John Sergeant is a search engine nightmare. (No, Google, I don’t mean Sargent. And no, Google, I definitely don’t mean Sergeant.) Once you finally find him though, you find a remarkable and undeservedly little-known draughtsman. Born in London in 1937, he left the Royal Academy in 1962, taking the esteemed drawing prize with him, and began a career as a quietly brilliant artist. I was fortunate to come across his work by chance, finding a second-hand copy of his Recent Drawings in a shop. Being a sucker both for the second hand and for the recent, I paid up.
There are only around 30 images in the book, yet more than half are of the same subjects appear again and again. Across his selection of jewellery and haberdashery, his red shoes and tray of figs, the draw of Sergeant’s work, and of the book as a whole, is that he works in series, rather than sequence. In place of the collated culminations of prior attempts, each effort better than the last until eventually he got it ‘right’ and divided this finished product from its prototypes, we have multiple perspectives of the same object, each one a finished affinity to the next. In one series, two friendship rings are deconstructed, rearranged, and approached afresh from new angles (see here for pictures, and a poem that they prompted.) The metal hands welded to the band are manipulated over the course of their composition, made first to overlap then shown barely parted. When abstracted to still lives the images echo one another without any setting to illustrate the circumstances. The almost-touching palms could be reaching out as they are pulled apart, or could be urging themselves closer: though the connection is made for us, its exact nature is left to the imagination.
No doubt there were discarded attempts along the way. Each of the images in Recent Drawings is the result of parallel practices, worked towards their shared subject from different angles and elevations. As Sergeant wrote in the catalogue to one of his final solo exhibitions before his death in 2010,
‘I explore and scrutinize the subject back and front, sideways, this way and that to capture its essence.’
This scrutiny is key. Each variant of distance is an attempt to get closer to the object of study. But no hierarchy is established between them, and so any notion of the work’s wholeness or self-sufficiency is stunted, and each drawing tells us to look again, to look closer. The compulsion could be repeated to infinity, and although one might gather a richer overall picture, the box of buttons, the white shoes, the friendship ring would nonetheless continue to elude us. Sergeant goes on:
‘I find still life gives me the opportunity to try and exploit realism and abstraction at the same time.’
His reputation as a draughtsman is in part a recognition of his powers of realism. His ‘black boots in a box’ could be a photograph, and each piece’s title is similarly matter-of-fact. The series form again contributes to this. Sergeant’s assumption of an ‘essence’ that’s there to capture reads like triangulation: working in series is a project in gathering information until the missing piece can be inferred (one obituary describes his work explicitly as ‘a quest for information’). But at the same time each additional piece of information, each study in precision, further abstracts the subject from its reality. The source of the work is split – neither duplicated with the fidelity of mechanical reproduction, nor diluted down to derivative allusions, but refracted out to at once stand alone and in relation to its own alternative perspectives. Sergeant furthermore suspends his subjects in space. In those rare instances in which a shadow does betray a surface, it falls on a flat and anonymous one, the only remarkable feature being the noise of the ingres paper that Sergeant loved. This paper embodies the simple charm of his drawings: its richly coloured but blank backgrounds are like tinted silence.
Sergeant was not always a disciple of the still life. One of his first major commissions was to make a series of room-portraits at estates such as Castle Coole in Northern Ireland and Stowell Park in the Cotswolds. Sergeant has described how, while working, ostensibly insignificant details would demand his attention, and the grand spaces that housed them would pale into insignificance. His training in simplicity, then, had a remarkably surprisingly ornamental setting. In rooms like those, everything has its place. But in works like Sergeant’s, place is an irrelevance. The object is all, and for any sense of a ‘bigger picture’ the viewer must step back to the level of the book itself, which becomes a curated space for relations to be established. This might suddenly sounds not so different from a traditional narrative, except that Sergeant’s series invite these relations from the viewer as much as they dictate them through pagination and the final selection of works.
It’s a suspect quasi-academic commonplace to claim that x, y, or z ‘is a PRISM’ through which we see a, b, or c. More often than not these oracular undergraduate insights are perceived by means of ‘a TENSION between’ d, e, and f. What Sergeant’s series present us with are more like spectrums – scrutinise light and you notice red, blue, green, yellow, named and distinct; study it further and these begin to bleed into one another, though the strands remain visible. This ability to hold disparate affinities so close is the enviable reserve of visual media. The written sentence is too linear: sense demands that the writer of narrative move – however innovatively and engagingly – from subject to verb to object. Multiple perspectives can and have been set one after another, but each one must be given a space to establish itself before that next, other side to the story is told. The eye can meanwhile flit and focus in an instant, overlaying parallel examples with a speed and accuracy that delights in the smallest differences in the smallest details, and builds to far more than a sum of parts.