Deanna Petherbridge: ‘Drawing can be a million different things, but I think basically it’s a critical practice’
Using pen and ink as a metaphorical means of interrogating human interest, Petherbridge sees drawing as akin to writing, only perhaps more democratic
by ANNA McNAY
With a retrospective exhibition, showing pen and ink drawings from across a 45-year career, currently on show at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, and the publication last year of a major new monograph, Deanna Petherbridge: Drawing and Dialogue, Petherbridge (b1939, Pretoria, South Africa) is certainly having a moment. Recently returned from India, and already planning ahead to her next solo exhibition in the autumn, she nevertheless made time to welcome Studio International to her home-cum-studio in Islington, north London, to discuss the value and democracy of drawing, a medium she has championed throughout her career.
Anna McNay: You have a multifaceted career as an artist, a writer, a curator and a teacher, but the thread that runs through it all is really your dedication to drawing. When did this become the focal point of your work?
Deanna Petherbridge: My drawing practice has been going since the 60s. Before that, I did do rather large expressionist paintings. And I made some sculptures. And there was a lot of gory anti-Vietnam work when I first came to London from South Africa. The content of my work, in a way, has continued to be expressionist, but the formality has changed.
AMc: You really started drawing with pen and ink on paper during time spent in Greece, Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East.
DP: I had a house on a Greek island, so I used to travel there every year, and I’d also started travelling around the Middle East. I discovered that pen and ink was more portable and I stuck with it all my life really. If you’re drawing in any way, even large drawings as I’ve done, you can still put them in a roll and carry them over your shoulder.
AMc: Why pen and ink, rather than, say, graphite?
DP: I think because pen and ink is so formal, and it calls for a kind of geometrical approach, which, at the time, was important for me. And then it stuck, because I starting looking more and more at architecture, and so it became more logical to do the abstraction of architecture. Pen and ink are very abstract means. Their colour evokes sensations. Pen and ink demand all kinds of special strategies. For example, if you are using a pencil, the weight of your hand gives a kind of emotional intensity to the work. With pen and ink, especially architectural pens, you have to find other strategies. I have written about this a great deal in my book, The Primacy of Drawing: Histories and Theories of Practice (Yale University Press, 2010). It’s quite an involved theory.
AMc: As you mentioned, you have focused to a degree on architecturally inspired drawings, largely devoid of the figure.
DP: Not always, but most of the time. It’s not so much architecture, I expect, as architectonics, but I do think I realise more and more, architecture is above form, it tells you how people live. It’s at a remove in a way; it’s a metaphorical way of dealing actually with very human interest – how people live and fight and die and worship, and all the rest of those things. I can go to other countries with it, too, where I don’t know the language and I don’t understand the culture, but, by drawing it, and drawing it in this kind of way, and understanding how architecture functions, I find a way in. Geometry is universal, so this is a kind of universal language.
AMc: You mentioned Vietnam, but you have continued to draw a lot of scenes of war and destruction throughout your career. Has this always been something that has preoccupied you?
DP: I think these issues have been very important, maybe because I grew up in South Africa under apartheid. Mind you, we all live in such rotten political times now. But, in those days, I grew up in a country that was fraught with injustice, so I think these things have always been of intense importance to me. I saw signs on benches saying: “Whites only.” I saw discrimination. It was in your face every moment of the day, so I grew up being aware of the problems of the world.
AMc: What made you leave South Africa?
DP: It was impossible to live there, especially as a student. I’d been to university and it was open to people from all races. While I was there, apartheid took over, and, even though we marched, and so many of my fellow students went to prison and suffered and became martyrs, we realised that we were being marched into absolutely unacceptable political restrictions. So either you fought it, or you left it. I’m afraid I was a coward: I left it.
AMc: It’s a difficult choice.
DP: It’s a terrible choice. This is why, when I see all these people here who have been forced out of a country, not having to even make those choices, but having no choice, to be forced out, betrayed by everybody, including the countries they’re going to – I can’t bear it. We’re living in such monstrous times.
AMc: Do you see your works as making a political comment or a social comment?
DP: Yes, for me, but I realise that in some way my method of drawing is quite alienating, which is maybe what turned me on to it in the beginning. It’s alienating because it’s abstraction, because it always maintains a kind of abstract base and a structural base to everything. Whether this is apparent to anybody else, I don’t know. But following International Women’s Day [8 March 2017], there was a women’s event [Wonder Women Thursday Lates: Drawing from the Wider World], which I’d helped to curate, at my show up in Manchester. Somebody came up to talk to me, and she said – and I have to say I was so touched – that her daughter is an architect, and when she saw my big triptych, The Destruction of the City of Homs (2016), which is my latest work, she wept. I couldn’t believe that, because all the time I was drawing it, and I was drawing it all last year, it took me about eight months, I kept thinking: “Do I have any right to draw this?” And that’s a big question, first of all because we learn everything through movies or the moving image, through photography and the digital media. And then, here I am, taking it back for another way of representing it. The investment in a drawing where you’re reinterpreting is actually much greater, forgive me, than sitting behind a camera. To take something over for a drawing implies that you’re putting yourself and your own experiences into it in some way, even though I try to distance myself. So to know that actually it had succeeded, meant a lot. All the time I was drawing it and thinking about it, I’d looked at a few things on the internet and obviously I’d seen things on the news, but I never worked from images. It’s so important for me, as I say, to reappropriate, to take over, to interrogate through the act of drawing.
