Of these two Glasgow-published, Robert Johnston-designed books of drawing sequences, the Visnes is most handsome, with its blue cloth cover embossed with tree-outlines and fine colour printing; the Davis is more modest in size, and its printing—black-and-white. Both are artist’s books, without biographies or contextualising material about the work, and while some clues might have been helpful, it’s no bad thing to let the reader navigate the terrain without the partial routemap of an introduction.
Partners is, however, prefaced by the familiar Stevie Smith poem ‘Not Waving But Drowning’, whose central image of a gesture misunderstood runs through the book. Even before opening it the reader is presented with an uncertainty, as the semi-abstract cover image seems to make more sense when it’s turned through 90˚. One has to turn the book back again to begin reading it, so is this really the way to read it? Inside, a blurry drawing which seems to represent a handshake evolves into a collision, while a telephone receiver either remains in its cradle, or when lifted is separated from its ‘partner’ by the white space of an entirely blank page, as if between them there is only silence. The final image is of a waving figure with its back to us, and on the page is a piece of wool, either unravelled or not-yet- knitted.
Visnes’ book is outwardly more lavish and, within, more enigmatic. Other than the title, there are no textual pointers. The drawings feature trees, floral patternings from wallpaper or tapestry, and drawings of birds which are always incomplete; throatless songbirds, a headless owl, the bodiless heads of birds of prey. The first image presents a group of trees sourrounded by dense patterns of flowers and foliage; one pine tree is healthy, the others are dead. Through the rest of the book the healthier trees are presented as silhouettes shifting in colour from rust to black, hardly suggesting vitality. Paradoxically, the complexity of natural forms is found in the patterning, though here too there is a sense of degradation; the first pattern is repeated at the end of the book in less detail, as if the artist had made the same drawing in half the time.
Ken Cockburn is a poet and publisher