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Can Drawing Give us a New Perspective on Archives?

The Brooklyn Rail Matthew Barney Review

Anyone who’s ever picked up a pencil to draw knows that, most often, the end result and what we saw in our heads are not the same picture. How much is an archive a trace of something rather than complete and trustworthy representation?

I had just this thought while reading about artist Matthew Barney’s multidimensional approach to drawing in Thyrza Nichols Goodeve’s “A Possible Reading of Matthew Barney’s Drawings” in the July/August Brooklyn Rail. American artist Matthew Barney is known for his epic video works, but he is sharing his sketches in “Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney” up at the Morgan Library through September 8th. In the show, framed drawings hang on the walls beside vitrines holding books selected by Barney from the Morgan Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (where the show will be on display October – December, 2013). In the context of The Morgan Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, these drawings bring to mind the relationship between creating a drawing and creating an archive.

In the article, Nichols Goodeve interprets Matthew Barney’s drawings through the guiding words of another artist, Roni Horn. Horn explains how drawings and the act of drawing can mirror memory making and documenting. A drawing in the words of Horn, “is a record of energy spent and mime recorded.” So, in a way, a drawing is a retelling of what has already happened. A drawing is layered with a series of sweeps, marks, dashes and dots. A drawing is a product of a continual thought. It builds on the previous idea. Each decision influencing the next.

Horn eloquently makes the connection between drawings and memories with this observation: “Sometimes a drawing is palimpsestic in nature, becoming a history of itself. The cumulative record of acts committed or a sum of memories recalled. It’s been said that every time you use a memory you change it, and that the safest memories are in the minds of amnesiacs. But for non-amnesiacs we have stories, traces, and drawings.”


The article has made me look more deeply at drawing which the reviewer Nichols Goodeve defines as “both a vehicle for action (verb) and an object of production (noun)” because isn’t the same true for an archive? I hope that examining the process of drawing can bring a new perspective to the practice of archiving.

Image: Cetacea (2006), via Art Observed

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