AGES OF WONDER

SCOTLAND’S ART 1540 TO NOW

Collected by the Royal Scottish Academy

4 November – 7 January 2018, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh.

Mary Bourne RSA (b 1946) Dava Targe, Kilmartin Slate, 1994., RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 2009.

“Only when we recognise that we are heirs can we truly be pioneers” Martyn Bennett, Musician and Composer (1971-2005)

The visual language of Neoclassical columns, white marble, gilt and pediments adorned with statues usually infers learned authority, or the political need to project it. Architectural revivals of Golden Ages past are always about the power of knowledge and how it is used, for good or ill.  When visitors enter many Western public art spaces a powerful statement is communicated by the built environment and the institutions that occupy them, as arbiters of collective aspiration, education and good taste. On the surface the National Gallery of Scotland and Royal Scottish Academy buildings also display these loaded facades.  The underground link between the two is not immediately visible to the visitor, nor is the history of artist led advocacy that binds them and created a National Collection for Scotland. The 1910 accord which brought the RSA collection under the umbrella of the NGS is echoed in Ages of Wonder, an extensive exhibition occupying all seven upper galleries, sculpture court and four lower galleries in the prominent RSA building. Effectively reclaiming the whole space for Scottish Art past and present makes a powerful statement of its own.

Self Portrait (Oil on canvas, 1844) by Thomas Duncan RSA (1807-1845)

History and tradition are richly in evidence, reflecting centuries of masculine leadership and disciplinary hierarchies, but thankfully there is significantly more on display than the pomp of the Edinburgh Arts establishment. The guts of this show are the practice of Art and the necessity of making the work of Scottish Artists visible. On entering Gallery 7 Portraiture and Presidents for example, paintings of RSA presidents and their projected status are certainly part of the display, but equally so is the human Art of portraiture. It is an immense pleasure to discover works such as James Cowie’s quietly understated portrait of Miss Barbara Graham Cowie (Oil on plywood, 1938, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1946) or the intriguing man behind the presidency in Thomas Duncan’s RSA Self Portrait (Oil on canvas, 1844, Presented to the RSA by fifty Scottish artists, 1845, transferred and presented by the RSA to the NGS, 1910.) Emerging out of a pitch dark umber ground, channelling the introspective spirit of Rembrandt, we see the face of a man who we feel is not entirely without privilege, but also not without care. His prematurely receding hairline, high forehead and deep-set eyes are at one with the space he occupies. With his hand resting pensively below his chin, it’s an intellectual, charismatic vision of the self, dwarfed by the mysterious, ever-expanding depth of the canvas. His mouth contains the vaguest hint of a smile, concentrated in circular tension at either side of a mouth which is simultaneously straight and curvaceous. We feel there’s wit in that feint glimmer of a smile and that he might speak at any moment, having first greeted the viewer and met our gaze (and his mirrored self) with equal regard. The entire portrait suggests, independent of his white cuffs, signature ring and the century inhabited, that there is infinitely more to this man that what is illuminated by the posed three-quarter focus lighting. Being in the presence of this ageless 19th Century gentleman rendered in oils by his own hand, we see that we are not simply in the company of an office bearer, but an artist, demonstrating through his own crafted image that there is infinitely more to see. Like all great portraits Duncan’s conceals and reveals in unexpected ways.

There are many more gems in this show that bring Art practice centre stage and assert the value of making as an imperative. Curated by current Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) President Arthur Watson, RSA Collections Curator Sandy Wood and Honorary Academician Tom Normand, Ages of Wonder is a collaborative project of unprecedented scale. Arranged thematically by subject and discipline, the exhibition is also defined by live events, touring elements, a collecting symposium, an exhibition catalogue and book of essays. Created in partnership with the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA), National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Dundee, it’s an exhibition brimming with possibilities in terms of how we might perceive and celebrate Scottish Art differently. At the heart of the show is the question of how our national collections are valued, conserved, expanded, utilised and shared, locally, nationally and internationally. The question of how we value artists as a society and the nature of what we choose to build also underpin that potential.

Thomas Hamilton RSA (1754-1858) Design for the Royal High School , (Watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper, about 1825-30, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1831)

The “two temples of Art” on The Mound were both designed by William Henry Playfair RSA (1789-1857) at a time when the city was reimagining itself. Between ancient “Civilization” and the progressively Modern, it’s an architectural vision of the “Athens of the North” with Edinburgh at the centre of European Enlightenment. Playfair’s contemporary, Thomas Hamilton RSA (1754-1858) also reflects this idea in his Greek Revival design for The Royal High School, Edinburgh, (Watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper, about 1825-30, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1831). Hamilton’s delicate watercolour imagines a seat of learning, defined by Neoclassical sureties and a warm Mediterranean palette of forward thinking optimism. This vision of the city has its roots in the glories and mythologies of an ancient past. Taking Gallery 6 of Ages of Wonder as an example; Architecture: Hamilton, Playfair and the Making of Edinburgh certainly makes an aspirational statement about how we reimagine our collective selves within a built environment. Although firmly anchored to where the viewer stands, among the drawings, paintings, models, photographs and other archival material on display there is also a less site specific, universal and transcendent creative drive at work. In the same gallery, William H Kinnloch’s 1978 design for a house at 46 Dick Place is a fine example of a very beautifully drafted, fluidly executed watercolour, unlikely to be part of an architect’s working process today. There’s essential tension between practical, ideological and institutional elements of the show which are ripe for debate. My hope is that rather than alignment with the colonnade, the creative core of the show will be a catalyst for future collaborative events and new ways of seeing Scottish Art. There is a golden opportunity, particularly within the live elements of the exhibition, to redefine the relevance of cultural institutions, their function and the value of Art practice in the 21st Century.

Beth L Fisher RSA Burial II (Conte and charcoal on paper, 2006. RSA Diploma Collection Deposit. 2006).

Ironically the traditional techniques, training and sensitivity found in The Life School: Drawing, Anatomy and the Figure in Gallery 1, are principles that popular culture and art colleges throughout the country have largely abandoned. In this wonderous, “connected” age of technology, you would be hard pressed to find a more moving, empathic expression of grief than the rendering of human figures in Beth L Fisher’s RSA Burial II (Conte and charcoal on paper, 2006. RSA Diploma Collection Deposit. 2006). On the opposite wall Samuel John Peploe’s RSA Female Nude with Pitcher (Oil on canvas, 1895, RSA Life School Award Deposit 1895) is an equally illuminating realisation of the Feminine. Standing in the Life School Gallery seeing works like these, the Laing Bequest of Old Master drawings, the spirit of enquiry in Andrea Vesalius’s etched plates and a live Life Class taking place, it is easy to see why what is not being taught is in such increasing high demand. The RSA has always been a teaching institution and this live element is a very promising initiative. Selected students will be working directly from the model, under the guidance of tutors John Byrne, George Donald, Jennifer McRae and Robert Rivers, weekly for the duration of the show. Contemporary innovation, in terms of making and seeing, is dependent on deeper understanding of artistic discipline. Imaginative freedom, individually and collectively, is impossible without it.

Elements like the live Life School and Professor Dame Sue Black’s DBE, FRSE, HRSA lecture on Art and Anatomy give valuable insight into the practice of Art and Science that many visitors (unless they are practitioners themselves) will be unfamiliar with. The focus on Original Print and the Art of Etching in the Finlay Room also features live events with artists Frances Walker, Stuart Duffin, Paul Furneaux, Delia Baille, Marion Smith and Jessica Harrison creating work on “ES Lumsden’s historic star wheel printing press (the first piece of machinery to enter the Academy’s collections)”. Leading into The Art of Etching section, the supreme skill and artistry of John Martin’s (HRSA) apocalyptic mezzotints, with the hand of the artist present from conception to completion is another unexpected highlight. The printmaking and Life School elements of the exhibition will tour in 2018/19, extending the reach of the show beyond the capital. Hopefully this will also stimulate revival of the radical practice, established between 1840 -1932 when academicians, or “visitors”, taught in an RSA operated Life School. Although the idea of “an independent post graduate facility for elite art students” requires examination of the qualifiers, recognising and utilising the knowledge, skills and expertise of professional artists as a national asset is long overdue. Established in 1829, the RSA remains the longest established artist-run society in the country. In terms of political leadership, Art Education, training and investment in creative process it is a vital resource and a foundation of advocacy.

Image of RSA Ages of Wonder Exhibition ,Sculpture Court, The Keith Rand Gift: A Depth of Practice, Photograph courtesy of RSA Press Office.

Viewers may be diverted or overwhelmed by elements such as the 19th Century Academy: A Victorian Eye Salon hanging of works in Gallery 3. Stepping into this space with its sumptuous walls of deep claret and green velvet adjoining couches for cultivated conversation in the centre, there was also the very humorous touch at the press view of 21st Century dandy/ artist/ practitioner John Byrne being interviewed amidst the loaded hierarchy of Masters hung from floor to ceiling.  However, being temporarily dazzled by the sheer weight and density of tradition or artist as celebrity still doesn’t trump the grounded practice and connectivity of Art, driven by our innate curiosity as a species and our profound need to understand. In the Sculpture Court, The Keith Rand Gift: A Depth of Practice displays some of the contents of his studio gifted to the RSA, including drawings, inspirational organic objects, handmade tools, macquettes and full-scale works, giving insight into Rand’s thought process and crafting of objects. Part of this display is a leaf, an object from the natural world that is instantly relatable regardless of the viewer’s education or background. The visitor free associates between these man-made objects and those from the natural world, rather than receiving explanation via a label about a designated Art object. In this way we are brought into direct contact with creative process, the individual artist’s and our own.

Detail of Richard Murphy’s Wunderkammer – “a new cabinet of curiosities”. Photograph courtesy of RSA Press Office.

Richard Murphy’s Wunderkammer “a new cabinet of curiosities” featuring rare books, sculpture, objects, photographs and digital Turning the Pages software is a brilliant manifestation of this principle of creative connectivity and sense of ownership. The RSA library may seem like a scholarly and remote repository but here a contemporary commission transforms what we think such a collection can be. Beautifully sleek, designed to be viewed from every angle and lit for illumination of each unique piece, the alluring three-dimensional framing invites you to come closer and be curious. Exploring the contents and the imaginative connectivity of objects across time presents a less linear view of collections /collecting and for the viewer there is freedom in that fluidity. Drawing inspiration from architect Sir John Soane’s (HRSA) donation to the RSA library in 1829 and his extraordinary London home (now a museum and itself a cabinet of wonders, well worth visiting) the juxtaposition of objects is a constant source of surprise as you move around the 21st Century cabinet. Jewel-like enamels by Phoebe Anna Traquair, an elemental watercolour on parchment From the Red Cabinet (2001) by Kate Whiteford, Hew Martin Lorimer’s small bronze Our Lady of the Isles (about 1954-1972) and a printed book bound in the publisher’s original paper (1826) of William Blake’s Illustrations for the Book of Job are just some of the treasures within and thankfully out of storage.

Sir James Guthrie PRSA Midsummer (Oil on canvas, 1892) RSA Diploma Collection Deposit 1893,

Other contemporary commissions also lead into historical works on display in surprising ways. Adjacent to Kenny Hunter’s four part bust of Sir James Guthrie PRSA is the artist’s glorious celebration of light in Midsummer (Oil on canvas, 1890) in bold, dappled impasto and a living palette of vivid green and purple. Seated beneath a low canopy of trees, three women are drinking tea, each inhabiting their own world despite the appearance of society. The combination of light and shadow brings unexpected emphasis on the inner world of each sitter, beyond the aesthetic comfort of an Impressionistic style. Hunter picks up Guthrie’s inner palette in the split sections of the portrait bust, suggesting various aspects of personality beyond the public persona.

Frances Walker RSA RSW DLitt. (b1930) Foreshore at Footdee (Oil on board, 1980)

Strangely, Gallery 4 The 21st Century: A Contemporary Academy left me feeling rather cold and dispassionate in comparison to the works of living artists relegated to the 20th Century A Nationwide Gallery (Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, The Highlands and Northern Isles) in Gallery 5. Frances Walker’s Foreshore at Footdee (Oil on board, 1980) is a fine example, a supremely balanced composition of subtle greys, accented with orange, pink and green. It’s a potent statement, 37 years ahead of its time with large boulders, lumps of concrete and smoothed pebbles, punctuated by manmade detritus. The eye is drawn to human interventions and signs of industrialisation, a plastic bottle and white traces of rope or wire. The scale of transformation along the eroding shoreline dwarfs the only visible human figure silhouette in the distance, whilst the high horizon line is populated with industrial buildings. Walker’s work is informed by the tracery of human marks upon the Northern landscape. The sea is rendered as a rhythmic pattern of white lines on mid grey, drawing the viewer into the detail of a place lived and observed. The organic erosion of wind and waves is tempered with industrial paint colours in a complex dynamic of realism. This is the very altered land and seascape of the Highlands, Islands and North East of Scotland, striking in its immediacy and contemporary relevance.

Joyce W Cairns RSA RSW Hon RBA MA(RCA), Polish Journey (Oil on board, about 1998-99, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1999)

Also featured in the same room is a work by Joyce W Cairns RSA RSW Hon RBA MA(RCA), Polish Journey (Oil on board, about 1998-99, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1999), linked to one of the most important bodies of work ever created by any Scottish or UK Artist, War Tourist. Over a decade in the making, this extraordinary body of work was exhibited at the Aberdeen Art Gallery from 10th February to 8th April 2006 and has yet to be shown elsewhere. It is a response to war that began with the artist retracing her Father’s experiences in WWII through Europe and North Africa, leading her to Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Poland and to the contemporary experience of televised warfare seen during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), where ethnic and religious conflicts again resulted in genocide. Her meditations on major international conflicts and experience of wartime on the home front often incorporate everyday objects of remembrance. There is no other artist in the country who paints large scale figurative compositions with such skill, power and compassion. Inspired by German artists such as Dix and Beckmann whilst still a student, equalling their precision and emotional gravitas, her work is richly expressive and dreamlike in its evocation of human memory.

In Polish Journey we see a semi-autobiographical female protagonist wearing an image of the artist’s father around her neck. Her sallow skin appears stained by the knowledge leaching out of yellow cloth printed with the Star of David, used to mark and condemn Jewish victims of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. This bundle of industrially printed cloth is a chilling indicator of scale and over it is a wreath of poppies “In Remembrance”. The psychological stain on the soul in seeing sites of starvation, misery and mass murder is coupled with the solemnity of her expression and a tellingly composite uniform. The stitching of HMS Ark Royal, a modern invincible class navy flagship, grey military coat with black and red trim, German belt bearing a swastika and striped skirt aligned with the material draped like a proscenium arch above the scene, brings together the human fabric of all wars. The oppressors, the oppressed and liberating forces can transform into each other during wartime with astonishing speed and righteous self-justification. There is often a sense of the Feminine protagonist or witness in Cairns’ paintings, taking on this mantle of human shame, atrocity and bravery, enabling successive generations to see and acknowledge what we are and what we are capable of. In Cairns’ work human creation and destruction are equally present. The arrangement of other objects in the composition are an interrogation of commercial and domestic complicity hidden in plain sight. Cairn’s flips the idea of the benign, traditionally feminine still life genre completely on its head by combining it with the traditionally masculine dominance and authority of History Painting. The presence of a Zyklon B Tesch & Stabenov canister, a company who produced pest control chemicals and were implicated as suppliers to Nazi Death camps at the Nuremberg trials, is a powerful reminder of how ordinary people actively participate in persecution and genocide. Around the central figure three dolls are suspended as if hung, one in striped camp uniform is labelled with a number, another with a suitcase resembling a child arriving off a train with her name “Klara Sarah Goldstein” chalked onto her luggage. Broken dolls are part of the trajectory that projects into the viewer’s foreground. We can’t comfortably relegate this image to history or as a distant memorial, because in human terms it is ever present, absorbed into the steely blue and cadmium red palette of conflicted Nature that we are as human beings. Cairn’s deconstructs this with the passionate impetus of Expressionism and the pure compositional order of Abstraction. She is yet another artist, based predominantly in the North of Scotland for much of her career, long overdue for a major national retrospective. In contrast to the exposure afforded her male contemporaries its an oversight that needs to be rectified and perhaps the collaborative nature of this exhibition will enable that to happen. The positioning of some artists in the show, or their absence from the national collection altogether, is worthy cause for further debate. From the display of a single painting to wider acknowledgement, placing the work of our greatest living artists on a global stage is entirely possible. In Cairns’ case, I can think of no better time for an international collaboration exploring her connections with the confrontational Neue Sachlichkeit/ New Objectivity of Weimar Germany and the contemporary relevance of her practice in a “Post Truth” world.

What I took away from this exhibition was excitement in seeing human “curiosity and practice” in action, a positive statement of value in relation to Scottish Art made visible and the possibility of future investment and collaboration. Although there is more work to be done before our National Collections adequately reflect important work by Scottish Artists throughout the country, this exhibition is a significant step forwards in terms of Scottish Visual Culture entering public consciousness. The decision to make the exhibition free, therefore accessible and able to be visited multiple times is exactly as it should be, both for residents and visitors. Perhaps Ages of Wonder will also pave the way for a more balanced permanent display of Scottish Art in the capital and wider circulation of works from the National Collection around the country. People cannot discover, champion, love or be inspired by what is hidden.

www.royalscottishacademy.org

www.nationalgalleries.org

#AgesofWonder

15th Inverness Film Festival

November Directed by Rainer Sarnet

8-12 November, Eden Court Cinemas

“Film was born of an explosive.” Bill Morrison, Dawson City: Frozen Time

Over the last decade Inverness Film Festival has become a primary source of inspiration and discovery in the UK cultural calendar. It’s a festival that shows me the world within worlds, where the curation is exceptional and my only regret in taking time off to be there is not being able to watch all of it!  This year’s IFF Audience Award went to The Disaster Artist, directed and starring James Franco. In second place was Nicolas Vanier’s School of Life, screened in association with the French Film Festival UK, and in third place Just Charlie, one of the debut selection of films chosen by the Eden Court Young Programmer’s group. I saw none of the above, but with over 60 screenings and events over 4 days and 5 nights, tough choices had to be made! As usual I gravitated towards the more obscure, because for me that’s what film festivals are for- exposure to World Cinema of all ages that you’re unlikely see anywhere else. This year’s highlights were many and varied, but they all had their own spark of ignition in altering my perception. Each of them in their own way reminded me of what I value most in cinema as a medium for expanded awareness and potential change. I very much hope that all of these remarkable films will be picked up by other festivals and distributors, so that many more people in the UK and beyond will have the chance to see them.

