Blueprint: a plan to produce a wall
The role of drawing in spatial artwork

Margaret Roberts

I would like to discuss drawing's potential to contribute to artwork designed to acknowledge natural space. Here I mean works that are site-specific in the sense that they understand their 'site' as 'place'—the natural space that is common to all places. These are works that are also 'spatial' because their focus is their relationship between two spaces—the abstract space created or addressed by an artwork and the natural space of its location. They may also be thought of as 'hybrid' forms because they are structured as a partnership or relationship between an artform—drawing, in this case—and place.

To look at how drawing in particular can function in this work, I will discuss how one artist, Rose Ann McGreevy, discovered in drawing a particular capacity to foreground natural space, or 'the sensory world', as she called it. (1)  I will also speculate on what it is about drawing on the one hand, and natural space on the other, that makes drawing an appropriate medium for such site-specific, spatial or hybrid work, drawing in part on the spatial theory of Henri Lefebvre and Anthony Giddens.

Rose discovered the role drawing could play in spatial artwork in 2010 while developing the wall-drawing Blueprint (Figure 1). Blueprint is an almost life-sized diagrammatic drawing in light blue paint, with text in light grey paint, on the long wall of the Factory 49 showroom in Marrickville in Sydney. (2)  The site-specific, spatial and hybrid nature of this work is seen in its relationship between a blueprint for a wall and an actual wall. That relationship needs to be understood through experience, but partly because the work no longer exists, I will retell my experience of it.  When I saw it in 2010, I saw that the wall drawing was clearly a plan, but for some reason - perhaps because it was not obviously a plan of that wall only, or of the showroom or any other nearby or particular place in the world that I could see, I moved closer to it in the hope of grasping it better. The attempt to look at the lines more closely suddenly changed into the experience of the wall seeming to come out of nowhere to meet me. The lines seemed to make the physical world appear in my face in the sense that the regular pock-marked surface of a multiply-painted white gallery wall seemed to be suddenly present as close-up matter.

As I remember it, interest in the lines then suddenly dissolved, to be replaced by the pleasure of a surprise experience. The lines had done their job of enticing me to 'see' their subject, just like their arrows point to the planned location of colours (Figure 2). I see now that the lines of the drawing direct viewers to, but do not take over, the aura of the live world that they represent. Instead the work provides visitors with the strange experience of the blue and grey lines working jointly with the wall to expose the wall's material and spatial existence by virtue of being drawn over it.

I have been planning to write about this work ever since I experienced the slight shock of the wall suddenly being almost in my face, thinking that in writing about it I may work out how it happened. I now presume that the work must be constructed so that, in walking towards the wall, we concentrate on the lines that are upon the wall because that is where art normally sits, and we assume that lines are where the artwork will be found, and the wall is mainly there to hold them up. We think this automatically because in walking in the bodily space of the sensory world we are operating according to its common meanings regarding art and walls, rather than the reflection made about negative space in drawings in art school, and about the actual space objects occupy in sculpture, and so on.

It may also be that a drawing has a spatially distancing effect because we know a drawing is outside the space that our feet and body occupy; it creates and occupies an abstract space of ideas and representations. And this is especially the case when a drawing is diagrammatic rather than spatially illusionistic, making it more everyday than fine art in some respect, but less capable oftrompe l'oeil. Blueprint seems to be designed to draw viewers into this abstract space of ideas as a distraction from the actual space they are moving through until they reach a point where the lines are sufficiently spread out that enough of the drawing disappears from the field of vision to be replaced suddenly by the close-up presence of an actual wall, where a moment before they were looking at a blueprint for one.  

In other words viewers are walking towards what they assume is a drawing of a wall then suddenly the wall appears instead. In the sudden appearance and surprising closeness, the wall surface seems to be more a material presence than a wall. I remember feeling amusement and even though I only really remember the experience, I like to think that the amusement was at the trick played on me by the drawing that I found I could so easily transform into the thing it represents just by getting close to it.

Rose herself said as much in her own words in an interview a month or so after making Blueprint, referring to the work as a blueprint of itself, and her aim generally to have her work sit 'in the sensory world', which she defined by distinguishing it from 'the intellectual'. (3) While the drawing is similar to the wall it is on, in that both are divided into two parts, and the drawing's shorter length suggests that the multiple lines on the right are drawing-shorthand for the folding-up of the wall's greater extension, I still wonder why Rose included the drawing's internal segments that do not seem to refer to the other walls in the showroom. It left me wondering what I am not seeing about the space, which may have been part of her intention. Also, I am left asking if the wall is 'the only proof' of the blueprint or is it the only proof of something else, such as our physical existence. This inexactness as characteristic of Rose's work, which seemed to often include some enigma to prevent viewers from thinking they could work it all out. This slight enigma strengthens my view that the work is a blueprint that points to the puzzle of the physical world and our occupation of it, as much as it is a plan of the wall itself.

However, in talking with Rose, I did not get the impression that she was clear about what exactly would happen once she put the drawing on the wall. She just knew that she was trying to foreground the wall, and that the earlier work that Blueprint came out of did not do that well enough for her because of the distracting effect of its colour.

That earlier work is non-identical set #1 (Figure 3), a set of 4 painting-like prints on stretched canvas that she showed at Factory 49 the year before. She described them as 'playing with the language of colour', which she did for example, by writing the word 'blue' (in a colour that is not in blue) on a white part of an image that is predominantly red (an image that includes a generic plan that can be read as both floor plan and elevation), thus indicating that that area is intended to be blue. We therefore 'see' (in different ways) a plan that is blue and red: we see the red by looking at the colour red, the blue via the implication in the plan that the marked area is intended to be blue in the future (Figure 4).

