Reservoir: sketchbooks and selected works || Alice Maher

I’ve remarked previously that looking at an artist’s sketchbook is a view into their most intimate thoughts and not unlike rummaging through their underwear drawer. It’s not something you’d do uninvited and, even then, it can feel more than a little uncomfortable. As Alice herself says, “Sketchbooks are freewheeling workshops of the mind”. Sketches are not finished works, maybe not even fully-formed ideas but rather a stream-of-consciousness that reveals, often deliberately, the artist’s state of mind and innermost thoughts. Kept for private use, this is fine, desirable even, as it allows those same emotions to be picked up again when it comes to more formal work. When the viewer is allowed in, though, it becomes an unweeded garden.

Whitney Chadwick, an art historian specialising in surrealism, contemporary art and gender issues, says as much rather more succinctly in her introduction, while at the same time expanding on the themes of the book and drawing a parable between form – the graphic line – and function and content. Alice says that a sketchbook is “a process of letting ideas flow back and forth … a vortex out of which comes the beginning of an artwork.”

I suspect that this book is going to mean a lot more to you if you’re more familiar with Alice Maher’s work than I am. You may then be able to see the germs that became major works, and how themes have developed. As such, it would be a glossary on an oeuvre rather than a piece in its own right – which is rather as it should be. However, as a standalone, what it lacks more than anything else is a commentary. The introductions are useful, informative even, but they’re short and pretty much say the same things as you can say about any sketchbook without even looking at it. What you don’t get is any very clear idea of what the ideas and themes are that are being explored There are some handwritten philosophical musings, though these are not the easiest read, especially on a heavily-coloured background and don’t, so far as I can tell, relate to the drawings, being rather an occasional verbal- rather than visualisation.

I’m conscious of missing something here and if you want to tell me that’s the main body of Alice’s work, I wouldn’t disagree. It does, I feel, limit the appeal of the book. If you know the corpus and this illuminates it for you, then it would be one of the most valuable books you own. Equally, though, it could tell you nothing at all, other than that the artist works raw material up into finished pieces. I simply don’t know the answer to than one.

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