Dede Directed by Mariam Khatchvani

The Scottish premiere of Director Mariam Khatchvani’s Dede brought the audience face to face with the question of cultural traditions, “those we need to carry forward and others which need to be left behind”. The story on one level is deeply personal and intimately connected to the filmmaker’s family history, but it is also universal in its themes of gender equality, personal freedom, self-determination and human rights.  The film is set in a truly breath-taking landscape of cultural and historical convergence, filmed in the UNESCO heritage site of Svaneti, Georgia, within the southern Greater Caucasus mountain range, bordering with Russia. There’s a powerful sense that the “Mother” of the translated title is present in these mountains. Images of human scale in relation to Nature suggest alternative ways of perceiving and honouring power, contrary to traditional, patriarchal structures of dominance and control. The film follows the story of Dina, a young woman who courageously resists a forced marriage and the will of her male elders to elope with the man she loves. However, her rightful pursuit of happiness comes at enormous personal cost, in a community governed by masculine pride and entitlement, played out in vengeful blood feuds.  As the audience discovered during the post-screening Q&A with Assistant Director and Casting Director Tamar Khatchvani, although bride kidnapping is no longer practised, the film is based on a true story from the not so distant past. As result there is a real sense of experience within living memory, translated in the very natural performances of the entire cast of non-actors. Everyone on screen is from the same village and as the region has opened to tourism, there have been cultural gains and losses for everyone involved.

The Scottish premiere of EXLIBRIS: New York City Public Library, provides an extensive view of this community orientated organisation and its wide-ranging activities. Directed by honorary Oscar winner and documentarian Frederick Wiseman, the film highlights inequality in contemporary America and the wider world. Rather than being a repository for books, it is a network of learning centres providing after school support, free access to the internet for thousands of citizens who cannot afford it, literacy and maths classes, English classes for immigrants, public discussions with authors, music concerts and performance poetry readings. The range and scope of activity is staggering. In many ways the library is spearheading the city’s response to social problems created by people falling through the cracks of government policy, or being left behind by an ever changing technologically driven world. At 197 mins long, it is an epic by mainstream feature documentary standards, but the wider implications of the link between knowledge, power and politics justify the exploration. Exposing universal social problems and working towards solutions through educational empowerment, both the library and the film are a means advocacy for the most vulnerable in society. Within the NYCPL collections are the words, actions and images of ancestors, leaders and artists, providing inspiration for new creative work and a space for reflection, thought and connection. It is a shame that many libraries in the UK that have been closed or are threatened with closure could not be perceived and utilised in such a vital way- as invaluable, enriching and ultimately money saving community resources.

Happy End Directed by Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke’s new film Happy End, nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and starring Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz and Toby Jones, places a self-absorbed bourgeois family under the microscope. In typical Haneke fashion there’s gallows humour, the disquieting exposure of uncomfortable truths and familial disfunction, run through with the family’s total blindness to the refugee crisis unfolding in their home city of Calais. It’s a film revealing respectable middle-class indifference to the suffering of others and the luxury of pursing a Happy End in life and death. An even more extreme vision of family life came in the form of IFF’s preview screening of The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth 2009, Alps 2011 and The Lobster 2015) has made a career out of eviscerating the traditional family unit, middle class respectability, aspirations and patriarchal power. Lanthimos excels in cinematic immersion, creating highly critical microcosms aided by his regular collaborator, cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis. The opening scene in close up of open heart surgery, with its bloody exposure of flesh juxtaposed with swathes of cold blue, sets the emotional and intellectual tone of this powerful revenge thriller. The cast including Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan are excellent, ably communicating the horror, absurdity and hypocrisy of a contemporary, upwardly mobile family, with its roots firmly planted in Greek tragedy. The visuals and sound design, from the classical exposition to increasingly visceral, blended sound effects, is highly effective in placing the viewer in a progressive state of unease. As we discover what lies at the heart of the characters, the veneer of the perfect family unit starts to dissolve. Notions of professional success, wealth and power are scraped at like bone until it shatters, transforming the story into a parable of the human soul. Teenage boy Martin’s (Koeghan) eye for an eye demand for justice from Farrell’s passionless, negligent surgeon gathers the momentum of a pact. True to form Lanthimos puts the morality, ethics, loyalty, family bonds of his characters and the very fabric of society to the test. In many ways Martin is a willful agent of chaos, much like the Devil himself in banal, seemingly innocuous contemporary dress. Whether you like or loathe Lanthimos’s vision, I guarantee you will be thinking about The Killing of a Sacred Deer long after you’ve seen it.

Dark River by Director Clio Bernard

The alternative opening night double bill of Dark River and Loveless (Nelyubov) delivered an incredibly strong first night. In Dark River UK director Clio Bernard (The Arbor, The Selfish Giant) creates a world where human emotion and the natural world are essentially entwined.  Ruth Wilson’s central performance carries the film, bringing tremendous strength, vulnerability and subtlety to a character she inhabits completely. Following a 15-year absence and the death of her Father (Sean Bean), Alice’s return to the failing family farm triggers confrontation with an undertow of memory and with her volatile brother Joe (Mark Stanley). Bernard brings a real physicality to the experience of memory, carried in the body, effectively using sound design, elements of the countryside and flashbacks to humanely lay the familial backstory bare. She submerges the viewer in Alice’s lived experience, suspended in the cold, dark water of the swimming hole, buried in the deep, layered earth of the rain cleansed Yorkshire Moors and in knife-edged moments of conflict inside the emotional rabbit warren of the family home. As a filmmaker she’s a Master of the great unsaid, handling the most insidious of emotions, guilt and shame, with empathy, skill and compassion. It’s a film about betrayal of the worst kind, the pure bond between siblings and the fragility of rural life in decline. Although the plot does become a little stretched by the end of the film, it’s an impressive addition to Bernard’s work, cementing her status as an emerging voice in British Cinema.

Loveless (Nelyubov) Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan was one of my favourite films at IFF 2014, so I had very high hopes for the director’s latest release Loveless (Nelyubov). The film has won several awards on the European festival circuit already, including the 2017 Jury Prize at Cannes, Best Film at the London Film Festival and Best International Film at the Munich Film Festival. The global scope, sheer artistry and potent relevance of this film exceeded all my expectations. Loveless is an eloquent, gut wrenching and highly observant film, examining the microcosm of a family splitting apart. It is also a reflection of increasing political, social and class divisions within Ukraine, a history of conflict and invasion from “Mother” Russia and indicative of a wider global crisis. Entrenched in the territorial battleground of a bitter divorce, Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are instantly unlikeable characters, narcissistic, petty, spiteful and utterly indifferent to the child they have together. Their primary concern is injuring each other and tending their own needs. Still cohabiting while they try to sell their apartment, the tension and fighting escalate, with their 13-year-old son Alyosha caught between his parents, neither of whom want him. Despite their relatively comfortable lives and upwardly mobile status, their cruel behavior immediately calls into question the idea of advantage and their ability to nurture anything. Although they have seemingly moved on with different partners, whenever we see scenes of intimacy they are driven to negation by selfishness, insecurity, neediness and immaturity. This is visibly compounded by the reliance on self-validation through technology as part of the whole, relentless drive of getting ahead. During the film our sympathy shifts as we are shown that this isn’t because they are inherently bad people. As we see when we meet Zhenya’s annihilating Mother, generations of enforced conformity, the rigidity of church and dictatorial state control have also had a significant role to play in creating a collective state of misery, unrealised and unrecognized human potential.  The infiltration of Western capitalist values, widening economic divide between rich and poor and pitching the false dream of democracy as the freedom to buy things is just as emotionally hollow. Both Boris and Zheyna resent their life choices and blame each other for them, but having never learnt to love or be loved they remain in a childlike, reactive state, unable to grow.

However, the most urgent casualty in this disintegrating marriage is their son and the upcoming generation he represents. As his parents abdicate responsibility in earshot, loudly negating his existence as nothing but an inconvenient mistake, he seeks refuge in a woodland near their apartment block. There is a real sense in these natural images, becoming progressively colder and emotively snowbound, of Nature bearing witness to the unfolding human drama. The camera lingers in the hollows of trees and the earth like it is searching for an answer, not just to the boy’s disappearance but to the loss of self, identity and purpose in life.  Although he has little screen time, Matvey Novikov’s performance as Alyosha is heartbreaking, exemplified in his physical and mental anguish in a brief scene where his mother storms into the bathroom following an argument, not even registering that he’s been right there, the whole time, absorbing every poisonous, self-depreciating word. Although it is a bleak vision of human relationships, diminished capacity and 21st Century empathy deficit, the ambiguity of Alyosha’s disappearance and the small army of dedicated volunteers, who have no self interest in trying to find him, is a definite ray of hope. There is a sense of mobilisation in this group of people, who witnessing the all too common occurrence of children running away or going missing, step in when the police/ state fails to find them. We see compassionate, practical action as a counterfoil to the useless blind cult of “What about ME?!” in a crisis, seen in Boris’s pregnant girlfriend’s reaction to him prioritising finding his missing child above spending time with her. She’s yet another adult nowhere near being emotionally developed enough to support the child she’s carrying. We sense that seeking love and self-worth through vanity, shopping, social status and endless selfies will be what is passed on to the next generation, together with an empty hole in the heart that all those things, including having a child, are attempting to fill. I loved the honesty, tenacity and vision of this film in acknowledging what is a global/ psychological crisis of lovelessness. The film may be set in Kiev and center on a single family, but the dynamics of care and its absence are everywhere. This film is a brilliant touchstone to begin to examine and challenge the soul-destroying dominance of the latter. Loveless is a thoughtful, essential film scheduled for wider release in the UK early in 2018.

The Woman He Scorned (1929) Directed by Paul Czinner

Another festival favourite was the little known British Silent Film The Woman He Scorned (1929), also known as The Way of Lost Souls, with a live improvised score by one of the world’s finest Silent Film accompanists, Stephen Horne.  Channelling the film through piano, accordion, flute, Bereney thumb piano and imaginative silence, this was the best possible introduction to a film that I suspect none of the audience (including myself) had seen. What separates Horne from other accompanists is his emotional intelligence, understanding of film as a medium and great skill as a musician. The ability to faithfully serve the story and interpret its characters with care and sensitivity is comparably rare and the audience were treated to a unique performance of the highest calibre. Directed by Paul Czinner and starring Pola Negri, Warwick Ward and Hans Rehmann, the story of a prostitute in a small coastal town and her relationship with a lighthouse keeper was reinterpreted for a contemporary audience in beautifully nuanced and unexpected ways. Although the title and brochure description alluded to puritanical morality and high melodrama, what Horne brought to the film was infinitely subtler, resisting cliché, drawing out the inner psychology of characters and illuminating the complexity, joy and anguish of what it is to be human. At the heart of the film is Pola Negri’s central performance which defies the stereotypical Vamp/ Femme Fatale in its range, a quality amplified with depth and feeling by the accompaniment. The ballsy bravado of Dance Hall solo piano, sharp, sassy Tango on accordion and its descent into chaotic dissonance, articulated beautifully that “the Vamp” is a performance. What we discover as the story unfolds is the heroine’s real vulnerability, due in no small part to how sound informs what we see in the moment. This musical elevation of character, above the narrow moral codes and judgements of the day, enhances our perception that this is a fallible human being we can all relate to. Horne excels at this kind of musical insight, exemplified in his score / live performance of Stella Dallas (1925), commissioned by the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film in 2016.

In The Woman He Scorned we see a female protagonist trying to take control of her life and rise above dismal circumstances, triggered by a single act of kindness. At base Louise (Negri) is a working girl under the violent control of her pimp and the ever-present threat of destitution, a pariah in the eyes of society. Although John (Rehmann) first judges and rejects her, he later intervenes on her behalf and then takes her in, in an act framed in his mind as Christian charity. Louise’s attempts to navigate care and kindness she’s never been shown before and escape her past are incredibly poignant, heightened by the instrumentation. As she starts to take her place in village life, these first fragile steps of acceptance are communicated in all their delicacy by the ethereal sound of the flute. She metaphorically removes her makeup, beholds herself in the mirror and begins to see herself differently. The musical interpretation of the scene articulates how vulnerable she is in that tentative, blossoming sound, created with life’s breath. Horne’s accompaniment succeeds in portraying the character rising above societal/ biblical branding of a “whore”, which the character herself has taken on board and musically frees her soul before our eyes. This audience investment in the central character intensifies the drama and emotional impact of what follows. We are not just watching, but feeling the character’s predicament, internalised through the immediacy of sound. We want John to believe Louise because we have come to believe in her, with no persuasion through spoken dialogue at all. What we experience as a contemporary audience isn’t Silent Film as a historical relic, but as a living, breathing, universal artform that crosses all borders of culture and language. In establishing that timeless connection with such consummate skill, you really could not ask for more from a live cinema experience.

The variety of sound and pairing of instruments in Horne’s performances are always a source of surprise and discovery. Instruments are often played simultaneously, one in each hand, and in this performance the isolated use of human voice, a sampled element introduced from the original film soundtrack, brought past and present together.  Fully embracing the cut to a mesmerising sequence of suspended time in the wedding scene, the strange, percussive echo of the thumb harp created a hollow for the audience’s imagination to fill. The full sonic range of instruments from the interior strings of the piano to the otherworldly sound of the thumb harp, half way between dreaming and waking have a spatial quality, together with a sense of fluidity and movement. This is both physical and psychological, from the deep undertow of ocean waves, to the intimacy of John soothing Louise by stroking her hair, the accompaniment brought the audience closer to emotional core of each scene. The beauty of the Silent Film accompanist’s Art ultimately lies in being faithful to every compositional frame experienced in real time and achieving a state altered perception in the half light of the flicker, energy which translates directly to the audience’s live experience. It’s the difference between performing music on top a film and living it, both for the artist and the audience. As John stands on the shore in the final frames, sound divides like shards, mirrored by the accompanist’s hands physically divided between the upper and lower register of the piano. In that building temple of sound and consciousness we understand what has been lost, not just in terms of the individual character, but in the context of human judgement. Like the folkloric suggestion of drowned human souls, seen in the flock of gulls hovering over the sea in the very last frame, The Way of Lost Souls is collectively ours. The level of communication achieved with music and moving images as equal partners, created something truly magical and transformative, as only a live cinema experience in the hands of a master accompanist can.

78 / 52 Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

Following his illustrated talk, the Last Silent Picture Show, Geoff Brown introduced The Woman He Scorned in the context of the British film industry circa 1929, during the changeover from Silent Film to Sound. Brown’s talk also gave valuable insight into Alfred Hitchcock’s development as a director in his discussion of the Silent and early sound versions of Blackmail (1929).  As an important precursor to the director’s mature work, Brown’s talk also had relevance to the screening of Director Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78 / 52.  This fantastic documentary explores one of the most revolutionary scenes in cinema history on multitude of levels. Breaking down the set ups and cuts in Hitchcock’s shower scene from Psycho (1960) might sound like the preserve of film students and cinema nerds, but there is infinitely more at work in Hitchcock’s films than just technique. 78/ 52 honors and celebrates that genre defining richness. At the heart of it all is Hitchcock the flawed human being, shaped by Victorian values, Catholic morality and his vision of a cruelly indifferent God, becoming the hand of the director. Today we take the crafting of suspense on film totally for granted as part of mainstream Popular Culture, so much so that it has become parody. What I loved about this film were the different perspectives on this watershed moment in cinema, the profound effect it had on audiences at the time and how it still affects and inspires filmmaking today. Even more than that, it made me want to watch the original film again, igniting the hope that post Scream franchise generations will perhaps find their way back to the original “master of suspense.”

Significantly Hitchcock cut his directorial teeth in the Silent Era and who he was is expressed in interesting ways through his films. 78/52 touches on his personal obsessions, the critical and competitive nature of his work and the wider political, social and cultural landscape of 1950’s and early 60’s America. Whilst it is an analytical film and we hear from many professional filmmakers, it is also a film about the psychology of fear, which in an age of the Trump administration feels particularly ripe for exploration. Psycho is a deeply subversive film on multiple levels and this documentary is a timely reminder of the value of artistic subversion. Made “in defiance of Hollywood” and its code of censorship, Hitchcock kills off the box office gold leading lady early, invades the sanctity and safety domesticity and transforms the concept of “Mother” into something truly monstrous, reflecting that which is carried within. Psycho also represents, as Director/ Interviewee Peter Bogdonovich points out, “the first time” that the naked “female body comes under attack” likening the effect of watching the film to an act of rape. It’s debatable whether a contemporary audience, saturated with images of violence to the point of anesthesia, can really appreciate the true Horror the film engendered, lessening the revolutionary nature of that moment. At the time of release people were viscerally screaming in shock, something I have yet to see in a contemporary cinema. Like Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” analogy, we should never confuse a simple cinematic explosion wired for entertainment with the heightened anticipation of being told a bomb is going to go off, effectively placing the audience in the position of waiting for the inevitable. Hitchcock sets the audience up for confrontation with their own sense of death or punishment. His refined craft of suspense is a devilish, manipulative art and the “order and chaos” of that “magic act” is something Hitchcock understood completely. As an agent of the darker sides of human nature he is an extremely interesting director whose work will always have primal resonance. As the documentary commentary points out, he plays with audience expectation and makes us work, imagination infilling what we think we see projected on screen. The genius of the shower scene in Psycho in breaking rules, aligning natural sound, music, image and point of view remains breathtaking, affirming what a beautiful, terrible thing the human mind can be.

