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Research

Drawing on a Dream
Lynn Imperatore
    "At times when we believe we are studying something, we are only being receptive to a kind of day-dreaming”
    Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Space, 1994)
This research uses drawing practice to examine perceptual variation, visual anomalies, inputs from outside of what we expect or acknowledge within normal operations of vision. Drawing itself is a mysterious faculty, thus fitting tool to probe other day-to-day puzzles, particularly our sleeping life. Sleep is fascinatingly both routine and unknown - a constant along life’s continuum offering events of perception simultaneously habitual and enigmatic. To regard drawing and sleep - or sleep through drawing - may hint at means of passages of imagination or the imaginal within the everyday.

This query reflects a yearning to discern and dwell within broadened fields of experience - broader than culturally-constructed rational rule books would have us believe or inhabit. Awareness comes not only in focused attentions, but also flashes from the periphery of the visual field. Drawing and sleep - with visual episodes of dreaming - offer glimpses of something like wonder, even magic, located within or against the measures and materials of daily living.

Drawing represents another mode of thinking about and around moments and movement within the visual field. Drawing facilitates curiosity about the ordinary. It records particulars of external encounter filtered through the interior voice. Drawing hints at wonders inside and right next to us as we move about our days, things too often overlooked or discounted.
I’ve drawn for a long time, stumbling over this aptitude at an unusually early age. Drawing came in a manner sudden and unexpected; it even sounds unreasonable to myself in retelling. I’ll elaborate momentarily and mention it now only to underscore how an early experience of the mysterious fuels this study regarding drawing. Sleep - as subject - directs this research through familiar occurrence that is also constant curiosity. We all sleep, we all dream – regardless of whether our dreaming is recalled. We all draw as well. We outline plans, sketch maps, we doodle. When we take up pen to write we draw. We use an acquired facility to replicate coded meaning-laden shapes - alphabetic and numeric symbols - to communicate ideas and externalise interior reflections. We may remember beginning to write, but do we possess memories of the beginnings of dreaming?
    “In a sense one can say that drawing is the most fundamentally spiritual - i.e., completely subjective - of all visual artistic activities. Nature presents our eyes with coloured
    surfaces to which painted areas of pigment may correspond, and with inflected surfaces to which sculptural surfaces may correspond. But nowhere does it present our
    eyes with the lines, and the relationships between the lines, which are the raw materials of drawing. For a drawing’s basic ingredients are strokes or marks which have a
    symbolic relationship with experience, not a direct overall similarity with anything real.”

    Phillip Rawson 1969, Drawing: The appreciation of the arts, Oxford University Press, London
How have we come upon the capacity to read and interpret messages of symbolic representations – a drawing or the written word? Philip Rawson, (Drawing, 1969) demarcates drawing as “the most spiritual”. He does not infer sacred or religious connotation, so it seems a puzzling word choice given the more familiar connotation. (If I use that word spiritual, I conceal discomfort within brackets of air quotes, or preface sentiments with a qualifying “for lack of a better word”.)

Yet Rawson locates this definition in the opening sentence of his book, distinguishing drawing as pursuit apart or beyond mere enactment or faithful replication of an objective world. As visual practice and interpretive phenomena drawing lives wholly within the imaginary. Painting, by contrast, could mimic representations so photographic as to match the physical environment. Sculptural works can coincide with factual apprehension of surface, volume, mass through senses of sight and touch. However, we possess no corresponding direct perceptions that match the marks and tones that comprise a drawing. We admire technical skill in drawing; we read their imaginative translations of references from the visual world. But what we perceive in drawing is never conflated with real-world real-time perception.

The visual grammars of drawing and dreaming share characteristics. Both, as products of the imaginary, can provide access to impossible, improbable, fantastic images. Their imagery speaks of and from interior life, from what we might call the psyche. Drawing and dreaming represent sites of ordinary magic – unique experiential texts discernible without mediating narrative, fixed dogma or necessities of faith.

Chambre, Btittany
Chambre, Btittany

The drawing (above) from 2004 was made while in residency at an atmospheric chateau in Brittany - and depicts the grand crumbling room where I slept. One morning, after bathing in the equally decayed bath adjacent to my bedroom, I sat down to quickly sketch this space. I looked up from drawing four hours later, noticing only then I was still in the towel from my bath. Additional to a curious alteration in sense of time - this illustrates another distinct quality uncovered in long engagement with drawing practice. This piece is not exceptional, and is included because it shows a bedroom which fits a discussion around sleep. What I wish to note is that whenever I re-visit a drawing I am transported in imagination back to that place and to that time. In a vivid visceral way, I can recall in my body what it was to be in that room, what it was like to be making this drawing. This applies equally various observational recordings and subjects over a span of decades. Regardless of degree of accuracy or detail, drawings do not function as captured discrete moment as photographs do. Drawing is not an externalised view, but rather representation of internal impressions and responses.

