Drawing is perhaps the most universal of art forms.  With its tools being the most easily available and not restricted by price or practice, it seems to be the most welcoming and inviting of mediums.  With this in mind, it perhaps also explains why drawing often leads to some of the most interesting, subversive works and why it can change so much in contemporary art.  Tracing the Century uses this as its starting point to show works from all backgrounds, artists and eras, creating an exhibition that is a combination of the formal and the abstract.

The actual, physical nature of the exhibition is best summed up thus; imagine a straight line.  Next to the straight line is a zig zagging line which is crossing the linear line at various points.  Each one of the exhibition’s sections shows what happens at those points.  Some of the points are stronger than others but all are relevant.

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The opening “worldscape” collection of pieces is a great start (assuming of course the viewer is yet to view the Matt Saunders show downstairs) and is also one of the more straightforward themes to connect a group of works in a cross section.  Cézanne’s Montagne Sainte Victoire (1905-6) is a beautifully simple water colour that has a clear influence on the works around it.  The progression of minimalism in this piece to adjoining Out and Up (1951-2) by Richard Hamilton is subtle but present and is then further built upon in the Mind Breath Drawings (2010) of Julie Mehretu.

Though looking at the exhibition in this way is great for the actual viewer, it is not best when writing about it as there are more than one hundred works, all with a sense of some interconnectivity.  This first example gives a taste of the form of the show and so a look at some of the individual standout pieces from the show is a logical step.

The more classical end of modernism is of course represented and puts some of the recent attempts to utter shame.  Picasso’s Dora Maar Seated (1938) has a faded beauty to its clearly aged colours.  The reds are dirty and its frame is battered in spite of its elegance.  It’s clearly a painting that has lived through a time of disturbance and looking at its date reaffirms this flimsy reading of its physicality.  Fiona Banner’s Split Nude (2007) is an interesting contrast to the Picasso though it is unclear as to whether it is meant to be having a relationship with the other work.  The explicit sentences presented almost lose their meaning as Banner gives the actual shapes of the letters a pleasing aesthetic all of their own.

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Henry Moore has an excellent trilogy of his Shelter Drawings on show that actually outdo the Francis Bacon in the adjacent space for sheer dark macabre.  Woman in a Seated Underground (1941) shows a faceless figure waiting but presents her in such a formless way which seems to be more about presenting the potential inner turmoil of her than the simple outer shell.  This disembodied trauma is mirrored well in the work of Matthew Monahan.  His Body Electric (2012) pieces go along similar lines but on a much larger scale.  They also play nicely with the anatomical drawings of William Orpen in the previous space, which shows the subject matter moving from the scientific to the tragic.

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There are plenty of other excellent works in the show.  William Kentridge’s trilogy of video works put most of current video works in Liverpool to shame while large swaths of the Matt Saunders show on the ground floor are highly moorish to engage with.  Sadly, with such a body of work, many great pieces are missing from this article but this fact alone makes it well worth a visit.

Tracing the Century is on until the 20th of January.  Tickets are £5/£4 concessions.

Words and pictures by Adam Scovell.

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