Dawson City: Frozen Time Directed by Bill Morrison

Director Bill Morrison has a gift for transforming fragmentary archival material into visual poetry. In Decasia (2002) Morrison created a celebratory Memento Mori, crafting decaying film stock into a mesmerising, meditative vision of humanity attempting to outlive itself through Art. The purity of moving images and a symphonic score, with viewers free to make their own associations, was not only refreshing in its use of raw material, but created a sense of sublime beauty in physical decay. Our essential connection to highly fragile, combustible celluloid nitrate is explored on multiple levels in his extraordinarily moving latest film Dawson City: Frozen Time which had its Scottish premiere screening at IFF. Here Morrison moves into more mainstream documentary territory, with commentary delivered entirely in text form rather than voiceover. As in all great Silent storytelling, he creates connective space between the lines for the viewer’s mind to inhabit, exploring different thematic threads on their own terms. This is a film about the memory, history and dreams held in each precious frame of film as lived experience, memorial and portal. This documentary feels very timely in an age where technological progress increasingly urges us as a society to shed the old and embrace the new via the latest upgrade. The question of what we conserve, what we lose, who makes that decision (if it is even conscious) and why, in relation to the back catalogue of World Cinema, has barely been considered. The fact remains that film is still the most tangible, stable material we have, nobody has invented a means of digital storage that equals it in terms of conservation. Morrison subtly reflects that truth in a world that urgently needs to take stock of itself and reveals that film is the very stuff we are made of in the process.

The story of 533 nitrate film prints dating from the 1910s – 1920s discovered in 1978, buried as landfill beneath an ice hockey rink, encompasses forces at work in the wider world today that have never been more urgently relevant. The history of Dawson city as a Klondike Gold Rush town is about human displacement, the decimation and endurance of First Nations cultures, the rise of capitalism becoming corporate rule by the few, the destruction of the environment for profit and the perpetual lie that Film is, like everything else in 21st Century life is simply disposable, consumable entertainment. As the last stop on the distribution circuit and with distributors avoiding the expense of transporting out of date films back to their place of origin, films in Dawson were first stock piled under the administration of bankers. When storage ran out they were then destroyed, thrown into the Yukon River, burnt or buried, painfully echoing the wider estimate that of all the Silent Films ever created, Humanity has lost 75% of them. However, this isn’t a film that preaches, the intention and craft behind it is seeing the bigger picture and extracting the metal. Morrison is all about seeing the debris and the entire landscape from above, within and below the winter permafrost we’re currently living through.  As such he is an important documentarian of our age. Dawson City: Frozen Time achieves universality in the crafting of images, the spark and substance of what it means to make things, to out create destruction.

Dawson City: Frozen Time Directed by Bill Morrison

The origins of film as an explosive material is a powerful metaphor and like the emotional aesthetic of Decasia, it is a double-edged sword as the truth often is. Significantly, film’s most profoundly moving and overwhelming moments are pure Silent sound and image. The morphing of Chief Issac’s face from that of an intensely proud, self-possessed young man, to an aged figure, eroded by exploitation expands into conscious awareness. Morrison is telling us nothing and showing us everything in that moment. In tantalising fragments of films we will never see in their entirety, countless archive photographs, faces and lives, many stories are woven together. The haunting closeup of Mary MacLaren in Bread (1918) directed by Ida May Park is a glimpse into many hidden histories. Through cinema Dawsonites saw the world, in a place that today appears as a last stop before wilderness and oblivion. The fortunes of a town which was born at the same time as the new media of photography and cinema, heralding the start of a modern age, is an excellent place to dig for what sustains and allows us to endure.

Although there were sequences when Alex Somers’ score felt repetitive and overbearing, the music connects emotionally with the imagery, evoking ghostly presences and the physicality of decay. The slowed tempo of human voices and strings operate like something holding on in the present tense of sound hitting the ear and not wanting to let go. The use of organ as an underpinning lament fading into recorded time and distant, echoing piano feel half submerged in the subconscious. There’s real pain in the ebb and flow of human fortunes and in the fate of discarded, abandoned material Culture. This is found footage filmmaking at a whole new level, over and above simple appropriation. As Writer, Editor and Director, Morrison brilliantly combines fragments of rare silent films, newsreels, archival footage, interviews and photographs, including Eric Hegg’s glass plate images which are a survival story in and of themselves. The final sequence of Dawson City: Frozen Time will be etched in my mind forever. Like “the salamander of the ancients [that] lived through fire unscathed”, everything which burns is not extinguished. We see a hand reaching out of the fluttering erasure of emulsion and a dancer, her head and eyes covered, unfurling her scarf in the flicker of free movement, hands raised, claiming and claimed by light. It’s a gesture that feels miraculous and far reaching in terms of human aspiration. It reflects the light, dreams and dust we are as human beings. Kinolorber’s description of the film as a “meditation on cinema’s past” really feels like an inadequate summation because like a lot of other Silent Film publicity it ignores the film’s universal thematic content. Like the image of Mae Marsh in Polly of the Circus (1917) in Morrison’s final sequence, this film is an awakening. Taking its cues and inspiration from original film stock, marked by human actions, neglected and resurrected in a different form, personal and collective loss is acknowledged in a film which is conclusively hopeful. I felt overwhelmed and enriched by watching it and as soon as the credits rolled, I wanted to watch it again.

November Directed by Rainer Sarnet

Another film of extraordinary beauty, artistry and substance is Rainer Sarnet’s November, based on the bestselling Estonian novel Rehepapp by Andrus Kivirähk, starring Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik and Arvo Kukumägi. Films like this one are the reason I go to film festivals! I hope that this Scottish premiere at IFF will be picked up by other film festivals and distributors so that many more people will have the opportunity to see it. Dredging the collective unconscious, Pagan and Christian mythologies are entwined with Estonian Folklore in this creatively striking, thoroughly immersive film. November is possessed of its own fluid logic and this dreamlike narrative is so visually stunning that you cannot help but surrender to it. Director Rainer Sarnet has created something captivatingly strange and magical. It’s a world cast between the physical and metaphysical, where the fantastical and irrational exist side by side with the hard, everyday grind of life, the reality of political oppression and centuries of class rule. True to Eastern European cinematic traditions of escape into fiction and fairy tale, masking social criticism, political and religious dissent, November is all about the human truth in fiction. At base it is a story of human yearning and unrequited love. Laced with black humour, national pride, observance of superstition, ignorance, greed and betrayal, this is a different kind of fantasy, grounded with roots that run deep within the human psyche.  In many ways it reclaims the primal forest from which all storytelling springs- some of the richest creative soil there is! Although I’m certain that there are many specific Estonian references lost on me and UK audiences in general, there are enough archetypal elements in this black and white vision of the living and the dead, found in cultures all over the world, which translate visually. In that respect November’s Director of photography, Mart Taniel was a very worthy winner of Best Cinematography in an International Narrative Feature Film at the Tribeca Film Festival. The Jury comment about their decision that “one film was particularly audacious and showed supreme command of its visual language” is a very accurate assessment of the film.

November depicts “an ancient land” “where spirits roam”, a world frozen in solarised light and the deepest of shadows.  Villagers create creatures called Kratts out of discarded wood, farm machinery and domestic debris, who serve them in exchange for souls. A young woman Lina is in love with village boy Hans, but he is obsessed with the baron’s beautiful daughter. In the emotional context of unrequited love Lina turning into a wolf, metaphorically consumed by her emotions, inner drives, needs and desires, isn’t nearly as crazy as it sounds. On the contrary, it’s a very apt manifestation of what the character is feeling and part of her journey, albeit in canine form. That felt sense, grounding what might appear at first glance as fantasy, is one of the most powerful elements of the film and there are many moments of human recognition throughout. The sequence where the cart and funeral procession cross and pass each other in the stark clarity of black and white is absolute poetry and devastation, as fate separates the living from the dead and a soul is paid for. Beneath its exquisitely crafted, labyrinthine world November suggests, “there is the soul we sell, the soul we long for and the soul we cannot live without”. The question of what human life is worth in alignment with these ideas goes beyond fantastical entertainment. Part of reclaiming our souls is reconnection with this ancient mode of storytelling and the masked wisdom the world has forgotten how to read.

Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat Directed by Fritz Lang

Aligned with the festival screening of new release biopic Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool starring Annette Benning and Jamie Bell, IFF’s superb three film tribute to Gloria Grahame was a definite retrospective highlight. The selection featured her Academy Award winning Best Supporting Actress performance in Vincente Minelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), her starring role as a sharp, sincere and sassy gangster’s dame in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) and with Humphrey Bogart in the tragic anti-Romance In a Lonely Place (1950). Throughout Grahame demonstrates her stage experience, range and why she deserves to be better known. Hopefully the release of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool will encourage people to seek her out her early film work. There is no device on the planet that can replace or simulate the beauty of black and white restorations on a big screen. IFF, together with the Eden Court Cinema programme generally, is committed to showing as many 35mm format films as it can. In the world of 21st Century cinemas this is a rarity and an absolute pleasure.

It is always exciting to see the work of emerging filmmakers and this year’s selection of short films were incredibly strong, diverse, refreshingly original and brimming with possibility. IFF has consistently championed the work of Scottish filmmakers and this year there were six collections of Short Films including two screenings of international shorts specifically for children. Two films in particular shone as part of the Bridging the Gap showcase in association with the Scottish Documentary Institute. Thomas Hogben’s Teeth (11 mins) cleverly combines archival footage, interviews with the director’s parents, Orthodontist and Dental Anthropologist Dr. Daniel Antoine, in a humorous and revealing story of how teeth express our fears, aspirations and ideals. It also poses important questions about the lengths we go to to try and achieve ideal Beauty. It’s an absorbing and entertaining film, charting the development of child to adult and tapping into the universal human need to belong. Hogben probes insecurities shared by the audience, exposing the horrors and unexpected healing powers of dentistry, with teeth as the mirror of Self.

Directed by Sean Mullen Inhale (15 mins) is an accomplished and sensitive story of family bereavement, grief and transformation from Northern Ireland. Working with horses provides the catalyst for transforming pain and outdoor drone photography is used very eloquently to express the interior life of the subject. Poignant and confessional, this is a film about enduring the loss of those we love and having the courage to let go, knowing that life will never be the same again. Faith is an important aspect of the film, conveyed in the voice of the central protagonist and the belief that “the infinite momentum of life via an energy never destroyed, only transformed.” Whatever your spiritual identity, it is a powerful and moving film. Other Scottish Shorts highlights included Flow Country (10 mins) by Jasper Coppes, beautifully shot using black & white 35mm and winner of Best Scottish Short at the Glasgow Short Film Festival, A Tail of Two Sisters (4 mins) by Lindsay McKee, part of the Edinburgh 48hr Film Project 2017, Selina Wagner’s captivating animation Spindrift (12 mins), Alison Piper’s timely political statement Free Period (6 mins) and Gordon Napier’s 1745 (19 mins) a story which highlights the largely hidden history of Highland slavery.

1745 Directed by Gordon Napier

It’s a great pleasure and a privilege to witness the creative development of local filmmakers over successive years and to see individuals making creative leaps, honing their craft and finding their unique voice. Director Mike Webster screened two films this year Eathie (9mins) and Coire Eilde (11 mins), both following gorge scrambles by Adventure and Wildlife Photographer James Roddie in largely unknown sites in the Highlands.  In the traditionally high-octane field of masculine/ mountain adventure films and festivals, it is refreshing and enlightening to see the process and care taken in approaching each pitch. The expectation of “adventure” is often in the spirit of man conquering the landscape, rather than “venturing into the unknown”. Finding your foothold and being fully conscious of your surroundings, to experience something beyond the everyday in the presence of Nature, is more akin to the idea of Slow Adventure. The idea of Nature as Culture in relation to how we experience the environment is only starting to be explored and there are some seeds of that ethos in Robbie’s descent of the Eathie Gorge on the Black Isle and Coire Eilde (the Pass of the Hinds) in Glencoe. As Roddie and Webster navigate their way into the natural environment, the path created by experience, skill and instinct is inspiring. Drone photography is used very effectively to broaden the viewer’s experience of this territory. It would be great to see more of the interior, psychological aspect of the adventurer in future films, enriching not only the conception of the landscape, but perception of what a masculine point of view in this genre can be. As Roddie states during interview what you really want from an adventure is “obscure” and “intimidating”, heading into an environment where you’re not too sure what you will encounter, equipped with the  tools and self-awareness to find your way through.

Eathie Directed by Mike Webster

The pairing of Webster’s films with those by another local filmmaker, Katrina Brown, were very complimentary in challenging preconceptions and prejudice. It is wonderful to see such a progressive leap in the space between IFF 16 and 17 in the screening of Brown’s two most recent projects, Woman Up (3 mins) and Riding Through the Dark (23 mins). Her natural ability to tackle difficult subjects, based on the trust established with interviewees and participants is a great strength for any documentarian. Making the voice of the subject the primary focus of the film and being led by it clearly drives her vision as a filmmaker. This authenticity aligned with stories that need to be told is a very promising and valuable combination. In Woman Up the stereotype of the “sporty woman” is challenged, following Eilidh, who discovered her passion for mountain biking, together with skills and confidence she didn’t believe she had. That sense of positive empowerment is further developed in Riding Through the Dark. It’s a film that juxtaposes the experiences of two groups of women, “one held in awe” and “the other in stigma”, asking the question of just how different they (and we the audience) really are. The individual stories of a group of elite female cyclists/ athletes and women taking part in a cycling to health and wellbeing programme are woven together and they are extremely honest, courageous and moving. Although the film tackles the issue of mental health and depression head on, it is ultimately hopeful and uplifting.  In revealing the insecurities, loneliness, pain and loss we all share as human beings, Brown and her interviewees shine a light on the possibility of regaining oneself when a safe space can be created, grounded in mutual respect and shared experience. In many ways the film creates that safe space for the audience, doing what cinema does best with the road and the world opening up, gaining understanding and projecting ourselves into the frame as viewers. Riding Through the Dark is also very realistic about the concept of recovery rather than cure. I’m sure that many people seeing the film will strongly identify with it, either in relation to their own experience or that of friends and family. Depression is the absence of hope and in telling their stories these brave women are a shining example of grasping that little bit of something in acute darkness, finding the strength to get back up and to keep going. Using cycling as a coping strategy and a means of being absolutely present in the moment is hugely inspiring, as both groups of women and individuals “create impetus” and “momentum” to move out of darkness, “ignit[ing] [that] passion into everyday life.”

As IFF 2017 drew to a close and I emerged out of the dark, the world appeared a good deal brighter. Outside the cinema it was pitch black and autumn chills, but I was carrying the sparks of everything I’d seen with me. In the cross fertilisation of fiction and documentary there is fire, hope and the possibility of positive change. The world needs imagination and the voices of independent filmmakers as never before, to find the truth, set things alight and make us see the world anew.

http://2017.invernessfilmfestival.com/welcome/

Ark Sculpture Exhibition

Chester Cathedral

7th July -15th October 2017

I love encounters with thoughtful, well executed art in unexpected places. Ark is a superb opportunity to experience 90 works by over 50 internationally renowned sculptors including; Geoffrey Clarke, Steve Dilworth, William Pye, Sue Freeborough, Abigail Fallis, Ellis O’Connell, Bernard Meadows, Lyn Chadwick, Barbara Hepworth, Sarah Lucas, David Mach, Elisabeth Frink, Eduardo Paolozzi, Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley, Kenneth Armitage and Peter Randall-Page.  Chester Cathedral itself is a great, living work of Art evolving with the history of the city.  Inside the building there’s a wonderful progression of ceremonial and intimate spaces, architecture that allows the intensity of colour and light from the outside world in. There is also the welcome relief of space for contemplation, freedom of association and interconnectivity of ideas. It’s the perfect place, whatever your beliefs, level of interest or cultural background, to journey to wherever your imagination might take you. The very best works in this show are like portals and exploring where they lead is an enlightening, confronting and immensely enjoyable experience. Outside a white cube gallery space and in the wider context of the cathedral contemporary art can speak in innovative ways, free from the artifice that often surrounds it. Gallery Pangolin have curated an entire spectrum of work from naturalistic, representational sculpture to conceptual works that encourage the wonder of discovery. Positioned throughout the cathedral and grounds, works inform, connect and respond to the architecture, each other and ever expansive concepts of spirituality in life. Nature, evolution and the psychology of belief come into play in surprising ways. In a building filled with fine craftsmanship, sculpture, mosaics, paintings and stained glass, contemporary works can occupy a different kind of stage.

The Birth of Consistency by Angus Fairhurst (2004, Bronze and polished stainless steel, Edition of 3, 91.4cm high. The estate of Angus Fairhurst, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London) Photography by Steve Russell Studio

In relation to the Art World the big names are certainly here, but it is fascinating to see how some of them merely absorb meaning from what surrounds them, especially in comparison to lesser known or emerging artists, many of whom are a revelation. This is a beautiful, deeply stimulating exhibition, free and accessible to anyone, that I’m sure many people will want to spend time with and revisit. There are explorations of our relationship with Nature, Spirituality, Science, Art and ourselves in a space that naturally appeals to human aspirations. What I found so invigorating about Ark was the affirmation of creativity as humankind’s greatest gift, an endless source of inspiration and renewal, as individuals and as a species. That self-reflexivity and collective, unconscious drive, to make and to understand, finds holistic focus in the exceptional work of artists such as Steve Dilworth, William Pye and Geoffrey Clarke. There are also artists whose work takes on expanded meaning in relation to the site.

