My practice-led DPhil (PhD) at the University of Oxford began in 2012 and is supported by the Clarendon Fund, the Gosling Postgraduate Award and the St Edmund Hall Graduate Scholarship. The project is supervised by Brandon Taylor and Elizabeth Price. An outline is below, and I’m accumulating notes on my DPhil blog.

Drawing: The Point of Contact


My project is an expanded examination of the point of contact between drawing implement and support. Here I intend a triple meaning of the word point: as the spatial position of contact, the temporal moment of contact, and the purpose or value of such contact. The organization of my study reflects this three-way division, developing a thesis that the material point of contact is implicit in the mimetic or assimilatory purpose of the act of drawing. The research is practice-led, with the insights of my studio work driving the scope and structure of a phenomenological written account. The artworks are informed by drawing but do not strictly consist of drawing, and it is through analogy between these works and the written account of drawing that new insight into this point of contact will be derived.

Research Context

The emerging humanist poetics of the sixteenth century saw the introduction of a new subject in drawing: the act of drawing itself. Dürer’s self portraits demonstrate this “paradigm shift” (Alphen 2008: 62): unlike the drawn lines of his contemporary Holbein which are “true […] to the person being portrayed” (ibid.), Dürer’s lines have a different truth, both representing the sitter and “document[ing] the work of representation” (Koerner 1993 in Alphen 2008). While the “irresolute status” of drawing remained a matter of debate through the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods (Petherbridge 2008: 37), in the twentieth century the act of drawing came to be radically thematized as a subject of drawing. This development is often understood as being rooted in a broad twentieth century reaction against “the dominance of the retina in the visual arts,” (Alphen 2008: 61) and is consequently taken to be objectless or “intransitive” (Derrida 1990), “discard[ing] its copying and mimetic functions” (Petherbridge 2008: 32) as part of the mark’s “liberation from the figurative” (Kandinsky 1912: 456). My research enters here, asking: what kinds of relationships can exist between the act of drawing, the object of drawing, the point of contact with the page, and the marks resulting from this contact? Is drawing ever really intransitive? Is there really a link between thematizing this point of contact and discarding the mimetic function of drawing, or might mimesis still be at work in a different form? This view connects with John Berger’s contemporary re-evaluation of the historical relationship between drawing, mimesis and death (Berger 2007), which in turn reflects a broader discussion of the mimetic function of the artwork in the assimilation of self to other (e.g. Benjamin 1933, Heidegger 1950, Adorno 1970, Held 1980, Carr 2002).

Studio Research

Within the context outlined above, my own perspective is derived from studio research into acts of drawing (often recorded on video); mechanical processes resembling drawing-like acts; and experimentation with lines that balance between being objects in themselves, being drawings of objects, and being thread-like tethers that fix to their objects. By developing this expanded approach to drawing, I have come to see the point of contact between drawing implement and support as a fulcrum that both bridges and holds apart two asymmetrical environments: the configuration of marks on the support (marks which may be representational and which may interact with the support in a variety of ways), and the space containing the support (home to drawing implement, hand, eye, and an array of other elements including the support itself and perhaps some object of representation).

This practice-led perspective opens to new scrutiny certain features of the context outlined above. If the point of contact is conceived as a fulcrum, we might think not that the retina is demoted from dominance, but rather that its role is taken on by the myopic or “blind” (Derrida 1990) eye of the drawing implement, which is continually in movement at the point of drawing and is unable to see the configuration of marks it leaves on the surface. Moreover, conceived as a fulcrum, it might be the “groping” eye of the implement (ibid) which, far from discarding the mimetic function of drawing, in fact strongly supports it by introducing a point of physical leverage between self and other.

The three artworks I plan to develop will examine this relationship between the blind eye of the drawing implement and the function of mimesis as a means of assimilating the self to other. Reflecting the existing strands of my research, each artwork will set out from one of the three meanings of the point of contact.

Methodology and Structure

The research is structured through three of my own artworks, with one chapter of the written component developing from the insights and arguments set up in each work. The works and written chapters are distinct but stand in a relation of close analogy to one another. Each chapter begins with a brief (500-1000 word) encounter with the artwork in question. The main part of the chapter then stands as a separate self-contained text, with analogies between the two texts remaining tacit and brought to the surface through the repetition of certain key terms across each text.

In the writing, a phenomenological approach is adopted for its primarily descriptive method of achieving knowledge: a method suited to the material object of my enquiry, which I aim to approach as it “appear[s] to consciousness,” by describing “the sum of experiences we have of it” (Moran 2000). This approach is suited to my study for two further reasons: firstly because the primacy of material description permits the written component a deep engagement with the material studio practice at the level of analogy, and secondly because the Cartesian roots of phenomenology (ibid) prepare the ground for considering drawing as a means of assimilating the self to other.

My research will involve the generation of new artworks upon which the chapters will be based. Below I indicate my proposed structure by briefly treating three existing artworks in lieu of those not yet created.

Indicative Chapter Outlines

Chapter 1: The point of contact: formal resemblance

“A Play in Two Parts for Needle and Record” (vinyl record, 2013) sets up relationships of visual and acoustic resemblance between the material means of playing the sound and the material objects denoted by the sound.

What relationships of formal symmetry or asymmetry might exist between the object of representation, the movement of the drawing hand and the resulting configuration of marks (Berger in Savage 2007, Sullivan 2008, Taussig 2011); and between the “configurational” and “recognitional” aspects of the differentiated surface (Wollheim 1987, 1980)? Might resemblance exist across forms (Carr 2002), such as between the object of representation and the movement of the hand? (Billeter 1990, Yen 2005 on Chinese calligraphy.)

Chapter 2: The point of contact: temporal resemblance

“Dance for Solo Piano and Premiere Pro” (video, 2012-13) comprises close-range shots of hands repeatedly performing a complex piece for solo piano. Through frequent visible displacements of audio and video channels, the hands transition between playing and responding to the sound.

What relationships of temporal symmetry or asymmetry might exist between the time of drawing, the temporalities of the resulting drawing, and any object of representation? One might draw an object swiftly while remaining attentive to “the lines in it which have had power over its past fate and will have power over its futurity” (Ruskin 1904: 91); one might describe with painstaking accuracy a split-second event (Hockney 1967); the “walk” of one’s line might be perfectly synchronized with — that is, might be —the object of one’s drawing (Klee 1961).

Chapter 3: The point of contact: the function of resemblance

“Line” (biro line on bed sheet, 2009-ongoing) was drawn from the page of a notebook to the object of a written description. An accompanying text explains that it was drawn in an attempt to capture the object in a way that the notebook description was failing to do.

What is the wider significance of these relationships of symmetry and asymmetry? How might the point of contact mediate between the self and other by being like the other yet of the self (Carr 2002 and Nicholsen 1997 on Benjamin 1933/1999 and Adorno 1970/1997)? Do these asymmetries set up an opposition or alterity between self or other, which might be seen as a flip-side to mimesis (Taussig 1993)? How does this relate to the notion of an artwork’s “truth value” (Benjamin 1933, Heidegger 1950, Adorno 1970) lying in its ability to sustain “a discrepancy between its projected images (concepts) of nature and humankind, and its object’s actuality” (Held 1980 in Carr 2002)? Might the discrepancy between a projected image and its object’s actuality be likewise sustained in the imperfect symmetries held together and held apart by the point of contact between pen and paper?


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– van Alphen, E. (2008). “Looking at Drawing: Theoretical Distinctions and their Usefulness” in Garner, S., ed.  (2008) Writing on Drawing: Essays on Drawing Practice and Research. Bristol: Intellect Books, pp. 59-70.
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