To create marks on a surface expresses a fundamental human desire to mirror and make sense of the world. For the child, drawing is a way of exploring boundaries, of developing perception and notions of ‘I and not I’. Verbal communication offers just a tiny insight into the mind, whilst drawing gives an unspoken glimpse into the psyche. Many of us doodle, but mostly we lose the natural childhood ability to draw and paint, becoming self-conscious and critical. The artist, however, continues to nurture this ability. To foster a tactile and sensual relationship with their materials that most of us have lost. Their gestures, whilst still partly unconscious, articulate a superior visual sensibility, an understanding of equivalences, substitutions, and metaphors.
Two artists for whom the physicality of the surface remains paramount are Frances Aviva Blane and Basil Beattie. For both, the relationship with the body – the reach of the arm, the pressure of the hand, the co-ordination of the eye – is paramount. Form, process and subject are inextricable. The line and mark a graphic, dynamic delineation of their thinking.
Basil Beattie, the older of the two artists, has his sensibility deeply rooted in the post-war New York school of painters. The imagery and feeling of his work owes allegiance to Philip Guston. Over the years, Beattie has worked with a series of architypes: ladders, staircases and ziggurats. The sense of existential alienation is palpable. In these works colour is absent. Black dominates. His flights of steps lead only to ambiguous passageways and uncertain voids. The rungs of his ladders collapse or are bound onto their wooden struts with a savage carelessness. Whilst imitating the appearance of actual things, his iconography has become more abstract, expressing deep psychological dis-ease. This is a manifesto to failure. The dark despair of Sam Beckett – ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ – made visual in a way that only an artist can articulate. For Beckett believed, as Beattie surely does, that failure is an essential part of any artist’s work. The urgency of his pictograms forces us to become witnesses to his powerful psychodramas, ones that are often uncomfortable and overwhelming, but always profound.
Frances Aviva Blane paints heads, but they’re no more ‘real’ than Basil Beattie’s steps and ziggurats. There’s a physical savagery to her mark-making, as if stirring her images out of the ether by spells and incantations. At other times, they feel like forms of decimation or erasure, as if she were angrily quoting T.S. Elliot’s lines: “that’s not what I meant at all…that’s not it at all.” Her charcoal scrawls evoke notions of calligraphy, of a nascent language. As in the late Susan Hiller’s work, there’s a concern between the communicable and the incommunicable, the conscious and the unconscious. Blane’s heads – which reverberate like Bacon’s furious, screaming Popes – play with the relationship between the natural and chance, the personal and the social, what is known and what is not. In her dense, scribbled and blotted images there are multiple languages, correspondences and codes. But unlike Beattie’s dour black and white ziggurats and ladders there is, in Blane’s brazen scarlet and bile-yellow blotches, an anarchic, chthonic sensuality that echoes that of Dubuffet, Cy Twombly and the Outsider Artist, Danielle Jacqui.
Both Beattie and Blane ally themselves to the fundamental existential questions of modernism rather than to the irony of postmodernism, whilst being aware of the decentring of the contemporary subject. This can only ever lead to a perpetual series of open-ended questions, to the urgency of making further images and the perpetual quest for sense and meaning.