruption in one or a few steps. They vaguely recall vegetative drawings by Henri Matisse or Ellsworth Kelly. In their mixture of expressive tension and relaxed energy, they possess a kind of solemn intimacy which is subtly enhanced by the censuring procedure of superimposition. At the centre stands the individuality of the line, the groping search for an indefinite form, somewhere off-stage between loss and becoming. The sharply drawn lines lie so lightly beneath the diffuse monochrome that their form seems to hover in a remarkably open way before the depth of the image-space.
The series of drawings from 2005/06 is different, but nevertheless related. They are monochrome drawings on coloured paper. The stable, flat basis of the wooden panels on which the paper is mounted enables a smooth, even rubbing of the pastel crayon which, however, depending upon the pressure and speed of drawing, varies in intensity of colour and thickness of line. Despite the dense, all-over character, this removes anything mechanical from the lines. Each line retains its unilateral expression through the uniqueness of a gesture that can never be repeated identically, whereas the lines in their totality have something of the multilateral character of a mass that has been intensified in serial repetition. In individual parts of the drawing, this leads to such a high concentration of lines that the image-space starts to close, and the monochrome character and materiality of the crayon seem to come to the fore. In everything, however, Mette Stausland preserves a high degree of tension in the image in which the constructive alertness of the process of drawing recedes, whereas the unconscious, forward drive of the emergence of lines steps to the fore. The result is a kind of breathing, red image-body that builds up the imaginary space of a pulsating tangle of lines between the viewer’s reality and the emptiness of the drawing’s ground.
In the current works from 2007, Mette Stausland extends this idea of a synthesis of individuality and mass. The artist draws lines in different colours, mainly arched or slightly curved, but sometimes straight, in a continuous movement. Once again she uses the entire surface for lines intersecting more or less densely which, taken to the edge, seem to continue their movement beyond it. In this way, the drawing becomes a micro- or macrocosm of a whole that points beyond the finiteness of the drawing. The greater independence of the lines, their clear separation from the light ground shining through recalls the above-mentioned series of drawings with their forms aiming more strongly at isolated individuality. At the same time, they are drawn into the wake of uniformity of the mass, without sinking into it completely. We experience a closely calculated and well-balanced aesthetic act characteristic of her entire oeuvre, in which time, space and movement are condensed in such a way that each detail is only allowed to assert itself freely as a beginning, end, softness, hardness, feeling, construction to an extent that allows the crucial moment to be witnessed before a reality of some kind or another becomes visible.
Translated from the German by Michael Eldred, Artefact text & translation, Cologne