Charlotte Pulfer’s Visceral Traces
“...the reason you read the mark is because you also feel the mark.”
Julie Mehretu (2009)
It is intriguing to observe a documentary drawing, and not assess the conflict of subjective imagination and a strive for objectivity in its conception. Encountering the intimate characters, objects and settings of Charlotte Pulfer’s monochrome drawings, with their gestural and loose compositions, your first thoughts are to consider whether her intention stands as fact or fiction. Her expressive charcoal delineations delve into the coexistence of the two in a revelatory form of storytelling. In her book “New Documentary: A Critical Introduction” (2000) on the documentary genre, British scholar Stella Bruzzi highlights that “...documentary will never be reality nor will it erase or invalidate the reality by being representational…documentary is a negotiation between the reality on one hand and the image, interpretation and bias on the other.”
Reportage illustration has historically been rooted in recording situations in situ by hand on paper. Pictorially reporting the actualities of life as they unfold: grand battles, courtroom proceedings, political reunions or voyages abroad. At the heart of its tradition there was a signaling of behind-the-scenes occurrences that were not habitually seen by the vast majority. During the Falklands War, artist Linda Kitson rendered an insightful visual diary of the frontline that would have otherwise been private.
Kitson’s emphasis on velocity and vitality can also be perceived in how Pulfer captures the spirit of the moment in her mark-making. As Pulfer states: “The primary element of reportage for me is bearing witness. The act of drawing fluctuates amongst the conscious and the subconscious, the realms of seeing and feeling.” Transient, emotive instants emerge, revealing their spirit and strength. Pulfer shifts from portraying tranquility in sketches of desolate landscapes to frenzied construction sites is mesmerizing. Her visual journalism, which manifests as a visceral embodiment, is based on reciprocity and reflection, a dance between the drawer and drawn - as alluded to by John Berger in his writing on drawing, in a way that conveys the intimacy of the experience.
Her new series, the “Truth Trail”, responds to her recent pilgrimage through the glorious Northern English countryside, predetermined to be endangered by the HS2 High Speed Railway. The controversial project plans to threaten the livelihood of 108 ancient woodlands and 693 wildlife sites, demolishing 888 homes, 985 businesses, displacing 19,590 jobs.
Covering up to 16 miles a day, Pulfer crossed great terrains, from grassland to woodland, farm to village, scrub to industrial land - situating herself directly within the social and physical fabric of her subject. This immersion can include reading and listening to podcasts or chronicling field recordings and taking snap shots and video clips on site. The sole notes she willingly omits are those in writing, leaving the all-encompassing canopy, the fresh scent of palmate leaves and the voices of the local residents touched by it to wispy recollections. Pulfer remarks: “The experience is in my body and spirit. I can only draw what I saw, heard and felt as a personal document to the truth trail”. She translates these liminal spaces; fractures between fronds and lives in limbo; into large scale responses that communicate order by way of jumbled traces.
In the work itself, the material is smeared to such lengths that the familiar flags and faces from the protest are hardly identifiable, imbuing the illustrations with a phantasmagorical flair. Whilst she refuses impartiality, her depictions are anything but discriminating. Describing it as an emotional rollercoaster, the resulting work transposes the disbelief, anger, sadness, blame and processing felt through each step, but not acceptance. Releasing the boundaries of linear time, these are imprints that carry a human connection.
The question, “what moves an individual to action?” proposed by Pulfer endorses the tipping point of taking a stance and suggests that actions of any size should never be underestimated. Why do people initiate and persist them? Do they spur from the inside or outside, self or other? Pulfer’s drawings highlight the power of personal agency and political voice within these actions, connections and outcomes, exposing the large collective movement that can come forth in small and large acts of resistance.
Words by Vanessa Murrell