by Dr. Doris Rohr, Senior Lecturer Fine Art (Drawing), Liverpool Hope University, UK, for the mergemerge collaborative drawing project publication by Michael Geddis and Joanna Kidney
The first time Michael Geddis showed me initial results of the collaborative work with Joanna Kidney, it became immediately apparent that this was a symbiotic relationship. Sharing a love for drawing, pattern-making and scientific images provided sufficient common denominators to overcome the differences in each other’s approaches and idiosyncratic vocabularies, daring to let each other intervene, without surrendering a mutual sense of respect. Geddis’ cellular approach to drawing as growth delightfully contrasts with Kidney’s reductivist preferences. If Geddis’ work displays characteristics of kenophobia (1), Kidney’s averts claustrophobia. This polarity acts as a catalyst for creativity and has resulted in astonishing productivity(2).
A departure point could be Rauschenberg’s apocryphal erasure of de Kooning’s drawing (1953) that opened the door to interventionism. To quote Tania Kovats: ‘it is significant that he [Rauschenberg] opened up the arena for art activity by deliberately erasing a drawing – the symbol of artistic authenticity – declaring that a work of art could be a negation.’(3) Yet, important as this act of iconoclasm has been for future generations of artists, the assault on authorship bears only some relevance here, to be found in a consensual gentler form of editorial processes of addition and subtraction. In the twenty-first century, the concept of unique authorship is an arena that has been sufficiently tested and questioned, as a result there is a greater readiness to accept that all acts of creativity involve a degree of appropriation. So one assumes that there is a tacit acknowledgement and awareness in collaborative practices of the kind we encounter here, but the question of authorship is not at the heart of this project. A team-based approach to furthering new insights is habitual to many forms of scientific research. This no doubt has influenced art science collaborations and aided a mutual understanding of how art can relate to science, and vice versa (4) From Geddis’ perspective this works both as a means to deconstruct the assumed objectivity of scientific image making, and as an opportunity to graft scientific methodologies inserting systematic rigour (5) to the act of making drawings:
At first glance, my work appears to simply allude to conventional ecological and philosophical themes in nature like the fragility, beauty, and sanctity of life. But this familiar discourse camouflages a subversive attack on the mythical sufficiency of the dogmatic ‘scientific gaze’ as the only valid means of investigating and understanding nature.(6)
Geddis’ interest in scientific lifeforms is fuelled by his curiosity; his image generation ‘adopt[s] a pedantically methodical (or “scientific”) approach’, (7) yet the fictional visual language he develops is based on imagination.
Kidney’s concerns, subject matter and process differ in orientation. I sense a desire to reinvent linguistics as pictographs, a shift from phonetics to the symbolic, to create visual utterances, sounds from a different world, perhaps from our evolutionary past.
The language of drawing is a cornerstone. It performs several roles: as a discipline in itself; a tool for recalling/collating/mapping and a foundation for expanding with encaustic paint (molten, pigmented wax) and spatial installations. The humanity of the hand-drawn mark connects me– its immediate, intimate and primitive qualities. (8)
Kidney explains that her practice interrogates ‘abstract vocabulary through drawing, painting and installation.[…] it attempts to reflect on our place within the complex, infinite universe.’(9)
Intuition and sub-conscious recall contribute to Kidney and Geddis’ respective methodologies. While Geddis may rely on his scientific memory when recalling observed natural forms and structures freely and in an improvised manner, Kidney bypasses such references and recalls fractures or remnants of forms that have embedded themselves in her unconscious. It is hard to put the finger on the differences between the type of memories at stake here. One may say that Kidney’s memories are more condensed and more readily poetic, whereas Geddis’ fabrications speak of precision, detail and the narratives of biological timeframes.
This polarisation appears to confirm a continued division between the creative mindset of an artist from a scientist. However, on closer inspection these differences melt away. In conversation with both artists (10) it became evident that Geddis memorizes patterns of observed natural structures yet refuses to draw directly from the organisms or their reproductions in textbooks. Thereby he is introducing an element of chance and fiction, of creative freedom, disabling the simplistic equation that science means truth, and art means imagination.
Chance, the prerogative of modernist innovation, speaks of avantgarde techniques of liberating the visual arts from representational skills, hence giving art greater autonomy akin to that of other disciplines of knowledge. Chance, the liberating agency, that the poetic inner vision of the artist can bring to the inflexibility of taxonomies of scientific disciplines.
