Drawing: a medium, a process, a symbol

As you squeeze through the narrow walls leading up to the exhibition, your eyes cannot escape the two large monochromatic portraits, strung rather closely to the viewer’s space. The thick, glossy contours of paint intensify their commanding presence, yet both figures appear to exist in complete tranquility. Draw the Breath as from a Well (2015) and The Heart is the Hub of All Sacred Places (2015) attest to Brisbane-based artist, Leonie Chinn’s art making as a “devotional practice”.[1] Here, Chinn ventilates the teachings of Indian guru, Bhagawan Nityananda, who examined breathing as a scientific process. Nityananda, the figure in the latter painting, suggested we inhale breath like we would draw water from a well, free of the impurities we previously exhaled.[2] This notion of ‘drawing’ is infused throughout ‘Drawing Breath’, Chinn’s first solo exhibition, following her return to her practice in 2014 after an almost ten-year long break.[3] Through a series of large scale, figurative drawings, Chinn depicts the human body in varying states of growth, contraction and adulation.

Stark white walls form the base for the exhibition space, gradually fading into the background as your gaze fixates on the layers of charcoal and chalk, in the surrounding artworks. There is a perpetual oscillation between light and dark, each stroke of charcoal working in contradistinction with the white walls and the substantial use of white in the drawings themselves. Entering the main gallery room is initially overwhelming, with a series of smaller drawings placed close together, similar to a salon hang. It’s when you progress further into the space that the artworks increase in distance and scale, allowing for a more intimate exploration of each individual image.  It is immediately evident that Chinn perceives drawing “as a process of revealing levels of consciousness beyond/beneath conscious awareness.”[4] She is also largely fascinated by the use of drawing as a symbolic metaphor, literally ‘drawing’ inspiration and ideas from the artwork itself.[5] 

Furthermore, Chinn views the process of ‘drawing’ as a means of absorbing influence and information from her artistic predecessors, a means of perceiving their historical translation over time.[6] Quite often, there seems to be a chasm between reconciling the visual past with the literary present and Drawing Near – after Leonardo’s Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (2015), amongst others, is exemplary of Chinn’s effort to overcome this and observe the evolution of art through the lens of art itself.[7] Combining charcoal and chalk pastel, Chinn reimagines a famous sketch by Leonardo da Vinci himself, paying homage to the great masters whilst imbuing her own sense of stylistics. The most arresting factor of Leonardo’s original drawing was the placement of the figures, in a way that appeared as though were in unity, and not three separate constituents. Here, Chinn has capitalized on this technique, manipulating tone, form and colour to mould the three figures into one, organic mass. Taking it a step further, Chinn has placed no discernible emphasis on any of the figure’s faces, obscuring the boundaries of their form even more. In fact, the infant is so deeply embedded within the shadows of excess drapery, that he is almost difficult to distinguish. Emerging as if from within each other, these dark figures ‘draw’ influence from their forerunners, yet stand apart as their own distinctive composition.   

The recurring motif of the ‘Mother’ is another central component of the exhibition, with numerous images of the Mother figure dispersed throughout the gallery. Bliss Permeated Mother (2015), a portrait of Indian saint, Anandamayi Ma, in a state of peaceful union with the divine, is one such example. The saint’s name alone roughly translates to ‘joy-permeated’, a concept that is echoed throughout the composition. The slight tilt of her head, the sharp curve of her jaw and the soft flow of her hair operate as tools to reveal the intimacy of this particular scene. Smoothing charcoal onto the surface of the paper, Chinn portrays a figure who exudes the serenity and delight often associated with the saint herself. Not unlike the expression of Saint Teresa in Gianlorenzo Bernini’s Ecstacy of St Teresa (mid 17th century), Anandamayi Ma’s face remains the primary focus, while the rest of her body is enveloped under the sheets of charcoal clothing (a sari) that she adorns.

 

Leonie Chinn, Bliss Permeated Mother Charcoal on paper 2015 594 x 841mm 

Leonie Chinn, Bliss Permeated Mother

Charcoal on paper

2015

594 x 841mm 

Though comparatively muted in terms of tonal gestures, At the Feet of the Mother (2015) is nonetheless an important inclusion, mildly introducing the viewer to the themes of the exhibition as they walk up the stairs, looking up to this colossal figure of the ‘Mother’. It is almost as if both figures, hung on either side of a joining wall, are the same person. Upon closer inspection however, you begin to see the minute differences between the two and notice that here, the emphasis is placed on the figure’s overall, divine-like form. As suggested by the title and the didactic information, we are meant to view this figure as an embodiment of the deific nature of the mother; therefore, finding heaven at the mother’s feet. Instinctually, you think about the relationship you share with your own mother. It is an immediate, visceral and, in my experience, poignant reaction.

At the Feet of the Mother is one of the few paintings exhibited in this largely drawing dominated exhibition, but is by no means the most different. Sadhu (2015) is, by far, the most radically distinctive in comparison to the wider selection of artworks displayed here. Except for his heavy, piercing eyes, splashes of red and blue chalk, that suggest facial painting, shroud the old man’s face in this drawing. These fierce and abrasive strokes of pigment stretch beyond his face and continue to smear the rest of the paper. Thin, white lines frame the silhouette of the figure’s hair down to his long beard, as his otherwise grey body recedes to the background. Consequently, Chinn’s placement of this work amid the generally monochromatic palette present in ‘Drawing Breath’, sparks an interesting dialogue, entrenched in the practice and parameters of drawing.

Over time, drawing has progressively developed as an independent medium in itself and Chinn’s artistic practice is no exception to this pattern. Her body of work embodies the process of drawing in both literal and metaphorical terms, converting the preliminary sketch into the final piece. Raising what is typically coined as the ‘ordinary’ to the extraordinary. 

- A review by Amanda Brachio


References

[1] “About the Artist,” Leonie Chinn, accessed September 16, 2016, http://leoniechinn.com/about-the-artist/.

[2] Bhagawan Nityananda, Voice of the Self, trans. M.P. Pandit (Madras: P. Ramanath Pai Press, 1962).

[3] “Drawing Breath: Leonie Chinn,” Jugglers Art Space Inc, accessed September 16, 2016, http://www.jugglers.org.au/upcoming-events/2016/9/16/drawing-breath-leonie-chinn.

[4] “About the Artist,” Leonie Chinn, accessed September 16, 2016, http://leoniechinn.com/about-the-artist/.

[5] Leonie Chinn (artist) in discussion with Amanda Brachio, September 2016.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.