What is a horizon? Alexandra Roozen’s Drawing Series “Tweening”
by Peter Lodermeyer
Peter Lodermeyer (*1962 in Ottweiler, Germany) is an art historian, art critic, author, and curator based in Bonn, Germany. 1983-1991 study of art history, philosophy and German literature. Received M.A. (1992) and Ph.D. (1997) in art history from the University of Bonn. Since 1999, publishing a large number of books, scholarly articles, artist interviews, catalogues, book reviews and essays, on a variety of aspects of contemporary art. He became a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) in 2008. www.lodermeyer.com
What is a horizon? Alexandra Roozen’s Drawing Series “Tweening”
With her new, large-format drawings that bear the initially incomprehensible title of “Tweening”, Alexandra Roozen takes an apparently conscious risk of being misunderstood. But perhaps these works are about an eye test or rather, an eye-trap, into which unsuspecting visitors who rely too much on the superficial, almost inevitably, fall. All too quickly, almost at first glance, we might think we understand what these broad, panorama-like formats are about: In all of these drawings we see a bright horizon line, which divides the two zones from each other to form two halves. Almost as a reflex, we conjure up associations: the sea and the sky – so these must be seascapes in the changing light, abstracted, reduced to shades of gray, full of atmosphere, yet nevertheless strictly rendered in terms of form, and varied with different progressions of light and dark (as indicators of the different times of the day and seasons). Basic biographical information is seamlessly incorporated into this interpretation: The artist lives in Rotterdam, perhaps half an hour from the beach; the sea would thus be a natural choice as a motif. And as a Dutchwoman she is doubtlessly familiar with the great tradition of Netherlandish marine painting: the dead straight horizon of the sea, the gleaming surface of the water, the high sky with the countless nuances of brightness in the clouds. A person who, by contrast, prefers to draw comparisons from contemporary art, is perhaps reminded of the “Seascapes” done by the Japanese-American photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, these majestically broad formats in black and white, whose horizon lines divide the height of the picture precisely in the middle, just like in Alexandra Roozen’s drawings. And is it not the case that drawings by Alexandra Roozen also look like photographs, at least when viewed from a distance? Viewers in a hurry may confidently go home again with such “information”. For everyone else, above all for those, who know how to take their time, this is the point where the work of the gaze – and here, work is not to be separated from pleasure – actually begins.
As a matter of fact, time is a decisive factor for works by Alexandra Roozen. Due to her specific processual understanding of drawing, she reckons with long periods of production: On a single “Tweening” drawing, she works around two and a half weeks, and some of the other large-format drawings take her four to five weeks each. This fact alone is an artistic statement. Even if the numbers considerably differ that we sometimes read: We may assume that in today’s media societies, each person sees at least 1000 images every day. We might just as well say that every day we do not see 1000 images, since with such a multitude, this is not about gazing, but at most the swift filtering out of information, which, depending on the relevance, is either recognized or given no further thought. It is well-known that in connection with the increasing aestheticizing of our world, there is a flip side of anaesthetics, the ignoring and overlooking, the quick sorting out and forgetting, without which we would not be able to manage the constant exposure to stimuli.1 Thus, each day we undergo training in the lightning-fast probing and assessing of visual stimuli. Alexandra Roozen very decisively counters this acquired sensory mode of perception with her drawings. She does not aim for reactively fishing out information, but for aesthetic experience. To accomplish this, she relies on stimulus deprivation, on aesthetic asceticism: The forbearance of objectivity, forbearance of color, forbearance of narration – and at the same time a multitude, an even lavish overabundance of microstructures and the subtlest of nuances. And these call for a thorough, time-consuming viewing. “Tweening” is a series of exceptionally “slow” pictures, compared with the technologically-generated images that have long since come to represent the “normal case” of contemporary visual communication. To illustrate the point: In the time it takes for Alexandra Roozen to draw on a single page anywhere between 2000 and 10,000 lines, depending on the number of layers, over 17 million photos will have been uploaded on the Internet forum Flickr alone (even if we were to look at them at a rate of one per second without interruption, it would take over half a year to get through them).
