SCRATCHING THE SURFACE: ON JODY GRAHAM’S ‘WITNESSES’ EXHIBITION
Jody Graham’s fascination with birds began long ago as an almost involuntary response to the warbling of magpies and the strange desolate cries of crows. The sounds of birds, distant and near, absorb us like a canvas absorbs paint, resonate within us, come to our ears unbidden, reminding us that we are watched and witnessed from above, from all directions. Jody had been obsessed with producing images of these birds crying out into space, watching us from above, when she was offered a new residency in Grafton, October 2017. The artist announced to friends that she would be traveling there with the resolute goal of putting aside her fixation with birds and figurative art in general. Her rigorous, ascetic project during this sojourn would be to explore the pure possibilities of repeatedly marking a surface with an implement.
All of this changed when Jody met Frieda. The images in this exhibition are the result of that chance meeting.
Frieda was a magpie, given that anomalous name because the artist had not yet learned to recognise it as male. The bird had introduced itself to the artist as she took a short break from studio work. Jody noticed that Frieda could only hop along the ground. He had been partially crippled by string wrapped so tightly around his now useless limb that it had become embedded in the flesh. Jody, bird lover and obsessive collector of bits of coloured string, felt compelled. Over the next week she would spend hours winning Freida’s trust, eventually coaxing him to perch on the back of a chair where she was able to stare directly into the bird’s eyes, as if each were hypnotising the other, exploiting her well-honed dexterity to gently unravel and cut away most of the offending twine with a pair of scissors.
Freda#1 is the fruit of that first close encounter. It records their initial mutual scanning, two bodies approaching and checking each other out, one imagines, in a kind of slow symmetrical dance; the visible bird poised on one leg, the unseen human with a drawing tool clasped in one hand. For me, this very loose, ‘rough’ image nonetheless recalls the kind of 3D wireframe model used by computer animators. There is the same sense of extreme economy in the linear definition of a volume. It is a virtuoso display of Jody’s gifts. The lines themselves are tracings of free and spontaneous movement. They feel animated, unpredictable, alive, as if drawn by birds flying through the sky. Frieda may be pictured at rest, but we still sense the power of flight in the very movement of the lines that define his form.
The minimal modelling of form demonstrated in these and other line drawings becomes even more startling when one learns they were drawn in real time, without any preparation or correction, Jody using her wrong’ hand and refusing to look away from the bird to check the drawing for accuracy. These are among several tactics Jody uses while sketching, in the hope of undercutting her own automatic mastery, allowing a freer, more spontaneous response to the moment. These devices dedicated to interrupting the familiar mechanics of drawing include a series of strange tools improvised from found objects and, perhaps most intriguingly, a glove-prosthesis that turns the artist’s hand into something resembling a bird’s claw, with drawing and scratching implements for talons. I imagine Jody momentarily forgetting her human status as she draws, hovering over the two-dimensional surface of the page like a bird scanning the ground for prey, diving down to strike with her claws (Jody does acknowledge that this gambit to overcome her artistic ego can itself become a kind of ego trap: “look what I can do with my wrong hand!”).
A beak is a weapon that sings. Recalling the experience of her first meeting with Frieda, the artist told me she was aware she had drawn close enough for the bird to poke her eye out at any moment. Seeming to contradict herself in the space of a single conversation, Jody went to on to assert that their encounter was charged with a constant sense of danger, but also that she had always felt safe and relaxed in Freida’s presence. I think this ambivalence, this simultaneous sense of intimacy and distance, familiarity and reserve, is essential to all the works in this exhibition. When a magpie or any other bird encounters a particular human on the ground, it as if it rehearses its entire previous history with the species in the shape of its approach. Birds inhabit the same space that we do, yet they enjoy an extra degree of freedom as they move through it. Sometimes they choose to meet us on our own restricted plane, but we can never truly inhabit theirs. All of these images are charged with Jody’s realisation that the life of a bird can finally only transcend her comprehension; with the knowledge that the bird’s entire body is a weapon and that it could choose to escape at any instant into a dimension of movement forbidden to any unassisted human.
The encounter with Frieda left its own indelible mark on the artist. It would no longer be enough for Jody to imagine or even observe the lives of birds. She now needed to encounter them as living strangers and potential friends. Upon return to Sydney, Jody found that she could not shake her newfound fascination with maggies, and even more surprisingly, that the birds did not seem capable of shaking their fascination with her. They suddenly seemed to be everywhere, visiting her home and studio, as if they were stalking her, demanding a response. They even started doing it to her friends, the present author included. These birds themselves, Jody realized, seemed to embody the power of marking, with their scratching claws and piercing beaks. She accepted them as her allies. It was as if they had their own lesson to teach.
