Displayed on the walls around the Shelagh Wakely (1932-2011) exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre are drawings which looked – even when they were on large canvases – like they had been removed from a sketchbook. They, or at least a few of them, struck me in a way that the rest of the exhibition did not. Fruit gilded and then left to rot, with a gold shell remaining; a large swathe of black cloth, rumpled and also gilt; turmeric shifted through templates to form swirling graphic patterns on the parquet; pages from fashion magazines cut into similarly swirling patterns and displayed flat on a large low plinth; two other plinths holding fragile, rudimentary clay objects – these were all underwhelming. They relied too much on the given beauty of their materials, had only meagre visual structure, seemed drained of meaning, or, conversely, too blatantly displayed their central idea, of transience or the beauty of decay etc., etc.
But the drawings displayed around the objects were different. The most numerous, interesting and personal of them appeared to be either doodles or preparatory studies, or somewhere between the two. Across these doodle-studies you could see Wakely working through – wandering through – similar ideas to those contained within her objects and installations (perhaps intuitions, impulses, images would be more accurate than ‘ideas’). Contained by the objects, but also: reduced, constrained, cut-off by. The drawings seemed to actively inhabit, or be actively inhabited by, their subject-matter in the way the objects did not. They made, in some way, this subject-matter into content, or suggested that subject-matter could potentially become content. The overriding impression the exhibition gave was of an imagination not fully realising itself, failing to find a way to make fully public its private or personal perceptions of the world. How to push beyond an intuition, impulse or image without simply illustrating it, so it becomes listless; or not-illustrating it to the extent the work becomes opaque, lifeless? It is probably too much to say that this conundrum is one of the central problems of modern art, but I think it has some truth. When the sensations aimed at are sought precisely because they are hard-to-grasp, fugitive, ephemeral, the problem becomes harder again.
Two large drawings on canvas from the late seventies caught my eye – more importantly sustained my attention – and made me want to write about the exhibition. They were displayed as the central and right-hand parts of a triptych, in front of the two plinths of clay objects already mentioned – bowls on one, on the other more bowls along with sheets rolled to form cigars, pancakes, curls. The two drawings were clearly related to the clay objects, particularly the bowls, though I didn’t note the dates, so I couldn’t say if they proved which came first. Some of the bowls had a circle of blue painted within them, suggesting, if only very briefly, that they might be full, when in fact they are empty; whilst the cigars, pancakes or curls of clay had such little identity as objects that I struggled to look at them without irritation. I suppose that the painted insides of the bowls signalled an interest in the differences between inside and outside, full and empty, container and contained, which at a stretch could also be said of the way the other objects were rolled or folded. The problem is that the objects did not do much beyond signalling this interest – they remained illustrations of an idea, at best, and mute, inactive objects at worse.
The two drawings did much more than this. In the notes I scribbled down as I went round I wrote that doodles were only interesting when they were spontaneous and visually open-ended, but this now seems quite limited. A similar, though negative, definition – which I would argue applies to many of the other drawings in the exhibition – is that they stop being interesting when they too willed, generally either through describing pattern (in which by definition each move predicts the next) or when an representational image feels imposed, transforming a wavering collection of lines into a flower, a tree, a face or whatever. Perhaps part of the success of these two drawings is that they could exist somewhere between these positive and negative definitions – that their spontaneity leads to something like intent, but is able somehow to back away from it, to keep the possibilities alive. This sounds convincing to me – though I admit it is more than a little vague – but it makes the drawings seem evasive, when really they had a probing quality, as if they were circling around a particular problem (visually ‘circling’ seemed important to their success – many of the less engaging works clearly progressed in a particular way across the page or canvas, whereas this pair had no single direction and no obvious start or end point).
In the two drawings Wakely touched upon a way of melding her subject-matter with the means of realising that subject-matter. This might be partly what I meant by making subject-matter into content, by inhabiting and being inhabited. The drawings describe multiple series of transformations, or partial transformations, from one state to another. Within one sequence what could be a bowl turns from concave to convex, then into an abstract shape, which then splits into two; in another that shape is given volume through basic perspectival illusion; or is gradually stretched until it takes on a wholly different identity. What was simply signalled in the actual bowls – an interest in the differences between inside and outside, full and empty, container and contained – is given reality, can be felt. The drawings were strangely tactile – the activity of drawing, of making a shape and then transforming it somehow seemed to work in parallel with a sense of the drawn shapes being handled, turned over, prised apart. Walking to the tube afterwards and trying to remember the experience of looking at the drawings I caught myself turning and twisting my hands over each other, as if miming the actions they described, or playing a role that they had left implicit. The fact that the drawings drift in and out of representation underpins this mixing of tactile and visual sensation – think of the difficulties we have in fully reconciling the experience of looking at an object and the experience of handling it. Here meaning is not a presentation of what can be easily expressed in a different way, but the condensing together of things which have their own reality but which are not readily articulated. In their exploratory intimacy, their confusion of categories, their attention to physical experience and their merging of tactile and visual sensation the two drawings were shot through with a sense of the erotic.
‘Shelagh Wakely: A View from a Window’ is at the Camden Arts Centre until the 28th of September