BY Elizabeth Lewis & Isabella Fleek

Mimesis at Kudos Gallery 2019 and Tim Olsen Drawing Prize winner 2019, on at AD Space until October 12th. 

Elizabeth: Your work utilises volunteer collaborators in creating drawings; wearing paper helmets and drawing blindly on each other in a performative and tactile experience. How do you consider authorship to come into play here, being the facilitator but not the mark maker?

Robbie: I’ve been struggling with this idea recently, and I think this work is a way to ask this question rather than answer it. I have been presenting participatory works for several years now, and I will often show drawings in which I have directed others in producing the marks. Initially this did a few things, when I draw myself from my spacial awareness of my body I only have access to my own body to draw, unlike vision in which I can look at other bodies. Instructing other people allowed me to draw through them and give the participant the direct experience of being attentive to touch and space in the process of producing the drawing. This work is a bit looser, I give people the tools and very little instruction, allowing the participants to feel out the process for themselves, so that the object itself informs you how you might interact with it. This experience is as much the artwork as the drawings produced are, I think that participation in the production of art is incredibly valuable. In this way it’s also a challenge to the notion of art being produced in isolation by a single immaculate author, rather than as a collaborative and productive process that people can access and participate in. 

Elizabeth: Your work also incorporates studio- built wood worked furniture as tools to facilitate and limit the movement of your drawings. Had you always worked with wood or sculpture in your practice? How did you first find success in combining the two practices? 

Robbie: I really got into wood a few years ago, during my Masters, though I didn’t fully incorporate woodworking until later. Initially I was cobbling together timber from Bunnings to make arrangements for drawing performances. Around this time I began to do some hand tool woodworking, it started as a side project but quickly became a serious concern of mine. The first successful works were my early furniture drawings, in which I would climb on a simple stool or chair and draw myself and the chair on the surface next to it. Ladder Drawing and Furniture Drawing are the continuation of these earlier experiments. 

Isabella: In terms of your drawing materials; charcoal, graphite and oilstick which do you prefer the most and how did you decide you wanted to incorporate all three?

Robbie: I’m definitely most comfortable with graphite, I have an A2 drawing pad that I draw on with a 2B pencil on the go all the time, I go through periods of making sure I do several drawings a day. I worry sometimes that I become reliant on my skill with graphite and don't work with diverse enough media. I love charcoal, particularly compressed charcoal, for its capacity to render flesh, and the trace and buildup it leaves. I introduced oilstick recently as an alternative to the charcoal in my performative drawings, it has a very different way of recording the movements of the body and interacting with itself, where charcoal or graphite lines stack and intersect, oilstick smears, mixes and rubs into itself. I’m enjoying learning to work with something and reexperiencing a clunkiness and uncertainty in drawing. With graphite and charcoal I’ve spent a lot of time drawing from life and reflecting on the drawing, looking at what I’m doing and how it relates visually to the object at hand. With oilstick I haven’t gone through this process, so when I undertake blind drawing with oilstick I don’t have the same understanding of what I’m drawing looks like. If I do a blindfolded drawing of my own face with charcoal or graphite, relying on tactility and my awareness of body in space rather than vision, I can fall back on my memory of how to draw an eye that looks like an eye. I’m far less capable of doing this with oilstick, so the marks become more about mapping out the sensation of the face, and of course, the gestures of the arm. The colours too, while contributing a fleshiness, also record the order that the different
layers were drawn. Conversely charcoal can often flatten temporally, when I look back on my charcoal drawings it’s not clear in what order the lines where put down like it is with oilstick or when I mix mediums. I’m also interested in the way the different materials interact, such as scratching into the oilpaint with the sharp point of the pencil.

Elizabeth: You began as a printmaker as well as drawer, has printmaking affected your process?

Robbie: I did my undergraduate and honours at the Printmedia and Drawing department at the ANU, where I was exposed to experimental approaches to drawing as well as given a solid overview of the traditions of drawing, particularly the western life drawing and studio art approach to making… We were encouraged to consider both printmedia and drawing in the broadest terms possible, although I think what has stuck with me most is the concept and consideration of the indexical mark, the imprint that is left behind when one thing comes into contact with another. This is pivotal to both drawing and printmaking, and distinguishing between the two becomes ambiguous when one starts to consider processes like monoprinting or body prints. The ambiguity  and multiplicity of the line also intrigued me, John Berger articulates it incredibly well and I constantly return to this: 

The paper lends itself between the lines to becoming tree, stone, grass, water, masonry, limestone, mountain, cloud. Yet it can never for an instance be confused with the substance of any of these things, for evidently and emphatically it remains a sheet of paper with fine lines drawn upon it.

This is both so obvious, and if one reflects upon it, so strange that it is hard to grasp.

(Berger, J. (2005). Berger on Drawing, Occasional Press).

This ambiguity is increased with printmedia, the lines on the paper are also the impressions of the plate, ink passed through the matrix of a screen, or transferred from a stone…I was particularly interested in etching and experimenting with marking the copper sheet, either by etching fine lines with acids or scratching the surface with a very sharp drypoint stylus. We were taught by John Loan, Mike Parr’s printer, and Mike Parr would regularly visit the studio. I was impressed by Mike Parr’s intensity of interrogation and mark, and the way he spoke about drawing as a learned skill rather than innate. I was also taken by the physicality of the way he worked copper plates, heavy drypoint lines mapping out his features. Scratching into copper with a sharp tool requires a lot of strength and energy, and producing a drawing of heavy, deliberate lines can require several hours of scratching into the hard surface. Etching with acid does this too, the longer the plate is in the acid bath the deeper it etches. The durational element of the process also interested me, you could see how long a drawing took and how hard the drawer had pushed in the marks, it was a record of the process, the interaction of the tools and surfaces. I also remember grinding away Parr’s drawings on the lithography stones and then drawing my own in its place. I didn’t take to lithography at the time, though I have come back to it recently. I did some performance art, and flirted with the extreme performance art scene, but around Honours year I backed away from the more intense side of that in the interest of self care, and began to focus more on the conceptualisation and employment of drawing as a tool, and the means and modes of representation and the index.