AMc: So you look at the imagery, immerse yourself in it, and then reimagine it yourself?
DP: Completely. But it’s contradictory, especially in the case of Homs, because it’s an empty city, an empty modern city. I’ve never been to Syria, although I’ve been to a lot of other Middle Eastern countries, and it could have been any of the other cities that have been destroyed.
AMc: So it is like a metaphor for destruction? You have said before that it is about the destruction of the modern.
DP: It is, yes. And that modern returns to that very simple structure when it’s bombed. It goes back to it was when it was being built.
AMc: The Destruction of the City of Homs is a phenomenal work. You said it took you eight months to complete. Were you working solely on that one piece for the duration?
AMc: You were completely immersed in it?
DP: Yes. I could never work on more than one thing at a time. I really couldn’t.
AMc: Can we talk a little bit about your working process? Do you make sketches in advance?
DP: Never. I never have sketches. The thing grows. There is an idea – sometimes a very vague idea for these very big works – but I never make sketches. I sometimes do drawings that are associated with a work, so, in that sense, they could be called studies. I don’t use sketches. Because my work is so detailed, there’s such an investment of time in it, if you had to study, and then carry it all out again, it would just become completely mechanistic. And the whole point is that if you are using a mechanistic technique, the last thing you want to do is have a mechanistic way of working. It would be deadly, absolutely deadly. I sometimes even put errors into the work when it’s looking too smooth and too perfect. I disrupt it. Nobody else knows about this, but I do it for myself.
AMc: Do you have an idea in advance of how you want the finished piece to look?
DP: Yes, more or less, but I start working with that idea, and immediately the drawing takes over, the space takes over. You put a line on a piece of paper and immediately you activate that piece of paper – spatially, dynamically, psychologically.
AMc: Do you work methodically across the page from left to right, or right to left?
DP: Oh, I think I move it around, I do all sorts of things. In the past, I’ve also worked on a big roll. Unfortunately, I can’t at the moment because of an arm problem. I’m about to start another very big drawing. I’m having an exhibition in the autumn at Art Space Gallery, here in Islington. I’m going to do one very tall work. I work on a big table and it’s at an angle, like an architect’s drawing board.
AMc: Have you ever used a computer screen for drawing?
DP: No. I really don’t want to because all the processes that are so important to me can’t be done on something where I’m working with a system.
AMc: The human element would be lost.
DP: Yes, it just doesn’t do it.
AMc: You’ve worked with quite detailed geometric design, but also a lot with the imagination. Do you find that they mesh quite naturally for you, or do you approach each method slightly differently?
DP: I think they mesh. When you get to my age, the way you work has become so embedded, and I keep thinking: “All right, I’ll start again, and let me be experimental.” Sometimes, I think: “My God, this is way out,” and then I look at it two weeks later and it looks exactly like a Petherbridge. I’m an old artist, and artists tend to find a way of working, and it shapes your entire life. It’s how you live with the world, how you teach about the world, how you write about the world.
AMc: Do you see the writing and teaching and curating elements of your life as part of your being an artist?
DP: I think they’re very related, they absolutely are. The only difference is that, when I’m writing, and also when I’ve been teaching, it’s been very important for me to be open to what other people are doing. I have never, in my teaching, imposed what I do, it’s always been, “That’s me” and the rest of the world has a right to do anything it wants, and I just need a critical fix on it, so that I can help you understand what you’re doing. I think that’s what teaching’s about, isn’t it? Helping other people to find a way.
AMc: Many of your architectures seem to continue off the page, stretching into the unknown, the infinite, or the sublime. Is there an element of the utopian – or dystopian – to your work?
DP: There are different dynamics to different works. The work that goes to the edge, it goes into space, and endless work was very much a 70s notion, wasn’t it? And some works called for that. Certainly, in The Destruction of the City of Homs, it was very important for me to have the feeling that the city, and this battle, went on and on into eternity, and it had just been cropped by the frame. Again, these are what I mean about strategies, how you frame a work, how you work within the paper, how you group, how you compose, how you use your materials. All of these are really important strategies. When I’m actually doing them myself, obviously I’m not inhibited by thinking about them.
AMc: But it is still a conscious decision-making process?