This extraordinary project started in January 2016 and moved through several distinctive phases with a projected ending in 2021. In the initial stages both artists engaged with a large number of small mixed media drawings on paper. These were posted to each other and there was no dialogue or verbal instruction, forcing both participants to act on visual clues and to exercise visual thinking. Initially clearly traceable to the respective author, with each exchange the origin of the marks added became less distinguishable, the drawings becoming a document of approach, hybridization, improvisation, intuition and acceptance of the unforeseen and unforeseeable.
Caption for jpg 269.5: This example appears an animated cell dividing into a mythical longnecked creature, open to interpretations yet alluding to stories of a long past, pre-human. The drawing is characterised by an openness of what these marks may mean, symbols perhaps of another language, shared across beasts and men.
During the second phase the artists developed a table for evaluation, applying a taxonomy to facilitate aesthetic judgement for their project. This approach brings to mind Sol LeWitt’s rules for making art, emulating the language of logic of science, and adopting a ‘pseudo-mathematical method’ (11), to use Casey’s and Davies’ expression. Related to this are Robert Morris’ instructions on how to make drawings, initially set for himself involving a set of rules such as setting time limits and working with covered eyes , then in a second series changed to instructions given to another person, who was blind from birth. Gary Barker refers to the objective as ‘self-referential’ drawing making’.(12) Yet, in this second series Morris dictated rather than collaborated, and while the limitations set in the first series proved conducive towards unlocking his own visual vocabulary, the ethical premise of the second series appears doubtful.
To sub-conclude then, although the artists here are cognisant of avantgarde inventions and methodologies liberating drawing from the slavery of observational skills, their project is not reduceable to another variation of the theme of self-referentiality. It seemed that each time a drawing was passed back to one-another it stimulated an elaboration and augmentation of each other’s reasons for drawing. In conversation Geddis stressed the importance of narration, of telling or retelling a story in his approach to making drawings. This physically became evident in a linear approach of making concertina drawings in the second phase of their exchange. The concertinas used in part Surrealist drawing techniques and stimulated semi- or subconscious responses in each other. The meeting points of the artists drawings only occur on the perimeter of a visible folded page, leaving each other oblivious to the previous part of the story, picking up, like a dreamer just awakened, the last phrase and attempting to make a coherent story out of what was only known in parts. This quasi-mythological approach led to works that have a more sculptural presence, at the same time evoking time and duration, as if to interpret a musical score.
Caption for concertina 3: Above illustration was most surprising as executed according to the rules of a parlour game, exquisite corpse, yet betraying this encounter with chance.
The desire to explore new formats and challenges promoted further phases of remote exchange. The Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray enabled both artists to come together to work on several occasions throughout the project, thereby interrupting the solipsism of remote exchange. These residencies allowed for embodied interaction, a conversation acted out through gesture and the act of mark making within view of each other. Such collaboration differed from remote exchange through the physicality of being in the same space. As a result of the proximity, the collaboration turned into a direct dialogue with a greater number of exchanges, yet lesser amounts of editorial interventions: a faster, more fluid conversation with less pauses.
Fig 3. 346.7 small encaustic
Caption: This small encaustic work betrays a sense of history, a laboured, worked and worn surface giving insight into its past, reminiscent of fossils in limestone, and of opaque rockpools, associations of another world.
The most recent phase involved the ancient practice of encaustic – one of Kidney’s areas of expertise. Not only the ambition in scale, starting with 30 x 30 cm encaustic drawings, and proceeding to 100×100 cm, but the medium alone posited a shift in methods, process and outcomes. Encaustic embalms previous layers of production already sunken into the past. It permitted Kidney to re-exercise her ability to edit a drawing to leanness and concision. It curtailed or fragmented narratives into a score, adjusting visual text into a libretto of an unknown language.
Following the artists’ joint project in its gestation and metamorphosis, it is apparent that despite their individual visual languages becoming infiltrated with each other’s vocabulary, their underpinnings and intentions, as much as the matter of meaning or purpose, remain distinct. The unpredictability of each other’s responses to a posted drawing was a key factor in disrupting style or formula. The introduction of encaustic as medium added another element of lesser predictability of outcome. Thereby the (unspoken) rules of the collaboration led to sloughing skins of habit and familiar practices in both artists. Kidney prunes gently the invasive habits of her collaborator, enabling the drawings to breathe and sing. Geddis furnishes the project with a knowing yet imagined scientific vocabulary providing a counterpoint through the generosity of his marks.
