Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 12, 2018
Marsha Meskimmon and Phil Sawdon Drawing Difference: Connections between Gender and Drawing London: I.B. Tauris, 2016. 224 pp.; 17 b/w ills. Paperback $28.00 (9781784530273)

Drawing Difference: Connections between Gender and Drawing is the work of the author duo Marsha Meskimmon and Phil Sawdon, whose multiple areas of expertise cross theory and practices of scholarly writing, contemporary drawing, and curatorship. Through this manifold competence, Drawing Difference attends to and appreciates drawing as a material, embodied process and therefore engages, in detail, with how the works discussed were executed and installed. The lens of gender, which has been for over two decades the focus of Meskimmon’s pioneering body of books on “women making art,” is evident throughout.

From the first sentence, it is apparent that the focus on gender, around which Drawing Difference revolves, refers first and foremost to the critical understanding of women’s multiple and dominant roles in the field of drawing. There is a historical imperative for this. The authors claim, presenting substantiating evidence, that women’s involvement in contemporary drawing has been exceptionally strong—as artists, curators, writers, and scholars. Rather than approaching this phenomenon quantitatively, by introducing as many artists as they can, the authors of Drawing Difference turn to qualitative, material differences present in the selected works, which are mostly, but not exclusively, by women. Although Meskimmon and Sawdon carefully underline that drawing is not an activity exclusive to a particular gender—and, indeed, there are drawings by male-identified artists included in the book—the main emphasis is on drawings by female artists, including Susan Hauptman (a self-portrait is on the cover), Annette Messager, Cornelia Parker, and Carolee Schneeman. Their importance is highlighted as the reader encounters these women’s work in the analyses opening each section of the book.

Importantly, Meskimmon and Sawdon speak not only of women’s drawing but of feminism. And feminism, of course, not only addresses the doings of women. In this book, feminism is essentially entangled, on conceptual, institutional, and practical levels, with the stories of drawing. Central to Drawing Difference are feminist understandings of gendered becomings, in other words, a sexed subjectivity as process, closely connected with the processes of drawing. The corporeality of drawing—drawing as a material trace of the body and its movement—in collaboration with drawing materials is what draws the authors toward the contemporary theories of material feminism (also known as feminist new materialism) of such key figures as Rosi Braidotti, Elizabeth Grosz, and Karen Barad.

Throughout the book, Meskimmon and Sawdon emphasise a non-hierarchical, nonbinary approach to gender. This is articulated early and clearly through the citation of a concept of sexual difference as that of a man and a woman in a non-hierarchical relationship. This non-hierarchical relation is present also in the coauthorship of the book. The reader is not told who has written what; no feminine or masculine perspectives are present, at least not overtly. While the non-hierarchical relationship seems to work in terms of authorship, leaving the reader happily uninformed, it seems to be a little more rigid than it could be in terms of contemporary theories of the queer and of a thousand tiny sexes (e.g., Elizabeth Grosz, “A Thousand Tiny Sexes: Feminism and Rhizomatics,” Topoi, Vol. 12, 167–179). Perhaps it could be underlined even more clearly, and with supporting examples, that there are multiple sexes between and beyond male and female.

In any case, the non-hierarchical, nonbinary approach of the book reaches well beyond issues of sexed subjectivity: it is its driving theoretical force, the manner in which it is written. The conventional hierarchies that the book aims at transversing or blurring include theory and practice, matter and meaning, process and result, material and tool, drawing and thinking. Accordingly, the drawings addressed often make use of more than a single medium, becoming installations and performances, for instance. Moreover, their materials take varied forms of the more conventional medium for drawing: carbon. Carbon appears as charcoal, graphite, and even diamonds as they scratch the surface of the paper in Cornelia Parker’s work. Charcoal, graphite, and diamonds could be addressed, alternatively, as “carbon-becomings.” In the field of chemistry, these becomings would be called allotropes. “Allotropic” describes a nonbinary material transformation. In their book, Meskimmon and Sawdon transfer the notion of allotropy from the realm of the natural sciences and chemistry to that of art writing, where it becomes descriptive of an allotropic approach—one that attends to becomings, is especially sensitive to transversal crossings and variations, and aims not for a confirmed reading but for “an open close.”

