John Byrne Sitting Ducks

14 June – 19 October, Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

1-29 November, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery.

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John Byrne American Boy (Oil on Plywood, 1971).

I recently attended a talk by James Hall at the Inverness Book Festival promoting his latest work; The Self Portrait, A Cultural History and emerged incredibly incensed and frustrated. Much like the proliferation of selfies all over the net, the scope of the talk amounted to scratching at surfaces, the emphasis on narcissism, costumed props and the artist displaying their genius. When I look at a Rembrandt self-portrait I don’t see an artist proclaiming his genius to the world, although artistic genius is certainly present. What brings people to his work time and again is its honesty and humanity. The artist painted himself unrelentingly warts and all, vulnerable, aging and fallible. It is a face onto which we may project ourselves. What makes Rembrandt great is that in the self-portrait he transcends time and himself, he communicates the universality of human experience. To look at Albrecht Dürer’s famous self portrait of 1500 and see only a Christ- like figure completely misses the complexity and contradiction of the image. When I saw this work in Munich a few years ago after a lifetime seeing it in reproduction, what struck me most was the intimacy of scale and expression. It is invested with tremendous subtlety, a face conveying age in spite of youth and myriad of expression. The artist’s hand points resoundingly to the centre of his chest. It’s the ultimate “I am” statement by any artist or human being in any century, an image of self-determination and self -possession, resolute and uncompromising. Equally Dürer’s eyes communicate a deep sadness and knowing of the limitations of what it is to be human. It is simultaneously an image of divine aspiration and earth bound mortality, timeless in relevance.

When I had the pleasure of seeing John Byrne’s exhibition Sitting Ducks at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this week I also perceived an artist and a man, acutely aware of what complex and contradictory beings we are, both to ourselves and to each other. Typically Byrne caricatures himself in many of his self-portraits, he isn’t about celebrating himself but revealing all that we are by default. Some of the most beautiful works in the exhibition are also the most uneasy, ambiguous and unflattering.

In an early work Self Portrait with Red Palette (Oil and Acrylic on Plywood, 1974/5) Byrne’s flawless composition is matched with uncertainty. The diptych is an expanded space of vivid turquoise, the artist pushed into the right panel, steadfastly meeting the viewer’s gaze, red palette in one hand, cigarette in the other. The shadow cast by the figure is mirrored by the shadow of a black palette on the floor like another self, the edge of the palette disappearing tonally like the elusive nature of the painter’s art. A later work Self Portrait on White (Oil on Board, 2012) shows the artist pushed to the bottom of the frame, with what feels like a dead weight of white ground above. It is an image of self and of the human condition of aging, confrontational in its honesty, the exposure of white revealing strength, resilience and ultimate frailty.

John Byrne - Self Portrait on white

Self Portrait on White (Oil on Board, 2012).

In Self Portrait in Camouflage Jacket (2001) the artist’s face is emotionally in shadow, eyes rolled back heavenwards, two palettes hung round his neck like dog tags.  A white palette hangs in front while the other black, rectangular and smeared with paint hangs behind it, the whole image infused with conflict and vulnerability. The camouflage pattern merges with the recurrent motif of thorns, a snake coiled round the artist’s arm, his hand upturned in the foreground as if begging the viewer for human recognition. A pen pierces the artist’s breast, a tear in the flesh like the open wound of a confessional canvas, an internalised, psychological war being waged at cost to the individual. Awareness demanding its price. Byrne’s Self Portrait (Oil on Canvas, 1988) depicts a moment of reflection and distortion which lies at the heart of all portraiture, playing with certainties of self, painted object and genre in Magritte-like fashion in Ceci n’est pas un Auto PortraitThis is Not a Self Portrait (mixed Media on Paper 2003).

In his portraits Byrne demonstrates dazzling sensitivity and superb draughtsmanship. John With Saxophone (The Artist’s Son), (Graphite and Pencil on Paper, 1986), Celie Watching Television (the Artist’s Daughter), (Pastel on Paper, 1972) and Portrait of Honor, 19 May, (Pastel on Paper, 2001) are particularly fine examples. Standing in a dress of soft pink the watchful stare of the artist’s daughter feels like a person in the process of becoming, the outlines of her feet and large shoes spilling into the viewer’s space at the edge of the picture frame. It is a deeply personal and universal image of innocence and recognition. Has she just stopped crying? We can’t be certain, but we can see and feel a growth of awareness, a shift in perception- in the artist, the subject and in the mind of the viewer.

John Byrne - Honor

Portrait of Honor, 19 May (Pastel on Paper, 2001)

A Pair of Drawings; Honor and Monkey (Artist’s Daughter) and Xavier and Cat (Artist’s Son) (Watercolour and Crayon on Paper, 1999) return to a naïve handling of the figure seen in American Boy (Oil on Plywood, 1971). Both children are doll like, in oversized oriental costumed dress, half pyjamas, half ceremonial, flanked by hostile animals baring their teeth directly at the viewer’s gaze. As an image of childhood there is primitivism in the stage of development and in the treatment of the figure, the personalities of both children still being formed subject to immature, instinctual drives and emotions. They are fascinating drawings with a wealth of associations and ambiguities, lovingly observed in all their truth. The same may be said of Janine With Flowers (The Artist’s Wife) (Oil on Canvas, 2010) a Kahloesque vision where roses and thorns equally define the sitter.

