Lines that walk and talk (The Chess Series)

The calligraphic line is not merely the line of writing, but through its emotional extension could be said to be a naturally expressive line of thought. And, if the moves on a chess board usually suggest strategic thought through their allotted lines of orientation, the calligraphic free form drawings of Martin Raabenstein liberate the figure’s pre-dispositions of structured thought into a state of imagined reverie. The family of calligraphic figures born of Raabenstein’s free representation have been turned into unique set of drawings. In the first instance the reference to a game apparently based on thought and strategy, might appear to limit the emotional side of life. But as the history of chess reveals, artists have always been fascinated with the symbolic characters that express what is fundamentally a war game played out on a grid-based battlefield space. Beginning with the famous twelfth century lewis chessmen, discovered in the nineteenth century, the individualisation given to the different character pieces once possessed an enormous diversity.i

In all cultures the diverse depictions of chessman as metaphor, has shaped and influenced a subsequent understanding as to the national, regional or even religious context in which they were first realised. Indeed, in terms of both modern and contemporary art, an equivalent sense of interest is found in the art and practices of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) „I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art – and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.“ Not only did he play and write on chess, but was an active supporter of its social extension integrating it materially into his artistic practice.i

However, to Martin Raabenstein the theoretical considerations about chess are far less significant than they were to Duchamp. but the idea of Raabenstein was rather how to generate a series of drawings that embodied the literal aspect of the line of play (in its doubled sense), and at the same time pursue and realise a distinct set of drawings that reflected in each drawing an individual sense of unique character and presence. Far from the standardisation of modern chess pieces, Raabenstein has sought to give a unique shape to what has in recent times become a conventional typology in terms of chess set presentation. The power of line, and its status as the most immediate of graphic practices, therefore allowed the artist to find particular ways in which each drawing took on a life of its own. But the fluidic lines used by Raabenstein, some broad and at other times narrow, owes a great deal to the calligraphic gesture and less to the deterministic line of conventional drawing. it is a line less in pursuit of a form, but rather a line that pursues a sense of morphology. It gives a shape to each chess set character, and can do so because it hovers at the inconclusive boundary between a pictogram and the calligraphy of writing. It is a gestural line just as the game of chess involves the gesture or move sequence related to the chess piece or character that is being moved. The propensity to a mixture of fluidity and control of movement, common to the calligraphic art, is applied by the artist to a wider inference in this context.
The means and application are quite straightforward, since the drawings are on prepared paper, and Edding marker pens of different sizes are used to make the lines. Thereafter the ‚pawns‘, usually simple oval balloon-like heads, float on the surface of the paper. They are treated usually with another simple technique of being dipped in an ink solution (some are brushed later), which adds a sense of opaque plasticity to the finished drawings. The drawings of the character pieces such as the knight , bishop, or rook (sometimes called castle), reflect in an abstract visual manner the nature of their chess board characterisation. That is to say the knight adopts a somewhat sumo-like pose, a reflection, perhaps, of the active assymetry of his board movement and preparedness to do battle. Conversely, the bishop has a contained verticality that echoes both the mitre and the piece’s constrained sense of diagonal movement. The rook takes on a cylindrical sense reflecting, perhaps, the limitations of straight line movements either vertically of horizontally. It cannot be denied that there is a certain deliberate ‚orientalism‘ apparent in the drawings, in large measure clearly deriving from the use of a calligraphic form of expression itself. These individual characterisations, are frequently rolled over afterwards with a series of layers of diluted ink. However, at the same time it would be an error to read the drawn images in any direct analogy with the pictograms associated with oriental language. The figures follow a general sense of verticality, and are located as the centre of each paper surface. Equally, they are not unrelated to earlier drawings executed by the artist in the 1990s, which favoured the same sense of centrality and use of ovoid heads. Hence to speak of their characterisation does not intend a individualistic narrative identity as such, but a form of individual genera or sub-group of shared identification – a visual family existence of likeness and difference.
Martin Raabenstein’s departure from notion of calligraphic rhythm through gesture as mark, is becoming a continuous process in his work. The chess pieces drawings are an evocation far less of chess as a battle game, and more to do with the notion of play. Drawing as play has a long antecedence in twentieth century art, not least in the role and increased significance of child drawing, but also through its artistic elevation and valorisation by artists such as Paul Klee. Lines that walk and talk is used here to further that idea, insomuch as the nature of expression, or, to be expressive, is as relevent to writing and speech as it is to its drawn usages in visual art. In this metaphoric sense Raabenstein’s lines both walk and talk, revealing as they do the fluctuating conditions of his consciousness and free flow of associations. It seems that the artist has begun a developmental process, it is as yet to be resolved as to where it will eventually lead the artist in his current work.

© Mark Gisbourne, Tuesday, 06 July 2010

i  The so-called Lewis chessman, found on the island of Lewis, Scotland, in 1831, are the oldest surviving chess figures, some seventy eight in total (sixty-seven in the British Museum, and eleven part of the National Galleries of Scotland). Dating from around 1150-1200 AD, at that time the hebrides island of Lewis was part of the old kingdom of Norway, and the chessmen were probably carved originally in Trondheim. Carved from walrus ivory and whale bone, each figure, with the general exception of the pawns, were frequently individually characterised as typological portraits. Chess pieces and the game are found in nearly all civilisations and thought to have been invented in India around c.500 AD.

i Duchamp won several chess championships and was given the title master in 1929, and in 1931, represented France at the International Chess Federation. In 1961 Marcel Duchamp organized an auction of artworks to raise funds for the American Chess Foundation and asked many of his contemporaries to contribute works. See, Hubert Damisch, ‚the Duchamp defense‘, 1979, October, no.10, 1979, p.8