The book is divided into three sections: “Dialogue,” “Matter,” and “Open.” For the authors, these “themes” are connected with the material-corporeal strand of feminist philosophy. They rightly claim that these themes and terms are not only crucial to the creative process of drawing but, likewise, to the formation of gendered and embodied subjectivity. It is noteworthy that to move these themes across the theory-and-practice divide is an allotropic gesture in itself.

The first section, “Dialogue,” offers the important reminder that for this concept the prefix is not “di,” referring to a duality between two fixed terms, but “dia,” meaning “across.” The dialogues of this section encompass various happenings across word and work, while ponderings include the double meaning of the French word genre in relation to Messager’s piece L’ombre dessinée sur le mur for the series Les pensionnaires (1971–72): in French, genre can signify both gender and (art) genre. This is eloquently discussed, reminding the reader of the shadow cast by these two possible translations. Fascinatingly, the shadow here has two other important references. It is a key element in Messager’s drawing installation, where it is unclear which elements are shadows and which drawn. It is also poignant, because it connects to the not often remembered section of the famous myth, in Pliny the Elder, concerning the origin of painting: it all started with a young woman in love drawing around the shadow of her lover.

The second section, “Matter,” focuses on the nature of “drawing” as being simultaneously noun and verb, object and process. Here drawing is approached above all as an embodied act. In drawing, matter is in a process of (re)materialization, and in the process of rearranging matter new meanings materialize. Several case studies are presented, two of which are most intriguing. Cornelia Parker’s Wedding Ring Drawing (circumference of a living room) (1996) is an unconventional work of drawing in which Parker’s actual wedding ring is melted down and drawn into a wire, and hence receives a new materialization, free from its previous private marital usage. In Dorothea Rockburne’s compilation of work Drawing Which Makes Itself (ca. 1972–74), the drawing emerged through and across the bodily gestures of the artist and audience, and the material qualities of the paper. Drawing appeared as the paper was folded and creased, and as “the smudges and the marks of the medium itself became integrated into the subject matter.” These works are then brought together with philosopher and scientist Karen Barad’s understandings of agency and intra-action, where elements construct each other, and none of them exists prior to their productive encounter. In this constellation, paper is no longer a receiving surface; instead, it works, produces, materializes. And the sexed subjectivity of the artist is not preformed, but emerges in and through drawing. Hence, a new emphasis is added to the word “autobiography.”

The third section, “Open,” underlines the openness of the act of drawing, and its in-between quality that looks toward an open future. Schneeman, best known as a performance artist, is given the role of opening this section through her piece Up to and Including Her Limits (ca. 1973–77). This work materialized from the artist’s crayon striking paper within and to the full extent of her reach, on walls and floor, as she swung/floated, suspended from a harness. Here time, bodily restrictions, and becomings—the physicality of the work—are the defining elements. Although there are constraints, the direction and the result remain open, and the focus is on the act of doing.

While I would have hoped to encounter, within the pages of Drawing Difference, more images, especially large-scale ones, of the drawings discussed, this dearth is quite well balanced by the attentive writing: there is poetic beauty and rhythm, as well as attractive playfulness in the language, often elaborating on the central verb “to draw.” However, I do not think of this only as an issue of personal taste. Rather, this style of writing is important because it coincides with the way drawings work. It is a way of respecting the embodied, open-ended process of drawing, of trying to find words to match the complexities of drawing practice. In this way, the book connects with recent efforts to include materialities of process within cultural analysis, which for so long was strongly focused on discourses of the textual and representational. In other words, the book joins the project that during the past decade has come to be known as “new materialist.” The core interest of new materialisms is to find approaches and concepts that can critically attend to the (often neglected) moving materialities that so elementally co-construct the world. This is what Drawing Difference does in the field of contemporary art history, as it offers its readers a chance to read, think, and experience drawing as a material process of becoming, from which sexed subjectivities are inseparable. This book will be attractive to readers of contemporary art history, feminist art history, and practice-based research, as well as to all those who wish to learn more about how materialities of the world can be appreciated. 

Katve-Kaisa Kontturi
Research Fellow, Academy of Finland, Honorary Fellow, University of Melbourne