Located in the central nave as an architectural and sculptural focal point, Angus Fairhurst’s (1966-2008) The Birth of Consistency (2004, Bronze and polished stainless steel, Edition of 3, 91.4cm high. The estate of Angus Fairhurst, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London) works in brilliant counterpoint with the reach of the architecture. The protagonist is a gorilla enacting the Classical myth of Narcissus, fixated and falling in love with his own reflection. Beholding himself and tearing the mirror away from the earth, there’s the suggestion of the next evolutionary leap- through imagination and self-knowledge, grasping towards higher consciousness. In relation to the presence or even the idea of God, humankind is still a Gorilla peering with incomprehension and vanity into the truth of existence. The industrial shiny black patina and fabricated appearance of the sculpture juxtaposed with a forest of arches and columns works beautifully as a source of ironic self-reflection. The Divine will always be a mystery, forever glimpsed but never possessed by humankind. At base, we are animals armed with the truth and deception of a mirror. The relative scale of the life size ape, akin to human scale and genetics, shrinks in relation to the cathedral’s symbolic structure.

Purposefully positioned at the south transept entrance, Damien Hirst’s False Idol (2008), a gold hoofed lamb in a tank from the King Midas of YBA Art, assumes a different kind of irony that perhaps intended. Here in the dim light it assumes a ghostly presence, framed by the surrounding architecture like a camera obscura projection of value. The suspension of the animal in formaldehyde solution creates an eerie light, like a rectangular, glowing halo around the lamb of God/ the maker as a false idol of religion and Art. The beneficent meekness of the animal is submerged by a master of appropriation. Being situated in a place of worship heightens meaningful associations with the work, however in the wider context of the show, the power of the object and its core value rapidly diminish.

Beyond Materialism by Geoffrey Clarke (1976, Aluminium, unique, 336cm High) Photograph by Steve Russell Studio

Geoffrey Clarke’s (1924-2014) Beyond Materialism (1976, Aluminium, unique, 336cm High) is a stunning work in terms of ideas and execution. Although made in the mid 1970’s, it feels miraculous, as if it was crafted specifically for the exhibition. What elevates it is the sense of timelessness in relation to the human condition. It’s a sublime, intelligent and playful example of how architecture, art and belief can potently combine in moments of pure illumination. Clarke’s sculptural ladder climbs the wall, in elegantly inverted concave parallel lines, the lower rungs closer together, then progressively placed further apart as it rises. Half way up is a saddle-like chair for the weary and at the top of the climb, a cruciform portal-like window is left tantalisingly ajar. The iron-like patina gives the impression of a historical artefact, like something a medieval bell ringer would use to access hidden passageways in the cathedral. Psychologically it is an imaginative threshold to crawl into the belly of the building, a maintenance tunnel for the soul and a potential site of rebirth. The black circular disc encompasses Alpha and Omega, the mysteries of life and death. Discretely located in the right-hand passageway of the nave, resting against darkened, aged stone it feels completely integrated with the site. It is a natural extension of the cathedral’s articulation upward, towards heaven and light, aligned with all our strivings over the course of our very mortal lives.  As the artist suggests in the Ark catalogue; “the first steps are easy. Most of us however, at some stage, either get too comfortable or tire on the climb”. “Humankind’s tendency to search for material comfort at the expense of anything of greater significance” is wryly observed. The seamless integration of this work into the substance of the building and into everyday life is breath-taking. It is a profound and timeless visual statement of what it is to be human.

Coraslot by William Pye(2008, Bronze, Edition of 6, 100cm high), Photograph by Steve Russell Studio

Another astonishing work positioned on the left-hand side of the quire, is William Pye’s (b.1938) Coraslot (2008, Bronze, Edition of 6, 100cm high), which feels like a hymn to the natural world and the human mind perceiving it. It is a pure form and a meeting of unexpected elements with flowing water at its centre. From a distance, it resembles a large baptismal font or boat-like structure whose flat surface, entirely comprised of water, resembles the calm solidity of black granite. It is only when you get closer that the perfectly balanced pool of exquisitely calm water becomes apparent, with an internal flow animating the core. The play of light from the stained-glass windows gives the mystical impression of a bottomless mirror of the soul dancing with light, glimpsed at certain angles as you move around the object at roughly waist height. Gazing into its reflections becomes as natural as breathing, connecting the viewer to the physical and metaphysical world. In the artist’s own words;

“The imperceptible movement of apparently still water

A vessel that assumes lake or ocean

Its surface broken by a chasm

A fault line on the desert

A crevasse in the glacier

A passage to the Underworld

What hidden mysteries lie beneath its tranquil surface

Dance of the blessed spirits”

There are magnificent creatures great and small to be encountered in Ark, including Edouard Martinet’s Crayfish, Anita Mandl’s Aardvarks (Mother and Child), Jonathan Kenworthy’s The Leopard, Michael Joo’s Stubbs (Absorbed) zebra, Elisabeth Frink’s Wild Boar, Geoffrey Dashwood’s Peacock Nick Bibby’s Gyrfalcon, Terence Coventry’s Hound II and Goats I & II.  The presence of these animals in different spaces take on symbolic, archetypal, ecological and historic significance reflecting the city’s long association with Chester Zoo, opened in 1931. One of my favourite mediations on the nature of Nature was Deborah van der Beek’s (b.1952) series of bronzes a little larger than life size; Glaring Cat, Cat Catching Bird, Stalking Cat prowling the inner passage way of the Garth or garden courtyard. Their open forms feel like reconstructed debris, reminiscent of desiccated cats deliberately placed inside walls of buildings for protection. Here van der Beek highlights the darker, predatory aspects of their nature. These feline forms are animated by encrusted three dimensional lines of a first drawn response, capturing the artist’s ambivalence towards their untamed hunting prowess. However, as creatures of the earth they resist moral judgement, complete and sacred in their perfected design.

Becoming by Sue Freeborough (2017, Bronze and stainless steel, Edition of 5, 155cm high) Photography by Steve Russell Studios

Nearby Sue Freeborough’s (b.1941) Becoming (2017, Bronze and stainless steel, Edition of 5, 155cm high) is a superb sculpture of mind, form and feeling, being shown for the first time. The masculine and feminine co-joined figures extend their reach together, with arms splayed and sprouting like elegant branches. With sapling limbs and hourglass confinement inside a metal frame, their bodies merge as one. Suspended in this cage-like space they have a flayed, cruciform appearance, especially in the context of the cathedral. However, on closer inspection pagan, mythological and biological associations begin to surface. The delicate linear structure also has a roughhewn, textural quality and tactile immediacy. The combination of two forms, genders, chromosomes and Freeborough’s alchemical approach to mixing elements, gives her work a feeling of transcendence that is both worldly and spiritual. The artist’s statement reflects her multi-layered approach; “The word ‘becoming’ in philosophical terms is stated as being ‘the dynamic aspect of being’ The sculpture ‘Becoming’ is a symbolic space of being, an ark containing the secret mysteries of human life, of consciousness, reproduction, growth and evolution.” Although her elongation of the human figure in this work echoes Giacomettii, Freeborough emerges resoundingly in in her individual approach to the human subject and material. In another layer of interpretation, the artist’s elegantly fused forms is reminiscent of the ancient Greek myth of Daphne, turning into a tree to escape the God Apollo. It’s a subject sculpted many times in the History of Art, usually by male artists, but here the figures are equal in their evolutionary refinement. They appear not in flight or conflict, but as dual aspects of the human psyche within us all, masculine and feminine elements necessary for conception, procreation and arguably in the balance of attaining a higher state of being.

Cock (Fountain Figure) by Bernard Meadows (1959, Bronze, unique, 155cm high, The Ingram Collection) Photography by Steve Russell Studio

A British sculptor of the post war generation, Bernard Meadows’ (1915-2005) Cock (Fountain Figure) (1959, Bronze, unique, 155cm high, The Ingram Collection) is a manifestation of raw masculine energy. The outstretched wings of the bird and primitive, roughly chiselled head with mouth agape also appear satirical, like the flapping of priestly arms and robes during a fiery sermon. Strikingly illuminated in dappled light from stained-glass windows, the dominance, authority and violence of the figure is both fearsome and theatrical. In greeting the light with a raucously present voice Meadows’ work directly addresses humanity. In his own words; “birds can express a whole range of tragic emotion, they have a vulnerability, which makes it easy to use them as vehicles for people.”

Dagon by Abigail Fallis (2017, Bronze, Unique, 54cm high) Photography by Steve Russell Studio

Another fascinating exploration of humanity is Dagon (2017, Bronze, Unique, 54cm high) by Abigail Fallis (b.1968). This work is brilliantly juxtaposed with Brian Kneale’s curved mirrors inspired by bird’s wings; Curlew (2012, Stainless Steel, Unique, 98cm) and Plover (2012, Powder coated stainless steel, unique, 65cm). Fallis’s Dagon is an intriguing humanoid skeleton bent double, back in on itself with what appears to be an amphibious or reptilian skull. The emerald patina gives the appearance of raw material exposed to water over time, like an evolutionary missing link with a devotional stance, on its knees. The skeletal form appears like the ancient remains of a distant ancestor, crawling out of the primordial soup of our collective unconscious and systems of belief. The hybrid figure has powerful evolutionary and mythological associations, revealed by the artist in her catalogue entry; “this strange fish is believed to have come from the Ark of God. Records show that Dagon, a half fish/ half man deity was worshipped as far back as the Philistines and Babylonians, and was visually depicted in painting and sculpture in Nineveh, Assyria. Our predecessors worshipped this hybrid idol because they depended on a living from the sea and the Earth.”  Even without knowledge of this legend, this introspective form, born of water, earth and our own ancestral bones, speaks on multiple levels. Moving further along the same corridor, Brian Kneale’s (b.1930) work informed further readings of Dagon as a human figure in transformation, creating an interesting dynamic between the three pieces. Kneale’s work, exploring “the problem of what one sees and what one knows”, “the attempt to fuse the two and in a special sense disrupt them” creates a wonderful dialogue with Fallis’s Dagon. Positioned adjacent to each other, Kneale’s silver and black concave/ convex mirrors are abstracts of positive and negative, the distortion and truth of malleable human perception. The inspiration of wings gives the mirrors an aerodynamic feel, whilst his chosen material is starkly industrial and unexpectedly beautiful against the stone of the cathedral. This alignment of three works is extremely potent in terms of burgeoning awareness, displayed as you are about to turn a perceptive corner- literally and metaphorically.

Curlew by Brian Kneale (2012, Stainless Steel, Unique, 98cm) Photography by Steve Russell Studio

Steve Dilworth’s ingenious, iconic Ark (2000, Bronze and Nickel Silver, Unique, 114cm high) and Porpoise (2004/5 Bronze and Sterling silver, Edition of 5 42cm high) regard each other with a window between them, extending through and beyond the walls of the cathedral. The intricate, serpentine curves of Porpoise morph before your eyes in an act of becoming, like an embryonic lifeform, articulated by vertebrae of pure, precious silver.  As you drink in every angle and reflection from the inside out, these objects gradually reveal themselves. The unseen Hooded Crow protected within Dilworth’s Ark is transformed from a despised creature to one worthy of respect, carried within the egg. The incredible interlocking inner structure is as organically fired and pure as thought. The presence, living energy and craftsmanship of Dilworth’s objects is unmistakable, sublime and revelatory. Ark is a vessel which alters perception not just of what sculpture can be, but of worlds within and without. Like Dilworth’s Ark, the whole exhibition enhanced and expanded my perception of the cathedral, the city of Chester and my onward journey.  Restored, rejuvenated and enriched by the inspiring trinity of Art, architecture and ideas, I was even more conscious of Divine creation in the everyday. This is a wonderful show with work of the highest quality, in a truly inspirational setting – hopefully the first of many such events in the life of the cathedral.

Porpoise by Steve Dilworth (2004/5 Bronze and Sterling silver, Edition of 5 42cm high) Photography by Steve Russell Studio

https://chestercathedral.com/ark-exhibition/

http://www.gallery-pangolin.com/exhibitions/ark-at-chester-cathedral

PART TWO 2017

EOGHAN BRIDGE, FIONNA CARLISLE, SAM CARTMAN,KIRSTIE COHEN, ALAN MACDONALD.

Kilmorack Gallery, 27 May – 5 August.

Sweet Mystery (Ceramic) by Eoghan Bridge.

Kilmorack’s latest exhibition of solo statements by five individual artists works beautifully in the whole space, joyfully punctuated by sculptor Eoghan Bridge’s latest body of work. Introducing vivid primary colours into his Art, Bridge is knowing, playful and often poignant in its treatment of the human figure, balanced against the recurrent archetypal figure of the horse. This essential relationship feels like an extension of self in equine form, deriving strength and stability from the unconscious. It’s a circular dynamic where the powerful stability of the horse and the vulnerability of the human rider are symbolically entwined. Work such as Trojan (Ceramic) cleverly places one figure inside and in relation to another in an abstracted inner love triangle, playing with the Classical myth of the Trojan horse and whole idea of emotional and psychological defences.  Jungian psychology; animus (the feminine inner personality in men) and anima (the masculine inner personality in women) linked to creative process also comes to mind. This isn’t theoretically implicit in Bridge’s work, but there is an aspect of striving to balance emotion, instinct, vision, form, human and animal aspects of the psyche at the base of his work which always fascinates. Human figures are often dwarfed by the animal form supporting them in elevation, or inverted with the horse balanced precariously above. Seated human figures fold in on themselves, faces hidden in melancholic withdrawal or poised in acrobatic movement, reminiscent of the joy and wonder felt being taken to the circus as a child, tinged with a captive edge of sadness. When I Close My Eyes (Ceramic) is a beautiful example, with the seated human figure cast in a sorrowful, introspective posture, facing a horse poetically doing a handstand with upright stability, balancing a red ball with its hooves. Face to face the horse looks like a best friend, partner or inner companion being a metaphorical rock, attempting to make us laugh our way out of grief, loss or isolation.

There is great joy and humour in Bridge’s work but also compelling fragility. In Up and Away (Ceramic) the human figure is tethered to a bright cadmium red balloon horse held aloft by an uncoiled, spring like umbilical cord of thought and feeling. The inflatable horse is almost comic, invested with the tension of colour and form about to potentially burst into life. The balloon horse feels like hope as a life line extending from the human figure, resiliently poised with its hooves steadfast, holding up the infinite imaginative space above it which the figure is blind to in the moment. On one level it is quite whimsical, a surreal, improbable juxtaposition and yet it feels very much like the existential reality of being human.  Kiss my Rider (Ceramic) connects the geometrically square horse with a buttoned mane of Mondrian primary colour, to the bent human figure, both rendered in pure white. The horse is defying its weight and gravity, balancing upon its nose on the back of a female figure, bent not uncomfortably double. Her hair is styled into a dairy swirl cone point and her figure is childlike, suggesting a process of creative development, enabling her to support the form she’s still flexible enough to hold aloft. The horse miraculously rotates when guided by the hand, adding a dimension of animated delight into a work which instantly made me smile.

Party Time (Ceramic) by Eoghan Bridge.

In Sweet Mystery (Ceramic) an outstretched, youthful, masculine figure is balanced along the horse’s back, supporting a cobalt blue balloon in his mouth and a horse’s head with his feet. The horse supporting the rider beneath gracefully bows its head in a role reversal of quiet vulnerability. Narratives are triggered from each angle of interlocking, natural dependency and through awareness of positive/ negative space in three dimensions.   Party Time (Ceramic) is a technically ingenious work where Human figures are gathered, alienated and alone in jovial suspension, supported by the tabular, equine form of their collective unconscious. They are all connected but that isn’t their conscious experience above the surface, where eyes never meet and each figure is absorbed in their own gaze. The horse as an archetypal symbol of grounded power and unbridled freedom forms a richly meditative sculptural base for exploring the human condition. Bridge’s strength is that he understands positive and negative spaces physically, aesthetically and psychologically. What I love about this work is the supreme care in crafting the delicate patina of ceramic; seemingly transforming it into the green, oxidised sheen of bronze. This is contrasted with glorious, emotive accents of colour in pure, yellow, red and blue, unexpected bursts of joyous humour and the intriguing possibilities of multi-layered interpretation. Bridge’s work is enjoyable and thoughtful in equal measure.

Mountain Rock I (Mixed Media) by Kirstie Cohen.

Regular visitors to Kilmorack will be familiar with Kirstie Cohen’s Northern landscape paintings in oils, however this latest body of work incorporating mixed media, collage and drawn figurative elements  allows the artist greater latitude, bringing a spirit of bolder experimentation into play with her signature paint handling. Mountain Rock I (Mixed Media, 50 x 50cm) is akin to Chinese ink drawings and paintings, communicating the essence of Nature with monochrome strength and economy. Mountainous forms created from collaged black brush work on paper are given weight, substance and texture, with flourishes of opaque, fluid handling, delicately feathered edges of pigment and torn edges of rag paper contributing to the subtlety of textural marks. There’s a feeling of focused energy in the flow of water, ancient rock, depth of reflection blocked in black and the movement of torn horizontal strips of cloud above.  The image sits confidently between abstraction and recognisable natural forms and this spirit of experimentation has also informed the artist’s work in oils. Cloudscape Study (Oil on board, 30 x 40cm) is a fine example, with a hovering mass of softly striated rain bled into pure, vivid, turquoise and deepening hues of quiet turbulence. The mid ground is fixed with striated marks and finely scraped impasto, golden yellow accents drawing the eye into an atmospheric space between the water and sky.

The Gathering I (Mixed Media) by Kirstie Cohen.

In The Gathering I (Mixed media, 35 x 40cm) Cohen’s fusion of the drawn human figure with elements of nature and multi-layered abstraction present an ancestral vision in ochre, turquoise, green and indigo. The sketched figures emerge and recede into shadow and tree forms with densely spun branches anchor the triangular composition in an apex of light. This sense of experimentation in the studio brings strength and regenerative energy to Cohen’s characteristic approach to landscape and it is wonderful to see this evolution in her work.

Caley Salsa (Acrylic on paper) by Fionna Carlisle.

