TRACES: a solo exhibition by Brooke Leigh
Alpha Gallery, Sydney

TRACES investigates the relationship between the hand, material and the paper. Through a series of process-based drawings, Leigh explores how Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist techniques of automatic drawing can be reiterated in a contemporary context. Leigh reprocesses the material qualities of her drawings using photo screen printing and other remediations, thereby displacing the mark and the artist’s subjective position with the performative gestural marks of the unconscious approach to drawing.


Brooke Carlson’s new exhibition sees the artist growing and exploring new frontiers of practice. At this early stage in her artistic life, Carlson’s studio practice is questing, searching for a way to express, appropriate in its strong grounding in drawing and printmaking. I cannot think of a better way for a young artist to discover their own direction, character and artistic temperament than drawing.

I first met Carlson, appropriately, at an exhibition of her work, at Sydney College of the Arts. I liked that Carlson, who is of disarmingly sweet character, was engaging vigorously in incredibly rough, dirty, gestural charcoal drawings (something I am yet to be able to manage with any kind of dignity). Always excited to meet somebody else that loves drawing as much as I do, I said g’day and we formed a friendship almost immediately. In a commercial art world dominated by painting, and an institutional art world dominated by video, spectacle and object-based work, those that draw have a tendency to band together and talk shop. It can be a little of a club-mentality, but it is a club that most artists join for at least some period of time.

There have been many a catalogue essay and journal article written about the contemporary ‘resurgence’ of drawing, but this perspective is erroneous. Drawing has maintained a strong presence in artist’s practices for centuries, and the contemporary idiom is no different. What has changed in recent years, however, is the perceived role of drawing. Many commentators argue the merits of the primacy of drawing, a contemporary realisation of the importance of certain fundamental laws of process and form that are a part of the heuristic processes of drawing, and these arguments are not without merit. In parallel to this view is the digital emancipation of drawing from mere preparatory process; many of drawing’s fundamentals have been applied to programming. Drawing has now been largely-separated from the dismissive and often-ignorant associations of commercial art and illustration that have dogged draftsman in the west with increasing truculence. The change in attitude toward drawing, even in my own undergraduate experience, has been surprising. Between commencing first year in 2004, and finishing honours at the end of 2007, the attitude had shifted from constant (and, frankly, numbingly tedious) verbal hen-peckings of ‘too illustrative’, and a general resistance to showing drawings outside of life drawing class, to exhibiting several series of drawings for my final assessment, and drawing subjects becoming some of the most popular classes.

To be free of these associations allows a clarity of purpose for the artist who chooses to draw, not to mention several wonderful ironies. So far, Carlson’s approach to the studio is that of reconfiguration. Each innovation of practice is followed by another reaction. As Brooke once said to me, she couldn’t be ‘one of those artists that just make the same thing over and over again’. In a relatively short span of time, Carlson has investigated surrealist notions of automatic drawing and the subconscious, as well as the implications of mass culture, informed by the ever-prescient Walter Benjamin. With drawing’s emancipation, the danger to the discipline changes from relegation to secondary status to the wearisome risk of hackneyed cliché or worse, smirking affectation. With the banishment of the ‘i-word’ (illustration) from the lexicon of drawing critics comes the flood of poseurs. Thankfully the ‘street art’ (I didn’t name it so don’t blame me) idiom attracts some of these malcontents. Hence, the streets of Sydney and Melbourne are riddled with lavish, highly-detailed and stylised graphic vacuities. At the other end of the spectrum we see the faked unaffectedness. Like true camp, naivety cannot be affected.

‘Bad drawing’ claims naivety, but only so much as to ape and pander. Fortunately for us, Carlson adopts no such practiced posture, and consciously sets out to expand her boundaries. This is a particularly admirable position for an art student to take. So many seem geared toward an output of product, a singular oeuvre that (at least in the imagination) will attract the attentions of Anna Schwartz, Elton John’s assistant’s assistant, or the MCA. If there is one thing the art police can sniff out, it’s a faker.

While there have been many successful practical jokes played upon the contemporary art, few of these have been played through drawing recently. This is interesting in that drawing has a long association with satire, particularly in mass culture. Comics, cartoons and caricatures form a mischievous, subversive and innovative part of drawing’s history. Perhaps the root of this grows from the discipline’s directness, and its ‘inner-ness’. By this, I mean that there is barely any mediation or filtration that occurs between the mind thinking of the mark and the hand marking the mark. This immediacy has been celebrated by many, and invokes associations of genius; the uninhabited and fluid flights of the mind made visible. In terms of this perspective, Carlson’s automatic drawings examine this area of indefinability, although she literally adds another Benjaminesque level to this. Carlson connects the unrepeatable, automatic mark with mass culture through screen printing dot matrices over the drawings. This simultaneously acknowledges the unavoidable presence of mass culture, and denies its domination of art; despite the screen print being largely associated with the mass-reproduction of posters, Carlson’s works are decidedly one-offs. Considering that Carlson has decided to perform on the night alongside the drawings, the video also in the exhibition could be considered superfluous. However, in consideration of drawing’s recent, renegotiated status in the art world, the drawings, video and performance exhibited in parallel demonstrate its expanded contemporary application.
‘Drawing on the night will give a chance to people to see how the drawings are made and the marks, and the process, which becomes one of the most important aspects of the work. Particularly if [a drawing is] framed on the wall, that gives it a completely different dimension to the work than a performance’, says Carlson of her decision to exhibit the three different formats of drawing together.

