Claudine Mitchell


Joanna Mowbray's Compositions 2000

Today there is a recognisable ethos shared by artists across the disciplines of sculpture, music and dance. These artists seek aesthetic emotion and intellectual experience in the rigour of their technique. Mowbray belongs to that tradition; as choreographers Shiabban Davies, Lucinda Childs and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. It is the interest in developing the formal relations between movement, space and music that marks out these artists' achievements.

In her recent practice Mowbray has concentrated on large scale drawings. The latest, So Far, So Near, is a composition evolved from the principle of repeating one single form. This unit, an almond shape form presenting only very slight variations in format in its multiple occurrences (whether the thinning end of the almond is positioned to the right or to the left for instance) is repeated across twenty horizontal lines. Variations are obtained principally through value contrasts, that is the density of grey pigment in the graphite media, using a scale which decreases from near black grey to very pale grey in five main steps. The dominant marks, those which call the beholders' attention first, are the darkest. Then there are rhythmic patterns. These are obtained by creating relations of equivalence between forms that have the same value, often grouped in three. These groups interplay with pairs of contrasted pale and dark forms and one recurrent white gap.

My first impression of So Far, So Near was that it evoked some form of a musical score, that it worked like a system of notation encoded on the grid which the horizontal lines construct on the paper surface. The system of marking evokes the ways in which a musical phrase might rise through a texture of sounds and surface to become dominant only to be silenced again, by another musical phrase rising to the foreground. Thus I was reminded of the music of James Beirne when he collaborated with Mowbray and choreographer Gregory Nash for Surface Tension.1 I was also reminded of de Keersmaeker's Fase, a choreography for two dancers, positioned on a horizontal line, standing in profile on a fixed point of the stage, and only moving imperceptibly across the stage through the performance, yet totally absorbed in the repetitive rhythm of Steve Reich's music, through the rapid motions of one leg, foot and arm.2

Incisions, Recesses, a spatial environment made up of four 445x2445 wall drawings, is the dominant feature of the EICH Gallery and Bruton Gallery exhibitions of Spring and Summer 2000. There is a mathematical progression in the relation between form and ground in this series. In that perspective, the series builds up from a composition with nine units confined to one central horizontal zone in the first work, to three then four horizontal zones in the next two works, whilst the regularly spaced-out almond shapes invade the whole ground in the fourth work. Each drawing operates its own system of logical relations. In the third composition, the twenty four almond shapes are regularly spaced-out in eight columns of three rows.

A continuity and flow is created by the way the forms closer to the edges of the paper support appear cut. The curvature of the outline of each almond form and the way the inner dark grey shape is placed in relation to the central axis convey the illusion of a volume protruding in space. The degree of curvature of the outline of each form, whether the white ground is allowed to come through the inner form as if it were a small incision, whether a further red stroke anchors the inner shape back in depth, all of this creates the illusion of volumes opening up or closing upon themselves. There results a sense of an inner pulsating rhythm. Furthermore, the occasional presence of differing types of marks counteracts with the overall fluid rhythm of each composition. Note the three smaller scale red shapes in the third composition or observe how, in the fourth composition, there is just one form that is tilted at the vertical, whilst all other forms in this series are positioned at the horizontal.

It is thus in this way that Incisions, Recesses reminds one of the recent choreographies of Lucinda Childs, Concerto or Variété de Variété where the dancers move principally on a series of horizontal lines across the stage, in profile. This general pattern is only interrupted by the occasional configuration of a dancer positioned frontally or back to the audience. The configurations in turn become endowed with dramatic power and emotional intensity with the changing light effects.3

Over the last fifteen years Joanna Mowbray has consistently worked on the relation between the two dimensional and the three dimensional and maintained her exhibition policy of exhibiting sculptures against drawings and cut-out shapes.4 In her recent large scale drawings, however, the work on value contrast — that is Mowbray's exploration of the varied possibilities offered by the gradations, transitions, passages between the white paper support and the velvety dark grey of the graphite pigments — is of such quality, her ordering of the multiple occurrences of one single form is of such precision, that these drawings become self-sufficient works. They constitute a new and important departure in Joanna Mowbray's practice.


Dr Claudine Mitchell
The University of Leeds
25 April 2000
© Dr Claudine Mitchell


  1. Surface Tension No 1: Leeds City Art Gallery, 1990. Surface Tension No 2: Contact Theatre, Manchester, Boddingtons Manchester Arts Festival and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Other collaborations include: Vertigo with choreographer Sue MacLennan and composer Robert Worby, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, 1991. Mowbray is currently working with Israel-based choreographer Irit Bluzer
  2. Fase, 1982, performed by de Keersmaeker and Anne de Mey, Théâtre de la Ville, Paris, 1996
  3. Variété de Variété, music by Mauricio Kagel, created Théâtre de la Ville, Paris, 2000
  4. See Mowbray's interview in On the Brink? Claudine Mitchell editor, Leeds, 1992 p 10

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