Drawing enables the artists to embody internalised images and thoughts or what precedes articulated thought. The processes of adding, subtraction and layering emulate growth, stasis and desiccation, entropy and regeneration. Rather than to attempt to reproduce such dynamic aspects of the natural world, where all is becoming, absorption, metamorphosis, in flux, the artists invent processes that parallel natural phenomena. Is this not a recognition of something familiar, a resurfacing of something already known but not yet discovered?
To conclude, then – a matter so far avoided – the issue of meaning. In Kidney’s words there was ‘no desire to control or direct the viewer to very specific meanings’.(13) Whereas for Geddis figuration blends into abstraction, and vice versa: ‘I see a pattern, a structure, an element […that] creates a narrative.’(14) If the origin of his forms is located in cellular organisms becoming and vanishing, the results are interpretations or inventions of a kind. Kidney likewise embraces ‘growth, transition, temporality.’(15) A desire to abstract is most certainly evident as a prime motivation, however, similar to Emma Hunter’s work, the intentions are ‘to go beneath language’(16) as known and accepted, drawing providing an experience in itself where the process helped to achieve this goal. Further, in this appreciation of process letting content emerge, one is reminded of Ellen Gallagher’s drawings, in particular those of Watery Ecstatic. Kovats describes this as image making where known content has been stripped, new symbols have been created, ‘individually drawn’ and ‘mutating like cells’: ‘forms emerge from within the work.(17)
In particular in the encaustic body of work, where linearity of time has become compressed into time other, one senses that alternative communications resonate from the deep. I am reminded of ecologist Rachel Carson’s evocation of the otherness of time in the unreachable depth of the oceans, and the sediments left from inhabitations of prehistory. Carson reiterates the cyclical processes of thickening ice sheets corresponding to the lowering of sea levels, and melting ice leading to the rising of sea levels, referring to this as ‘alternate robbery and restitution’.(18) This is an apt phrase to sum up Merge Emerge. Waxing and waning: a song for the future .
1. I was told that Michael Geddis never uses an eraser, whereas it appears one of Joanna Kidney’s favourite tools. ‘… [K]enophobia, is the filling of the entire surface of a space or an artwork with detail. In physics, “horror vacui” reflects Aristotle’s idea that “nature abhors an empty space.” ‘ Wikipedia (2020) Horror vacui available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_vacui
2. In total over 5,000 individual part-drawing exchanges and hundreds of hours of studio activity have been spent on this project over a period of over four years (from January 2016 onwards and at point of writing this introductory essay August 2020). From this vast body of works the artists produced the shortlist of works presented at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray in 2022. J Kidney (2021), pers. comm., [6th May 2021]
3. Tania Kovats (2007) The Drawing Book London: Blackdog Publishing.
4. David Rothenberg’s, David (2011) Survival of the Beautiful (London: Bloomsbury), Lucy Lyons (‘Drawing your Way into Understanding’ TRACEY (2012) [available at https://www.lboro.ac.uk/microsites/sota/tracey/journal/edu/2012/lyons.html] and (2017) ‘Drawing Connections: Art, Medicine and Surgery’, Design for Health, 1:1, 29-41). Sarah Casey and Gerry Davies (2020) Drawing Investigations (London: Bloomsbury).
5. Arguably Sol LeWitt established a ‘quasi-scientific’ mathematical approach to drawing which no longer required an individual author or maker. Making became stripped of any sense of individual ability or origin; instead formulae were developed which allowed anyone in principle to follow the rules of the game how to make a drawing. LeWitt’s intentionality is entirely different, from the approach taken here, an area I return to further on in this essay.
6. Michael Geddis (2019) ‘The Art of Science’ in From Dream to Dream Where Science Meets Art [ed. Alannah Robins], Letterfrack, Connemara: Artisan House, p 29 (total page numbers 29-35).
8. Kidney, Artist Statement (2020).
10. Zoom meeting Geddis, Kidney, Rohr, 5th August 2020.
11. Casey and Davies op.cit, p 85.
12. Gary Barker (2005) Robert Morris Blind Time Drawings available from <http://fineartdrawinglca.blogspot.com/2015/02/robert-morris-blind-time-drawings.html> [accessed 31 August 2020]