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Terra Incognita: The Imaginary Worlds of Charles Avery

The draftsman as philosopher: for the Scotsman Charles Avery, the chance to be an artist not only goes hand in hand with the privilege of being alone. It’s also about duty – the duty to think. Louise Gray has talked to him about real and imaginary island realms, Plato’s cave allegory, and professional dreamers.

Charles Avery, Untitled,
from the series That that dogs don't know they know, 2000,
Deutsche Bank Collection

The next time you stand in front of a pencil drawing or an installation – and not necessarily one by the Scottish artist Charles Avery, either – you would do well to ponder what it is you’re actually looking at. Avery, a draughtsman of clear and exquisite talent, is a detailed and thoughtful artist – which is to say that the thought process that underpins his productions can seem formidable. “I am not into making objects, be they drawings or sculptures,” he states. “Of course,” he elaborates, “everything is an object – when I use that word, I mean that it partakes of the physical world, even by making waves in the air. Everything I make is unfinished.”

Charles Avery, Nancy aged 3 and El Presidente,
from the series The Life and Lineage of Nancy Haselwon, 1999,
Deutsche Bank Collection

If this sounds a little alarming, it is. Not because Avery retains the right to enter the house of every collector of his work and make changes to their purchases (he doesn’t), but because he wants their imagination to act upon the works in such a way that one might say that they are never finished, that their possibilities are endless. It’s an idea that Avery has worked out obsessively in his work. He creates drawings and installations that are all characterised by their elaborate fictions. The stories he sets up and allows to play could almost become soap operas of a sort.

In The Life and Lineage of Nancy Hasselswon (1998-99), a series of 30 drawings bound together into a book, he drew a fictitious dynasty spanning 100 years. “People got born, grew old, and died. There were clearly dynamics going on – sexual tensions, pathos, friendships, relationships. Nothing extraordinary happened to the characters. In terms of their shading and candid expressions, the drawings were quite photographic, but not photo-realist. They were not out of time, fairly contemporary. It’s like a photograph album that you might pick up at random.”

Charles Avery, Untitled,
study for The Life and Lineage of Nancy Haselwon, 1999,
Deutsche Bank Collection

In The Creation of the Omniverse (1998), a series of five drawings portray two old men drinking, a waitress passing by, a spilled drink, and, in the myriad droplets of the falling beer, an infinite number of universes, possibilities, ramifications. “The medium I’ve chosen to work in is drawing,” Avery says. “I am a draughtsman. It’s what I use to realise my ideas. I’ve always drawn … To proceed as an artist, you have to decide what is art. I became aware of philosophy through drawing and that made me start thinking. Drawing is about meaning. Drawing is fundamental – you don’t need to be able to draw – but drawing is completely explicit. All is laid bare.” The ability, or more precisely, the opportunity to draw carries with it clear responsibilities, Avery believes. “If you are an artist, you have an extraordinary privilege in the world: that of solitude, which is something few people have. It gives an opportunity for reverie, an opportunity to think. An artist who is making the same piece over and over again is abusing that privilege … the buck stops at the artist.”

Charles Avery, Uncle Eugene's funeral, 1999, Deutsche Bank Collection
Courtesy Doggerfisher, Edinburgh

His recent exhibition at Edinburgh’s Doggerfisher Gallery, The Islanders – An Introduction (2005), treads a playful line between reality and fantasy. The island in question is (and is not) his home island of Mull off the west coast of Scotland. Some of its place names are inspired by Scots Gaelic, a language that is perilously close to extinction even in its former island strongholds.

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