Fionna Carlisle’s strongest works in the show emerge from vibrations of colour, rhythm and music combined with the human figure. Drillfloor from Doghouse, Alwyn North (Acrylic on Paper, 79x 67cm) depicts a whirl of human industry in orange hardhats, flashes of pink and yellow protective clothing and heavy, black lines of rapidly sketched movement. This expressionistic handling becomes a painterly celebration of life, colour and movement in Caley Salsa (Acrylic on paper, 58 x 64cm). With a lucid palette reminiscent of Franz Marc, Carlisle’s loose brushwork fills every part of the picture plane creating its own carnival-like rhythm. Cool, deep blue and flashes of emerald wash vibrate against the heat of yellow, pink, orange and red as figures fragment, joyously losing themselves in the dance. When seen  alongside paintings which place the human figure, colour and movement centre stage ( both in terms of the artist’s paint handling and treatment of the subject) Carlisle’s still life works and smaller static studies of musicians feel less convincing and immersive, reading like decorative surfaces in comparison.

Tracklines, The Loch (Oil on board) by Sam Cartman.

Sam Cartman’s unique, abstract focus on rural landscapes, abandoned and semi industrial sites is fused with exploration of formal composition, paint handling and drawn marks to create strong, unified paintings, leading the eye into the work in surprising ways. Incorporating flat planes of industrial greens, greys, white, marine blue and yellow with restrained accents of red and orange, Carrtman’s palette is decidedly man-made in terms of pigment and control. Move closer and determinate contrasts of line, unexpected delicacy of drawn marks, fluid washes of underpainting and textured ground begin to emerge, contrasted with the bold, planar treatment of buildings, land and sky. Typically human figures are entirely absent in the artist’s work, communicating an eerie, forsaken quality in the landscape , however it is the drawn mark of a human hand, usually scratched into thicker swathes of paint which draw the viewer into the image. Tracklines, The Loch (Oil on board, 91.5 x 122cm) is a good example with the expanded width of track becoming the viewer’s foreground. Pencil marks lead us into the distance to a higher horizon line, defined with blue/ red built structures and fluid yellow hills. The shallow tonal range of mint green in the sky and land create an atmosphere of stillness as we set out following the tracery of human marks across an agricultural landscape. Whilst the Romantic myth of wild Scotland prevails, dominating landscape painting in the form of misty mountains, colourful seas and atmospheric moorland, Cartman’s vision is grounded in a landscape transformed by cultivation. The profound white silence of winter in Lambing Tracks (Oil on board, 61 x 74cm), spatially divided with planes of grey and icy blue are, on closer inspection, tempered with fine details of mark, tone and texture. The red, linear horizon line encompasses the abstracted form of a barn roof and clustered outbuildings in angular black and sky blue. In many ways it is a desolate space reinterpreted by the artist in formal compositional terms, creating a strange kind of beauty. The crux of this is how colour, line, form, texture and tone are balanced in the image as a whole. Ae Forest Study (Mixed Media, 15 x 21cm) punches far above its modest scale in that respect as a beautifully realised fusion of pictorial elements. Glimpses of yellow and pink emerge through the grey and aqua blue/ green progression of forms and pencil marks, leading us down the road into the journey of the image. The cool, assured palette beckons us into a space which is ultimately greater than the physical dimensions of the picture plane.

Pop III (Oil on board) by Alan Macdonald.

Informed by the canon of Art History, the techniques of old Masters and consumer Pop Culture, Alan Macdonald’s lively, sophisticated paintings always contain a gleeful element of play. With the exception of Hungry Hearts (Oil on Linen, 45’ x 36’) which includes an uncharacteristically clumsy cartoon character trope, Macdonald is on top form. Pop III (Oil on board, 12’ x 14’) is a work of playful genius, a wry and beautifully executed puzzle of a painting.  Macdonald frames the middle aged bearded male protagonist in a series of locked/ keyholed panels or hidden drawers, flanked by two delicate wooden columns, one painted decoratively in blue stripes aligned with a bluish bubble in the lower left of the painting. Positioned above the central portrait is the tantalising museum-like display of a wire skewer, just out of reach, daring the viewer to disrupt the scene by bursting bubbles. The protagonist’s historical costume has another instrument of deflation in the safety pin attached to his collar. It’s an emblem of shared mischief between artist and audience, like the sphere of pink bubble gum in his mouth and anticipation of the inevitable “pop” of sound and meaning. His cap is tethered to the left hand side of the frame, supported precariously with a small rope tied bag which resembles a balloon losing air. The word POP is planted beneath the masculine Father figure as a multi-layered punchline. This is Macdonald doing what he does best, grappling with the truth of being a man and an artist in the serious playground of the studio.

The Prophets of Doom (Oil on board, 10’ x 16’) delivers a visual judgement by definition in the text planted at the base of the figure with Black defined as an adjective; “the darkest colour, reflecting no light, obscure, dark, dismal, sullen, horrible,  dusky, foul, dirty, malignant, dark haired.” Above that negative pronouncement of written language a naked, cloaked prophet has come in from the wilderness, holding a bible-like tome with opened pages blankly illuminated by the torch he’s holding. His mouth is agape, hair dishevelled and face marked with dirt, nervously looking above to the stone frame or proscenium arch of the composition which is visibly crumbling. Likewise the ground beneath his feet is cracking and strewn with stones. The shadow under his foot places him on a ledge, with the viewer occupying his negative space, a theatrical pronouncement of fear and nothingness in the act of beholding (without Faith) the comedic play of life. It’s an image which is immediately humorous but also devotional in its search for meaning through Art. As clever as it is heartfelt, crafted with deliberation and instinct, it’s a painting that repays the participant viewer every time we return to the painted scene. The restrained palette is Spartan browns, sienna and umber with a deepening blue background onto which we can construct and project our own narratives, which is exactly the beauty of Macdonald’s Art.

The Tower of Dreams (Oil on board) by Alan Macdonald.

Whilst Hungry Hearts dominates this suite of paintings in size, The Tower of Dreams (Oil on board 30’x24’) with its central Female protagonist trumps it completely. This aspect of the psyche is tremendously strong in Macdonald’s Art and surfaces with the presence of women who command attention entirely on their own terms. Clothed in a blue, hooped dress with her hair piled high like a Goddess, head tilted and one eyebrow raised to question the viewer, she is resoundingly positioned centre stage. The song lyrics “close your eyes and drift away” are hung in an oval pendant around her neck, whilst above her, poised between “North” and “South” is the perfect symmetry of a banner; “This is the day that your life will change. This is the day when everything will fall into place.” Attended by figures in miniature she has the mysterious presence of an oracle. The plucked nib of leaves in her hand feels like they are about to be dropped in an act of divination onto the cracked stone stage, damaged by a cannonball lodged in its surface. The background treatment of deserted, villas, Roman colonnades and countryside, receding into blue water, sky and distant shores, creates a dreamlike dimension with Renaissance players enacting scenes of trial and torturous revelry around the central figure.  The background Feminine self stands on one hand, balanced above a canal. A bottle cap becomes a stage where a masked male figure on horseback impales another version of the heroine in a joust. This circular stage form is mirrored in an erupting vertical fountain of underground water, upon which the female figure stands behind a seated, male figure in a monk-like robe, tightening the rope that binds him. Just above the hem of the central figure’s skirt a door is opened like a drawbridge, revealing a fiery, purgatorial scene with skeletal Death and Bacchanalian fauns attending another splinter self or feminine doppelganger, loosely clothed and about to be cloaked in yellow. Right at the edge of the painting in the extreme foreground is an enigmatic man in historical costume observing beneath half closed eyelids a space just beyond the picture frame, with his white Venetian styled mask resting beside him. Every element of the composition triggers potential narratives in an endlessly engaging visual game of conceal and reveal. The complex arrangement of figures in tableaux is expectantly still, waiting for the viewer to interpret and project their own dreams, visions and fantasies into the painting.  The figurative tower is feminine, unconscious, multifaceted and more powerful for being so.

This is a diverse show, cleverly annexed so that bodies of individual work can be fully appreciated. Allow yourself time to take it all in.

All images courtesy of Kilmorack Gallery.

www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk

Scottish artists inspired by the sea

Joyce W Cairns "Farewell To Footdee" (Oil on panel 122cm x 183cm)

Joyce W Cairns “Farewell To Footdee” (Oil on panel 122cm x 183cm)

The Sea- Scottish artists inspired by the sea

17 September – 29 October, Kilmorack Gallery, by Beauly.

Kilmorack Gallery’s latest exhibition features work by some of Scotland’s finest artists inspired by the convergence of land, sea and memory. Forces of Nature and mind are powerfully brought together in an exciting show including work by; Joyce W Cairns , Steve Dilworth, Kate Downie, Lotte Glob, Marian Leven, Will Maclean, Allan MacDonald,  James Newton Adams, Mary Bourne, Ruth Brownlee, Helen Denerley, , Gail Harvey, Janette Kerr, Sian MacQueen, Lynn McGregor, Illona Morrice and Beth Robertson-Fiddes.

On entering the gallery Lotte Glob’s large ceramic tile seascapes; Seascape, Seascape – Tidal and Seascape Stormy Sea, unleash an incredible intensity of colour in a molten fusion of elemental forces and raw materials. Brilliant ultramarine and turquoise create a feeling of depth that the viewer cannot help but dive into. In Seascape-Stormy Sea, water, earth, air and fire meet, unite and divide; cracking and separating like a microcosm of the earth’s geological record. There’s a sense of mindful physicality in this artist’s work based on being in the landscape in the most expansive sense possible. This is combined with a lifetime’s understanding of Craft, unsurpassed in her chosen discipline. Along the coastline of the UNESCO Northern Highlands Geopark that the artist calls home, the ancient Lewisian Gneiss rock, 3,000 million years old, meets the full force of the Atlantic Ocean. Shore, land and mountain are a rich source of found materials, transformed by fire in Glob’s masterful ceramics.  The strength, beauty and delicacy in her work is visibly distilled in Flower of the Sea; a living being of fired clay; anemone-like fingers extended around blooms of glassy blue/ green rock pools, tempered with the hue of a subsiding tide of red kelp. In Rock Flower, an outcrop of white clay blooms emerge from what feels like a monumental cliff face, a fused piece of immovable white stone balanced on top of the sculpted clay in counterpoint with the pale, mortal transience of flowers. The handling of materials and form is supremely sensitive and a celebration of an artist at the top of her profession. Reef is another superb example, a rocky outcrop emerging from a disc of ocean which feels like the entire globe; minerals and pigments ebb and flow to the edges of the ceramic, into the deepest sea of mind, time and space imaginable. Another signature piece is Secret Pool; a sphere resembling a meteorite flung from space, which when opened reveals an interior teaming life forms, shoreline colour and vivid joy. Lotte Glob’s responses to her environment are pure and instinctual; her spirit is as adventurous as the experimentation in her Art and in walking the landscape she has come to understand Nature and human connectivity with the environment in ways that never fail to inspire. She’s an artist who always makes me smile for the wisdom, vitality and sheer energy of her practice, intimately connected to the Northwest land, sky and sea from which she is inseparable.

Lotte Glob " Flower of the Sea" (Ceramic)

Lotte Glob ” Flower of the Sea” (Ceramic)

One of the most moving works in the exhibition is Farewell to Footdee (Oil on panel 122cm x 183cm) by Scotland’s most significant figurative artist, Joyce. W. Cairns. In many ways the painting is an act of commemoration and remembrance, a strikingly poignant composition of memories which make a life. In frozen white, blue greyness, articulated by the pure warmth of cadmium /vermillion a masterful sense of composition emerges, in the structural diagonal and vertical uprights of the washing line, refracted light on the icy ground and the emotive placement of the human figure. As with all of Cairns’ work we are pushed psychologically to the edge of the frame and beyond it; by design, the distilled palette, the interior positioning of the figures and by the artist’s innate sensitivity. The acute subtlety of winter light upon the rooftops and gently nuanced expression on the face of the foreground female protagonist portrays a moment of vulnerability and sadness at the end of an era. The painting also acknowledges profound loss; of those who have passed, phases of life and aspects of self. Around the foreground protagonist’s neck is a medal of honour, engraved; “Footdee 1979-2014”, marking the artist’s departure for Tayside and a new chapter in the battle of a creative life. I always try to refrain from purely autobiographical readings of this artist’s paintings, because my sense of her work is that like all Great Artists she always transcends herself. It is true that most of Cairns’ female figures physically resemble the artist and that many of her paintings respond to life in the old fishing village of Footdee and the port of Aberdeen, past memories and familial experiences, but equally her field of reference is more widely European in painterly terms and in subject matter.  In her extraordinary body of work; War Tourist, Cairns certainly begins the journey re-tracing her Father’s steps through WWII Europe, but the visual statement that emerged out of this research over the following decade crosses all borders into contemporary conflict, the nature of war and the eternal human condition. There are few artists that share her command of large scale figurative composition, save German Expressionists like Beckmann and Grosz.  It’s the emotional gravitas and conscience in her work that is immediately and monumentally striking. Look closer and the balance of elements in her compositions are breath taking; a perfect synthesis of instinct, control, ideas and technique. Cairns’ familial memories are ever clothed in wartime dress, like the younger sister in red beret, gloves and shoes, who looks on in the mid-ground as the foreground Self departs the scene. However Farewell to Footdee is more than an image of individual/ autobiographical commemoration, remembrance or grief. The head and shoulders of the central female protagonist connects powerfully with the viewer’s space and the sense of loss we all feel when we leave part of ourselves behind in the places we have lived and in the people we have loved. Her tilted hat, crowned with a white boarded cottage whose chimney almost transforms it into a house of worship, carries emotional weight; like the posture of the tiny female figure leaned within the doorway, head downcast and hands in pockets. Time collapses into the line of cottages that frame an inner courtyard of the soul; the yellow warmth of light from open doorways in the background illuminating scenes of romance, isolation and loneliness re-enacted in the farewell.  It is impossible to see this painting and not be affected by its raw, profound emotional stillness or by the artist’s consummate skill.

Joyce W Cairns "Messerschmitt Over Footdee" (Oil on ply, 152cm x 122cm)

Joyce W Cairns “Messerschmitt Over Footdee” (Oil on ply, 152cm x 122cm)

In Messerschmitt Over Footdee (Oil on ply, 152cm x 122cm) Cairns assumes the role of an ARP (Air- raid Precaution) warden. Pushed into the foreground she is flanked by WWII ephemera; Lucky Strike cigarettes, anti-gas ointment and a gas attack leaflet arrangement of museum pieces.  The phosphorescent glow of the sea merges with the sky in the heightened perspective of the composition. The illuminating presence and bisecting geometry of searchlights, lighthouses, washing lines and the boundaries of the safe harbour are invaded by an enemy bomber. Again the central protagonist is positioned in the foreground, standing in the viewer’s space as witness, clutching a wreath of poppies to her chest.  Out of a first floor window a woman waves a union jack, whilst below a naked female figure emerges from an illuminated doorway. The idea of “keeping the home fires burning” and the anxiety of war on the domestic front can be seen in the pallor of her expression, articulated by the memories , stories and artefacts gathered by the artist, assimilated within her psyche as part of the War Tourist retrospective body of work.

Steve Dilworth "Throwing Object" (Burr elm, wren and bronze)

Steve Dilworth “Throwing Object” (Burr elm, wren and bronze)

A series of hand held objects by Isle of Harris based artist Steve Dilworth provide a very tactile experience of forms, materials and energy drawn directly from land and seascape.  Throwing Object (Burr elm, wren and bronze) transforms the viewer into a participant in its natural beauty and crafted allure. The organic form of honey coloured elm feels like it has been freed by the hand of the artist and the touch of the visitor, with the worn glow of patina we might see in an ancient church pew, smoothed by generation after generation. With carved hollows for the fingers it is designed to be held and has a visceral, irresistible, gravitational pull. Once held it feels comforting as the object’s centre of gravity aligns with your own, like a divining rod for the soul. This piece containing a small bird and held together by bronze fits comfortably in two hands as an object of contemplation or in the violent trajectory of one, it becomes a superbly balanced to “psychic weapon” of protection. The aged wood, once living bird and a metal, comprised mostly of conductive copper, create a unique flight path of intentionality and energy. The form feels organic but also like a human artefact and its gravitas can be felt in the ambiguity of its potential use. It is weighted in the interchange of crafting its two halves; for defensive action on the one hand, or meditative thought on the other; tendencies for creation or destruction which are both equally generated in moments of connection between Mother Nature and our own nature(s) as human beings. All of these associations flow from the intimacy, duality and ambiguity of an object which is not sculptural or a visual art in the traditional sense, but connecting with something deep, subconscious and essentially primal through the universal language of touch and collective memory.

Steve Dilworth "Deep Water" Water (Harris Stone, seabed water and whale bone, 10cm high x 17cm x 12.5cm )

Steve Dilworth “Deep Water” Water (Harris Stone, seabed water and whale bone, 10cm high x 17cm x 12.5cm )

This timeless quality can also be found in Deep Water (Harris Stone, seabed water and whale bone, 10cm high x 17cm x 12.5cm ) a drogue form of high contrast dark and light , grounded in the weight of solid stone and the depth of the emotionally conductive element held within it. Its hollows are curiously orbital and the delicate ridged line on top echoes a natural curve ending at the base of a skull, or the sleek skinned form of a sea mammal. The combination of water from the seabed off Rona, whale bone and Harris stone is inspired, with flecks of metallic starlight made visible by shaping and polishing. Seal Oil Stone (Harris stone, beach stone, copper, seal oil, 11cm high x 20cm x 18cm)  also illuminates the value held within in the vial of seal oil which glints like precious gold, encased in the hollowed interior of a large beach pebble, eroded by waves, and coils of conductive copper. The speckled surface of the stone, green oxidisation of the copper and glimpse of the object’s interior through a birth canal-like opening gives this work the feeling of a newly discovered ancient fertility object, borne of the sea.  The instinctive combination and alignment of materials which has its own dynamic flow in the artist’s studio, translates directly to the viewer through the nervous system. The form of the object is rich with associative triggers for the imagination and in this way, as with all of this artist’s work, the visitor/ participant completes the object.

