The discipline of drawing is fundamental to any artistic training in the visual arts. Formal training encompasses a knowledge of the basic elements (line, shape, tone, composition, etc.) and professional training (technical skill and experiential knowledge acquired through years of practice and study). The former is universally applied across artistic disciplines, while the latter recognizes the specific skill and knowledge obtained by an artist over a long career. Conrad Ross's long career as an artist and professor encompasses both facets, with this publication featuring a special selection of drawings that were preserved and stored away, only to be rediscovered recently.
Known primarily as a printmaker, this publication shows how fundamental drawing has been to Ross's work and reveals a side to his work that was never featured in previous publications. Conrad Ross has been a practicing artist and professor of drawing and printmaking for over forty-ﬁve years. He received his undergraduate degree in Fine Arts from the University of Ilinois in 1953 and his graduate degree in Fine Arts from the State University of Iowa in 1959. He secured a position as a professor of Drawing and Printmaking at Auburn University in 1965 and was granted Emeritus status upon retiring from Auburn in 1997.
Ross's work encompasses the philosophy of aesthetics, the formal elements of drawing, and the technical skill of mark making. In Ross's earlier publication, “Perceptual Drawing: A Handbook for the Practitioner," he presented a conceptual framework for drawing in line and tone that covered many of the fundamental approaches to drawing, yet elucidated with clear and easily understood terms and definitions. The text was accompanied by diagrams and drawings that provided a visual corollary to the concepts discussed throughout the book. The drawings featured in the current publication were produced during the1960s and 1970s, a body of work that was not intended to be a practical guide to perceptual drawing, but presented in their totality as a complex exploration of space and technical facility.
During this period, Ross worked in Lawrence, Kansas, and Auburn, Alabama, a period in history characterized by social unrest, and divergent approaches to traditional aesthetics. In this impressive body of work, we find evidence of an artist whose knowledge and expertise has persisted with a disciplined approach to drawing where observation, process and media application converge into an artistic synthesis. The conceptual foundation that has guided his work and teachings are presented as an integral part of the drawing process - what John Dewey called “art as experience." As you view each drawing, you are less inclined to see them as static works of art and more apt to capitulate or surrender to the process that led to their creation. Ross features nudes and interior spaces that embody a wide range of applications and marks that avoid pedantic approaches to technique and contrived methods or processes; instead they evolve out of the process of drawing itself, open to receptive paths of expression and intuitive formulation.
The inventory of marks found at the beginning of the book encompass the complexity of surface and the elucidation of form, yet serve less as reference material and more as a semiotic guide or process of semiosis. For example, this exercise of mark making was given to students to engender a process of action and reaction, taking into consideration dimension and character. The marks found in this collection of drawings follow a similar pattern of counterpoint in the way they simultaneously conceal and reveal the subject depicted. For example, the nudes demonstrate a bold and decisive use of a line and texture, balanced by refinement and a careful omission of details that treat the figure, not as an “object" in space, but as a study of space, with the human body as a subtext for the discipline of drawing. Charcoal is the primary medium, but the artist also incorporates rubbings, wash, ink, and Conté. The white space on the paper is also treated as a medium and works in tandem with the marks to emphasize the spatial component of the drawings.
Ross's multifaceted approach to drawing, in which the subject is realized through the process of looking, mark making, and the confluence of mixed media, is replicated in the drawings of interior spaces, but with an emphasis placed on the architectural surroundings of his studios in Lawrence, Kansas, and Auburn, Alabama. At first glance, one is impressed by Ross's keen sense observation, where the articulation of living spaces, furniture, drawings, printing presses, etc. clearly define his life as a studio artist. Yet, once you look beyond recognizable objects in space, you are enveloped by marks that command their own visual presence.
The drawings of Conrad Ross reintroduce us to the art of drawing as a discipline of study, and as a fundamental component to any artistic practice. As mediums of expression continue to evolve and change, and virtual tools and platforms are devised to simulate traditional media, Ross keeps us rooted to the idea that drawing is still a vital process for giving form to our ideas. More importantly, he reveals how concepts and the finite, empirical markings of lines and tones are transformed by the active process of looking and creating, a process that the viewer is encouraged to adopt, albeit in an analogous way, to fully appreciate this unique collection of drawings.
As artistic processes and mediums of expression continue to evolve and change, Ross reminds us of the importance of drawing as a fundamental component of art, where mark making operates as the basic gesture For how we signify and give expression to our world.
Timothy Paul Brown Curator of Education Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts