How does paper remember?
As randomly as we do.
This exchange might seem a little rigorous for a Saturday morning chat, but it’s typical of the conversations I have with my friend John Ide. We go back a long way; before he was friends with me, he was friends with my grandmother. For both of us, that meant listening to different versions of the same memory, coloured by the current mood, feud or opinion. My grandmother riffed on memory. Now, John and I spend a lot of time interrogating it.
What’s true? What’s a story? What’s a story about a story? Does memory change in the telling? Does it change the teller, or the person who hears? And what about stories that are not told – our own, or those of our elders?
I went to visit him last month during an unexpected heat wave, rushing out the door in a coat on a day when only a tee shirt was needed, tossing a digital recorder in my bag. John will be exhibiting some new drawings at the Loop Gallery, June 22 to July 14. I am excited to see them, to talk about them, and write about them.
John’s apartment is in one of those quiet and green pockets that you can still find in downtown Toronto, with ceramics and artworks carefully arranged within a small space. The desk is the focus of the room, a desk where he spends between five and ten hours a day, drawing.
The current work is part of a series he’s been creating for the past three years, work requiring little space, few materials – only pencils (HB and 2B), Stonehenge paper (often used for printmaking), chalk pastel and erasers – and lots … and lots … of solitary time.
His latest method is to lay down areas of colour in pastel, then crosshatch over the whole surface first in HB, then in 2B pencil. Then he uses a kneaded eraser to lighten precisely delineated shapes. The eraser sometimes picks up the graphite; sometimes smudges it or rubs it in deeper.
The drawings are striking for a gentle but uncompromising quality, their rich texture lost in reproduction, especially online. You have to see the works in person, spend time with them and look at them from various angles to appreciate what these surfaces have to offer. You see not just fields of dark and light, but the impressions of all the layers of cross hatching that went before. Particularly compelling are the rough edges of the paper, which stand out like lace against the white mat.
I want people to know about these drawings not just because I like them, but because they’re all about retreat from the marketplace, from goal-driven pushing, and chatter. They’re about someone being true to his process. I want to believe in a world where that kind of work wins out; for John, it’s just relaxing.
“Everything I do to the paper, changes the paper … The marks themselves: some of them hold bits of the graphite, some release it. I’ll find as the drawing is being built over time, white lines begin appearing, as if the paper has remembered where a line was before, but it’s been erased, the graphite was removed from the line, but now that the paper’s surface has received graphite, that indentation, like in an etching, has stayed light. And so I have white lines appearing across the drawing here and there, and that’s a random memory that’s appearing in the drawing.”
I wonder how others will see these drawings, without knowing their story. And that brings me to another frequent topic of conversation: What can be said about art?
The almighty Artist’s Statement can exert a kind of tyranny over both artist and viewer. As Tom Wolfe once wrote in The Painted Word, “Modern art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” Where myths and stories might once have inspired paintings, now the prevailing narratives are imposed by literary critics.
But for John, it’s not just about getting away from story or even image, it’s about getting away from thought.
“More often than not it’s the random aspects of the drawing that are working for me. Any time when I begin to apply my thought to the drawing or I begin to put a preconceived dictate to what I think is working, that’s when the drawings begin to flounder.”
At the exhibition, there’ll be a tape loop playing of the sound of the pencil scratching on the paper, a sound that, he says, draws him forward, keeps him involved with the materials, with the surface and with the present moment. Certainly this is a meditative process, one in which the materials themselves become collaborators.
“The aesthetic control — those subtleties of dark and light — they just happen, and the more I’m there in the drawing, the more I’m there with the sound, not thinking of anything, the more I’m there to notice, ‘Oh, these little lights have shown up, I’m going to enhance them.’ I didn’t plan them to be there, I only recognized that they were there and I could bring them out a bit more.”
Yet narrative has always been a big element in John’s work. In the 1980s he explored history and memory in various installations. Family, or I Was Born in a Funeral Parlour, Forever Seduced by Glamour and A Funny Kind of Kid drew on his own memories. In 1989 he became the first archivist for my grandmother, Mona Gould. For Moments (1989), he assembled and curated not only images and texts, but many hours of tape of Mona telling stories of the past.
John has also been writing a memoir about his mother, who got polio in 1953 and lived out the rest of her years as a quadriplegic, depending on mechanical assistance to breathe. Inevitably, this has meant tangling with the thorny issues of memory’s reliability. When discussing the past with family members and friends of the family he found that they all remembered things differently. The writing and re-writing process continues …
But, knowing John and his work for so long, I know that the process of creating narrative has also been essential to this recent, non-objective work. Writing is all about revision, laying down layer after layer, and sometimes, strategically taking away.
In earlier drawings, there were faces, hands, figures, and gradually he covered them over. By looking sidelong at the paper you could imagine you saw the echo of one of these images, but could never really be sure. Now, John is working just with areas of colour, but the effect is the same. The areas of light and dark in these drawings resemble clouds in their ability to receive projections, give rise to stories. They are the suggestions of images, but in the end they are nothing more than mirrors of our own minds.