The pure energy of liquiform water and solid stone is distilled in Wave ( Harris Stone, 18cm high x 20cm x 9cm) an incredibly compact curvature that seems to encompass the lunar origins of tides and the dynamism of a concentrated form turning in on itself. The natural qualities of Harris stone become flecks of salt spray in shifting seams of green, while the precarious power of a crashing wave is folded into stone. The material is transformed by the idea, energy and presence of Nature. The thinned spine of the object and its asymmetrical base playfully pivot the deceptively simple core form in a singular moment of recognition, preserved for all time.  On closer inspection the convergence of convex and concave facets reveal themselves as the light and the viewer’s position changes. The edges are shaped with characteristic precision, sharpened to the touch and the sense of dynamic movement is extremely powerful, vastly exceeding the physical dimensions of the object.

Will Maclean Voyage of the James Caird- Elephant Island (Painted wood and resin, 82 x 72 cm).

Will Maclean Voyage of the James Caird- Elephant Island (Painted wood and resin, 82 x 72 cm).

The expansive mindscape of the ocean is the subject of Will Maclean’s Winter North Atlantic (Painted wood and resin, 124cm x 105cm x 5cm) and a fine example of his work. (Reviewed previously as part of the Fiaradh gu’n Iar: Veering Westerly exhibition, IMAG, georginacoburnarts Blogpost 09/03/16.) Maclean’s exploration below the surface is realised with great subtlety in the abstract box composition Voyage of the James Caird- Elephant Island (Painted wood and resin, 82 x 72 cm).  Here the layered surface evokes the monumentality of a frozen wilderness, inscribed with human/ drawn marks of circular navigation and weighted plumb lines.  To the right a small rectangular cutaway reveals a line of swell and landscaped horizon conveying an emotional sense of movement within the expanse of the extreme Southern Ocean. The ice flow palette, which moves and melts before the eyes, encompasses a God’s-eye view and an interior window perspective penetrating the surface of the painting/ box construction.  It is a perfectly balanced abstract of painted, drawn and constructed elements referencing history and the spirit of human exploration. The journey made by Shackleton and his companions in the small boat the “James Caird” from Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands to South Georgia in the Southern Ocean was a feat of courage and persistence. Maclean’s rendering conveys a state of mind and human vulnerability in relation to the environment, in the face of Nature at her most unforgiving. He achieves this in the drawn/ incised marks of a human hand and in the use of found materials, recovered debris from generational tides of human experience. In the presence of such a work we are brought face to face with the human scale of all our endeavours.

Kate Downie "The America Ship" (acrylic and ink on canvas, 167cm x 160cm)

Kate Downie “The America Ship” (acrylic and ink on canvas, 167cm x 160cm)

Kate Downie’s The America Ship (acrylic and ink on canvas, 167cm x 160cm) is a wonderful exploration of human and natural elements framed by the skewed perspective of a small boat enduring a swell. In an interior lounge space two figures sit apart from each other, staring out into an absorbing grey sea of their own thoughts. On the coffee table between them; a precariously poised model of a ship balances upon an elongated shadow of deepest blue. The coastline spills into the room and Downie’s ink drawn marks are fast, bold and gestural, rendering the figures with dynamic stillness. The ochre ground of the floor anchors the ebb and flow of life and relationships, while the ship’s wheel above spins like a hand of fate between the two figures. It is an image of human connection emotionally on board a model ship with the exterior environment brought into the domestic space to unexpectedly rich expressive effect. Part of what convinces in this work is Downie’s direct drawn response, characteristically invested in her subject.

James Newton Adams A Pocket Full of Fish (Acrylic on canvas, 97 x 97 cm)

James Newton Adams A Pocket Full of Fish (Acrylic on canvas, 97 x 97 cm)

James Newton Adams has contributed a series of strong compositions to the exhibition including As I was Going to St Ives (Acrylic on canvas, 86 x 96 cm) and In the Company of Birds, (Acrylic on canvas, 87 x 87 cm), injected with Newton Adams’ characteristically whimsical streak and naïve style, tempering what is a harsh human existence carved out between land and sea. One of the most interesting and affecting works in that respect is A Pocket Full of Fish (Acrylic on canvas, 97 x 97 cm) Newton Adams doesn’t often depict the female figure but here his expressionistic rendering of a pregnant woman with a baby standing beside the absence of her partner, his orange fishing overalls suspended from the clothes line, is an insightful and socially charged image of inevitability and unrealised hopes. The pocketful of fish in her partner’s overalls feels like a consolation prize, rather like the bundled child tucked nondescriptly in her arm like a lifeless, sleeping doll.  The mother’s bleak expression, mouth pinched shut like the red peg in her hand and with a hint of shadowed bruising around her eye, expands the in the pervasive mood of the composition. In the background a male figure plods, head bowed, along a depressively level horizon of road. Characteristic use of strong primaries; red, blue, yellow , together with the monochrome weight of white and black which delineates figurative scenes of coastal village and domestic life, give Newton Adams’ paintings a certain edginess and emotional height uniquely his own.

Mary Bourne "Cloud Mass Over the Sea" (Ink wash on paper)

Mary Bourne “Cloud Mass Over the Sea” (Ink wash on paper)

Edginess and emotional height is realised in a very different way in Peter Davis’s Edge of the Storm (Watercolour and pigment on paper, 50 x 70cm) in the tonality of forces; dark and light, pitted against each other in the still calm before the storm. This is beautifully realised in the bisected composition and expert handling of a fluid and notoriously unforgiving medium. What is captured very potently is the threat of the storm, the tension in the moment before the onslaught; that very particular angry blue/grey temper of Scottish skies which is part of the internalised character of Northern land and seascape. The way the pigment is suspended, preserved in its once liquefied medium, also conveys the anticipatory moment, that heaviness, which contrasts beautifully with a shining horizon line of light over the sea. A zen like economy of expression also infuses the ink wash of Mary Bourne’s Cloud Mass over the Sea, a wonderful dance between form, fluidity and reflection. In Red Cloud over Sea (Ink wash on paper) Bourne combines strong marks bled into the edges in a marriage of accidental and controlled marks, capturing one of Nature’s meditative moments. Her low relief sandstone and palladium leaf sculptures; Beach I, II, III (each 30 x 30 cm )present not just an effective abstracted play of light on the sand in three dimensions, but the understated simplicity, of leaving the door ajar for the viewer’s own imaginative experience of the shoreline; triggering memories of walking on sand among glinting pools and the dancing light of the sun.

Allan MacDonald "Great North Headland" (Oil on canvas, 40 x 152 cm)

Allan MacDonald “Great North Headland” (Oil on canvas, 40 x 152 cm)

A master of light and landscape painting in the Northern Romantic tradition, Allan MacDonald’s Great North Headland (Oil on canvas, 40 x 152 cm) is a triptych which celebrates divinity in nature, conjoined with a human heart and mind beholding it. The massed energy of turbulent seas are realised in an invigorating palette of ochre, orange, red, green, umber and white- the physicality of cold salt spray and the heat of sublime spirit animating it, seen as underpainting or ground emerging through the layered impasto. A progressively more abstract immersion Form and Void- Beauly Firth (Oil on board) is bolder and confidently intuitive, with large flat foreground brush marks, white ground shining through and a blaze of resiliently hopeful blue.  The paint handling reveals the artist’s direct response to the enormity of Nature; land, sea and sky, which comes from working outside in all weathers.  In Malestrom Eshness (Oil on board) a fury of waves crashes against the coastal cliffs- raw power, green, white, umber and furious grey, like the livid eye of stillness at the centre of a raging storm. These works aren’t seascape scenes, but richly interpretative paintings, demonstrating a commitment to craft and belief with the artist’s brush marks testimony to that all-encompassing devotional energy.   They are also very physical responses to an endlessly challenging environment. The artist doesn’t distance himself from the life force of nature all around him but actively goes out to meet it with all his perceptive faculties, not just what can be seen with his eyes. In consequence the viewer feels as if they too are standing on the edge of the cliff; in the grip of an essential dynamic between humankind, Nature and the eternal mystery of the sea.

All images by kind permission of Kilmorack Gallery.

http://www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk

Modern Scottish Women / Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965

7 November 2015 – 26 June 2016

Modern Two -Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone
Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Dorothy Johnstone (1892-1980). Anne Finlay, 1920. Oil on canvas, 145.3 x 100.5. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections: Purchased with the assistance of the National Fund for Acquisitions 1983.

“…there is no such thing as a woman artist. There are only two kinds of artist-bad and good.” Ethel Walker, 1938.

I headed to Edinburgh recently to see the Modern Scottish Women exhibition and to attend a study day organised by the Scottish Society of Art Historians (SSAH), examining the lives and work of artists included in the show and exploring some of the issues raised by this ground breaking exhibition.

I began with the show itself and found many brilliant, inspiring examples of self-possessed creativity: women whose paintings, drawings and sculptures resoundingly announced their undeniable status as professional artists in their own right. Out of an original shortlist of over 200 artists, this survey of 45 female painters and sculptors (1885-1965) with Scottish connections curated by Alice Strang, is an exciting expose of largely unknown work. Framed in terms of developments in Art Education (primarily in Glasgow and Edinburgh) and the impact of gender on how female artists were trained, perceived and received by the art establishment as mediators of taste for the general public, this is a challenging show in its continuing relevance. Often named as symbolically and politically subordinate to husbands or male relatives, gender has relegated many of these artists to obscurity, with acquisition of their work largely in the private domain and contemporary writing about their work often patronising or derogatory. Commentary from male critics, such as the criticism of Joan Eardley’s male Sleeping Nude (1955, Oil on canvas), dismissed as the work of a “girl artist” and an affront to the Western figurative tradition, is treatment that we sadly cannot just relegate to history. In an era of Twitter, where uninformed populist opinion is king, women being taken seriously in any profession remains a lifelong struggle.

All too often “women’s” work is written about in terms of its aesthetic appeal –adjectives like “charming”, “pretty”, or the surprise of accomplishment accompanies so-called critiques of female artist’s work. This trend persists in the media today in the discussion of female contemporary artists defined by good or bad girl status, their  sexuality, capacity for child bearing/ childlessness or the appraisal of their physical appeal and dress, rather like the limited reportage on female politicians over and above what they actually stand for. Female creativity has had to overcome significant obstacles to even begin to be seen on the same playing field as male colleagues of the same generation. It was interesting to hear the shocked amazement of visitors, discovering some of the historical obstacles to female creativity found in the battleground of the life class; an essential foundation for the practice of painting or sculpture which was deemed unsuitable for ladies or the marriage bar that prevented married women from taking up or keeping fulltime teaching positions. There is always a danger when we narrow the historical lens, of thinking ourselves to be so much more progressive than previous generations. Hierarchies of gender, culture, genre and region still prevent female artists from being shown and acknowledged more widely, even in more recent times.

Compare art writing and media coverage of the nationally celebrated GSA New Glasgow Boys of the 1980’s: Peter Howson, Ken Currie, Adrian Wiszniewski and Steven Campbell with commentary on Joyce W Cairns, one of the finest living artists in the UK today, whose large scale figurative compositions surpass them all. Major solo exhibitions held outside the central belt at the Aberdeen Art Gallery such as Joyce W. Cairns War Tourist (2006) and Frances Walker: Place Observed in Solitude (2010) are contemporary examples of artists defined by the strength of their work, rather than their gender, which is why a second and even third exhibition of Modern Scottish Women is an imperative in terms of Scotland’s capital art institutions. As part of the SSAH study day, Matthew Jarron’s talk “Placed Under no disqualification”- Women Artists in She-Town, highlighted the work of women artists championed through art education, industry and politics in Dundee, revealing alternative histories of Art outside recognised centres of cultural gravity. This “first major exhibition of work by women artists to be mounted by the National Galleries of Scotland” is an important first step in recognising the contribution of women to Visual Culture, their rightful place in Art History and in the popular imagination. Perhaps it is my impatience for equality speaking when I say that in some ways the exhibition scratches the surface with a pin, but it is also immensely valuable in generating the impetus and momentum for further study and deeper consideration of this work, based on individual merit and the equality between ideas and technique.

Although I found the contextual framing of this exhibition problematic, I must also acknowledge it as a necessity: after all, to appreciate the qualities of anything you first have to know it exists, or in the case of Art be given the opportunity to see/experience it first-hand. I am sure that the general public and art historians alike will find works in this exhibition revelatory on many different levels. That a segregated show highlighting the achievements of women artist’s remains necessary in 2015/16 filled me initially with sad resignation- is this really the only means we have of shedding light on this work- to frame it in the inequality that it grew in spite of? But as I moved through the exhibition, new voices made themselves known and the framing of the show in relation to dominant institutions seemed less important that the fact that here they were- finally being discovered. Acknowledged in a National Gallery space, these works declared themselves in their own language, revealing strength, boundless talent and human insight.

Margaret Campbell Macpherson (1860-1931) was one of a number of female artists who in the latter 19th century moved to Paris for a more progressive art education at the Académie Colarossi. Working in relative freedom en plein air in the Fountainbleu Forest and in Brittany, the artist’s palette and paint handling evolved in response to the natural environment and as part of the Concarneau artist colony. Head of a Breton Girl (c 1894. Oil on canvas) is an arresting work, rather more profound emotionally and symbolically than suggested by a contemporary critic in 1895 who praised the “admirable tint” and “sweet simplicity” of the face.  The 2015 catalogue entry describing the sunlit scene and the girl in costume, “lost in idle contemplation” misses the mark for me as well. What struck me immediately was the conscious presence of both the artist and sitter. The girl, on the cusp of adulthood completely inhabits her own thoughts, her eyes linked to the deep blue palette of foliage and to Nature. Her white cap, accented with cool tones of blue and green seems caught in winds of change, through the dappled sunlight. She holds a staff which points inwards towards her abdomen, accents of striped cadmium red in her skirt flowing downward into the foreground of the painting. In her left eye is the watery mark of a tear and she stares fixedly downwards, perhaps in contemplation of burgeoning maturity. This doesn’t strike me as an idle girl with a sweet face, but something more consciously heightened by Margaret Campbell Macpherson’s palette and composition; a sense of illumination- in light used not in the service of impressionistic prettiness or optical distraction, but to say something; about feminine experience, adolescence and the sadness that always accompanies the loss of one stage of life in exchange for growth in another. It is a painting as strong and as subtle as its cobalt and emerald shadows, conscious of Nature and demanding to be written about officially in less decorative terms.

Sleeping Mother and Child (1903-05. Bronze) by Gertrude Alice Meredith Williams (1877-1934) reveals the gaunt, high cheek boned figure of woman and her baby emerging from a hewn block of raw material and biblical association. The woman’s hands are clasped before her, around the child in a protectively unconscious state and the child’s mouth turns downward in an expression of uncertainty and consternation rather than peaceful, contented sleep. This exhausted and impoverished Parisian Madonna, a sitter who the artist paid with food and shelter, feels akin to the work of Käthe Kollewitz (1867-1945), although without the gravitas of human brutality and war. It is the protective bond of motherhood that the artist explores here and the recognition of one human being by another, tangibly in three dimensions. It is a work of great sensitivity, vulnerability, intimacy and one of the most emotionally affecting works in the show. Studying at the Liverpool School of Architecture and Applied Art and in Paris 1901-05, including the Académie Colarossi, the artist’s modelling of the figure in this and her painted plaster macquette for the Paisley War Memorial: The Spirit of the Crusaders (c 1922), was no doubt influenced by a progressive education and her scholarship abroad. The subject of a wonderful talk by Phyllida Shaw, who is bringing William’s work to light after discovering her extensive wartime correspondence, there is much more to be discovered about this remarkable sculptor.

Self-portrait (Mrs Grahame Johstone), c.1929

Doris Zinkeisen Self -Portrait (Mrs Grahame Johnstone), c 1929, Oil on canvas, 107.2 x 86.6. National Portrait Gallery, London: Purchased 1999.

Another trailblazing artist represented in the show is Doris Zinkeisen (1897-1991) who’s Self Portrait (Mrs Grahame Johnstone) (c1929, Oil on canvas) is one of several resiliently present statements of femininity and power in the genre of portraiture, characteristic of this exhibition. Trained at the Harrow School of Art and the RA School in London, Zinkeisen’s work as a theatrical and film designer finds expression in her dramatic image of Self. Draped in a Chinese shawl, her pale white shoulders, red lips and rouged cheeks take on a symbolic rather than a seductive stance. The artist’s gaze extends above and beyond the viewer, her hand on a white curtain, about to step into the dark space beyond the set. Like Dorothy Johnstone’s portrait of Anne Finlay (1920), the contentious poster image for the show, it is an image that resists feminine display for a predominantly male gaze. Zinkeisen is resoundingly sure of herself in beholding who she is- her sexuality is part of that certainly, but it isn’t the only aspect being acknowledged by the image.  In Johnstone’s portrait of Anne Finlay, the sitter meets the artist’s gaze as an equal, finding expression for the strength and dynamism of her personality, beheld and captured by another woman/ artist.

Belsen April 1945, 1945

Doris Zinkeisen Belsen: April 1945: 1945. Oil on canvas, 62.2 x 69.8cm. IWM (Imperial War Museums): War Artists Advisory Committee commission 1947 .

Although much admired in the press as a well-groomed socialite and model of femininity, Doris Zinkeisen’s tenacity extends well beyond her self-portrait to documenting the horrors of World War II. Tasked with documenting the St John Ambulance Brigade’s work in war torn Europe and therefore slipping under the radar of official war Art, Zinkeisen was one of the first to enter the Belsen concentration camp with the ambulance service post liberation. In her painting Belsen. April 1945 (Oil on canvas) she depicts a suspended, otherworldly, hellish space; blackened by death and smoke, with the glimmer of a furnace and unnatural clouds compressed into the high left of the composition. The splayed limbs of ghostly pale, emaciated bodies piled up in the centre of the painting align with the feeling in the floored pit of the viewer’s stomach – the foreground tonally falling away as if the ground beneath the viewer’s feet is collapsing. Zinkeisen’s direct response as a witness is an important, emotionally centred document of inhumanity and humanity perceiving it. Everything else including the gender of the artist is stripped away the scene before her, (and before us) heightened in shadow and universal in meaning.

