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The online editorial and curatorial project for reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Interview with Duncan Bullen by Ben Gooding

November 2015

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Duncan Bullen has spent many years working almost entirely with pencil and paper. Restricting his mark-making vocabulary to simple dots and lines, he has developed a fascinating and beautiful practice, preferring the stark white of Fabriano 5 paper, with its luminous quality, in which to set his highly reductive drawings. Although these materials are modest and ubiquitous, this ubiquity is a reminder of the limitless potential that they possess. Bullen's exploration of drawing is expansive and ambitious; his execution meticulous and energetic. If the materials are basic and commonplace, the marks, similarly, seem simplistic and foundational. Yet there is something of the transcendent in the finished work, which is seductive; one is drawn in, to find a subtlety that is captivating.


Duncan leads the Fine Art Programme at the University of Brighton; this is where I met him and was able to examine his work in closer detail.

Drawing #15.11

BG   Could we begin by talking about the method of production you use in order to generate the structures in your grid works? Although clearly hand-made objects, the complexity of the compositions seem to have a pre-determined origin.


DB   The drawings you are referring to are an ongoing set of works, which are made up of countless repeated dots or points. By ‘point’ I mean a tiny drawn mark, which is about the size of a size of a pinprick. I have generated structures by plotting grids with ruler and pencil, and have made use of graph paper. Some drawings have involved rudimentary counting. Most use computational methods to generate patterned formations that are all derived from a basic grid. I liken these formations to a kind of map, in which the terrain of the drawing is partially pre-determined.

I see these structures, these maps, as both a place from which to set off: a place of departure and return. By this I mean that the map allows me to begin to plot key points in what can be quite complex structures. This then allows me to let go of the map during the making, but also allows me to re-trace my steps if I happen to get lost.

I select a range of pencils and determine the order in which they are to be drawn, and the direction. So on one level, I know, to a certain degree, the kind of outcome that any chosen sequence, procedure and ‘map’ might produce. However, one never really knows what the overall visual effect will be. So the process has a ‘pre-determined origin’ but allows for an intuitive response to the drawing as it unfolds. In these drawings, there is room to to get lost, and I am now thinking it would be good to get lost more often!


Drawing # 25.11  70 x 70 cm

BG   What becomes apparent on viewing the work is the uniqueness of each mark.  The ‘dot’ is in effect the most reductive, simplest type of mark one can make; it is surprising, therefore, to note the vast array of dissimilarity of each mark contained in the work.

Is this method of mark-making an intentional formal decision, or a result of the sheer physical repetition exerted during the course of production?


DB   Several years ago now, I removed myself very deliberately from art practices that I had been engaged with, and made a very conscious decision to work with drawing. At the outset I was primarily interested in the relationship between drawing and colour. Although this relationship holds, it is less of a concern now. Increasingly, I have become interested in the mark made through drawing.

And yes, the dot is perhaps “the most reductive... mark one can make”. Initially I was interested in making a near-neutral mark, that would allow each tone or colour to be itself, but I soon realised that the hand-drawn dot produces no two identical marks, just as no two leaves are the same, but are unique, there is no ‘neutrality’. Each mark, when examined, is an independent entity that exists with other independent entities to form an ecology of marks that are interdependent.  When photographed close up, or with a macro filter on the camera, the actual difference becomes increasingly evident.

Exploring near-repetition by making one mark after another over a period of time contributes to this, and because of this particular act of making, each drawing can only be made at its own pace, they each have their own rhythm. They cannot be hurried. In fact, simultaneously with making these drawings I became interested in the practice of mindfulness meditation, with its focus on the inhalation and exhalation of the breath, and consequently, all my drawings follow a practice where there is a correlation between the mark and the breath. Perhaps this is something we can return to? It was certainly intentional to make drawings that could be looked at up close, so one could get lost in the detail of each individual gesture and textural quality, or follow the path or thread where each individual point draws the eye, so to speak.

