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Subscripture: musings on process and meaning

Filtering by Category: subscription 2019


Tim Svenonius


Suppose a drawing begins as a single line.

As that line stretches, doubles back, multiplies, a territory starts to take shape. as though the line is all that's known, and the emptiness around it is terra incognita.

I don't romanticize exploration, or any of the explorers that "discovered" lands already long inhabited. The non-heroic kind of exploring, however, is another matter: to walk without a path, through foreign terrain, guided by curiosity. In artmaking it's akin to working with an unfamiliar method or material: I press forth into the unknown, treading softly so as to measure. Each step freshly informed.

To explore is to venture, alert and astute, into something one doesn't yet comprehend; to step outside the boundary of the known. An artist must do this continually—forever inquiring, interrogating, reaching.

• • • • •

A 19th century photograph led me here. I knew I would draw it, before knowing why— without knowing its story.

An expedition, I soon learned, to measure the depth of Crater Lake, Oregon, in 1886. There they measured the greatest depths recorded in any lake in North America. More than nineteen hundred feet. The apparatus was primitive: a plumb line, dropped until it foundered. Sounding, as it is called, would later be achieved with sonar—actual sound. Echolocating like bats in darkness.

I later sketched the scene from memory, several times before the line felt loose enough. Everything ought to be weightless, I thought–the boat is borne effortlessly on the still surface; the figures' reflections now stark silhouettes, hanging like bats, above fathomless depths.

Monumental Bison, 2019

Tim Svenonius


The drawing Monumental Bison is based on a bronze figure, part of a monument to George Washington in Philadelphia that features life-size figures of certain native fauna. At the time the monument was dedicated, in 1897, the number of American bison was nearing its lowest ebb. A count in 1884 had estimated 325 living bison in the US, down from a peak population between twenty and thirty million. In 1887, the American Museum of Natural History sent an expedition as far as Montana to obtain a bison specimen, but found none. Considering its historical context, the edifice takes on a funerary effect rather than a heroic one.

Over a period of years I’ve made a number of paintings, drawings, and prints based on monumental figures of bison. In part, I am drawn by the form itself—what I might call the animal’s monumentality. At the same time I’m responding to the way the bison’s image, and other images of the natural world, become iconic—the picture becoming more pervasive as its material counterpart is erased. Rather than trying to capture the essence of the living animal, I choose to work from a representation, allowing all the strange subtext that comes along with it.

Equi Vocat, or the Dark Horse

Tim Svenonius


A rocking horse of immense size first appeared in a sketchbook in 2010, amid a host of dreamlike pictures for which I had no rational explanation. 

I revisited the motif again in a notebook years later, now with a long shadow extending off the page. Something about that shadow and the crossed boundary felt essential, a key to some meaning I had not yet divined. In the print I aimed to emulate that effect by creating a bounding box—a containment made to be violated.

Countless horses appear in my notebooks, more often emblematically than as living animals: a monument, a chess piece, an insignia, a wheeled effigy. Among these, I feel the rocking horse possesses a particular magic. One of mammoth stature seems especially formidable--as if harboring some secret, like a sphinx.

The title Equi Vocat is a kind of bilingual wordplay: the Latin may mean he calls the horse, or the horse calls; in English it suggests equivocate—evading understanding. Ideally, I want a title to provide something unexpected, and not simply to reinforce what’s already apparent (like calling the print Rocking Horse, for instance). Here I wanted a title that would actively play with an unseen part of the story. 


Reflections in a Shallow Bay

Tim Svenonius

Strand , 2019. graphite on paper, 22 x 30 in.

Strand, 2019. graphite on paper, 22 x 30 in.

The expression snapshot, to mean an instant in time, was already in use by 1897. The sense of a photo’s instantaneousness, summed up in the shutter’s split-second sound, is rooted deep.

But there are photographs that play strangely with time. Rough waters, captured on the wet plate negatives of the 19th century, can look like still pools of mist, and bodies in motion may appear translucent. Amid crisp details in a landscape or street scene we may make out faint blurs and residual shadows left by anonymous passersby.

To decipher these traces is a kind of reanimation: attune yourself to these rhythms, restore the breath to the arrested moment, and the experience becomes cinematic—as long as you can be both viewer and projector.

• • • • •

My source for the drawing was a photo found online. It shows a stranded bark, its rigging in disarray, identified as the wreck of the Hannah, 1849. But when I tried to learn more about the Hannah, which sank after striking an iceberg en route from Ireland to Quebec, with fifty passengers perishing, I concluded it couldn’t be the vessel pictured, whose end was surely less catastrophic. The picture’s backstory, then, was not for me to know.

• • • • •

Although a photo may describe an instant in time, a drawing may take weeks. In that time, storylines may emerge, characters develop, moods evolve. To derive a drawing from a photograph, then, is not so much a copying but an unfolding. The narrative of that frozen moment must be adapted, rewritten, restaged.

The source photo was meanwhile of a very degraded quality, many of its details blurred and indecipherable. Much of it would have to be reimagined in my rendering.

While working on the drawing in late January I looked up at the clouds every day, between the frequent storms, trying to memorize patterns and behaviors. I took a trip North to where the Russian River meets the ocean and forms a delta. With the unfinished drawing still fully in mind, I studied the contours and textures of the sandbars there along the ragged coastline.

And thus attuned, I would return to the drawing and further develop the textures of sand and sky. Soon the setting had become, unmistakably, the Pacific coast, between winter rains.