Thus drawing is much more like dreaming - dreams elaborately recalled and carried into the day, the ones cherished with attention. This occurs because to draw is to perceive the absolute present; otherwise it is impossible. To draw is to see what is right in front of us, rather than what we believe is in front of us. In his essay, Eye and Mind (1961), French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes the painter as one leaning or lending his body to the world in order to perceive, to respond without preconceptions.

Similarly, the dream holds its dreamer within the present moment. In dreams, external concerns do not distract from the container of the action – causing one to ignore the dream’s narrative. Outside inputs will either be folded into the landscape of that dream, or hasten awakening.

Hence, we sleep, we dream, we draw. But how have we come to capacities like the ability to recognise dreams, or to scrutinize collections of grey marks (or blobs of paint) on flat surfaces and interpret these for what is visually represented and communicated?
    “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
    William James

The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and Origins of Art (2002)
The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and Origins of Art (2002)

“States between Waking and Sleeping”
The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and Origins of Art (2002)
In
The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and Origins of Art, South African anthropologist David Lewis-Williams offers his theory for the origins of human image-making. He supports his premise by describing possible variations along the continuum of consciousness - states of awareness that we move along in daily existence between wide-awake and dreaming.

Lewis-Williams focuses on the Upper Paleolithic transition period, the moment when fully-modern human beings appeared. Emergent modern humans were and are just like us, but for access to less or different information. He proposes that image-making in cave drawings emerged as responses to interior visual experiences accompanying common ‘alterations of consciousness’ - variation on the awareness continuum - originating in individual nervous systems. These altered states are common still. Sometimes, we see things that have not entered the visual cortex through the eyes or retinal impression. We rub our eyes and see patterns; we have migraines auras. At other times what we see confounds interpretation - such as discrepancies between perception and explanation in the presence of optical illusions. Arguably, the most persistent differential within the visual experience is the dream.

Lewis-Williams suggests that first images were nothing more or less than the need by the image-maker to fix fleeting internal imagery externally - so to contemplate such visions once no longer inside the altered experience and to communicate imagery to others. That these images were communally legible indicates that everyone had and knew such visual experience.

That hypothesis resonates with my hunch about imagination and imagery born from the peripheries of attention because my own initial drawing came from one such anomaly of vision. As I’d mentioned, this ability manifested itself without external prompt or instruction. The inclination came at about age four, a seemingly innocent ability to look at an object before me, and then cast that product of perception onto a blank sheet of paper - like a projector. I would grab a pencil and trace the projection, even as it faded from the page. Then I’d just repeat the process: look, project, draw. I thought everyone could do this, but learned otherwise if I tried to explain. By age 8, I started wearing eyeglasses, and after this nifty little trick of the eyes faded away as well. By then a pastime of feverishly mapping evaporating ghosts served to secure drawing as central lifelong passion. Only much later did I come to understand this visual anomaly as palinopsia or after-image, a species of migraine aura. Only in adulthood would I know the accompanying headache.

drawings of migraine visions   drawings of migraine visions

The neurologist and writer
Oliver Sachs’ first book, Migraine (1974), includes artists’ drawings of migraine visions (above). Dr. Sachs himself has described his own visual auras, commencing at age four. His physician mother called these ‘visual migraine’. Migraine manifests along its own spectrum; visions or auras can occur without headaches. Dr. Sachs even attributes the visionary works of 12c Christian mystic Hildegard van Bingen as outcomes of her experiences along the spectrum of migraine.
    “Enclosures define areas of the drawing surface...enclosures which have an existential value in that they can be either positive (defining the full) or negative (defining the void).
    That is to say, they may represent on the surface of the sheet either the presence of objective bodies or the empty space between bodies... Negative forms must be studied even
    more vigorously than the positive ones. It is normal for the physically present to demand definition, whereas the ‘absent’ needs far more effort to perceive and define...Thus if
    one begins by drawing the negative areas without first diagramming the positive shapes, artistic results rather than inartistic must automatically emerge.”