Viewed from a distance, the picture fields of the “Tweening” drawings appear as delicately smooth progressions of shades of brightness. The middle horizon line always remains recognizable as a narrow, light, blurry zone. Coming closer, each of the picture fields undergoes a slow, revealing metamorphosis. The diffuse gray fogs become increasingly grainy, breaking down into shades of light and dark ever more clearly, and close up, turn out to be countless traces of graphite on the slightly yellow paper. The numerous fine shades of gray, it thus becomes clear, result from the optical mixture between the gray of the graphite and the white portions of the interim spaces. Especially if we look across the picture surface at a slight slant, we can observe that the purportedly diffuse gray is actually structured, consisting of numerous lines. Unlike in the artist’s earlier works, which were mostly done on rectangular grid systems (albeit, often turned at a diagonal), the lines in “Tweening” have not been drawn as parallels, but fanned out – from both sides. If we were to pursue the courses of the lines precisely, we would be able to determine that these converge into two vanishing points outside the picture field, as if we were constructing the perspective view of a cube placed in the middle, stood precisely at a diagonal (i.e. in relationship to the picture level, turned at an angle of 45 degrees). Alexandra Roozen uses the traditional, modern-day design principle of the central perspective, though she has no intention of designing. The vanishing lines lying close to one another radiate from two points external to the picture without constituting a visible object. The picture construction is nothing other than the mere interference of two densely wrought systems of vanishing lines without an object fixed in the perspective and without the function of allocating a defined vantage point to the viewing subject. The artist solves this problem technically by using a long ruler, moveable, but attached to a pivot point at one end. When drawing, the sheets of paper are always positioned so that in each case this point is exactly 130 cm away from the lateral edges of the picture field.
Up until now, I have always referred to the “lines” Alexandra Roozen draws. This is a rough generalization that warrants correction. We need only approach the drawings closely enough to realize that they do not contain straight lines that have been drawn clear through. From up close, the purported straight lines become porous, revealing numerous interruptions and breaking up into a multitude of irregularly formed fragments. The cause for the unusual shape of the “lines” – which, for reasons of simplification, I will continue to refer to as such – is at the same time the greatest surprise for all who are unfamiliar with the artist’s special working method: Alexandra Roozen draws them with the aid of a power tool that has been outfitted with a graphite stick. She has been using this drawing technique over and over again, though not exclusively, for years, because it makes it possible for her to generate unpredictable, non-intended qualities of lines. If we look closely at such an individual line, which consists of multiple individual elements that are constantly interrupted by gaps, an association with graphic characters inevitably arises. Time and again, elements are repeated, which more or less remind us of letters or punctuation marks: IIII, eeee, oooo, commas and semicolons—and doubtlessly, it would also be possible to find similarities to letters from non-European systems of writing. (This proximity between drawing and writing is a theme in many of Alexandra Roozen’s works. They demonstrate that the Greek word stem of our word graphic, “gráphein”, means both “drawing” and “writing”). If we take the trouble to follow a single “line” from these pseudo-letter characters, we clearly perceive how they slowly change during their course, each time displaying slight variations and thus, successively changing their shape. The reasons for this are the slight changes in the way the drill is placed, the vibrations of the machine itself, but above all the inevitable increase of wearing down the graphite stick, which causes its point to constantly change. An o, for example, slowly becomes a u, an i turns into a g and finally an illegible grapheme, etc. From these gradual transitions, which result from the combination of the linear movement of the graphite stick and its rotating movement, the title “Tweening” may be explained. The term is an abbreviation for “inbetweening”, a customary term for a technical process in cartoons or in computer animations. It designates the procedure of inserting individual frames between initial state A and end state B, which step-by-step assimilate A to become B so that in the film the movement of an object (movement tweening) or a change in form (form tweening) result. Roozen applies this technical term for animation to her likewise technically expanded practice of drawing. The title “Tweening”, however, may be applied beyond this in an expanded sense to include the overall process of drawing. In order to make this clear, we must first deal with a few preliminary considerations.
To bear down upon a light and vulnerable material like paper with such a robust tool as a drill is an act which very consciously disassociates the artist from the traditional notion of drawing as a sensitive, intention-driven handcraft. Alexandra Roozen has repeatedly reflected upon and tested the relationship of the artist subject as author vis-a-vis the technical process of drawing as such. This went so far that, in the case of several earlier works, she made such intense use of the brute force of the rather coarse turning mechanism of the drill that it caused damages, scratches and fissured roughenings in the paper. Even more radical is her idea to emancipate the drawing process from the physical presence of the artist and to entrust this process to a drafting machine. These aspects of Alexandra Roozen’s work, and the questions connected with this concerning the status of the artist subject, need not be discussed in further detail here, especially since Petran Kockelkoren singled this out in his informative text from 2012. A quote should suffice: “If the author is an artist, what kind of an artist is she? Is she present in her work as self-expression, or has she abandoned her creation as a deus absconditus? These enigmas are the crucial questions that dominate the current discussion