The drawings of Ronny Delrue
Even during the inter-war period, there remained a clear consensus amongst artists and the cultured intelligentsia on the nature and purpose of drawing. Drawing were the objects and evidence of diligent, perceptual study. And the teaching of drawing was about training the sensitive coordination of hand and eye. Teachers and critics alike assumed the authority to speak about the good and the bad; it was routine for them to single out or dismiss artists according to whether they could or could not draw. After the Second World War, however, this consensus began to break down, with the activity of drawing becoming increasingly detached from its traditional role in support of painting and sculpture. Artists wanted to find their own way and drawing, more than any other form of practice, represented the historical legacy and conceptual apparatus of the academy. It was necessary, then, to rest it to destruction. As a result, drawing today has entirely lost its claim to pre-eminence as an instrument of observation and validation. It has been robbed of its claim to objectivity, being seen quite simply as one means amongst many through which artists can manifest their individuality. Only individual artists are empowered to determine the nature and purpose of drawing and then – so the argument goes – only for themselves.
This process of redefinition has had both positive and negative outcomes. At one end of the spectrum – and Ronny Delrue is an excellent example of this – drawing has become a rich, psychologically charged domain of experimentation and speculation; at the other, an emptied out methodologically barren space for self-indulgent posturing. In Delrues case the activity remains closely related to the paintings and objects he makes, but not in an obvious or facile way. He speaks of drawings as an outpouring of a certain kind; as a ritual cleansing. It opens up the space of painting without in any way predetermining its form. And here it is worth pausing to outline his ‘method’ – if, indeed, method is an appropriate term for a process that starts with no particular goal in mind and admits of no necessity to achieve closure.
It is important to state that drawing, for Delrue, requires introspection. In this, it is the very opposite of perceptual drawing in which a subject – something outside – has to be realized internally in order for it to be returned to the outside world in the form of a legible, drawn language. Delrue works the other way round: starting with something within himself, which he perceives ‘darkly’, as a presence, but not, in the first instance, as something that can be described. The whole search is to discover for himself something of its outward shape. It is not a routine activity but occurs in prolonged bouts, during which he might initiate twenty or thirty new drawings as well as revisiting some old ones. This is a rather curious aspect of Delrues approach. He starts to work on any scrap of notepaper that takes his eye and, once the drawing is under way, this paper becomes a site for recording repeated moments of speculative introspection that might occur over months or even years. It is as if each drawing has unique, residual, medium-like qualities that can be reengaged with at any time, providing the artist with new opportunities for self-revelation in the process. They also acquire, individually and collectively, something of the character of a diary: a psychological measure of the artist’s involvement and a record of time spent.
Even though Delrues drawings are, strictly speaking, without a subject, there are two motifs that constantly recur: a vertically oriented egg-shape, which clearly references the human head in very particular ways, and the repeated, downward drenching sweep of a full water-colour brush, reminiscent of a veil or curtain. It would be easy to suggest that the former represents the mind and the latter psychological affect, but it is altogether more complex than this. Inevitably the question of metaphor arises and, as is always the case when metaphorical or metonymic devices are in play, it is wise to proceed with care. Any interpretation must be prefaced with the appropriate caveats, if meanings that are intended to remain fluid are not to become artificially fixed. Even so, it is legitimate to ask questions and make certain observations that arise from the drawings themselves.
The head-like form is subjected to certain rhetorical treatments. Erasure is common. Frequently, it seems that the form has been painted out precisely in order for it to be reinstated. It also gives rise to various reiterative strategies. Concentric ellipses, for example, move towards the centre or multiply beyond the form’s periphery. They are used to shrink the space within it, like an implosion of sound, or to disperse its energy outwards, reverberating like ripples when a stone is thrown into a pond. There is a self-replicating aspect to them too. They seem capable of producing whole families of head-like forms, almost at will – in tightly packed clusters or in looping sprays. There is something profoundly animistic, then, about Delrues treatment of this very simple, iconic form. Charged with remarkable powers of transformation, it can stand for – and move between – a multitude of quite different things: moods, emotions, feelings, thoughts, sensations. Alterity – the possibility of ‘otherness’ – is always close by, waiting to reappear if bidden by an action of the hand and the shifting landscape of the mind. And this brings us back to the metaphorical import of this form. To say that it is ‘head-like’ is to limit the drawn image to the restricted domain of simile. To look beyond the shape to its metaphorical function is more useful. Indeed, there is something ‘mind-like’ about the way in which this simple form gives rise to new and very different patterns of thought from within itself, almost autonomously. We need neither confirm nor deny its – our – reformulations.
Delrues penchant for the veiling of things is similarly complex, at the levels of both method and image. Like many artists, he is attracted to transparent media: watercolour washes and diluted inks and pigments. When used with intensity, as Delrue does, they thrust the drawings into that freshly wrought and edgy space between accident and intention. Part of their perceptual electricity is to do with the signalling of possible change, which Delrue manages by using transparency as a means of shifting the time frame. One thing is overlaid on another: images are partially hidden, turned into traces or superseded through an act of measured recapitulation. As content, this same transparency lends the drawings a distinctly erotic aspect; speaking of the sensual unity of mind and body. While the intellect is sometimes represented as an explosion outwards, the sensuous body is shown, more often than not, as suffering compression: an organism under external threat.
The essence of drawing remains captured by the eye, even when, as with Delrue, the mental gaze is directed forcefully inwards. For the drawing to gain authority, the artist must enter into a collaboration with the image – no matter how abstract – as it emerges beneath his hand. Receptivity is always a more rewarding frame of mind than the willful act of creation. This, then, is the central plank in Delrues method: to pay attention. And his drawings bear rich testimony to this. For him, too, attention has no beginning and no end: rather, it is an ontologically grounded state of consciousness. Always present. Always there, waiting to be reached for. This allows him to attenuate the drawing process – the collaboration – almost indefinitely, without it losing energy. To be able to return, to find new ways of beginning again, is everything. As the British painter, Leon Kossoff, once remarked in a letter to his friend, the author John Berger: with drawing, ‘thereness’ can only follow ‘nothingness’ – as with the self-effacement of a sympathetic host.