At the end of the day, the difficulty in defining drawing is a big part of its charm. It is a discipline that, thanks to its history, is deeply embedded in the processes of art, of mass culture, and digital technology. It is a discipline that resists categorization, and encourages innovation and gesture, itself a wonderful place to be as an artist. Carlson embraces these characteristics with sincerity and enthusiasm, and I for one cannot wait to see what she is up to next.

– Jonathan McBurnie is an artist, a PhD candidate at University of Sydney with a focus on contemporary drawing, and the Visual Arts Editor at Sneaky magazine.


Ebony Secombe: We first met a few months ago in a coffee shop in Glebe to discuss curatorial ideas for your first solo exhibition. We also talked a lot about your artistic background and practices within drawing and performance. I would really like to return to some points we discussed in that initial conversation to find out more about how your artistic practice has been developing.

TRACES is your first solo exhibition, but you have quite a few achievements under your belt. Would you like to tell me a little more about some of your international experiences?

Brooke Leigh Carlson: I have had a few London related experiences. At the beginning of last year, I had one of my works selected for show at the Saatchi Gallery as an emerging artist. Later last year, I was also given the wonderful opportunity as Exhibitions and Gallery Intern at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery in London. With two galleries in London and one in New York it was valuable experience learning the ropes behind such a successful gallery. August is the month for Art Fairs in London so that was great fun – VIP passes to opening events such as STRATA at the Saatchi, meeting artists, installation.. the list goes on. Immersing myself in the city and its culture was incredible experience in itself for an artist. I was also given the opportunity to volunteer for Chisenhale Gallery. It was competitive to be able to volunteer here I was lucky! Such a fantastic non-profit space dedicated to local and international emerging artists.

The first encounter I had with the wonderful city was in 2008 when my work was selected for the Unilever International Art Prize. This is a funny story. I actually thought my work had been lost after entering a local competition. Apparently I had ticked a box on the back to enter another competition. This box lead to my work winning first place for Australia and having an all expenses paid trip to London. I represented our country amongst thirty others in the prize and my painting was shown in the Tate Modern and then London’s National Theatre. Last year I also undertook an artist residency at Art Print Residence in Arenys de Munt, Barcelona. It was great fun, I was learning all the tool names in Spanish as they spoke very little English! It was really wonderful to be given the opportunity to further develop my printmaking skills from etching (soft and hard ground) to drypoint, photo etching and mono-printing!

E.S: And you recently curated your first exhibition, Drawing Abroad, featuring international artists who also work through drawing based mediums. How did you come across the international artists you have shown, and have their works influenced your own?

B.C: I had the pleasure of meeting the lovely Hanna ten Doornkaat in London at an exhibition opening last year. I immediately found her drawing inspiring and related very much to the focus on process in our practices. We have become very close friends and often Skype for hours discussing drawing and current contemporary art in our cities. She has become such an inspiration to my development as an artist not only through her practice but she has somewhat taken on a mentor role. Paul Lee is a Korean artist and friend of Hanna’s who has started exhibiting in London, and he loved the idea of the drawing show I was putting together. It was very exciting to show these artists works for the first time in Australia. Back to the question – I think Hanna in particular has both inspired and encouraged the experimental and performative aspect of my work. Whilst Paul has inspired the repetitive and mediative aspect of mark making. Both of these artists investigate mark making as a means of drawing.

Tell me about some of the other artists who you are currently inspired by?

B.C: Oh, where to begin! I am currently inspired by Julie Mehretu’s drawings – she looks at marking space and time through abstractions of the city. Taking on the form of mapping and recording they become gestural as they capture the fast pace of the city which I like. Mira Schendel – I saw her retrospective at the Tate Modern last year and found it very inspiring. Paticularly the way she uses transparent paper in her installations as a way of exposing her texts and symbols of meaning – the aspects of drawing in her works are very moving. Louise Bourgeois will always be a favourite, there is something in her work that just makes you want to cry because it’s so beautiful. (Which I did when I saw her Insomnia Drawings for the first time at The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh last year…)

E.S: You’ve been incredibly busy this year and are currently studying your Masters of Fine Arts at Sydney College of the Arts. What are some of the theoretical underpinnings of your work?

B.C: My work has developed through investigating Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist techniques of Automatic Drawing. Theoretically it began from looking into Andre Breton’s theories of automatism and Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious and how these can be used as a source material for art making. In particular, I focus on the performative aspect of drawing through mark making and how this process determines the outcome of the work. Recently, I have been really taken by Giles Deleuze’s, ‘Difference and Repetition’ and Rosalind Krauss’, ‘Optical Unconscious’ – whilst further exploring repetitive mark making and modes of documentation of my drawing performances.

self-published exhibition catalogue