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Drawing in the Dark
The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.
—Virginia Woolf from a journal entry dated January 18, 1915
Last week I included a prompt that’s been haunting me all week. “Be in the Dark.” How to just be okay with not knowing. And I like the idea but I’ve been swamped with decisions and feel at a real crossroads and I can’t seem to settle on a single approach to the questions I have. Normally a few hours of attentive aimlessness in one of my favourite wild spaces, or with a mortar and pestle, resets my mood or at least gets me closer to myself. But this feels different. More confusing. A kind of arrhythmia between heart and head.
“Be in the Dark” I kept thinking to myself.
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Cy Twombly who’s dad named him after the famous baseball player and was hoping for a sportier boy, sent young, sensitive, Cy off to the army— I think it might have been Virginia— to toughen him up. I am pretty sure that the making him into a “real” man plan didn’t work out but something else happened. Cy in his army barracks bunk-bed every night practiced drawing in the dark. Years later he didn’t talk about being gay, or being forced into an army mold of masculinity, but he talked about how at night in bed in the dark he developed his style of drawing. He learned there, in the dark, through repetition, a relationship between his hand and the pencil, the paper, and I guess, whatever was inside him that needed to come out. That line that he developed would go on to being one of the world’s most valuable scribbles. By the end of his life he was living in kind of rambling European estate making huge scribbles on huge canvasses that sold around the world for millions of dollars each. You can recognize a Cy Twombly work by that line of his—either looking like a crayon on a wall or dusty chalk on a slate-coloured chalkboard. Really like a private sketchbook writ large. His work feels made for those people who say my child could paint that. And there is something childlike about his line, but I don’t think that’s what gives it its power or value. I think its that he found it.
To me Cy Twombly’s line looks purposeful but easy, confident but tentative, epic and monumental but also delicate and almost not there. It also looks a bit like a rough outlines of a plan made by cave people on a rock wall, or alien architects. The scratchings look suggestive of signs and almost letterforms but just below conscious understanding. There are probably better ways to describe his work and of course it’s influenced by a bunch of stuff that was happening at the time, like abstract expressionism, art pauvre, not to mention particle physics, snippets of poetry, and archeological finds. He also brought attention to the visceral act of mark making in a way that celebrates marks as marks —you can almost hear them scratching across his surfaces—which, for me, is inspiring.
But I think there is something else going on there, and it’s why I keep going back to his work. I think something else happened there in the dark, exhausted and in the wrong environment, in secret, feeling like a disappointment. I think that Cy Twombly uncovered a looseness of line that was only his. I think if you can forget about art history, forget about trying to make your work look beautiful, forget the idea that it needs to look or feel or represent something in particular, forget any kind of audience, even forget your judging, correcting self as an audience—if you can turn off the light on all of this and be utterly unknowing that the hand and the pencil and the paper will start to do something that is absolutely particular to themselves and the moment and place they are in. In there, somewhere in the unseeable, unfigure-out-able, unsolvable night is not a solution but a tiny ever-burning fire of the self.
So I opened my sketchbook and turned out the lights.
In the Colour Lab this week:
Let’s share some drawings in the dark…