Another memorable discovery was Margot Sandeman’s (1922-2009) painting 3 Bathers, one of the most beautiful and richly contemplative in the exhibition. From left to right we see three stages of life; childhood/ innocence, adulthood/ knowledge gained, and old age/death aligned with cycles of Nature. Sandeman’s symbolic treatment of her subject is reminiscent of Munch and Redon, with a dappled progression of luminous colour underpinned by a timeless progression of ages. In the figure of the child the torso is illuminated in sunlit yellow and orange, the head of the girl contrasted in cool blue, becoming one with the sky. The middle bather is in a crouched position, her face hidden sorrowfully in a towel and in the final section of the triptych-like composition we see the body of a woman, lain in a grave of deep ultramarine. Sandeman’s palette links the girl with natural cycles of life, death, decay and renewal with dominant blue defining the realm of her intellect and the flowing spring at her feet. The child’s steadfast gaze doesn’t portray a carefree state of youth but knowledge of what will come to pass, naturally in time to us all. There is a strong sense of the Feminine in Nature in Sandeman’s work which transcends her identification as a female artist.

Mabel Pryde Nicholson’s (1871-1918) The Grange, Rottingdean (1912, Oil on canvas) contains a different kind of knowing in her complex interior double portrait of her children Nancy and Kit. Her daughter is seated in profile in the foreground, staring fixedly through a window we cannot see but which illuminates both her and her brother, who we see through an open doorway to another room. Framing the space the girl occupies, and also the male child like a proscenium arch, is a wall dividing the domestic space; decorated with a series of six 18th century military costume engravings on the wall. On top of a rounded corner cupboard to the left, a statue of a blue and red coated gentleman with a cane seems to mirror the attitude of Kit, the artist’s son, looking directly at us through the open door. Wearing a Glengarry cap, his hands are steadfast in his pockets, feet apart in an assured, rightful stance. It is a Vermeer –like space in terms of its intimacy and perspective, but intensely psychological in the accents of colour and mark, drawing the viewer’s attention to status and gender, the relativity of one child to another, established in the light hitting them both. This sense of illumination invites interpretation; in the display of masculinity in the home and in the foreground space occupied by the female child, pensive, self-contained and absorbed in her own thoughts. One feels looking at this image that the boy’s experience of life has an established historical precedent of position, of the man he will become and the traditional space he will occupy within the family home. His sister’s foreground position within the composition brings her closer to the artist’s own space, feminine experience and in relation to her male sibling. Curiously in spite of the boy’s age, size and  distant position, his presence is expanded within the painting by masculine objects to the point where the artist renders him and his older sister equal human presences in the work. It is of course a mother beholding her children and one could argue an interior life/ figurative study, but the tension in this work suggests more than that; a more potent sense of psychology and a subtle, powerful comment on gender.

Born in Canada and resident in Scotland from 1928 until her death, Margaret Watkins (1884- 1969) is has been acknowledged far more widely in the New World. A pioneer Fine Art photographer working in the world of advertising, Watkins exquisite monochrome compositions are beautifully poised, her juxtaposition of objects full of associative narratives. Domestic Symphony is a photographic statement of tonal rhythm using everyday objects; eggs and the scroll of a bathtub, elegant as any treble clef. Seemingly mundane objects become elevated through Watkins’ eye and lens and in the arrangement of her still life compositions. Head and Hand (1925, Palladium print) is an elegant, though sharply ironic, image of the hand of dancer/ author Marguerite Agniel holding a carved, stylised head- a portrait of herself by the American artist Jo Davidson. It’s an image of idealised Beauty, display and possession, with the woman holding an appropriated image of Self in three dimensions, there in the palm of her hand where the gaze of others assumes its proper proportion. The hand itself adopts a pose of attention, a powerful positive surrounded by negative space.

I was delighted to see the work of Hannah Frank (1908-2008) included in the Modern Scottish Women exhibition. I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing her, a few years before her centenary. She was, and still is through her Art, an irrepressible spirit and I think her sculpture Woman with Bird (1955, Bronze) sums up my thoughts about this exhibition. A female figure sits cross legged, holding aloft a bird with care and aspiration, about to extend its wings to fly. Frank renders the figure with characteristic delicacy and strength of spirit. It’s an image of freedom, imagination and Hope- a work which only she could have created.

Northern Light

Rock of Ages- Allan MacDonald.

Northern Light: Recent Paintings by Peter Davis.

The Unbearable Brightness of Being– James Newton Adams.

12 August to 12 September. Kilmorack Gallery, By Beauly.

Rock of Ages  Rock of Ages by Allan MacDonald (Oil on canvas).

Three strong, individual statements emerge in Kilmorack Gallery’s latest exhibition, engaging with the Divine in Nature and human nature in a distinctively Northern climate.

Allan MacDonald’s breath taking seascapes reveal why he is regarded as one of the UK’s most respected and accomplished landscape artists. The beauty of MacDonald’s Art lies in its sheer physicality and meditative insight. His is an Art of going out to face the elements in all weathers, in driven pursuit of moments of understanding and connection. This essential honesty is directly translated into the artist’s handling of paint and transcendental palette. Light in every sense of the word permeates even his darkest and most turbulent paintings. There is always an eternal flash of optimistic blue and warm, resilient tones of underpainting emerging beneath immovable mountains or the steely gravitas of Northern Scottish skies. I’ve been following and writing about this artist’s work for over a decade now and his paintings never fail to astonish and inspire me. MacDonald’s unfaltering sense of the sublime in Nature and our human capacity for renewal through the creative Divine are at the heart of his work.

In Moonrise Strathy (Oil on board) large bold strokes and density from impasto, seeing clear to the ground fills the image with a palpable sense of energy and vigour. The half-moon and raging tide anchor the composition to natural cycles, confidently bordering on abstraction. In Northern Outpost (Oil on board) a glow of golden light breaks above the headland, shimmering over the water and into the viewer’s foreground. Loaded and incised marks down to the board convey the lashing sea in rich, vibrant green and blue, balanced with the warmth of lemon, ochre and cadmium yellow. In this ever changing furore, light is a constant source of illumination and a dominant presence; within the painting, the soul of the artist and the eye/mind of the spectator. In Rock of Ages (Oil on canvas) clefts of shadow delivered in bold, singular strokes and the dramatic sweep of light across the monumental rock face create a feeling of earth bound resilience and transformative wonder. Here lies the true lineage of Northern Romanticism, based on pure experience and communion with Nature, where human scale assumes, in cosmic proportion, its rightful humility.

The Ravages of Time

The Ravages of Time by Allan MacDonald (Oil on Canvas).

Crescendo

Crescendo by Allan MacDonald (Oil on board).

Appropriately hung on the far end wall of Kilmorack Gallery, in the space where the church altar would have been, are a trinity of large scale paintings, each one inspirational in its own aspect. To the right, The Ravages of Time (Oil on canvas), depicting sea cliffs shrouded in ocean spray and turbulent mist, conveying a sense of vulnerability in the fluid tracery of marks cascading over rocks into the ancient depth of the sea. Standing on the shore of a harsh environment, the promise of emerging light prevails. The central painting Crescendo (Oil on board) is a moment of light and hope breaking through the commanding gloom of storm clouds, over the relative calm of the sea. A deep emerald horizon of green and rolling blue anchors the painting in contemplative stillness, while MacDonald’s instinctive and illuminating brush work bring forth a resounding sense of human aspiration. The final painting, The Coming Brightness (Oil on canvas) is a telling surface of built up paint layers, labour which yields a wide semi-circular swathe of light cutting through the sky, reflected in the sea and striking the shore. Thin drips of yellow light and pure white pigment are contrasted by the deep purple and mauve shadow of the sky. It is a moment of realisation borne out of labour, of grappling with paint and the elusive nature of painting itself. In Voice of Many Waters (Oil on canvas) we see an essential trinity of structure, expression and spirit rendered equal.

The Coming Brightness

 The Coming Brightness by Allan MacDonald (Oil on Canvas).

Shetland based artist Peter Davis’s watercolours on paper deliver another beautifully distilled vision of a human eye and mind perceiving the landscape. In Storm Beach we see a meeting of elements; washes of suspended pigment, merging and overlapping, betwixt and between sky, land and sea, seeping to the edges of the composition. Davis’s masterful tempering of the paper and fluid technique create gathering strengths of water and pigment, like the troughs and ridges of a storm. The artist communicates a profound understanding of his environment and his chosen medium in landscapes that hold the imagination in deepening gradations of colour and heightened awareness. Lambi Loch (Watercolour on Paper) is a beautiful example, the landscape reduced to a Zen-like bowl of intensifying blue. In Loch at Westerwick the pure white paper of the foreground, anchored by a dark solid stone at the edge of the water grounds the viewer, while reflective light both sides of the horizon create a burgeoning sense of the infinite. These are quietly adept and exemplary works by an artist breathing new life into the medium of watercolour.

Storm Beach

Storm Beach by Peter Davis (Watercolour on paper).

The artist’s experimental approach is refined in Last Day, where the handling of pigment, leeched into stone or the convergence of tidal washes display masterful control. The lone rock is almost figurative and emotive in its associations; it’s a landscape of loneliness that extends into the distance and the high set, weighted horizon. Davis’s work speaks of being still and resoundingly present, both for the artist in terms of creative process and the viewer in seeing/contemplating his work. Davis’s palette is naturally subtle and finely nuanced, allowing space for each physical element within the picture plane; white paper, water and pigment to be mindfully observed, creating a space for the intellect and the imagination to dive into.

Lambi Loch

Lambi Loch by Peter Davis (Watercolour on paper).

Last Day

Last Day by Peter Davis (Watercolour on paper).

The acrylic on canvas paintings and mild steel sculptures of James Newton Adams are naively drawn, often humorous and insightful observations of humanity. The artist’s use of stark black and white with expressionistic accents of colour captures everyday life with refreshing economy and joie de vivre. Safety in Numbers exhibits a characteristic bird’s eye view, with the title referring equally to the school of fish or the human dwellings compressed into two coastal headlands, boats and buoys bobbing on the water like toys. Human figures in paintings such as The School Run, Market Day and Am Prabam are deceptively simple; however the posture of gestural marks conveys the attitude and the emotional state of each individual in the crowd, suggesting the nature of their interactions and relationships with others. The sense of close observation within small rural communities, dependent on the land and sea, is heightened in Adams’ painting The Fisherman’s Breakfast with its angular collection of figures; world weary, neurotic, hardened and inherently comic.

Safety in Numbers

Safety in Numbers by James Newton Adams (Acrylic on canvas).

The Fisherman's Breakfast

The Fisherman’s Breakfast by James Newton Adams (Acrylic on canvas).

You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks defies the saying in the uncharacteristically open space the lone figure inhabits. You can’t help but smile as a grown bearded man flies a red kite whilst a small dog looks quizzically on from the edge of the composition! In spite of works like Fisher Boy which skate dangerously close to John Bellany’s raw and sombre vision of village life, Adams holds to his own vision- one which is infused with essential humour in the face of life’s harsher truths. There are also moments of the pure whimsy; in The Butter Dish with a dog eyeing the prize on the kitchen table whilst his elderly owner obliviously washes her dishes, or in the vibrancy and gentility of Open Garden. Adams’ elongated figurative sculptures such as Barrow Boy or Better Together are also infused with precariously poised humour and knowing, in the balance of form and in the relationship between a man and woman holding hands, one following behind the other.

Barrow Boy

Barrow Boy by James Newton Adams (Mild Steel).

Each artist is well represented and it is a pleasure to move between them in the exhibition space, giving rise to intense contemplation, avid thought and humorous delight.

All images by kind permission of Kilmorack Gallery.

www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk

Sam Cartman, Steve Dilworth and Patricia Cain

Kilmorack Gallery, 8 May – 13 June

Moon Sight- Stone

Steve Dilworth, Moon Sight- Stone (Dunite, 60 x 30 x 20cm)

Kilmorack’s latest exhibition combines visions of Nature, Humanity and Industry with paintings by Sam Cartman, pastels and mixed media works by Patricia Cain and a striking collection of sculptural objects by internationally renowned artist Steve Dilworth.

Stylistically this latest body of work marks a high point for Sam Cartman, whose distinctive landscapes capture the mark of agriculture and industry on the land, coupled with the emotional weight of expansive, brooding Scottish skies. In the context of contemporary landscape painting in Britain, it is refreshing to see Cartman’s industrial palette and architecturally structured compositions, coupled with the immediate response of drawn and incised marks in pencil, charcoal and oils. Although from a distance the formal arrangement of form, colour, and line dominate, immediately drawing the eye into the composition, up close there is subtlety and variety in the artist’s handling of paint that is a real pleasure to behold.

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Sam Cartman, Tynron Treelines (Oil, 58 x 61cm)

The bold deliberation and planar treatment of fields or sky are beautifully tempered by the textural qualities of thick impasto, using palette knife and brush, delicate washes and impulsive, spontaneous marks. Cartman’s engagement with the picture plane mirrors places where the imprint of human hands and industrial machinery are integrated into the rolling earth, hills and vegetation. These points of intersection between the structured order of the man-made landscape and natural elements are reflected in the artist’s paint handling.

Milnton Byre

Sam Cartman, Milnton Byre (Oil, 58 x 81cm)

Tellingly he chooses to paint a quarry on the Isle of Skye as opposed to the customary scene of misty mountains or an endless parade of picturesque coastal cottages. His art of landscape isn’t about the Romanticised or Picturesque but something more real and complex. The inherent design and physicality of paint create a sense of place somewhere between the rural countryside and urbanity.  This edginess can be seen in the way that paint is layered, pronounced edges, accents of hot orange or red and in the positioning of human architecture. In Milnton Byre (Oil) an out building is set in an abstracted composition of dense yellow ochre, the stark whiteness containing a depth of ultramarine, drawing the eye to a distant horizon of smeared, circular trees in blue and greens. There is a feeling of focused isolation in this work, laid bare in the more abstract painting Elephant (Oil) in a deeper, cooler and vibrant palette of blues.

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Sam Cartman, Skye Quarry (Oil, 91.5 x 122cm)

Cartman’s large scale painting Glenshee (Oil) sees the dynamic elements of his style pushed to their limit in an exciting combination of geometric abstraction and natural line. The sky is a progression of deepening tonality from left to right, intersected by white, rectangular impasto and the composition of blue, green, grey and white fields, with linear accents of orange and arched mountains, lead the eye to dwell convincingly at the centre of the composition. The sense of space and depth in the landscape is powerfully realised in the artist’s design, distinctive marks and distilled palette.

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Patricia Cain, Thicket II (Pastel, 170 x 170cm)

Patricia Cain’s mixed media works and pastel drawings provide a visual counterpoint between natural forms and man –made structures. Favouring the diptych, Cain creates spaces for contemplation in bisected images of growth; both in the natural world Thicket II (Pastel) and the built environment Arena (Pastel). The division of the image and detailed marks intervenes in how we might ordinarily read (or momentarily scan) images drawn from everyday life. In Arena Cain creates an incredible sense of depth in a myriad of scaffolding, hard metal drawn in the contradictory medium of soft pastel. Out with the tangled branches of Thicket II, she creates negative white space for the viewer’s mind to wander into. There is a sense of mapped chaos in organically charged intersections of branches and foliage; interestingly resembling an aerial, God-like perspective of humanity in a built up urban setting.

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Patricia Cain, Arena (Pastel, 186 x 250cm)

In Living as a Process (Pastel) Cain alludes to a human trajectory in young green leaves amongst a tangle of growth, set against swathes of white space, pregnant with creative possibilities.  Whilst the scale of ambition in Cain’s large scale drawings is undeniable, her abstract collaged mixed media works, reminiscent of an aged Matisse, are less convincing. The bold abstraction of Forest (Watercolour and Pastel) displays a more interesting interplay of visual elements; colour, line and form, in a concentrated ground of red hot vermillion. Emotional and spatial depth is created with the utmost economy; with dual vertical lines in white and black receding into the distance, whilst the upright solidity of the tree in the foreground, partially shaded in pastel and with a single curve, brings the suggestion of growth in cool shades of green and blue.

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Patricia Cain, Living as a Process (Pastel, 111 x 150cm)

On entering the gallery the gravitational pull of Steve Dilworth’s sculptural objects cuts a swathe through the space. The presentation of this three dimensional work on a series of waist height plinths allows the viewer to get up close from multiple angles and experience the intimately tactile qualities of each work, with directional lighting enhancing the angular precision of their sublime craftsmanship.

Moon Sight-Stone (Dunite) combines Deco-like elegance of line with the grounded integrity of stone, millions of years old. Drawn from the landscape of Harris, the seamless combination of fluid planes and orbital form suggests shifting light and perception, the phases of the moon, the passage of time and of the seasons over millennia. It is the entire cosmos in a single piece of earth; the living, breathing presence of Nature whose beauty lies in being both deadly and Divine. The complex hollows of the orbital cavity shift and change between positive and negative space, darkness and light, waxing and waning before the viewer’s eyes and summoning something deep within. Moon Sight-Stone speaks to the viewer on a primal level. The hollow orb could be an eye or a grasping claw, the flawlessly smooth and dynamically sharp edges of hewn stone polished to perfection with natural accents glinting like stars.  Linked to the legend of Seer Stones it is an object of ancient tradition, Art which has its origins in ritual and the stories we tell to make sense of the world and of ourselves.

