Q & A: Anna Mossman
During lock-down Jay Ottewell and Jayson Gylen have been having some great conversations with our artists about their work and what drawing means to them. The first artist conversation was with Anna Mossman who provides some thoughtful insight into her compelling practice.
Pattern and multiplicity feature heavily in your practice as a working process. Is there a conceptual basis for this approach or is it more of a formal tool?
I am interested in how attempted, but often imperfect, repetition can build into an unexpected or unanticipated whole. Multiplicity gives rise to pattern within which variation and difference occur in ways that could never be engineered or imagined. Variation occurs through repetition to greater and lesser degrees in different works. One of my central interests is this experience of unanticipated variation. I resist designating this as either formal or conceptual, in my experience these two things are linked.
Do you see a connection between the repetition and various aspects of reproduction found in your work and the reproduction of images in mass media and the digital sphere?
Absolutely yes, connections can be made on this level. Repetition and reproduction move the location of value around, setting it in ambiguous, sometimes unexpected places. This seems to occur through my own working processes in expanded drawing, using extensive repeat and often echoed in its ‘shadow’ in other media (such as photographic rendition). I use this as a parallel medium, where the potential for reproduction is inherent. In some works such as the ‘In Negative’ series, the authentication of the hand is displaced by its removal in the final photographic materialization of the work. Similarly the symbiotic repeat and recycling of images in varying forms and with multiple uses and intentions in mass media displaces and confuses value.
The ‘In Negative’ (2004-2012) series of works are a drawing/photography hybrid combining a complex set of procedures whereby the initial drawings are transformed through photography
into a negative/ inverted print. What for you is particularly interesting about the crossover of photography and drawing? And what have you discovered about drawing through this process?
Around 2004 I became interested in creating something over an extended period of time with the intention of allowing the camera to ‘see it’ or reinterpret it visually as it had previously done in my practice with other sensual experiences. This may sound strange, but it came out of a whole body of work where I had demanded the camera experience a range of senses not normally attributed directly to its abilities. This was pre-digital in terms of everyday experience and applied to my analogue, medium-format, stills camera (a little unwieldy but still capable of some acrobatics!). The relationship I built with the camera was personal. It was asked to listen to the secrets of others, to smell, to drown and to be buried, among other tests and trials. Asking it to simply look with its eye was the last remaining sense and in some ways seemed like an end point to my work over that period. Something had come full circle and I was looking for a way out of my photographic journey. The time spent with the camera was now being spent with pen and paper, often over really long periods of months, even in some cases years. The rendition of these ‘drawings’ as photographic works seemed to eclipse the time spent with pen and paper, it disappearing apparently with the click of the shutter. The negative print seemed to emphasize this absence, also having a similar quality to an X-Ray. Over time, drawing in itself became a new field of experimentation for me, gradually gathering a speed and energy of its own within my practice.
In various drawings, you deploy a strategy of repeated marks which as they are built up on the surface of paper become distorted, the natural consequence of the imperfection of the hand at exact reproduction. What is important to you about the handmade mark? What is significant about this?
The hand made mark when repeated does, as you point out, ‘distort’ gradually. In relation to this I have been interested in comparisons. For example works often begin with a basic geometric shape or line (such as a diagonal, horizontal or vertical line or square) that is ‘copied’ repeatedly, each line ‘repeating’ its predecessor. The initial line or shape transforms through this activity into something different, a new ‘self’ perhaps? Similarly to works where I use layers of colour (for example the ‘Imagined Legacies’, ‘Shifts’, ‘Shivers and Structures’), small discrepancies build up and something imperfect but new occurs. What interests me is how time spent is directly recorded on paper, yet that predictability becomes unpredictable and surprising as it emerges into a ‘work’.
How do you consider rhythm in your work? Is it an important part of your process?
Rhythm is something I find necessary as part of my working process. Through this it emerges almost incidentally as central to the materialized works. I generally avoid deliberately trying to control rhythm as a formal device. I simply notice how it develops in different ways across different pieces, resulting from different situations. In some long-term works, I notice that rhythm is affected by life events, giving the piece a diaristic aspect, folded into the work, but possibly hidden to others. Rhythm results from process in my practice, but it carries the viewer around the work, directing their vision and in larger pieces causing them to move about, being led around the work by varying, rhythmic pulses.
In your work there seems to be a sort of paradox between the somewhat mechanical and repetitive gestures of the hand and the works final appearance; as something more fluid, organic and reminiscent of nature. Does this paradox interest you?
There is, I agree, an element of paradox in the divergence between process and outcome in the work. In terms of natural processes, the relationship between time, forces and material results in ‘scapes’ (landscape, seascape, rockscape and etc) on both micro and macro planes. Similarly, a life lived can result in repeated lines, but the two experiences are not the same, however one may dictate or form the other and visa-versa!
In your work small repetitive gestures multiply to form large scale immersive drawings which as a unified form, appearing ‘all at once’ some what disguise this process. There also seems to be a topographical quality to your work bringing to mind land surfaces or perhaps biological structures seen under a microscope. (particularly in the ‘Lines (2011-2020) and ‘In Negative (2004-2012)’ series) Do you see an inter-play between the micro and macro scope in your
I grew up with a Neurophysiologist mother whose research and practice centered on EEG recordings from the brain. These ‘traces’ were laid down mechanically using ink on folded paper, resulting in large multi-page ‘books’. These were brought home nightly for analysis. In places, you could see how the recorded pattern altered, spiking here, flattening out there, the result perhaps of a patient’s epileptic seizure during the night, or some other hidden neurological occurrence, revealed by the changing wave patterns of the recording process. So a relationship between process and visual outcome, micro and macro was symbiotic with my childhood experience, as was the experience of time placed on paper to form a pattern, one that had meaning and could be ‘read’ or interpreted, but also, more irresponsibly, enjoyed on an aesthetic, visual level.
The drawings in the ‘Dunkelwald/Twilight Sky’ series (2011-2015) can take up to 6 months to make. Can you tell us about the experience of time in relation to your drawings? does this vary from work to work?
The ‘Dunkelwald’,‘Twilight Sky’ and ‘Lines’ series involve working over extensive periods of time. The first ‘Dunkelwald’ work used a selection of 14 coloured pencils, mostly greens of different hues, to fill in a hand drawn grid in a specific, repeated order. As in an earlier work, the drawing for which was made on graph paper for a negative image (‘Graph paper (ii)’ 2004-5 from ‘In Negative’), the pattern became disrupted by mistakes in the order made along the way. As the work evolved I became interested in the weight of colour as well as the varying pattern (the latter a record of my forgetting or mistaking). This gave rise to the next works in the series ‘Dunkelwaldlight’, 2013-14 and ‘Dunkelwaldsuperlite’, 2014, where I tried to pitch the pressure of the hand to achieve increasing lightness. The extended duration in the making of these pieces allowed me to discover what it was that might emerge unexpectedly, something I might not have imagined. Of course it also allows an extended visual and tactile field to unfold, generally the width of my studio wall. So from a set of simple starting points, orchestrated and physically carried out by myself, something uncontrolled comes about. As in the writing of a novel, the work takes on its own momentum going way beyond an initial ‘idea’.
You often mention ‘extended time’ when speaking about your work. You also work across a wide range of scales from the smaller and more contained to the larger more expansive drawings. How do you see the connection between extended time and expanded or contracted
Some larger works happen more quickly such as the ‘Pourings’, yet even a shorter time frame still contributes to and to some extent dictates the outcome - the drying and running times of the inks and watercolour being used as a decision making device to determine an end point for each piece. Some small works can take weeks or months such as the ‘Small Diagonal Lines’ series or the previously mentioned drawing for ‘Graph paper (ii)’ which took 18 months to complete. In a smaller work the apparent ‘disappearance’ of that time seems even more extreme when the work ends and transforms into something seen by others as a visual pattern or outcome. Larger pieces that are made over long periods wear the time of making on their sleeve more overtly perhaps. So the time experienced during making is folded into the work with varying degrees of secrecy or effacement in different bodies of work.
Many of your drawings utilize the grid as an organizing and a supporting structure. What are your thoughts about the grid?
It’s true that I have used the grid for various works as a supporting device. I tend to use it as a convenient, spatially democratic structure to hold something much less predictable, usually something that varies and is on the edge of my control. In some ways this use of the grid in relation to something more fluid, can be seen as an anti or counter-grid. I am aware of the weight of discussion around the grid historically and try to use it lightly, even reluctantly, while still finding it useful. The Shifts, Shivers and Structures which initially came out of the earlier ‘Imagined Legacy’ series, use a partially rotated grid as their starting structure. The turning of the grid, an apparently slight manoeuvre, immediately references new and different fields of interpretation. Again, a simple geometric decision leads the work in a new direction.
You are Associate Lecturer in Drawing at Camberwell College arts. Can you tell us about your experience of teaching on this course? How has this influenced your own drawing practice?
I worked in the Drawing Department at Camberwell College of Arts for a period of time several years ago around 2007-8 while normally teaching on the Photography BA, and again now since 2019. The first experience occurred during the time I began to directly place drawing and photography in specific relationship to each other and the two experiences were intertwined. Extended discussion around the parameters of a practice focused in a particular area (a characteristic of Fine Art courses at Camberwell) encourages an expanded approach to a specific field. Drawing is seen and used in many different ways, and for very diverse purposes both now and historically, as is photography. The course engages in this, opening up way beyond the fine art context and this has been interesting for me to spend time with, practising and discussing with students and colleagues.
What patterns, themes and approaches to drawing are you seeing emerge from students on the MA and BA drawing courses or across Camberwell art school in general?
I see an increasing diversity of approach, often with an emphasis on materiality that has been a concern for a few years now.
What is your earliest memory of drawing?
My earliest memory of ‘drawing’ was pricking a thin aluminum sheet on the reverse side with a simple tool to make a picture of a fish out of the resulting raised ‘dots’ on the front, in the infants at Primary School. A simple thing that really intrigued me, in the class of a favorite art teacher called Mrs Cox. Straight away material and process were symbiotic with image.
Why do you think drawing is important? Why is it important to you personally?
Drawing can be a quick and immediate way to communicate something in a potentially international language. For myself in the studio, I think a lot about the use of the hand and the body in conjunction with the eye, the brain, the mind and intellect, together allowing an endlessly complicated exploration of the self. When work is engaged with by others, there may be aspects of making that can be directly recognized and related to by a similarly embodied being and this is overtly linked to a range of potential readings, allowing a primarily visual but broadly political communication to take place. Drawing is directly connected with space and I think about the movement of the body in space as drawing in a wider way, including the invisible line we trace when walking around or moving from one place to another.
What are your thoughts on drawing in contemporary art today? What is your impression of its position in the art world?
When something is referred to as ‘Drawing’ it can exist in an open field that sits lightly in relation to its counterparts in other areas. With a more fluid identity and often not seen as an end point, it can present a freer realm, where naming and fixing can be avoided. Drawing is often seen as less valuable or of a lower status, but also as central to experimentation and innovation.
Many thanks to Anna for this wonderful insight into her practice. Anna will be taking part in our October Exhibition 'Drawing Beyond Itself' at AIR Gallery, Altrincham with a video piece thats not to be missed.
You can also see more of Anna's work in the meantime at: https://www.annamossman.com