Coinciding with Sitting Ducks at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Dead End at Bourne Fine Art, Dundas St, Edinburgh until 1st September celebrates Byrne’s prolific work and his unique, evolving iconography. In The Huntsman and the Snowy Owl (Casein on Paper) the figure appears blinded by the moon, pushed to the edge of the image, trying to see. Acidic yellow light illuminates the hollows of the uneven ground on which he stands, framed by a signature cloud and a bare, thorn like tree, at once brutal and poetic. In Big Selfie (Casein on Paper) Byrne’s age and experience are written in the hollows of his eyes, his still quizzical hair and smoke from his cigarette drawing elusive forms in the air. Unlike most selfies the image isn’t composed to flatter or project the ego of its maker for viral mass consumption. At 74 Byrne continues to do what he has always done, peering into the core of ourselves.

Short film introduction to the John Byrne Sitting Ducks exhibition featuring works referenced above:

 http://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/john-byrne/john-byrne-film

All images and film link by kind permission of the National Galleries of Scotland.

Eight Sculptors & Their Drawings

Eight Sculptors and their Drawings

15th August to 13th September , Kilmorack Gallery, by Beauly.

It is always exciting to see an exhibition that expands your ideas about what a medium can be. Eight Sculptors and their Drawings featuring work by Mary Bourne, Helen Denerley, Steve Dilworth, Leonie Gibbs, Lotte Glob, Gerald Laing, Will Maclean and George Wylie combines the immediacy of an artist’s first response with the permanence, distillation, monumentality and intimacy of multidimensional sculptural objects. The best works in the show move beyond sculpture/ the Art object and are very much about the living, creative act of making and experiencing work in more than three dimensions.

etchingLotte Glob’s etching “Walking the Faroese Cliffs” (Above) with its shaded chasms and figurative rock formations jutting into the sky feels like a timeless, primordial landscape. The strength of her drawings is consistent with her approach to ceramic sculpture; a fusion of elements drawn directly from the landscape, forged by water, earth, fire and air. “Walking the Faroese Cliffs” conveys the artist’s essential relationship with the landscape, the living skin of the earth and the knowing of countless generations. A suite of pastel and charcoal drawings; “Rocks Watching You”, “Boulder Land”, “Rocks Never Lie” and “Meeting on a Hillside” are infused with tremendous strength and vibrant energy. It is a joy to see the assured hand and unique vision of the artist resoundingly present in both her drawings and sculptural work. Glob’s fused books, created from raw elements from the land and ceramic are sealed shut from the eye but ever expansive in the imagination. “Book of the Bog People” is a particularly fine example which feels as though it has been excavated from the earth, encased in sediment millennia deep,tapping into a seam of collective memory. “Geologist’s Diary” evokes an entire landscape is its molten form of fused stones, mountains and lochs. Glob’s work powerfully communicates the multidimensional experience of being in the landscape; physically, spiritually, intellectually and emotionally, rather than merely seeing, owning or inhabiting it. Her work is a potent reminder of the power of natural forces and of human creativity as a source of connection and renewal.

Geologists-diary

Lotte Glob Geologist’s Diary(Mixed Media)

Steve Dilworth’s “Beaked Bird” (Bronze ed 2 of 5) is a beautifully balanced and poised structure of interlocking forms, both masculine and feminine. It is a seamless and sensual work, pivoting on ambiguity, the hollows and contours of form evocative of a seed or stage of evolution of some as yet undiscovered species. Dilworth transforms our conception of sculpture as an object with the act of making and seeing a transformative process. This can be sensed and felt in “Swift” (Harris Stone and Swift) an exquisitely crafted hand held sculptural object, mask and bird like in form and powerfully ritualistic in its centre of gravity. Hollows on the underside connect with your fingers, it is an object meant to be held with the weight at its core bound to the centre of the viewer/participant like a divining rod. The rhythmic asymmetry of its design and sweeping incised central curve are supremely elegant, engaging with flight of the imagination. The intimate scale of the object is monumental in its associations. It is birth, death and becoming in a single object, with the inner and outer forms of equal value and importance. The energies and origins of the artist’s chosen materials drawn from the landscape are held within.  It is wonderful to see the immediacy of the artist’s sketches nearby and the distillation of form and ideas realised in bronze and stone.

During an interview in 2006 when I asked what drew him initially to sculpture he replied; “I’m an atheist and an anti-theist. Art has replaced all of that spiritual side. So what it is to me is to try to make some sort of sense of what is a nonsensical place- of what we are. It is just exploring that and trying to understand. I don’t really see it as sculpture parse, but as objects and that’s what I make…For me the fantastic thing about making objects is that you’re making real things, they’re not about something, they’re not pretending to be something else, they are actually what they are- what it is in its entirety, whether you can see it or not.”

