A note on ‘Leave the line standing’


We were squabbling over how best to cut the piece of wood when, with jigsaw in hand, I decided to ignore Mick and get on with the job as I always do — uncomfortable with and annoyed by his audience. Then Mick made a last ditched effort and said, ‘leave the line standing’. Standing? Line?

Mick is the elderly, long time caretaker at St Canice’s parish, Kings Cross. Our conversation took place in the annex where I was working.

I put down the jigsaw, baffled. He explained: ‘You either cut the line off or leave the line standing’. With this I realised there was in fact ‘no line’ between us, we had been saying the same thing just differently, without realising: all that polite frustration with another, for nothing.

When, months later, I came to exhibit my art in the same room, this line seemed the right type of line to leave standing.

For Mick initiated me to a phrase that meant my struggle with ‘the line’ was shared by the legion of carpenters who had coined it. The phrase also spoke of a type of art in which ‘the line’ can often cause an artist considerable dilemma.

We are not speaking, here, of a line one pixel thick as regularly seen on a computer screen, but a line drawn with a lead pencil that is blunt, no matter how often it is sharpened, given the wood grain over which it is drawn. A line one millimetre thick (just sharpened), is a one millimetre difference between a piece of wood fitting within a construction, or not. It is a line that can prove the bane of many a woodworking day.

Generally, we think of a line as the shortest distance between two points. Spatially, it differentiates the area it divides into two. In reality, however, a line — in itself — is also an area. The number of spaces, therefore, a line differentiates is not two (left-side/right-side), but three when we factor in the actual space of the line, a factor that, if ignored, can waste half a day and a good piece of wood.

The space of this line — its medium, its thickness, its history, its lack of transparency, its own problems — is a line mostly ignored, however, when people use it to carve up an issue whether it be in politics or on the home front. Once the issue has been cleaved in two, the line is usually rubbed out along with any trace of fickleness with which it ruled the situation. As a general practice of society, it often becomes a default frame of mind with which we approach many things.

This is made evident in many a student’s first drawing classes that often necessitates a complete mental re-wiring during the first months at art college. One teacher in particular banned the rubber from class, which meant we had to live with the mess of mistakes otherwise called a drawing — a mishmash of inopportune delineations that blighted all recognition of the thing drawn.

These first results couldn’t help but scar one’s sense of achievement until, over time, one became drawn into the force of the lines, themselves, and the lively power of congestion around difficult areas re-drawn, over and again, to get right. Rightness, in the end, no longer mattered compared with a lines’ honest witness to that moment, its independent corroboration and antidote to denial.

My art retains these lines still, today. Whether working on a watercolour or pencilling in the stripes for a painting — I never rub out the lines. When imaginatively walking within a water-colour floor plan, one cannot help but trip over these lines. It is perhaps why it has been suggested I remove the lines that are thought to undermine a sense of the work’s perfection. The lines, however,  witness the work.

For this reason it was a delight to hear Mick say  ‘leave the line standing’. It was a line in a conversation with a big enough dimension to become the space for an exhibition.

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