When bits of paper from Francis Bacon's studio were shown at the Barbican Gallery in 2001, there were squeals of rage from critics and art historians. Their problem lay less with the dubious way in which the bedoodled scraps had been acquired by the late artist's handyman than with the fact that they called into question a key Baconian myth: that he didn't draw. Geniuses of Bacon's kidney worked straight on to canvas, without need for preparation or study. Drawing was for sissies.
Which makes the Jerwood Space's Space to Draw an intriguing show historically. Since Jackson Pollock, drawing has been seen as inimical to modernism – skilled and learned rather than intuitive and spontaneous, less an art than a craft. In the past five years, though, its stock has risen. Galleries devoted to contemporary drawing have opened in London and New York, and artists from Tracey Emin to Banksy have put unapologetic pencil to paper (or at least to wall).
Hand in hand with this has gone a redefinition of what, precisely, drawing means. Where once the word implied a small-scale action done with a thing held between your thumb and forefinger, it is now possible to draw in marble, thread, spray paint, deserts, video and sound. So wide is its new ambit, in fact, that drawing seems in danger of losing its meaning, which is why Space to Draw's curators have narrowed their focus to sculptors for whom it is part of a broader way of working.
That said, the show opens with a challenge to your dictionaries. Neville Gabie's practice involves many, many things, some of them visible in the Jerwood's first room. Among much else, Gabie makes and flies camera-carrying kites with which he shoots footage of the Australian outback. The film from these plays on a bank of monitors, its crazy angles and rutted tracks gnawing at the line between narrative and abstraction. Across the way is the trolley on which Gabie wheeled a block of granite, to be incorporated into a pavement, back to London from China. What any of this has to do with sculpture may set you scratching your heads, far less its connection with drawing. But then that, at a guess, is its point.
Certainly the sculpture/ drawing link seems reassuringly clearer in the work of Antony Gormley, which follows Gabie's. A series of drawings on paper, called Clearings, also plays with the steel-wire swirls that build up Feeling Material, Gormley's sketchy sculptured man. Questions arise as you look at these, though, among them ones of status. Implicit in the word "drawing" is the word "preparatory". Yet Clearings, done on heavy laid paper and handsomely framed, are clearly not throwaway sketches. Contrariwise, the whorls of Feeling Material suggest speed and insubstantiality, as though Gormley has been drawing in the air with sparklers. Whether his work on paper or in steel is the finished product – whether either precedes the other in time or hierarchy – is far from obvious.
Heather Deedman, in the next room, blurs things further by making sculpture out of drawings. Her wall installation, Ornament, does what it says and decorates the wall with two-dimensional paper cut-outs of three-dimensional china objects: vases, urns, tureens and bonbonnières, all Meissened and Coalported in elegant pen-and-ink. By contrast, her sculpture – a shelf of coiled porcelain pots called, pertly, Porcelain – is clunky and lumpish. Drawing, for Deedman, is an ideal state, a platonic world; whether you'd want to live there is another matter.
The same disparity between the fantasy of drawing and the reality of sculpture haunts the work of Paul McDevitt. His Lounger, a Lloyd Loom mother and child, takes Henry Moore's couch-potato posture to its logical extreme by turning it into a sofa. McDevitt's drawings move in the opposite direction, making his sculpture the hero of a story of woods and moonlight, of German Romantic yearning. The disparity between his paper and wicker men is heart-rending.
And where does all this leave us? Nowhere very precise, which is as the Jerwood's curators would want it. If Space to Draw has any intent, it is to show that reports of drawing's death have been greatly exaggerated: that, Bacon notwithstanding, it still means many things, and many things to many men.
Jerwood Space, London SE1 (020-7654 0171) to 10 February
Further reading 'The Drawing Book' edited by Tania Kovats, published by Black Dog, price £24.95