LONDON — For those not already aware of its existence, Middle England is, in its way, as mythical as Middle Earth. But copies of the Daily Mail outnumber the elvish runes. This is the narrow-minded heartland of our small island, evoked by village greens and locals’ pubs. It is the last place you’d expect to find a radical drawing project.
Simon Faithfull is nothing if not adventurous. The British artist has crossed the ocean on a container ship, braved a scientific expedition to Antarctica, climbed aboard a burning plane and walked on the bed of the sea.
But if this evokes some kind of art stuntman, it probably shouldn’t. Because what Faithfull is perhaps best known for is a quiet, studious drawing practice which has seen him amass thousands of digital renderings of his travels near and far.
Which brings us back to Middle England, where the artist is staging an intervention in the fabric of everyday life. The venue is a branch of Morrisons supermarket in a well-heeled commuter town called Tunbridge Wells; the project is produced by Kent arts organization Hoodwink.
And so along with food and drink, the busy store will be stocking 500 copies of a book of drawings: free to browse, just a penny to buy. And Faithfull, who will at other times quite happily record a face or a landscape, is focusing on the material world of things, many of which you will no doubt find roaming these aisles.
“I end up drawing the things that are sitting on my desk in front of me now, or at the café table, or when I’m waiting in a departure lounge,” he tells me on the phone from Berlin. “And there’s an odd sort of way that our relationship with things creates an inadvertent autobiography.”
He compares it to the life stories glimpsed in someone else’s basket at the checkout. And his drawings may be digital and hence ephemeral, but Faithfull insists: “I think I’ve always been interested in things, as well as the dematerializing, the ghosts of things.”
With his tastes for both the exotic and the familiar, the immaterial and the tangible, Faithfull comes across as well balanced and self-aware.
The artist draws on an iPhone and an iPad, and yet began his digital drawing project on a Palm Pilot when he had just 80×160 pixels to play with. Since then he’s kept to a low-res, pixelated style and compares the challenge of the corresponding jagged lines to an art school technique, “like tying a pencil onto the end of a stick, so the line gets freed up because you’re less able to consciously control it.”
The results are pleasing, with both a naïve charm and a haunting vagueness. They are also distinctive. Globetrotting Faithfull has surely cornered the market in lo-fi sketching. Despite advances in technology, the artist has resisted using the cutting-edge software which, for example, has enabled David Hockney to create monumental paintings on an iPad. “I think of it as a little bit like a woodcut,” he says. “You have to work with the very crude means that you have and try to get a drawing out of that process.”
So despite the range of a project like the ongoing amalgamation of digital drawings and geo-tagging (Limbo, 2000–ongoing), you would be wrong to think of Faithfull as a geek. “I’m also someone who celebrates the dysfunction of technology rather than the slickness of it,” he says.
And since his drawing tools come with hi-res cameras, he realizes that what he does is in its own way “stupid.” “I’m interested in doing this antiquated thing,” he says. “[Drawing] is a perverse act that interrupts that flow of immediate photographs, that are instantly taken and quickly forgotten.”
Faithfull celebrates instead the slow circuit between eye, hand and screen, in pixelated pictures which can take up to half an hour.
But he also acknowledges that a sketch can get you places where a camera would be out of bounds. “Taking a photograph obviously you get into all sorts of trouble these days. It’s a lot more controlled,” he says. “No one can really tell you not to make a drawing.” And if that drawing is on a handheld device, so much the better: “When I’m making a sketch on my iPhone, no one thinks for a moment that I’m actually sketching them.”
This is surely an advance in the history of art comparable to the hidden camera employed on the New York subway by Walker Evans in 1938. Faithfull also looks to tradition to inform his current practice. The artist draws inspiration from the economy of line found in work by Matisse and Klee.
“That’s what I try to do,” he says, “I’m trying to capture the essence of something and, I guess, turn myself into a kind of seismograph that is recording a reaction to me being in that place and looking at that thing in front of me and have it reflected in my hand movements.”
That may be the theory, but the practice is one of the most accessible and self-evident bodies of work by any contemporary artist. Faithfull has drawn his way around the globe and won friends and collaborators among research scientists and merchant seamen alike. Drawing is a way of breaking ice, and that held true even in the frozen waters of the South.
But having plied his trade in all four corners of the earth, the well-travelled artist says: “My work is getting increasingly involved with the legacy of this strange little island off Europe.”
And he reminds me of a 2009 work which saw him follow the Greenwich Meridian from the Sussex coast to the North Sea, clambering through gardens and traversing private homes.
Faithfull says he’s only just beginning to understand his mission as an artist: “I think it’s trying to explore this sphere that I find myself on and subjectively test its limits. So from that point of view I think of myself as a person on a globe. I don’t know whether that’s a global artist but I’m curious, sculpturally, about what that globe is.”
That’s quite a broad outlook and not one you’d expect to find in a supermarket in the Home Counties. But as this artist has proven, drawing travels well.
Simon Faithfull’s Things can be seen in Morrisons Supermarket (Vale Road, Tunbridge Wells) through November 2014.