In the last two years, the Flowers East Gallery has held survey exhibitions of recent abstract painting and abstract sculpture. This year's summer show completes the exercise with a selection of contemporary abstract drawings. Or that was initially the idea. In the event it turned out to be wiser to call the show "Works on Paper", for so many of the exhibits are essentially paintings. They may not be on canvas, but still they are made with oil or acrylic and often with a heavily loaded brush.
No need to deduce a trend from this phenomenon, but it does seem that abstract drawing with pen or pencil is not common these days. The reason is obvious. Artists like a direct, semi-improvised approach to a large canvas: they want to use full colour and enjoy the sensation of touch. These preferences don't go with drawing in the traditional sense. Nor is watercolour prominent in this show. I add, however, that I know many abstract painters (and sculptors) who draw figuratively, and on such occasions they are likely to use a pen.
The instrument that is almost totally lost is the old lead pencil. Although it turns up in a subsidiary role, in drawings described as "mixed media", only one piece in the show - which contains some 90 artists - is in pencil alone. This is Alan Reynolds' Modular Study, 16 squares on a square card, the pencil used in each with a different kind of pressure. As the title suggests, the drawing is in some way an exercise. But what is Reynolds exercising for? The sheet can't be in preparation for a painting. Therefore it's a study for the sake of study, and this is confirmed by its old-fashioned, somewhat academic air.
The Flowers Gallery has cast around widely for contributors, but the artists are generally on the senior side of life. Among those who are in their sixties, or even older, are Basil Beattie, Sandra Blow, Bernard Cohen, Robyn Denny, Noel Forster, Terry Frost, William Gear, Sheila Girling, Patrick Heron, Peter Joseph, Victor Pasmore, Bridget Riley and William Turnbull. Here are distinguished names, and their work often looks familiar. It's not routine, however, for the simple reason that they evidently enjoy what they are doing. I have no explanation for the relative absence of younger artists. Could it be that recent art, with its emphasis on presentation and publicity, does not favour drawing, which on the whole is a private activity?
The one new artist on display is Jane Dixon, who also has a notable piece in this year's Whitechapel Open. Her drawing shows a true and assured sensibility. She makes schematic outlines of things that appear to be halfway between boxes and machinery, yet do not seem to be functional. Their coolly drawn lines are on paper that she has treated in some way, perhaps with wax. The results are enigmatic but also rather classical. I don't think her work could be transferred to canvas: it would look too official. My guess is that Dixon is an artist who can express herself only through drawing, and this is rather a rarity in current fine art.
Another artist I hadn't previously encountered is David Connern. His remarkable pen drawing is dated 1984-95, so if it took him that long to do he's not a newcomer. Very thin waving lines go from one edge to the other of his sheet and are repeated. They are minute and there are thousands of them. It is a work of extraordinary virtuosity, clearly the result of obsessed labour. It ought to be beautiful, but isn't. Obsessive art never - except by accident - possesses beauty, for it satisfies something in its creator that is non-aesthetic. In Connern's case the private nature of drawing has become ultra-private. I won't forget this sheet, but it still has nothing to do with me.
For limpid and perfectly judged aestheticism I commend John McLean's Strathmiglo. It's an acrylic, and the potent, almost bursting colours are given added vehemence by the whiteness of the paper. Gillian Ayres' Juno and the Paycock is a long, extravagant work made from sheets of paper pinned together, far too large to be easily framed and therefore exhibited in a somewhat casual way. It looks like a cartoon for a mural. John Walker has taken time off from a mural he completed at Birmingham University last month to paint one of his sombre tributes to aboriginal art. I saw this piece unframed, and the paper was buckling with the weight of oil pigment. Henry Mundy uses thin acrylic, the best medium for his unusual and delicately balanced palette. Jack Smith's Touching High and Low is a grand piece of work, a drawing with pictorial architecture.
As usual, drawings by sculptors have a forced look; the exception is a working drawing by Rachel Whiteread, a study for her Wax Floor of 1992. Such is her fame that this modest piece is crazily overpriced at pounds 4,000. Otherwise, this enjoyable and instructive show is a good place to pick up drawings rather cheaply. The major bargain is a wonderful chalk drawing by Prunella Clough, a feat of imagination and vigorous draughtsmanship. It's your for just pounds 700, and since the exhibition only opened on Friday it may still be available.
! Flowers East, 199-205 Richmond Rd, E8 (0181 985 3333), to 15 Sept.
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