Detail 1

BG   This connection between the mark and the act of breathing is certainly worth discussing further. I'm very interested in the nature of this ‘correlation’. For example, I can imagine that this highly controlled breathing technique physically aids the steadying of the hand during the intricate drawing process, but is there also a sense of this meditative aspect in your approach, imbuing the work with some heightened metaphysical or spiritual quality? Is this purely a physical expedient, or are you concerned with this state of mindfulness as an intrinsic subject of the work itself?


DB   I feel uncomfortable talking about the work in terms of the ‘metaphysical’, and the ‘spiritual’ is such a loaded word - it really depends how it is defined. It is a word that does not seem to have its feet on the ground. The psychotherapist Mark Epstein describes the ‘spiritual’ as: “Anything that takes us beyond the personality” (1) and I like that simple description. However, it is a word that also seems to get bound up with a Romantic sense of cultivating an aesthetic sensibility of going above or beyond.

Rather, I am interested in staying close to the surface of an event, being with it in the perceptual perpetual present. I am interested in an art practice that shares fundamental lived experiential qualities with the practice and ethics of mindfulness. By this I mean that mindfulness is both something that I try to practise during the doing of a drawing, as a meditative practice in and of itself, and also something that I try to carry into the world, and hopefully the drawings reflect this state of being ‘in the world’. I think the word ‘practice’ is crucial here. Parallels between the practice of art, the practice of meditation and the mental space they inhabit are of increasing relevance for me.

In my reading around this area I find it useful to draw on contemporary discourses on Eastern philosophy. I find Buddhism useful here, particularly as it has been interpreted in the West as a negation of the separation of mind/body and the Cartesian ideal, offering a differing perspective to dualistic thinking, through an interconnection of mind, body and culture. Alongside mindfulness I am becoming increasingly interested in the ‘effortless action’, or Wu Wei, that Edward Slingerland (2) writes about, and how he applies this ancient Chinese concept of no–trying or no-doing to the wilful striving of our modern world.


For me, drawing is fundamentally non-teleological, an act of going nowhere. And yet, paradoxically and consequently, through acts of making – paper/pencil/ruler – it  is a way of developing mind/body and habits leading to self-actualisation in which one becomes one with making. Mindfulness meditation is essentially a discipline of ‘non-doing’. However, this does not mean one is actually doing nothing, avoiding reality, achieving a blank mind or transcending the here and now. It is, paradoxically, an ‘activity of non-doing’ - a preparation for sustaining and cultivating awareness of, and attention to, the present moment’s experience, through focusing on one’s breath.

This may sound as though I am describing an introspective ‘spiritual’ discipline, and in part this is correct, but I would say that essentially, one’s experience is always located and provisional, which goes beyond a merely introspective event or mental state that happens to us. Rather, it is to do with how one’s experience is transformed, in tandem with a transformation of our relationship to the world, and a transformation of that world - through making you shape your being, you shape the world.

Therefore, the materials we choose to work with, and how we apply these, are important. I recently gave a paper called ‘Touching the World Lightly’, and am working on a research project with the same name. As the title implies, the focus is on the marks we make, so the decision to work with the accumulation of repeated small gestures is in part a consideration of how our imprint touches the world. Allied to this is a question of a perceptual engagement – how to make a drawing that actually enacts through looking - a movement between nothing and something - of impermanence through nearly-imperceptible mark making.

Drawing #37.10 [Chromatic Fields] Colour Pencil on Paper, 40 x 40 cm 2010

BG   Fascinating! One might say, then, that mindfulness is not really a subject of the work, in the sense that one might describe the work as being ‘about’ something, but rather the work is necessarily and inextricably bound to a state of being-in-the-world, whereby there is not a disconnect between the two. The work comes out of this quite profound way of being and is not merely an image that seeks to represent or describe ideas about this way of being.

