Defining negative spaces: A meditation on femininity and formDrawing is an increasingly rare form these days in practice or in galleries. Strenuous mentally and physically, with intense concentration required, drawing is one of the finest of the fine arts because of the finesse and the skill it requires
Tracing Absences, Brenna K Murphy’s show at Image Ark gallery, in the heart of Patan, which consists mainly of pen and ink drawings on handmade Nepali lokta paper, is a rigorous, thoughtful, original contemplation of what fine art actually means, and with the tracing of pieces of lace and crochet work onto paper, a meditation on how the art world can sometimes reduce crafts such as stitching, embroidery, knitting, lacework, and crochet to just something that people, mostly women, do in their free time; an unfortunate relegation of an entire category of exquisite efforts that can take the same amount of concentration, commitment, creativity, and skill that a fine drawing requires.
By tracing the negative spaces of lace and crochet work, Brenna Murphy is symbolically outlining and emphasising the countless, nameless people who make this kind of art, allowing the viewer to engage at another level, albeit in a different form, with otherwise mundane seeming objects which, however fine, can blend into the larger household.
All of this may sound really needlessly complicated to the sceptical, until you step back and try to recall the name of a single artisan who makes either jewellery, lace, repoussé metalwork, or pottery that has achieved the same level of fame as say a painter like Matisse, MF Hussain, or Manuj Babu Mishra (again, all men, all primarily painters).
All of the aforementioned celebrated artists are picked fairly arbitrarily out of a hat, and for effect, to make a point: to underscore that often, the delicate, meditative works by women, made quietly within their homes are categorically disregarded, falling outside of the highly defined boundaries of fine art entirely.
Murphy’s art stems from a long practice of quietly, carefully making intricate work such as those in her current show. North American by birth and training, her pieces, made over 15 months in Nepal, are not overtly influenced by her surroundings, but it is hard to miss that the majority of the works in this show are made on lokta paper, ubiquitous in Nepal after a revival in the last few decades and now a staple for tourists and Nepalis alike, but not necessarily a medium that a fine draughtswoman would default to for such delicate drawings.
The nineteen pieces in the show are all painstakingly made by Murphy as she sat with pieces of lace and crochet work, drawing the negative spaces between the threads; each space is a signifier of the invisible maker of the object being traced.
Sometimes the chosen form and the content are so separated from each other that it doesn’t matter what the maker intended, but in the case of Murphy’s work, it only enriches the viewer to know about the artistic process, hence an accompanying video of Murphy working, made by gallery owner and filmmaker Marie Ange Holmgren-Sylvain, accompanies the pieces on display. As Murphy draws intently, so too can we imagine the countless women bent over their needles, concentrated on producing, refining, untangling, re-stitching, surveying their handwork, and finally finding (therapeutic) satisfaction in the beautiful end product, even if it ends as a doily, or placemat, or whether, in this age, miraculously makes it on to a gallery wall.
Murphy’s pieces range in size, from the smaller mandala like ‘Tracing Absence (Star)’ which is placed high on a 30 by 19.5 inch piece of lokta paper, to the diptych ‘Tracing Absence (#2)’ which is 3.5 by 5.25 feet. The experience of seeing these drawings hanging on Image Ark’s walls is very particular to the viewer. Even after absorbing the information that Murphy’s works are traced from lacework and crochet, sometimes also incorporating her own hair as in Tracing Absence (Hair Drawing #1), yet another commentary on the inherent feminine form of the absent makers, it is possible to view these pieces as purely expressionist abstractions that can be appreciated aside from their intended political commentary.
Like with the works of the great Agnes Martin (b.1912 –d.2004), one of the few women who was able to carve out a niche for herself in the then male dominated Abstract Expressionist movement with her detailed drawings that seem to pulse with a life of their own, Murphy’s works are vivid and dynamic expressions that belie the intense fine work they require. One would not think that hours spent pouring over a drawing, meticulously tracing negative spaces would result in such moving, whimsical pieces (particularly with the hair) that can either quiet the mind, eliciting a meditative scrutiny, or in the case of this particular viewer’s imagination, evoke aerial views of the very squares and open spaces of Patan where Murphy’s residency at the Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre (KCAC), inside the Patan Museum grounds, began.
Murphy’s oeuvre is available to peruse on her website and provides a fuller picture of her concerns as an artist, her detailed, meticulous working method, and perhaps most importantly, the importance she places on the beautiful mundane. We can choose to go through the world oblivious of that which surrounds us, or, make the choice to look, and engage with all that we take for granted, seeing the preciousness within the minutia we bypass every day. For artists, and for observers, that outlook, the practice of really seeing, can help us define the many beauties of our extraordinary world, making the invisible visible.
Tracing Absences continues at Image Ark Gallery, Patan till June 20. Gallery hours: 10am-5pm, Sunday-Friday.