ICA's new exhibition 'Keep Your Timber Limber' reminds us how artists have been at forefront of social and political change

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The group show explores how artists from the 1940s to the present day have used drawing to address ideas critical to their time, such as sexuality and fundamental social change.

Keep Your Timber Limber – the title of the upcoming exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) – is taken directly from an artwork by American artist Judith Bernstein, whose inclusion in the show takes the form of a huge wall drawing of a male phallus with a strategically positioned flag-pole bearing the Star-Spangled Banner.

Bernstein's energetic drawing recalls her longstanding fascination with male lavatory graffiti, of the more puerile and indecent variety, and anti-Vietnam protests of the late-1960s – a time when the artist was producing paintings with slogans such as "Jackie Kennedy Sucks John John".

From mid-June through to September, Bernstein's striking work features as part of a group show exploring how artists from the 1940s to the present day have used drawing to address ideas critical to their time, such as sexuality and fundamental social change. These are artists who have pushed the boundaries of acceptability using a medium more often associated with genteel summer shows.

Much of the work – including a savage image by the German artist George Grosz of 1940s Berlin – has been subject to censorship and continues to raise eyebrows. But while these works are often sexually graphic, they are serious in intention. Tom of Finland's drawings were an important beacon for homosexual men in the 1950s and 60s and played a key role in popularising gay culture.

Viewed alongside the work of Tom of Finland, Bernstein's explicit wall drawing may invite comparison with a series of nude portraits of Vivienne Westwood by renowned German photographer Juergen Teller, whose recent exhibition proved to be one of the most popular ever held at the ICA. These intimate images of Westwood reclining on a chaise longue were deliberately given pride of place to evoke memories of a similarly resplendent figure, that of British artist Cosey Fanni Tutti, who was once photographed in a similar repose for a flyer advertising the ICA's Prostitution exhibition of 1976. The subsequent media furore surrounding this particular show, which heralded the arrival of punk, led to cries for the ICA to be permanently closed.

As a rule of thumb, it has never been the ICA's intention to be shocking merely for the sake of it, which is just as true now as it was at the time of the infamous Chapman brothers exhibition, or Gerhard Richter's remarkable exhibition 18 Oktober 1977, featuring images of the Baader-Meinhof group, or when Hermann Nitsch embarked on a performance using animal parts on the road outside. In 1948 the ICA exhibited what was then considered to be one of the most shocking art works of all time, Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Nor does the ICA seek high audience figures over artistic integrity; there are countless examples of the ICA having helped younger artists take that all-important first step, or having promoted other artists at a time when they've been overlooked. Our interest remains to provoke and encourage our visitors to see contemporary art and culture as a living entity, one that is in a constant state of flux and vital to our lives.

What we're seeking to enable is an active engagement in the arts where you can easily spend a day at the ICA attending our talks, cinema, artist's film programme, exhibitions, performances, or simply availing yourself of a centrally located bar, café and internet service – which has become increasingly popular with ICA members and visitors alike. The ICA has never been a museum. It remains a space founded by artists for artists, and is best experienced in this spirit.

On the face of it, Keep Your Timber Limber is a works-on-paper show – an exhibition about drawing, which some may consider less relevant given recent excitements about shinier and more lavish art works. However, viewed through the ICA lens, the show and the drawings contained within should defy expectations. Included in the show are the feminist-inspired drawings of Margaret Harrison, who was recently awarded the Northern Art Prize; the provocative Biro drawings of London-based artist Cary Kwok; and the work of Marlene McCarty, who emerged from Aids activism to produce large ballpoint drawings exploring the darker side of human behavior.

Curated by Sarah McCrory, the exhibition touches on a range of sexual, social and political issues as expressed through the seemingly marginalised medium of drawing. I say this recalling my own experience at art school, where drawing was often viewed as a more preparatory form of activity – as though it were on the road to something greater, such as painting, rather than an end in itself. Thankfully, views on the importance of works on paper are changing.

If drawing is indeed viewed as a poor cousin to painting and sculpture, spare a thought for its much neglected sub-genres, such as the largely ignored world of fashion illustration, as represented in the exhibition by Antonio Lopez, whose stunning drawings encapsulate the disco era and are only now gaining serious art-world attention. For comic-book illustrations, look no further than the homoerotic cartoons of Mike Kuchar, whose drawings have only recently come into the light after two decades.

Keep Your Timber Limber promises to be a compelling new exhibition, but, most important of all, I hope it goes a long way toward underlining the power of the marginal, and how such a seemingly innocent practice as drawing can give rise to the most profound cultural shifts.

Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper), ICA, London SW1 (www.ica.org.uk) 19 June to 8 September

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