    Philip Rawson. Drawing, (1969)
In formal terminology of drawing, certain named strategies expand the metaphorical conversation around vision and consciousness. The American psychologist James Hillman wrote: “Essential for working with what is unknown is an attitude of unknowing. This leaves room for the phenomenon itself to speak. It alone keeps us from delusions” (The Dream and the Underworld, 1979). He addresses a disposition for dreaming, but his statement is equally apropos of the attitude of attention requisite in drawing. Artists train themselves to seek perception in space or shape, to locate the positive and the negative, never to favor one over the other. We strive to adopt Hillman’s “attitude of unknowing”. For Rawson, shapes are “either positive (defining the full) or negative (defining the void)” and advises “if one begins by drawing the negative areas without first diagramming the positive shapes, artistic results rather than inartistic must automatically emerge.”

Merleau-Ponty writes (The Phenomenology of Perception):

    “Space is not the setting (real or logical) in which things are arranged, but the means whereby the positions of things become possible. This means that instead of imagining
    it as a sort of ether in which all things float, or conceiving it abstractly as a characteristic that they have in common, we must think of it as the universal power enabling them
    to be connected.”
Drawing is dialogue between shapes named and unnamed. It succeeds when the artist assumes a postural view of world as mystery, comprised of figures and forms unknown – that is, they appear in actual time and space. To draw is to purposely withhold aspects of cognition and recognition from perception, so that we then comprehend the portion of the world we struggle to observe.

Before I knew of positive and negative spaces or acquired any formal grammar of art, I viewed paintings and drawings in terms of spaces to enter - like the dream or sleep. Growing up near New York City brought school trips to the Metropolitan Museum. Paintings there summoned me to imaginative entry, a inclination for looking that I believe came from the knowledge of dreaming. Thus in imagination, paintings became portals piercing through the solid walls, opening into magical territory within and beyond their frames.

Joan of Arc (1879) Jules Bastien-Lepage
Joan of Arc (1879) Jules Bastien-Lepage

Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc (1879) - terribly earnest and romantic- was a favourite for imaginary adventuring. Life-sized Joan stands in her garden post-vision, where Bastien-Lepage places the ghostly visitors at her back rather than looming before her eyes. When we conjure up an image or remember a dream – those phantoms of reverie materialise not in front of the eyes but in regions at the back of the head. My childhood habit of imagined entry into paintings informs questioning compositional concepts of the full and the void - perhaps there are richer descriptors for negative space that might embrace the potential of such expanses. Because whenever I pretended entrance into a work, I didn’t imagine walking into any illusionary solid -whether walls, trees, or poor doomed Joan herself. I’d aim into unnamed unoccupied space. I’d aim into possibility.

So drawing came without effort, but there was the issue of what to draw. Some decades back, I dreamt of making large charcoal drawings, and then I started making large charcoal drawings from my dreams. I did not seek interpretation, but drew as a way of return to oneric space, to continue dreaming. (below)

Lynn Imperatore    Lynn Imperatore
Lynn Imperatore

Later, in a prolonged bout of insomnia, drawing addressed images of the unmade bed - as performance of devotion, form of prayer, plea for admission into this place where I longed to return.
    (F)or an artist it is more important to see the images we need rather than the ones we want
    Bill Viola
Bill Viola “Small Saints” (2008)
Bill Viola “Small Saints” (2008)
Bill Viola “Small Saints” (2008)
Bill Viola “Small Saints” (2008)


The practice of select contemporary practitioners, can illustrate the mutable dialectics of spatial encounters. I begin not with drawing, but with the fluid video imagery of installation artist Bill Viola. These moving tableaus hover between animation and still images and engage ambiguities of fullness and void, named and unnamed, both physically and metaphorically. Interviewed by Lewis Hyde in 1997, Viola acknowledges:“…something above, beyond, below, beneath what’s in front of our eyes, what our daily life is focused on. There’s another dimension that you just know… and the quest for connecting with that … is the whole impetus for me to cultivate these experiences and to make my work…There is an unseen world out there and we are living in it.”

Viola’s visual inspirations are Renaissance and medieval devotional art. That influence is apparent in the polyptych,
“Small Saints” (2008), whose installation that turns gallery into chapel.

Viola films through veils of water, visually stressing negative space as presence while obscuring positive forms. One observes grainy figures moving forward within a granulated black-and-white format , like static on old televisions. Clarity and colour, materialise in surprise as figures pierce their water walls and face unsuspecting onlookers before turning to retreat back into spatial ambivalence. This watery filter produces an effect of occupied negative and indefinite positive, thus contradicting conventional expectations of pictorial space, while updating and honouring the “unseen” motion of transcendence implied in earlier devotional references.