Though she was happy enough with the coloured prints to show them in 2009, she eliminated colour when she took the idea to its next stage in Blueprint a year later. She said she did this because she saw colour as too 'seductive', implying she thought that colour is more likely to compete with the sensory world than function to reveal it, as she decided drawing might do. (4) In other words, her discovery is that drawing is a suitable medium to show the sensory world because it does not compete with it—because it is not itself sensory or seductive in the way colour is.

Another reason why she chose drawing is its precursory role, as illustrated by the architectural plan, or the cartoon that produces a painting through disappearing into it. Even though drawing is increasingly also seen as an end in itself, the familiarity of drawing as a disappearing precursor to something else may underlie the popular idea of drawing's 'modesty' . (5) Blueprint may in fact be having it both ways, relying as it does on drawing's precursory role to show us the wall, as well as also actually remaining a drawing that uses scale to play a game of producing the wall by making the wall visible, without actually disappearing into it.

This raises the obvious question of why something as big as natural space needs such a modest medium as drawing to make it visible to us.  It is true that natural space is a special challenge for artists and theorists alike, because it is the invisible sea in which we are immersed and because it is impossible to perceive directly—we read space and time in their 'effects' in change and movement, and in the visible forms that occupy space. Places themselves may be easier to comprehend than place, because places are unique and varied and thereby easily hide the space that is continuous between all places, making invisible the essential thing that all places have in common. 

This invisible nature of place may also be as much because it is historically overlooked, as because it seems not directly perceivable. Social theorist Henri Lefebvre presented this 'oversight' as an historical development that was the subject of his major study of space in the 1970s. He gave an account of the historical production of a new 'abstract' space that appeared with the demise of the Middle Ages in Europe, and grew to eventually overshadow what he referred to as the traditional space of the body. (6) Later, in the 1990s, social theorist Anthony Giddens identified an historical devaluation of place. In his account, this devaluation was both produced by and a major contributor to the emergence of the modern culture that first appeared in Europe in the seventeenth century, and which evolved to be the globalised 'high modernity' in which most of the world is at least partly immersed today. (7) In his account, the early devaluation of place was prompted by such things as the development and widespread availability of clocks and world maps, which reduced the need for the inhabitants of early modernity to look to their geographic 'locale' (8) for the basic knowledge required to go about their daily business—such as for the time of day, direction, weather prediction and so on. Now, in the high modernity of four centuries later, he sees the likely consequences of modernity, including its devaluation of place, as having the potential to be catastrophic, environmentally, economically and politically. These effects he can only imagine being avoided by the development of new systems of planetary care that reflect new ways of revaluing place. 

These accounts suggest that the inhabitants of modernity are likely to not 'see' place, in the sense that some people may not 'see' servants, for example—they are not 'seen' because they are in social contexts in which they are not regarded as significant.  Such accounts further explain why drawing's 'modest' and abstract character give it the potential to partner with natural space in ways that enable art to contribute is some small way to the revaluation of place that both Giddens, and Lefebvre (using different terminology) insist is essential if modernity is to be directed away from its self-destructive path. 


Figure 1 Rose Ann McGreevy Blueprint 2010 acrylic paint & wall, 800 cm x 250 cm. Photo: the writer

Figure 2 Rose Ann McGreevy Blueprint 2010 acrylic paint & wall (detail), 800 cm x 250 cm. Photo: the writer

Figure 3 Rose Ann McGreevy Non-identical set #1 2009 4 digital prints on stretched canvas 120cm x 120cm. Photo: the writer

Figure 4 Rose Ann McGreevy Non-identical set #1 2009 4 digital prints on stretched canvas (detail) 120cm x 120cm. Photo: the writer

(1) That's why I prefer the sensory world I suppose… I was…trying to…allow for another thing to come in, another physicality, which is the wall. (from unpublished interview by the writer with Rose Ann McGreevy, 3/12/2010 at 48/9min)

(2) Factory 49 an artist-run-initiative (ARI) in Marrickville in Sydney's inner west. Factory 49 describes its exhibition space as a showroom, not as a gallery, due to its non-objective art focus.

(3) That's why I prefer the sensory world I suppose. I love the intellectual, and I read a lot, but I just prefer my work to sit in that one [that sensory world], I don't know if it does but that is where I’d like it to sit. It’s just what I want and that’s what I am going to go for. (from unpublished interview by the writer with Rose Ann McGreevy, 3/12/2010 at 48/9min).

(4) The digital prints on canvas…were playing with the language of colour. One…had the word ‘blue’ in a white space but the work was all in red. That was playing with that thing where the blueprint went back to grey, dealing with some of the things about how we perceive colour and form and in a way I was using the structure of painting, which I thought was the weakness of the work… The concept I felt was better realised in Blueprint—it was clearer and less seductive because colour is very seductive… (from unpublished interview by the writer with Rose Ann McGreevy, 3/12/2010 at 48/9mins)

(5) This term is used for example by Philip Rawson. 1987. Drawing (1969) Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

(6) Lefebvre, Henri. 1974. The Production of Space (1991 English translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith) Oxford: Blackwell

(7) Giddens, Anthony. 1991. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press

(8) Giddens op. cit. p 18

This paper was presented at Drawing International Brisbane 2015 at the Queensland College of Art, Griffiths University, Brisbane.