I like this idea of “touching the world lightly”. These particular drawings certainly have an incredibly delicate - as you say - almost imperceptible quality, as if they might at any time disappear or fade out of existence. I often find, though, that colour can be an incredibly complicating thing and I'm interested to know what your thoughts are concerning this.

There is a simplicity I appreciate in the monochrome drawings that, for me, seem to find a more direct connection with the ideas you've been discussing, and although I find the application of colour gradations very beautiful, they seem to stray into a slightly different territory. That's not to criticise them, but do you think this “lightness of touch” becomes compromised in any way due to the vibrancy of such multi-chromatic hues?


DB   As I have already mentioned, colour holds a particular interest, and I have worked to attempt to incorporate colour ranges into my drawing. I know you want to ask me about the 120 Colour Pencil drawings in a moment, so I will leave them aside for now and try to address the questions and observations you have just made.

My interest in colour is with with a slow unfolding colour, which is to do with the fleeting, evanescent nature of colour as a generator of light, so in these drawings the small dots of colour were used to speak to this transient condition. I was interested in the way colour appears to have the ability to elude finite systems and take up its own position, regardless of our actions and intention. I came to accept this as being part of our subjective chromatic experience.

Therefore, to me, it seems that the distinctiveness of colour as a phenomenon is its ability to speak to us in ways that are fluid, flexible and fleeting. However, I agree that they lead the viewer in a different direction, hence I have not made drawings using dots of colour pencil for several years now. Accordingly, I think your observation - that the drawings made with one or more grades of graphite tend to get much closer to the ideas I have spoken of - is astute.

These drawings certainly allow a more meditative approach to the making, and accordingly provide a more focused viewing experience. The invitation is to focus on the drawn mark, its independence and interdependence, rather than chromatic experience. And the graphite pencil drawings are quieter and more contained. The correlation between the drawn mark and the drawn breath is much closer in the monochrome works.

Detail 2

BG   At a certain distance there is a sort of snapping into focus of these compositions. The average course of each dotted line appears to stay true to the predetermined structure that underpins the work.

On closer inspection, there is a clear discrepancy, and the seemingly pristine nature of the drawing is to a degree lost. This is one of the seductive qualities about the work for me. One is drawn in, and only then do the drawings reveal the hand-made method of their production.


DB   Thank you for saying this -  I am equally interested in how each individual mark sits together and forms a whole, so that the engagement with each work is dependent upon where you are individually situated. Up close, or viewing from mid-distance, or afar. How to engage and sustain interest is a perpetual concern faced by any creative practitioner.

Therefore, looking at these drawings, one is invited to move back and forth, viewing the work at differing distances. Stepping back from the drawing, each separate mark dissolves in our field of vision, and at certain distances the drawing dissolves completely. This ‘some-thing’ and this ‘no-thing’ is another interest.

But yes, there is a ‘snapping into focus’ with each drawing, which will be different for different people, depending on the individual’s eyesight, but this is considered and heightened by the range of pencil grades used in the drawing. Drawings which use predominately the high end of ‘H’ range produce less tonal contrast, and equally take longer to register on the eye than those drawings which use the softer and darker end of the graphite spectrum. This choice of hard of soft pencil also affects the kind of mark made, as well as the eye’s ability to register.

An aspect of these drawings is to examine and test indeterminacy and visual liminality.

Circus Street drawing 2

BG   You said something very interesting about the paper being an ‘object in space’ rather than a two-dimensional ‘picture’. I like this idea very much; people often forget that paper has significant material properties and isn't a passive, non- responsive substrate. Could you talk a bit about how the drawing as a two-dimensional construction relates to the more ontological nature of the work as an object?