DP: Absolutely, yes.
AMc: Your early series were quite motif-like, but this is less the case these days. How do you see this progression in your style?
DP: Well, it’s a development of career. Whether or not it’s a progression, that sounds too much like an old-fashioned, grand-narrative notion. I don’t think anybody believes that any longer about art or politics. I think it changes, it develops, it can go forwards, it can go backwards. I wouldn’t call it progression, that’s too much of, as I say, a difficult argument.
AMc: Are there any specific influences, artistic or otherwise, that have had an impact on your work? For example, some drawings seem to have echoes of MC Escher – with impossible staircases and inverted perspectives. Calcutta: Walking Without Eyes (1986), for example. Is this a conscious influence?
DP: No, I think his paintings are really just jokes. I’ve never looked at him particularly carefully. I have, over time, looked at perspective manuals, things like that, because I’ve investigated the history of drawing. My book is not so much a history of drawing, but a history of making. In the early stages of my career, I looked very carefully at Islamic patterns, and I taught myself funny ways to construct 17-star patterns. I couldn’t do them now, and I wouldn’t want to do them now.
AMc: You have also talked about the impossibility of drawing landscape.
DP: Yes. That was, of course, meant to be a humorous notion. I’m thinking about spaces and places, and how people live in them.
AMc: The book that you mentioned, The Primacy of Drawing, grew out of an exhibition you put on in 1990-91, with the same name.
DP: Actually, the exhibition was called The Primacy of Drawing: An Artist’s View and the book was called The Primacy of Drawing: Histories and Theories of Practice . The exhibition was really about different ways of looking at drawings – not just boring historical or connoisseurial ways. Then that grew into a notion of just looking at questions of making – a much more sophisticated thinking process – and I worked on that for 10 or so more years and produced the book. I realised how ignorant I was. I realised I had to educate myself. That takes a long time. Especially because, if you’re a contemporary artist, and grew up as a contemporary artist today, they only think what is going on around them is relevant, history is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter, and, of course, as you get older, you realise the incredible importance of history. Today, in Donald Trump’s age, everybody is saying: “Look again at the 1930s, look at Hitler, look at the dangers of populism.” Without history, you get Donald Trump. It’s a dangerous theory, this notion that only the contemporary is of relevance. That’s ignorance. And we valorise ignorance, I think. This really worries me.
AMc: You were professor of drawing at the Royal College of Art from 1995-2001. During that time, you launched the Centre for Drawing Research, the first PhD drawing programme in the UK. Clearly, you see it as important for students to be able to focus on this discipline in isolation from other artistic methods.
DP: That was how it was constructed, as is the case for fine art degrees today, which can be entirely practice-based. But, in fact, I didn’t encourage that, because fine art degrees can be people saying: “On Tuesday, I’ve added red, and on Thursday morning, I’ve put in a bit of blue” – and so what? I really encouraged the students to have a thematic investigation. We live in an age where everyone is looking to Gilles Deleuze or Félix Guattari or other French philosophers, so they constructed ways to look at their own work, or they looked at power systems, or something like that.
AMc: But solely focusing on drawing as distinct from other art processes?
DP: Yes. I think drawing is an analytical and intelligent practice, you see. When you discredit drawing, you discredit that ability. Drawing can be a million different things, but I think basically it’s a critical practice. You’re looking at the world in some way, or reinterpreting or making a world on paper, and involved in that are all sorts of questions and strategies and decision-making and judgments.
AMc: How do you see drawing in comparison with writing, for example?
DP: I think it’s very similar, except, of course, you’re not using words, and there’s no vocabulary. You form your own vocabulary of marks, in a sense, but meaning can be just as obscured in visual art, as it can be in literature. Ultimately, it’s finding the form for the meaning, isn’t it? I’m sure that’s still a valid concept.
AMc: Absolutely. Do you think drawing is something that anybody is able to develop, or do you think it is a talent that someone is born with?
DP: I think everybody can develop it – with encouragement and confidence.
AMc: You are the artist behind the mural on the curved drum wall of the concert hall at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham – one of the largest such commissions in the UK. How different was it for you designing something that you knew would be scaled up and presented in such large format?
DP: It was immensely exciting, because, first of all, it was a very collaborative experience and, most of the time, it’s just me alone in my studio, reconstructing the world in my own imagination. It was also a very fraught process. I really have problems with my mural. We stopped work, we pulled people off, and there’s a long story attached to it – but, anyway. It was an infringement of my artist’s rights, and all sorts of things, but it’s there, in bad condition. I went to see it just last year. I don’t know how artists manage big studios, but I find that other people interpreting my work, which happened with the mural team, or the set painting team when I worked in the theatre, makes it become mechanistic. It’s not easy to let go of the idea, the sketch.
AMc: So you weren’t tempted to go more down that route, into set design, perhaps?
DP: If more commissions had happened then I certainly would have. Obviously, they didn’t trust me, because I wasn’t a professional set designer; I was an artist with half-baked skills. Designing for the theatre is the most thrilling thing, it’s just wonderful. The amount of people involved, the amount of skills involved, and then that actual moment of thrill when things are happening on the stage. Working in Covent Garden was fantastic. [She designed sets and costumes for the Royal Ballet – A Broken Set of Rules (1984) and Bloodlines (1990).] It was nerve-racking, but very exciting. That whole little street on the side was full of workshops and hat-makers and jewellery-makers and wig-makers, and people had the most amazing skills. You would enter a warren and go into a little studio, and it would be magic, absolute theatrical magic. Everything you wanted was there. You would go into the fabric store to look for fabrics, or somebody would call you in to say we should do this or that. It was a great privilege.
AMc: You have described drawing as the most democratic of media. Is this related to your belief that it is a skill anyone can develop?
DP: I think so, yes. And also because it’s as democratic as picking up a pen or pencil to write something, or even to scratch in the ground. It’s there, it doesn’t require an enormous range of materials or anything. Of course, we know that children can draw, and then it gets beaten out of them somehow or other as they go to school, or they get taught things, and they stop valuing it as a kind of creativity.
AMc: Travel is clearly key to your work and to your life, and you’ve just come back from India, where you go fairly often.
DP: Yes, two years ago I was in Kerala. This time, I went to work. I know quite a lot of Indian artists, but also Indian architects, and I’ve got a friend who has a wonderful little house in Goa, and he moves into his architect’s office, which is a wonderful old house he’s done up, and lets me stay in his house, which is very small and very modest, kind of a pavilion he designed himself. And I work there. It’s in a most beautiful garden, and it’s just three little simple rooms and a veranda, and monkeys playing in the jungle outside. It’s lush and exotic. I’ve been there about four or five times, and this is the second time I have worked there, and I worked with such happiness.
AMc: Are you drawing things that are there around you, or are you taking work from here to continue while there?
DP: No, it was very much about Goa, very much about the exotic plants. Every morning, I used to walk along the little jungly road and look at everything. It is all so extraordinary. The way a baobab tree grows upwards and downwards, and things are hanging, and the kind of lushness and madness and danger. Terrible snakes are in the jungle, so you stay on the road. And, of course, there is wonderful local architecture in Goa, because it’s Portuguese-inspired. It was under Portuguese rule until 1961, so it’s unique. It’s not really Indian, it’s something else, it’s somewhere else. It’s got a lot of really trash tourism, I must say. But it’s also quite a wealthy state and it’s full of old hippies. I think everything’s available in Goa. It’s interesting, and a lovely place to work in. Everybody there is making something.
AMc: Do you draw the jungle and plants and architecture from life, as it were, sitting in front of them?
DP: No, like everything I do, I look at it and something happens, and I never quite know, when I sit down to draw, what’s going to happen. Whether the drawings are any good or not, I don’t know, but they were just enjoyable to do. One can never tell with one’s own work; it’s very good to have somebody else come in and curate it with you. Also, as an artist, you do need a distance. And, of course, I change my mind about things. I sometimes look at something in the drawer and think what garbage it is. Then I look at it again three months later and think it’s quite interesting. If you’re an artist, you draw because you have to. Drawing, whether it’s working or not, is a pleasure.
DP: Yes. I mean, sometimes it’s agony pleasure! No artist should repeat themselves or rest on their laurels. I think everything you do has got to be subjected all the time to critique. Which means that I’ve got so many unfinished and discarded drawings about the place.
AMc: Has being a woman been a significant element of your career?
DP: Yes, I think it has, absolutely. I’ve lived through the days when women artists just didn’t get a showing, and that has changed, thank goodness. But there’s not a woman in this world who hasn’t suffered discrimination at some point. I’ve always thought of myself as a feminist, but I’ve never been an orthodox feminist. I wrote an article in Art Monthly called A Moment in Feminism: Feminisme! C’est Moi and everybody hated it with a passion. “How dare you even claim the word for yourself?” I think feminism could be very doctrinaire. It’s in a completely different place today. But being a woman artist has been immensely important. Because I was working with this austere medium of pen and ink, and because it looked as if it was rather formal, there was a notion that this had to be “intellectual”. That was used as a term of abuse against me for many years. It was thrown at me by both men and women. I always felt it was up to each person to challenge these kind of cliched ways of thinking. Who knows why one ends up working as one does. It is autobiographical, but it’s lots of other things, too. I think, for me, its closeness to writing is a very important factor. I sometimes think I write-draw, or draw-think. They’re very close, they’re very related. Creativity is very mysterious indeed.
• Deanna Petherbridge’s solo exhibition is at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, until 4 June 2017.