(Fig.11-15)Through drawing,
William Kentridge also applies motion and mutation to confound fixed ideas of space and storyline. Kentridge favours drawing for its “provisional quality”, its capacity to depict “the world as process rather than as fact”. He fashions low-tech animations from seria lcharcoal drawing. Smudging, erasing, and re-drawing, he photographs a still of each morphing, as figure and ground, positive and negative shift. What emerges in the film of these tracings is interior narrative fiction with basis in external histories - particularly Kentridge’s own experience of witnessing aparteid in his native South Africa. For his films he is model for two recurring alter-ego character,s calling these ‘self-portraits in the 3rd person’. Their names, Soho and Felix, came in a dream

William Kentridge     William Kentridge     William Kentridge
William Kentridge

Other Kentridge drawings play with notions of optics and optical illusions; “machines that tell you what it is to look”. Stereoscopes mimic operations of human vision, converting pairs of flat retinal reflections into impressions of depth a conjurer’s reminder that belief in objective sight is illusory. Anamorphic Cylinder is another optic device, where distortion is calculated into the drawing while corrected image is cast upon the cylindrical mirror. His work expresses his belief that: “…the absurd, with its rupture of rationality, of conventional ways of seeing the world, is in fact, an accurate and productive way of understanding the world.”

William Kentridge   William Kentridge
William Kentridge

French/American artist
Louise Bourgeois worked in various media over a long career. The late artist was insomniac most of her adult life. During a particularly intractable period in the 1990’s this condition became a focus for drawing. Between November 1994 and June 1995, she set out to draw herself to sleep – or at least into some measure of rest. The result The Insomnia Drawings, a series of 220 works, came from direct and deliberate engagement with not being able to sleep. Defying trends of medicalised sleep hygiene, Bourgeois took to bed, scrawling upon ordinary lined notebook paper or blank sheet music, usually in ballpoint - mostly red - performing soothing gestures and patterns - intentionally different from themes of daytime studio pursuits. Obsessively doodling on front and back of scraps, then crumpled and strewn around bed and floor, these drawings articulate a graphic version of counting sheep.

'The Insomnia Drawings' Louise Bourgeois       'The Insomnia Drawings' Louise Bourgeois       'The Insomnia Drawings' Louise Bourgeois
'The Insomnia Drawings' Louise Bourgeois

The Insomnia Drawings were Bourgeois’ attempt to overcome sleeplessness, a strategy towards some substitute quality of rest. Drawing’s haptic immediacy is ideally suited for such endeavor and attempt to reproduce the comforts of dreaming.
    “I still remember a drawing of an olive tree. The lines moved gracefully across the paper, expressive and harmonious. As the olive tree emerged, those lines moving over the paper
    hypnotized me. Now I know why: The mystery of the language of drawing had instilled itself in me and I intuitively perceived that energy, that magic spell."

    Antonio Lopez-Garcia
The Spanish master Antonio Lopez-Garcia, spends years on a drawing, his hand travelling, uncovering and creating eerie simulacra of dream worlds. Drawing and sleep share commonalities of practice and habit, providing opportunity to discern and describe moments of the mysterious embedded within the ordinary. Re-presentations, recurrences, accidental revelation- marks and moments of the unconscious and the unintentional bring novel and expanded insights.

Carl Jung’s Red Book
Carl Jung’s Red Book

If we look to the history of modern discourses around such interior insight, we still regard signposts from early giants of psychology, such as Freud and Jung. Preferring the prose style of Freud, I’d not paid much attention to the writings of Jung. but - then I saw originals from Jung’s
Red Book on exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Art in NY. I was struck by the artistic depth of this work - and the realisation that his ideas, his vast contribution to the knowledge and conversation around matters of the psyche - originated in THIS image-making… in his efforts to fix of the fleeting in order to externalize, and to share with others.

Lynn Imperatore     Lynn Imperatore
Lynn Imperatore

I do not compare my work process to Jung’s… In the mid-point of this research, I find what is most instructional is not the studio works - the art with a capital A - but in what arises from sketches in my journal. There I compose and conduct experiments. I draw things I’ve seen in my dreams, and it seems at times that I encounter in the day/world something I’d previously sketched from dream visions. I draw from life or from reproductions of artists’ work - and later see a version of what I’ve drawn later in a dream. I draw, too, from the dream-like world of renaissance art - in hopes then to learn more of employing visual designs to transcribe or translate the unseen topography of the soul. I draw in the night when I cannot sleep, though I’d prefer sleep. It’s rich terrain. It’s ongoing.
    “All that we claim for the dream cannot be established by experience or be grounded in myth. Myth doesn’t ground, it opens. We remain in the perspective of depth, with nothing
    more reliable under our feet than this depth itself.”

    James Hillman (The Dream and the Underworld, 1979
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