DB   I studied Printmaking at Masters level at the Royal College of Art, and have taught primarily on the Fine Art Printmaking course at the University of Brighton since 1999, so paper is something that has always been an important component of my own practice as an artist, and is something students are constantly asked to consider. I agree: as a substrate paper is far from being ‘passive’. As we know, paper comes in an incredibly diverse range of sizes, weights, textures and practical uses. Therefore each paper has its own particular characteristics which will invariably affect the outcome of the marks made upon it. One has only to think of Seurat’s choice of textured paper, which allowed him, with a black crayon, to activate the whiteness/lightness of the surface. It is precisely the articulation of the white space of the paper from a perceived negative space (no-thing) into a positive (some-thing) that intrigues me.

Thus, the white of the paper becomes an experiential site of potential relationships, an affirmative space, in which the drawings may evoke optical phenomena in which areas of white space appear to have a greater luminescence, or appear to contain colour, or shapes which may appear to drift across the eye.

In this sense I am interested in how the drawings may highlight the fact that seeing is active rather than passive, and is a dynamic process of lived interpretative experience. Consequently the choice of paper is vitally important. For most of my drawings I use Fabriano 5, an exceptionally smooth white paper that casts very little shadow, thereby increasing luminosity.

A recent set of drawings, made as part of a project, centred on the Circus Street site of the University of Brighton - a former market, which has now been demolished for redevelopment. Here I made a series of drawings by laying paper onto the rough, worn walls and floor and attempted to draw straight lines with the aid of a ruler and a pencil. The paper chosen for these drawings was a simple light-weight cartridge that would be a receptacle for the imprints, indentations and disruptions to the surface caused by the pressure of the drawn line on the uneven ground on which the paper was placed. In both sets of drawings the surface of the paper is activated - both optically and texturally a physical object that articulates both a pictorial and a textural space.  

BG   Let’s move on to discuss your more recent output and your broader practice. You have produced a stunning series of very simple horizontal colour line drawings in which you go through an entire range of colour pencils in a particular order, which throws up intriguing chromatic juxtapositions.

One thing that is immediately apparent in moving from a dot to a straight line is the way the intensity of colour, and the fineness of line quality, gradually fades and opens as you draw the line out. The erosion of the pencil lead suddenly becomes observable, and this lends the work a subtle gradation that the grid works don't have.

Could you talk a bit about the process involved in making these works and this significant transition from dot to line?


DB   About five years ago I brought a set of Faber Castell 120 Polychromos pencils, and they looked so good in the tin that I could hardly bear to disrupt them. The arrangement seemed so perfect. I remember asking myself: “how does one begin to choose colours from a range of 120 when one is not making a representation or using them symbolically?”. So instead of making arbitrary decisions about which colour to use next to another, I saw them as a kind of ‘ready-made’; I used them in the order they were arranged in the tin, equally, without preference for one colour over another.

The process was simple; on a drawing board with a ruler I would take one colour and draw a straight line and then another and then another. Each time I would place the pencil I had just used on the other side of my work surface. After each drawn line I would move the ruler down an equal distance, and once I had drawn all 120 colours I would begin again. This time beginning from the opposite end of the palette, drawing between each of the previously drawn lines. This produced a kind of mirroring, or reflection, and unexpected colour relationships. Once I had drawn all 120 colours twice, the drawing was finished and I would begin another. This time I would begin from a different place within the range, i.e. begin with pencil no 40, rather than pencil no 1, the next drawing would begin with pencil no 80 etc. It was a simple system and a process that placed considerable emphasis on the elemental activity of placing one mark after another.

As you observe, the different line takes on different qualities; some colour pencils are harder or softer than others, they therefore either wear down as the pencil is drawn from left to right or they retain their shape. For me, this was an exercise in retaining even pressure for each line drawn. Just before making these drawings I had been working on a project with composer Jamie Crofts, whose method of composing his Chromatic Fields had a direct influence (3). Jamie’s compositions consist of 176 single notes. These are the 88 notes of a piano played through and repeated. The main difference between each piece is the order in which they are played.

I have also made a set of drawings that use greyscales – 6H to 6B, each time varying the number of times a particular grade is drawn, but always with equal distribution. These drawings really seem like an exercise now, and I not sure if these will continue beyond the works already made.