of art. The artist carries out research at a meta-level on the conditions for the existence of her work.”2 The research character of Alexandra Roozen’s work also becomes very clear in “Tweening”. Just how methodically and painstakingly she approaches questions she asks herself may be illustrated with a detail. It is generally known that customary digital TrueColor graphics systems can generate 256 different shades of gray, whereas the human eye – depending on the viewing conditions – is only able to distinguish 40 to 100 shades of gray. To gain an idea of how the distribution of brightness may work inside the picture zones of “Tweening” (and the earlier, structurally very similar, series “Between” from 2012/13), Alexandra Roozen created at the computer a series of permutations of various zones of gray shades, a sequence of hundreds of different distribution patterns, confusing to the senses and completely overtaxing the eye, which make one thing clear above all: Alexandra Roozen is an artist who does not content herself with vague intuitions, but gets to the bottom of things. Something the musicologist Carl Dahlhaus once stated in a very different context applies precisely to her work: “technical moments are always aesthetical moments at the same time. Just as, vice versa, aesthetic insights must be technically founded.”3
What is a horizon? Part of Alexandra Roozen’s basic attitude is not to depart from an answer to this question, but to seek a solution to it by drawing. The literal meaning of horizon is a “scope of view”, i.e., ideally, it is a line that surrounds the viewer 360 degrees, limiting his scope of vision to a horizontal line. Thus, on a drawing, a horizon can always only be a fragment of this scope of view. Empirically, the horizon (above all when dealing with wide expanses such as the sea) hardly reveals itself as a clear line, but rather as an indistinct, blurry zone. The point of departure for the “Tweening” drawings is not the visible landscape or sea horizon, but the technical process with which the horizon “line” may be accentuated as a bright, indistinctly limited, narrow band within a subtly gradated twilight field. This field builds up “line for line” in steps while drawing. Whereas the title “Tweening” on the one hand cites a characteristic inherent to lines, namely the momentary change of state of the (pseudo-)graphematic individual elements, on the other hand, it may also describe the process of drawing a line in total: as a step-by-step approach of a multitude of lines to a diffuse field of gray tones. After Alexandra Roozen has spanned out a loose fanning of lines, she draws ever more lines in between, filling the interim spaces more and more densely, starting from both sides. “I think the idea of interpolation is the main reason for the title.”4 The interpolations are precisely those lines that are repeatedly inserted between the other lines, which intersect those lines drawn from the opposite side, making them appear more dense, and in viewing everything together, cause a richly nuanced twilight zone to emerge with a very finely gradated play between light and dark, bringing about a highly differentiated twilight zone. By leaving a narrow horizontal zone as a division (during the drawing process, this is protected by a thin piece of tape), she creates an element for reference or orientation in the center of the picture field: “a reference line of movements, from light to dark, from hard to soft, from far to near, from top to bottom, etc.”5 And there remains to be added: from one picture to the next in as much as more than one “Tweening” drawing is on display at the same time.
In conclusion, there is one distinctive feature pertaining to these works, which has not yet been addressed, but must be taken into consideration. It has to do with the odd positioning of the picture fields on the paper. For each of the drawings, this field measures 75 x 155 cm. It has been placed at the bottom of the carrier paper measuring 120 x 160 cm, whereby to the left, the right and below, a margin of 2.5 cm has been left. At the upper picture margin, however, there is a gaping distance of 42.5 centimeters. This means the upper margin is so wide that we may scarcely refer to it as such; it is rather instead an autonomous, white, empty surface of paper. The odd positioning of the picture field may be viewed as an equally subtle and conceptually harmonious decision. A “classical” solution would have been to position the picture field exactly in the middle or a little higher so that a harmonious balance would come about between the positive and the negative, or more concretely: between the actual picture itself and the neutral margin. This notion Roozen thoroughly undermines with her eccentric positioning of the picture field. The darker, optically heavier field sinks downwards, the bright surface of the paper maintaining itself as a zone in its own right that does not simply let itself be neutralized or excluded from the viewing. This allows us to experience the entire sheet of paper as a material object. Drawing, for Alexandra, does not mean giving an illusion of an immaterial picture. It is the result of a concrete, material process determined by the materials (paper and graphite) and procedures (drawing with a ruler and a drill) used. The fact that this process ultimately produces a result that corresponds with our notion of landscape, of the sea and the sky, only goes to show how strongly our perception is structured by deeply-rooted schematizations of our imagination. The association of a seascape may not be refuted, even for the artist herself – and yet this schematization is neither the point of departure nor the goal of her artistic procedure. The way Alexandra Roozen’s “Tweening” at once undermines this schematization, even as it makes us conscious of it, and reestablishes it, may be reckoned among the visually as well as conceptually captivating aspects of her artistic approach.
- Wolfgang Welsch, Ästhetik und Anästhetik, in: the same, Ästhetisches Denken, Stuttgart 1990, p. 9-40.
- Petran Kockelkoren, DISTURB – The disruption of the understanding of meaning. Quoted in: https://alexandraroozen.com/disturb-the-disruption-of-the-understanding-of-meaning, state on 22 July 2013.
- Carl Dahlhaus, Richard Wagners Musikdramen, Stuttgart 1996, p. 95 (translation: ev).
- Alexandra Roozen, E-mail to P.L., 9 April 2013.
- Alexandra Roozen, E-mail to P.L., 23 July 2013.
Supported by Mondriaan Fund and Centre for Visual Arts Rotterdam.