Birds filled the blue sky of Jody’s imagination. She would go on to pursue encounters with maggies, crows, eagles, butcher birds, kites and others. The images Jody brought back from these meetings achieve an extraordinary spectrum of ‘bird expression’. At one extreme, we find a playful little Jackie Winter perched on a branch, so delicately modelled that it seems to have momentarily coalesced, like a dandelion filmed in reverse; at the other extreme there is a howling Flat-Shouldered Kite, a small predator rendered with such fury that it seems about to be consumed by its own inhuman shriek, like a face broken open, a mouth turned inside out.
Throughout this exhibition, indeed, it is evident Jody’s natural preference is for raptors and other hunters; birds with hooked beaks and tearing claws. One pragmatic reason for this apparent inclination might be that birds optimised for killing offer the best encounters for portraits, simply because they are not consumed by perpetual fear and their eyes look forward, allowing accurate targeting. But it is more than that. Jody clearly loves these vicious beaks and talons. She embraces the lethal power expressed by the body of a winged creature designed for hunting.
There is no Bambi complex in Jody’s vision of nature. Her birds are rarely ‘polished’ at the level of form and never ‘prettified’ at the level of content. Everything in this world seems broken and scarred by the very process of life. The life of a bird begins, after all, with the breaking of an egg. The bodies of these birds are wounded and wounding, their forms emerging from a canvas itself wounded and scratched by tools which are in turn fashioned from the wounded and broken limbs of trees and other found objects. This violence is intrinsic to Jody’s way of attacking paper or canvas as she draws or paints. The violence of marking. However deep her skills as a draftsperson, these ‘illustrations’ are never completely transparent; we are always left more or less exposed as viewers to the violence of scratching, marking, and tearing from which the pictured forms emerge. Looking at Jody’s birds, it is impossible to decide when a mark that defines a form becomes a mark that obscures or erases forms. For Jody, definition and erasure and inseparable. (I would say they are inseparable in all drawing; Jody just works with that dynamic in a singularly focused and deliberate fashion).
Jody looks into the eyes of birds designed for killing and knows has zero right to judge. Their violence is expressed in bodies evolved over thousands of years to play a specific role within an ecological niche; our violence is imposed by technologies that allow us to transform or destroy any niche or habitat at will. The violence that Jody happily affirms in the faces of birds and implicitly contrasts with shameful human violence is the violence of life. The violence that cracks the egg or transforms the caterpillar in the chrysalis (a former preoccupation).
Jody has told she considers almost all her drawings as portraits, whether the subject is a person, a bird, or even a building. I understand this to mean that her drawings attempt to recognise and express the singular quality of a face or body (a building has both). As I see it, what is captured in Jody’s portraiture, however, is not ‘facial expression’, as usually understood, but character. Character is slow. It is like the geological time of faces. Character reveals the way a living form wears itself out against the world. It is cruel, inevitable, inexorable, erosive. It is not a reaction in the space of a moment, but the becoming of a life.
Beaks are simply not ‘expressive’. They can stab or shriek, but never smile or frown. In place of subtly expressive musculature, birds have a kind of rigid carapace, an attacking-repelling beak, bony and impenetrable. Beaks carry scars and pockmarks more easily than momentary expression. Jody’s birds all have deep character, they wear their lives visibly in the scars, but they are ultimately impenetrable. You can see this directly in all her portraits, but especially the crows, which I believe will always be Jody’s spirit birds, the creatures she feels closest to, precisely in their blackness and distance. Shiny black, distant, indifferent, watching from above, crows are the queens of impenetrability. This impenetrability is both a barrier and a possibility. The possibility at stake is scratching the surface to encounter the impenetrable. The eternal stranger persisting in the face of familiarity. That is what Jody does. Make an opportunity out of barriers and gems out of rubbish. As the artist says of her crows: “I love their blackness”. Jody’s art confronts and affirms the impenetrable element in the gaze of these aerial witnesses, like the impenetrable black dot in the middle of the flat white disc that is the eye of a crow.
We know that birds evolved from dinosaurs and were one of only two lineages to survive the impact of an asteroid that eliminated their heavier brethren about 66 million years ago. Today, whether observing from high above or descending to our level to look straight into our eyes, it seems nearly certain birds are witnessing the inexorable progress of another mass extinction event, one caused by our own human activity in a geological age defined by that very fact, the Anthropocene.
Birds truly are our witnesses.
Some of the pictures records in this exhibition may not seem to present a direct face to face encounter, but I think that is the model for all of them: mutual scanning, looking at looking. Never a simple depiction of an object, but an encounter, at once intimate and distanced. Jody is not just accurately depicting birds as objects in any of these images, even if her immense skill as a draftsperson means that the images serve that role very well. Each image is the self-record of an encounter. A mutual scratching at the surface of the impenetrable. Something is revealed; something always escapes. The trick is to see the interplay between these two moments of revelation and escape, and in that way to see how these superb illustrations go beyond illustration. If Jody’s birds escape cliché it is because she manages to register both the familiarity and the otherness these non-human witnesses bring into our everyday lives.
Dr Bill Schaffer, August 2019