120 Colour Pencil drawing B  

BG   I also want to touch on the series of sun-bleached paper works you have recently made using laser-cut stencils, which are derived from the same ‘maps’ used for the ‘dot’ drawings and the New Mexican sun! These works are unstable as they rely on the natural bleaching of the paper by UV light, but as this is a continuous and unstoppable process, they will at some point disappear.

Does the ephemeral nature of such work concern you, or do you find it appealing? It’s quite a departure from your previous output. How did you arrive at this method, and where do you think it might ultimately lead?


DB    Departure and continuation! Because of this they are the most difficult to discuss. Who knows where they might lead, perhaps back to the pencil and the ruler, or perhaps elsewhere. I honestly don’t know. They came about through this questioning of how we touch the world, and are a continuation of works that deal with nothing and something, of the impermanent, temporal nature of things. Some of these pieces were generated by my colleague Alan Boldon while he was co-ordinating a residency in New Mexico, other pieces have been made by simply leaving the the stencils and paper out in the litho room at the university and in my studio.

The idea is that these pieces are made by sunlight on recycled paper, so if and when they are re-exposed to light they will continue to fade. I guess this is a conceit that I will have to live with and work through.

Sunlight Drawing no 4 2015

BG   I'd like to finish by asking you a more general question about drawing itself. As a teacher and academic, do you think drawing as a practice still holds an integral importance within art education? We are living in times of such plurality in terms of art practice, the old traditions of life class, observational and technical drawing now seem redundant to many people. Is there still a fundamental usefulness to drawing that instils the mind with an ability to see the world, and that it would be detrimental to lose?


DB    These are big questions to end on, and I’ll do my best with them. Ultimately, drawing is a nexus that encompasses distinct strands, many different disciplines and none. To speak of drawing is to speak of all of this and much more; from the preparatory, generative and foundational to the conceptual, performative, exploratory and provisional. I welcome plurality and porosity in art education and I have no sense of any one mode being privileged above and beyond another.


However, there is something intimate and fundamental about drawing. I will confess I am no fan of life classes, but I have colleagues who are and I respect that view. I would rather argue that we don’t value the wide and varied scope that drawing has the potential to offer, at all levels of education.


In my role as an academic at the University of Brighton I am actively involved in the Drawing Research Interest Group (DRIG)(4). This group brings together academics and doctoral students from across a range of disciplines, with interests in the numerous applications of drawing, including the use of drawing as an educational tool, drawing and arts education, drawing as arts practice, the use of drawing within the expanding field of visual research methods, drawing within non-arts professions and quotidian drawing.


Attempting to define drawing is incredibly difficult; for many it is rooted in observation and has remained determinedly allied to representational models. However, observation, for me, has a broader interpretation than the mimetic; observation is another way of speaking about awareness and attention. By this I mean the ability to be present, observing what is unfolding at any given moment, the internal/external dynamics of the creative process - what is actually happening in us and to us which enables us to move towards … as an act of becoming … Perhaps I should leave the concluding words to Joel Fisher, in which he speaks of drawing as a process of becoming...

Drawing moves us toward seeing ... the completed drawing is never finished in any relational sense. After the last mark has been made it continues to explore the space of intention, it finds sympathetic vibrations elsewhere in the world, and aligns itself to them (5).


BG   Duncan Bullen, thank you...


Ben Gooding, 2015



Footnotes:

1. Epstein, Mark, Going on Being, Wisdom Publications 2009,  p.13


2. Slingerland, Edward, Trying Not To Try, Canongate Books, 2014.

3. Jamie Crofts, Chromatic Fields can be found at http://www.soundkiosk.com/

4. More can be found at:  http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/projects/drawing-research2#

5. Fisher, Joel, Notes Towards a Prepositional Drawing, Drawing Research Network Conference, Cochrane Theatre, London, 8 October 2009. http://www.simcoe.co.uk/drawing/reviews.htm