The Roving Figures
– The drawings of Karin Häll
I walk slowly into myself, through a forest of empty suits of armor.
– Tomas Tranströmer
Swedish artist Karin Häll stuck several sketches of different sizes and shapes on the walls of her studio in Chuangku art community at Kunming: An eye, a tree, some gloomy faces, and The Life and Work, an artist’s handmade book from the coarse sandpaper. I was fascinated by the figures on these randomly arranged scrapes. They were lively yet slightly gloomy. It seemed as if they were talking to each other, yet they seem to have nothing to do with each other. These are moments from “life and work” and figures invited by the artist to present themselves in between.
Karin has been fond of drawing since she was a child. She was seriously criticized by the teacher for sketching in the textbooks, and was even asked to restore the books back to how they had looked like. I can very much relate to her experience. Workbooks, textbooks, desks and walls could all be our canvas. No one can stop a person from drawing, just as you can’t stop a child from growing up.
We used to hike together on the outskirts of Kunming, enjoying the nature and overlooking the city. Drawing, she says, is much like hiking. It makes one relieved from the mental pressure. There is no pressure from “self-judgment” or to do “official works”. I totally agree with that. Casual painting is very similar to hiking or walking. No specific reason or goal is needed. You’re just walking and drawing. After letting go the inner anxiety, you feel very much refreshed. We are also often given the illusion that we are busy and focused. In fact, more often than not, we are just being idle and distracted. It is said that the mind works best when distracted. Thoughts emerge naturally in inactivity, and then vanish automatically. Figures become the extension of roving thoughts, which in turn leads people to association and observing. That’s how we got the figures on the scraps of Karin’s paper. They are like the footprints of hiking in the hills, fresh, natural, firm and steady.
Karin’s drawings feature powerful lines and bold color bulks, emphasizing the contour of the figures and the stereoscopic aspect of them. This may have something to do with her sculpture practice. Her figures always start with bulky objects. In a recent exhibition, Karin used sculpture and finished products to make scattered black blocks on the wall. It seems as if they were fragments floating in the air or debris salvaged from the sea. In another work, “The Order of Things”, she put gloves, boots, books, plants, flowerpots and mud balls on a hilly setting of artificial hair. That very much reminds us about the spaces in Giotto’s paintings, and the grotesque rocky mountains. The “finished” sculptures also offer us glimpses of Karin’s daily drawing practices: moving lines, wraparound bulks, and simple forms. Generally speaking, Karin would keep objects and figures apart from each other. But she could somehow make them associated with each other intrinsically. Those objects or figures are usually only half done. Or that’s how she intents people to see. This makes the figures detached from the roving thoughts, while the viewer’s attention is channeled to wander among the objects. She keeps the objects malleable, maintains the traces, and exposes the undertone. These are the labor work of her hands – covering, modifying, smearing, and emphasizing. That’s also how Karin works on her drawings. The traces of daubing and emphasizing are visible, and the paper being cut, bound, sewed and stuck. Although the drawings seem casual and were done freely, they demonstrate how she can control over the figures and strength to get particular feelings noticed. I think that’s the spirit.
As far as I can see, these figures are different moments from “life and work” that share common spiritual temperaments – fun, mysterious, and gloomy. For example, she likes to draw her left hand, figures from Nordic mythology, portraits shrouded in contemplation, and faces in the shadows. Besides, there are more bulky figures, such as houses, clouds, shoes, gloves, etc. This temperament might have come from the unique spiritual realm of northern Europe, championing simplicity and black. It reminds me of the patients in the ward of Munch’s paintings. Of course, there are some lovely and fun figures too. These figures, which are not deliberately created, have the same spiritual temperament. This is like a person who walks in a certain gait and posture that can be recognized from a distance.
An artist’s drawing is the most private stage, in which figures or texts are slowly coming to present themselves. While the artist acts as the master of ceremonies, the figures come to look for their creator. It’s like how the Swedish poet Tranströmer put it that it’s not he who was looking for the lines, but the poems seek for him, begging to be presented. This is a mysterious process. Because of this, an artist or poet is not working on a mission that must be accomplished. Instead of forcing herself to create masterpieces, she just shares this process with others.
Without setting any frames and goals, she paints and smears freely. This is like natural breathing, strolling in the mountains, enjoying moments of silence, and preparing the figures to emerge. This is the pleasure and reflection brought to me by the mysterious and wonderful drawings of Karin Häll.
art critic, author, artist