Isabella: The relationship between materials, mark-making and movement is prevalent in your practice have you always been interested in such ideas

Robbie: I became interested in these ideas in the third year of my undergrad at the ANU Art School. I had a hard time through my second year, and decided to shift my focus towards less personal matters. So while I was still producing a lot of self portraiture, it became more about how drawing operated. It came to the forefront of my practice when I did a residency at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art. At Pica I started doing big symmetrical drawings, in which I projected an image, usually my face, on the wall and trace it with one hand while mirroring the same movements with the other hand. This produces two drawings, like a butterfly print, one a tracing of the image, the other, a record of the gestures of the hand aiming to produce the same gestures and marks as the first hand. I experimented with arrangements like this a lot, and this project is an extension of those ideas.

Elizabeth: Do you have any plans to explore or exhibit video/photographic works in the future alongside the drawings themselves, to more accessibly capture the performance in your work? Or do you aim to keep some of the mystery surrounding them?

Robbie: This is also something I have struggled with. I’ve always been resistant to documenting my drawing performances and process, the drawing is a record of its own production, I think that sometimes a video makes it too easy to see the gestures in the marks, so that rather than viewers looking at the drawing and understanding the gestures by imagining themselves producing those same marks. I find having screens in the gallery space a dramatic shift from drawing. The video operates as an artwork in itself, framing and presenting the performance, I begin to think of myself as making video work as well as, or sometimes even rather than, doing drawing. I do think these videos can be very compelling in their own right, so I am starting to soften to the idea of documentation, and incorporating video and projection into the work.

Elizabeth: The works currently at AD Space are documentation of a larger process, if the audience misses out on the performance of a work, do they miss the core of the work?

Robbie: Sometimes I worry that this is the case, or even that without participating in the work directly people don’t get the full experience. I think some of the works are best experienced live, particularly the participatory works. This is the case with the furniture drawings as well, but many of these I produce in my studio or without an audience, what is more important in these works is the space the work is done in, the relation between the walls, the floor, the paper and the furniture object. Galleries like Kudos have higher walls than my studio, so I take advantage of this when I have an exhibition and use the
space as a studio.

Isabella: Would you ever consider adding more practices into your multidisciplinary approach? If so, what artistic practices might you consider? 

Robbie: Always! I take on far too many different things, and it is the intersection
between disciplines that excites me. I’m planning on returning to printing soon, and potentially painting. I have also dabbled in metal work and tool making which I’d like to pursue further. I would also like to expand my practice through collaboration, last year I saw William Kentridge’s production of the opera Wozzeck, and saw him speak about it a few days later. I was incredibly excited by the way he spoke of opera as an excess, there is too much happening for the audience to take in at once, it saturates the senses with complex arrangements musically, visually, emotionally, and politically. I think at some point I would like to be involved in something like that.

Isabella: What theorists and philosophers did you find most informative and compelling when researching and creating “Mimesis”- or any further reading for readers interested in this field?

Robbie: I’m particularly interested in concepts concerning perception, experience, and embodiment. In my MFA project I began to explore phenomenology, particularly the ideas of Maurice Merleu-Ponty. Merleu-Ponty argues that our body is a physical object, while also containing the invisible aspect of our phenomenological being, the experiential body that perceives. It is with and through this body that we access the external world; we do not perceive the phenomenological body itself, rather we experience through it. Merleu-Ponty’s conceptualisation of embodiment was influenced by Martin Heidegger, for my PhD I followed this lead and investigated Hiedegger’s phenomenological concepts of being and tool use. More recently I have been excited by the ideas of the New Materialists, particularly Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt, who put together the book Carnal Knowledge, and Jane Bennet, who’s book Vibrant Matter, does a fantastic job of establishing a new framework for thinking about the relations between human and non-human things, particularly the capacity for non-human things to contribute to and shape events.

Isabella: What would you say has been the most challenging part of preparing for Mimesis?

Robbie: Deciding what to put in, I’ve produced a lot of work over the last three and a half years. Boiling all of that down to just five or six works isn’t easy. I started thinking about what to put in about a year ago, and had to consider which project ideas to present early examples of, or which ideas to work on further to produce new work. I chased some threads that produced great work or could have taken interesting directions, so there are quite a few drawings that didn’t make the cut. 

Elizabeth: In your ideal exhibition, how would you present your work, with no limitations at all?

Robbie: I had one drawing project that I wanted to do early on, I wanted to simulate drawing while being weightless. I had a plan to set up a pool and suspend a drawing panel above the surface of the water, so that I could draw on it while floating on my back. Ideas like that are really exciting but they don’t often make it to the end of the project, I get those a lot. It’s strange because my work is about putting limitations on my body while I draw, but I’m limited as to how I can do that by the materials, space, time and energy I have available to me.

Elizabeth: Do you have any tips for our readers in how they might want to think about their art making process as a form of practice?

Robbie: Definitely that it’s called practice for a reason, practicing drawing, or any making practice, produces new material and new understanding, it provides you with a record of your movements and your thinking to reflect on.

Thanks so much and congratulations on completing your MFA, and we look forward to seeing where you take your practice next!

Robbie Karmel’s work is showing at AD space as part of the Tim Olsen Drawing prize until October 12th.

Emily Galicek | In Conversation

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Kudos Gallery

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