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Fixity and Flow: The Graphic Art of Jane Joseph

Published in the exhibition catalogue, Jane Joseph, Drawn in Place: Two Decades of Drawing and Printmaking 1980-1997 (London: Morley Gallery, 1997)

 

One cannot step into the same river twice, according to Heraclitus, because even if one enters from the same bank, different water flows, different fish and twigs follow in its course.And yet this relentless change is what defines the river.If it stagnated, dried up permanently, or went underground, it would no longer warrant a name and a trickle of blue on the map.The river lives with the paradox that it is fixed in consciousness by its state of flux.

 

The south view from Jane Joseph's studio is of a river of sorts.The Westway, a triple-carriage motorway cutting its swathe through Westbourne Park and Ladbroke Grove, is a fixed entity supporting constant flow.Sometimes it is complemented by a tube train on the Metropolitan Line.Not a pretty sight, although through the double glazing it does present a reassuring monotony akin to a blazing hearth.The unstill prospect of the Westway creeps in to some of Jane Joseph's studio images, drawing these interiors outwards, thematically speaking, towards her favourite Thamesside locales.Her Thames is hardly picturesque either: it's Brentford, with its wharfs and boatyards, rather than Henley, with its yachts and regattas.It's a working Thames, not a punting Thames, a Thames in daylit action, rather than a Thames submerged in Whistlerian haze.

 

Jane Joseph is a realist of the no-nonsense, true-grit variety.She is drawn to real places, she is obsessed by actual phenomena, perceived facts, felt sensations.But she fastidiously avoids the pitfall that has caught so many realists past and present of sentimentalising the grime, wallowing in the bathos.This is not to say that her art is prosaic; it has its own kind of heroism, one which has to do with fixing within the finished product a sense of the restless effort that went into its making.In this respect she reveals herself to be the proud and thoughtful pupil of certain remarkable teachers, among them Robert Medley, Frank Auerbach and Euan Uglow, and in the process stakes a claim as an original within a tradition sometimes called, for want of a better name, the School of London.But School of London drawing can succumb to a pitfall of its own, that of making a fetish out of the signifiers of "the hard-won image": the extended page, the exposed plumb-line.Joseph's art is a no-go area for any tropes of effort: no random open-biting here, no tears or lesions in the page, no studied grubbiness.

 

In one significant way, however, a Joseph drawing bears remnants of former attempts, in the form of the fainter lines that hover around a figure or object.But these lines, whether faint because they were put down tentatively or because they have been partially rubbed away,always play a full rŰle within the pictorial scheme of the finished work, filling space between dominant points, suggesting atmosphere, or movement.The halo-like misregistrations that follow the commuters in Central Station Milan (1996) which give a sense of crowd, of people walking where millions have walked before, can also read like the marks in a Futurist painting to denote locomotion.There is movement, too, within the fixity of individual figures.In the same drawing, the improbable width of the man with his hands behind his back in the front of the composition, walking away from the viewer and bucking the forward drift of the crowd, is justified by the sense of his turning, of his being drawn in time as well as space.The figure loses certainty in his right side, which is rubbed away and fissured, compared with his heavily drawn and sharply defined left flank.At the same time, lest we over-interpret the man's casual and undemonstrative movement, the chiarascuro within his figure relates to contrasts of light and shade picked up elsewhere in the composition, in such fixed entities as the balustrade and column.Joseph's drawings are characterised by restrained liberties with perspective and modelling within compositions of overall measure and control.

 

The drawing of Milan Station stakes a moral claim for the living over the static which will be welcomed by anyone familiar with this particularly awesome and bombastic example of fascist architecture.The crowd forms a sinuous, vital flow, fluid and organic, within the relentless fixity of the station's heavy duty neo-classicism.But Joseph always gives the living priority over the static, or at least parity with it.Where nature is depicted, it is tempered by industry, which stands for human interaction: the swinging crane in Low Tide, Brentford, January (1986), for instance.Where an architectural landmark is the main event, nature is given its fair share of the action: branches compete with cast iron in grace of suspension in Hammersmith Bridge (1988).People and cars are never edited-out of portraits of celebrated city landmarks.In the Piazza del Popolo (1992) the eponymous populace are given their due.

 

There is nothing effete about Jane Joseph's touch.Even when she etches flowers, catching their intricacy with an incredible subtlety of line and tone, nothing of her robust, awkward, exploratory hand is suppressed.She equally holds back from theatricality.Her quarry drawings of the early 1980s, done at Ardgour, Scotland, are among her most dramatic works, with almost painterly flourishes and a mood of the old masters (a Rembrandt Deposition comes to mind), but more usually in her oeuvre the page is animated by a restless energy which comes from tentative marks.Even when they are deeply bitten or heavily drawn, even where they are agitated and abrasive, her marks seem interrogative rather than declamatory, astute rather than strident.This, surely, is what keeps her line so strangely alive, what compels sometimes awkward or inscrutable passages to reward the patient gaze.

 

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