Beaked Bird

Steve Dilworth Beaked Bird (Bronze ed 2 of 5)

swift

Steve Dilworth Swift (Harris Stone and Swift)

A subtle and insightful artist, Mary Bourne’s “Many Moons” (Granite) are a moving sequence of form and light in gently contouring granite. The tonal exposure of light in carving the stone is part of this dynamic, each lunar phase providing a moment of contemplation and transition. “One Loch Two Days” (Granite) presents oblong bodies of water with the emotional weight of the choppy, turbulent surface of one and the smoothed calm of the other. These gestural marks in stone are mirrored in Bourne’s calligraphic ink drawings “Wood on Coreen Hills 1 & 2” which are striking in their simplicity and grace. Bourne conveys the movement of timeless elements with enviable economy.

Well known for her ingenious wildlife sculptures in scrap metal, drawing is an integral part of Helen Denerley’s practice. “Two Cows”, “Knee Study”, “Harris Hawk” (Charcoal) and “Female Nude” (Ink on paper) reveal her keen observation of line and form. In “Female Nude” Denerley reduces the figure to a few essential lines, communicating the attitude, character and physicality of the figure stripped back to its essential energetic core. It is a quality often to be found in her animal sculptures, which are fleshed out by the viewer led by line and small, finely tuned details that animate the structure. Rather than a solid body there is a space for the viewer to dive into, fuelled by the spirit and movement of the animal.

Like many of his box constructions Will Maclean’s “Barents Box” (Mixed Media) is a cabinet of human memory and inward navigation, composed of found objects many layers deep. Discarded materials and objects are enshrined and revealed in all their tactile beauty.  “Transom” (Mixed media) with fragments and objects embedded in the distressed surface of wood worn by time, human hands and the sea, is almost figurative in its three part structure; appearing like a standing figure with outstretched arms or wings. The white paint of the Plimsoll line anchors the object above and below, while the concave hollow at the centre feels like a space for the mind to dwell. “Black Vessel Foundering” (Mixed Media) simultaneously emerging out of and sinking into a heavy, black rectangular base is a vessel pared down and skeletal in form, with doll like torso’s embedded in the cross sections. It is a psychologically tense piece of work, anchored to a dark space of the viewer’s own imagining. Maclean’s expansively spartan drawing “Chief Officer’s Log” (Mixed Media) suspended on a ground of white, contains a fragment of history embedded in the surface of the drawing and  a trajectory of written text across the viewer’s horizon line. The circular focal point and outline of a submarine plumb depths of pure white.

Transom

Will Maclean Transom (Mixed Media)

Black-Vessel-foutdering

Will Maclean Black Vessel Foundering (Mixed Media)

Gerald Laing’s witty pencil on paper drawing “One more cup of coffee for I go” with just the legs and elegantly heeled feet of the female guest visible, pares down drawn lines to lead the viewer to a space beyond the page where we are free to imagine the sitter. “Studies for Dreaming” (Pencil drawing on paper) reveal Laing’s observant eye, distilled beautifully into the angular geometry of Galina VIII (Bronze, ed 4 of 10). “Hijacker”(1978, Bronze ed 5 of 10) is another intriguing work, both as an image of femininity and a reference to the militant Baader Meinhof group. “Twentieth Century Monument” (Bronze and Stainless Steel) feels like a mausoleum for Western Culture in its fusion of traditional bronze and industrial stainless steel.

Eight Sculptors and their Drawings is an exciting celebration of some of the country’s finest artists, each with their unique insights, energy and process. Far from the image of an elevated remote object on a plinth this show resoundingly presents a living art form of multiple dimensions.

All images by kind permission of Kilmorack Gallery www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk

 

Let’s start at the very beginning….

I remember when I was growing up being fortunate enough to live in a place with a state run Art Gallery, part of a cultural quarter in the centre of Perth, Western Australia. It was a large, modern building, a cool retreat from the blindingly hot summer and unforgiving light, spacious, expansive and full of exciting discoveries. You could walk in at any time and see a selection of Western Australian Artists, Australian Artists and the latest international touring blockbuster. In those walls I saw my first Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Albert Tucker, Charles Blackman and so many others.

One of the images that left its mark was Howard Taylor’s 1959 Double Self Portrait, an image that I kept being magnetically drawn to and still am. It is an arresting image, an uncompromising eternal stare and a frame within a frame for seeing the world. It introduced me to the idea of images as windows to the wider world and into ourselves. Whatever the medium and whatever the age, great Art alters our perception somehow. It’s what I hope for every time I go to a show, that spark of recognition and an expansion of what I thought I knew.

I hope that as this blog unfolds it will celebrate shifts in perception and unsung heroes; artists who help us see and discover the world anew, from blazing impasto canvases, cast bronze and painting with light, to the black out illumination of the cinema.

Howard Taylor Double Self Portrait 1959