Like many of Dilworth’s sculptural forms it is monumentally intimate and naturally ambiguous. Moon Sight-Stone could be an object of communication and sight over vast distances, a shapeshifting bird, or an entire landscape of human consciousness. What is invested in its making translates directly to the imagination of the viewer, connecting us to the impulses and contradictions that make us human.  It is intensely physical and deeply cerebral in its acknowledgement of a way of seeing and being on the earth, linked to tribal or indigenous cultures. It is carved intuitively and engineered with perseverance, the weight of stone beautifully poised and balanced, cool to the touch, lithely evasive in movement to awaken the senses. This is not a sculptural object to be passively looked at and admired, to commemorate history or glorify its maker, but to be experienced and held within, an initiation into collective human memory and to aspects of self we may well have forgotten in the blurring attention deficit of everyday life. Dilworth’s objects have extraordinary clarity of form and intention, they’re not trying to be anything; they are real rather than representational and absolutely grounded in life, death and the human condition.

Swift Kilmorack

Steve Dilworth, Swift (Dunite and Swift, 23 x 9 x13cm)

Many of Dilworth’s objects contain once living material as transitional points in awakening consciousness.  Life and death are eternal dance partners and in an intimate, hand held work like Swift (Dunite and Swift) this centre of spiritual gravity can be sensed and felt in the body. Hollows for the fingers on the underside of the object naturally fit the hands with the thumbs resting in mask-like eye sockets. The apex points towards the body with the weight of stone perfectly balanced , like an object for divining with inward directionality. The robust, masculine form feels like a recently discovered artefact from a long lost tribe, its centre of gravity resting in the collective unconscious. Plumbing the depths of the soul for recognition, this work suggests an innate connection with the timeless human need for Creativity and imagination as a source of renewal.

Throwing Object  Steve Dilworth, Throwing Object (Lignum Vitae, Leather and Bird, 13cm diameter)

Another hand held work Throwing Object (Lignum Vitae, Leather and Bird) is crafted to naturally fit into the palms, the smooth wood and smell of bound, interlaced leather brilliantly melded together. Inside is an archetypal mystery, hidden from view and aligned with the spirit. Rattle (Burr Elm, fishing line and stone pebbles) is reminiscent of Neolithic fertility objects and ritual, with slices of elm creating an open rattle, like the deep crevice of a rock or the female body. As if miraculously confronting a wooden object that has survived over thousands of years, Dilworth’s Rattle is playfully and powerfully aligned with the fertile human imagination, the idea of rebirth and the art object as a bridge between the physical and the metaphysical.

Water Skull

Steve Dilworth, Water Skull Macquette (Mixed Media for Casting, 40 x 37 x 54cm)

Many of Dilworth’s sculptural forms feel as though they are in the process of transformation or becoming. The artist’s Water Skull Macquette (Mixed Media for Casting) is crafted from the inside out, with two halves fitting beautifully together in endlessly fluid, evolutionary form. Every surface, even those we cannot see are given equal care and consideration. It is a fascinating hybrid of outer carapace in the overlapping shell-like interior and inner skeleton in a hinged, oblong outer skull. Part insect, part crustacean and part marine mammal, it is born of natural elements and could be a fragment from an ancient past or a projection of the future once global warming has transformed the planet, returning it to a primordial, aquatic swamp.  The aquiline curves invoke the elemental movement of water, whilst the solidity of the skull creates the impression of an organism built for endurance. As the model for a larger scale work, it would be wonderful to see Water Skull Macquette cast in bronze on a truly monumental scale and exhibited permanently in a public location.

Beaked Bird 2Beaked Bird 1

Steve Dilworth Beaked Bird (Bronze Ed 3 of 5, 20 x 50 x 40cm)

Two versions of Beaked Bird (Bronze Ed 3 of 5), the first in a dark bronze patina and the second finished to a golden patina, reminiscent of organic materials such as aged stone, bone or ivory, is also a transformational and highly ambiguous object. Aside from the associations of its title, the elongated beak sits seamlessly in the hollows of a rounded elliptical form; suggesting the germination of a seed, the embryo of an as yet undiscovered species or a hermaphroditic organism. The combination of masculine and feminine forms is also an intriguing feature of Venus Stone (Dunite). Poised on its side like a reclining nude, Dilworth’s tooth form with sharpened roots links to earlier forms by the artist in alabaster and granite; inspired by hawking lures and ancient fertility statues such as the Venus of Willendorf. The supremely smooth dominant curves of this Venus Stone are essentially feminine; a crescent curve feels aligned to the transformational power of lunar phases and ancient mythology. The object is innately sensual to the touch, like a caress from hip to thigh but with a predatory angularity. Run your finger along the pointed root of the tooth and there is a sonic effect, like an invocation of our most basic instincts whether hunting or hunted. The duality of nature and of human nature, both masculine and feminine, is brought to bear in this work.  It is powerful and subtle; in its soft sheen, sharpened lines and deceptive simplicity, a supremely honed object of complex human behaviour and psychology; sexual, sensual and invested in survival.

Tooth- Venus Stone

Steve Dilworth, Venus Stone (Dunite, 50 x 25 x 23cm)

There are many works in this exhibition to be savoured, enjoyed and revisited. The exquisite crafting of Dilworth’s sculptural objects, both in thought and execution, together with their presentation in the gallery space, naturally invite the viewer to make their own tactile and imaginative connections. The way that the thematic content of Cartman’s paintings and Cain’s pastels inform each other and the rich layers of association in the materials and crafting of Dilworth’s three dimensional objects make this an exceptional exhibition not to be missed.

All images by kind permission of Kilmorack Gallery.

www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk

Play Like A Child, But Seriously.

Whims-of-Desire

Alan Macdonald, Whims of Desire (2014, 44′ x 42′, Oil on Linen)

I had a long awakening dream-at the end there was a horse standing in a tree- a search party with dogs stood below and the dogs pled with the horse to come down from the tree, but the horse tried and failed, saying that he couldn’t as he was born in that tree -it was only later a friend said- that’s you. If you’re born to be an artist then that’s you in the tree.

Alan Macdonald.

What takes many artists a lifetime to learn is to be themselves and no one else; an imperative that takes courage, conviction and sheer determination in an Art World driven by artistic personas and shooting stars. Many artists produce what they think will bring them “success”, denying the authenticity and unique vision that actually creates a sell out show. Walking your own path and possessing the uncompromising willingness to go where the work and process dictate creates a special kind of energy in the making of Art. It is immediately palpable, sensed and felt directly by the audience regardless of the Age or discipline and the primary source of connection between the artist, the viewer and the work. What is immediately apparent on meeting Alan Macdonald in his studio is his profound focus and boundless enthusiasm, fully invested in creative process. Each new work is a puzzle to be solved, constantly striving towards greater awareness, fluency and distillation of language. What sets him apart in the world of Contemporary Art is his intense curiosity and joyful humour, testing his own limits as an artist and what the confines of a two dimensional painted surface can be. His latest body of work marks a significant milestone in the artist’s oeuvre, a level of mature integration of style, technique and unconscious obsessions which have consistently shaped his practice for over 30 years.

For Alan Macdonald Life/ Art is a serious, invigorating game of discovery, shared wholeheartedly with the viewer. The refreshing and expansive quality of his work lies in its joyous engagement with the imagination and free association. This openness in relation to self-awareness and to the world is invested with a childlike sense of wonder and possibility. “Each painting wants to be something; my job is to find what that is.” “I give [the viewer] the actors, the props and the set”, actively encouraging the audience to be their own Director and make their own connections with the work. Macdonald invites us into the playground of Art and into his paintings; to bring ourselves to them in a way that is liberating and free from cultural austerity. He encourages us to access the child within and to trust our adult selves enough to create our own meanings and narratives within and beyond the frame.

A Monk With a Skunk

Alan Macdonald, A Monk With A Skunk (2014,Oil on Board, 18′ x 24′)

Although humour and beauty in the treatment of his subjects is often the initial hook, what keeps me returning to this artist’s work is the multi-layered nature of the exploration, plumbing the depths of our hidden selves. “Each protagonist has a purpose” and finds their own ways of stepping outside the picture plane. The primitive, instinctual, childlike aspects of ourselves appear in Macdonald’s work and process like Freud’s analogy of the Id as a horse, with “superior strength to that of the rider”.  The rider (The Ego) on horseback holds the impulsive horse in check, but must also acknowledge the spirit and strength of force (or state of being) which ultimately carries him/her forward. The integration of design, deliberation and instinct in this latest body of work acknowledges the importance of this creative dynamic. Letting go of the reigns may bring an artist temporary fear and uncertainty, but it is also a way for the maker and their audience to experience movement, growth and go further than the conscious mind would ever sanction.

Macdonald never begins his work with a final image in the mind as a foregone conclusion. His sketchbooks are as fluid as his approach to board, canvas or linen, a fertile ground for ideas to surface in drawings which are erased and revisited over time; creating a new moment when a combination of elements or something emerging out of the ground takes the work in a another direction.  An essential part of the creative process is engagement with underlying thoughts, feelings and motivations which may not be brought into conscious awareness until the composition or body of work is complete. Surprise and discovery are as much a part of creating the work as seeing it. Macdonald characteristically brings objects of modernity, memory and history into play with the human figure to create multiple pathways of interpretation across time. High Art, Contemporary Design, Theatre and Craft are equals in his compositions and framing. Although there are elements of the Surreal in his work; in the juxtaposition of elements and objects out of time and place, it is not Surrealist and resists such definitions.

“You’ve got to let it flow and catch up afterwards. It feels like your unconscious is the more intelligent side. I always have this inner dialogue- like its saying; ‘Oh for goodness sake!’ and the conscious side is going ‘wait, wait- I don’t understand!’ (Laughing) With opposites I’m thinking – can I get away with that and make it visually work within my language. The first Van Dyke figure on a Vespa was full of life, saying something so simply and directly. When you come to paint the bike and her- they have to work together and be in the same painting. If I paint the Vespa exactly, all gleaming and precise it will look like it isn’t meant to be there.  Magritte said it’s very easy to be a Surrealist by putting a lobster on a phone but it’s much more poetic to place an egg inside a birdcage. It’s coming up with something special that isn’t just quirky or obvious. I worry over paintings-I say to myself, is that right? But I really believe in taking a risk sometimes. Put restrictions on yourself and play with the boundaries, without restrictions there is chaos. If it gets predictable, throw in a spanner or a grenade!”

The-Candy-Man

Alan Macdonald, The Candy Man, (2014, Oil on Linen, 75′ x 85′)

Understanding the categorisation and hierarchy of Western Painting and its canon of Masters, Macdonald visually acknowledges his artistic heroes like Titian, Ingres, Goya or Van Dyke but also throws a grenade, actively subverting our expectations of how the female nude, portrait, self-portrait, landscape or history painting should behave. The artist’s palette and glazed surface of his paintings, which ironically employ a technique used in restoration, create the depth and feeling of an Old Master, but with fresh marks that resist definition and encourage the viewer to complete the work.  The historic cloak of pigment and glaze, like the costumes and armoury worn by his figures are part of a visual inheritance, but they are also part of the eternally human game of trying to come to terms with Now; who we are, why we’re here and how we see ourselves. Humour is a key element in Macdonald’s work, together with a lifelong investment in his craft; always working to be present and receptive to the moment of inspiration when it comes.

“In the studio I’m playing but in an advanced way. I don’t believe in standing still. I keep learning ways to keep the painting fresh and painterly. My process has changed radically; I used to under paint bright colours and then paint it out with black and bring it back out. It’s like when you change a face- not in a photographic way but a painterly way, like you’ve just given it a soul. You have to keep an open mind- I come into the studio in the morning with a sense of adventure. I have to find a way to work quickly so I can capture that energy- if I plotted and planned for a week it just wouldn’t happen for me. I can plan a big painting then the morning I go to start it the Id will go’ hey (He whistles) over here!’ and I always go with that. If you’re a little bit scared of your ideas that’s healthy-if it’s not happening with a painting then take a risk…

I had some success with my abstract paintings- you make a mark and then respond to that mark in wild abandon- then I controlled it a bit more- using texture, primer to pre-prime an area- rub back through, using accidental marks and layers as leading elements. Abstraction taught me about following my feelings and not having to have a reason before you start. Some of my best works have happened because I don’t really know why, but I know that I want to.  The response was childlike- immediate and honest.  If you start painting about painting you need to get a life!  When I go into my studio I go inwards and see what I find on the journey. When go out to a film or read they naturally filter in and eventually they pop back out again- your subconscious picks and chooses what it wants. I’ll have this! I find that really exciting- you experience the world, be inquisitive, look into things. I love Brian Cox’s programmes- he can say something which is hard to get your head around and then he’ll do something with sand- while he’s saying it he’s got a smile and then he stops and he’s dead serious.”

Beyond-the-Pale

Alan Macdonald, Beyond The Pale (2014, Oil on Board, 13′ x 24′)

“Play like a child, but seriously” is a way of being shaped by the artist’s formative years in Malawi, South East Africa. Grounded in indigenous ways of seeing relationships between the natural world, spirituality and human perception, Macdonald’s vision as an artist is defined by natural fluency between the physical and metaphysical. Creating his own worlds through painting, aspects of self such as courage can emerge instinctually, often in animal form. There is a dance of integration between primitive, instinctual elements feeding the work and civilizing structures of domed confinement such as hooped dresses or architecture which also appear in his paintings. Macdonald’s work is created “beyond the pale” with a clear sense of a dominion of order and authority, knowing within himself that a much more exciting and fertile territory lies beyond.  The uncontrollable and the highly cultivated are marriage partners in his paintings, a relational balance of captivating tension seen throughout his work.

“I was very privileged in my upbringing”, he says, describing leaving Malawi for Scotland as a teenager as “the closing of a lovely bubble of my childhood.” Macdonald powerfully invokes this state of child-like reverie and adventure in his mature work. As a child growing up in Africa with no television and scarce access to consumer goods, immersion in imaginative play and the natural environment fired the artist’s burgeoning creativity. The freedom to disappear for the whole day to play with other children in the village, absorbed in games that became ever more inventive and complex, left a lasting imprint. “There was also the Majestic cinema- they did a Saturday kids screening- everyone was shouting and cheering, if there was a pirate film on you’d be fighting all the way home.” Visiting the UK on leave with his family every two years, everyday products, new cars, ice-cream vans and Pop music amazed and delighted him. “A light went on at 12 or 13 that didn’t go out”.  In Africa Macdonald was also introduced to the idea of Craft as the integrity and pride invested in handmade objects; in the unexpected beauty of recycled tin cars and woven materials, the sandblasted patina of old fashioned coke bottles and the pristine tailoring of hand sewn clothing which shaped the young artist’s conception of making.

“So much of what we buy now is machine made-but there is a need for man-made, tactile things- it’s why people buy antiques.  They can get a wonderfully straight surface but it’s not quite straight. I want my paintings to feel like they are handmade- there are mistakes if you look at a background or when I’ve changed my mind. Then on the other side I love modern things.  I know a lot of people don’t like Jeff Koons, but the first time I saw ‘Balloon Dog’ I thought it was fantastic- it has such a lust for life- It’s like a child jumping up and down saying ‘Look at me! I’m Happy, I’m Happy!’ I’m sure there is another side which is calculating, but I loved the piece he made for the Venice Biennale-the big puppy with its tongue hanging out made of flowers that eventually withered, it was stunning.”

Leaving Malawi on the cusp of adulthood, just as he was becoming aware of the societal boundaries that existed as part of the country’s colonial past, has kept the artist’s memories of childhood liberty alive.  It is this naiveté, sense of gratitude and joie de vivre that enter into the rendering of brightly coloured packaging or the natural cohabitation of human figures, animals and objects in Macdonald’s mature work. Reflecting on his passage from childhood to adulthood, the artist described seeing a more recent photograph of the family home in Malawi, surrounded by razor wire- a life and world view defined by “mistrust” he was fortunate to escape. What the young man carried with him to the UK was the vital spark of imagination (a quality which in adulthood is all too often driven underground) and the enduring conviction that an artist was the only thing he could possibly be.

Drawn to visual expression from an early age, in “dusty colonial libraries” he discovered books on Reynolds, Whistler and Da Vinci, free from the institutional framing of museum and gallery halls. In Da Vinci he saw not unattainable genius, but a growing capacity within himself; “Da Vinci analysed everything, he took it apart to really look into things deeply”. This quality can be seen in Macdonald’s adult paintings, applied to visual language and the compartmentalisation of dark reliquary spaces in works like Guru (1993) and Portrait of a Saint (1999). The dark grounds of his paintings are fields of unconscious retrieval and spaces of awakening conscience, carrying positive rather than negative associations. “When I was a child living in Africa, I was outside on a night lit by the moon and feeling a little scared, I stepped from the light into a dark shadow. The darkness wrapped itself around me and fear was replaced by an understanding that I was being protected.” 

03  Hell Hole

Alan MacDonald, Hell Hole.

04. Minotaur At Rest

Alan MacDonald, Minotaur At Rest.

Recent works such as Hell Hole (2014, Oil on board 21″ x 16″) and Minotaur At Rest (2014, Oil on Board, 10″ x 9″) return to the idea of dark recesses of the labyrinthine mind and what can be brought forth in a Bosch-like stream of consciousness towards greater awareness. “After the Minotaur- I did this- a painting that I just stopped working on- (Hell Hole)- originally it was a woman with a dress, one figure came out- then another and another- they just took over. It’s a bit of an uncontrolled and unruly painting but there’s a lot in there…the nailed section at the top might come into the arches and make them more tactile.” Macdonald’s framing of imagery; using proscenium arches, split composition, theatrical curtains and mental shelves ,where protagonists or objects in the foreground are about to fall into the spectator’s own space, create an exciting sense of shifting perspective. Like the image of the disappearing staircase in Hell Hole, Macdonald’s paintings encourage us to explore the labyrinthine spaces within our own minds. The repetition of circular forms also appear as threshold spaces; the burnt hole revealing a dark ground beneath, the banjo rim, the dark emotional hole of the lone chair and neon sign, the lever and pull cord to the basement of marauding figures and the white balls tumbling forth from slot machine model architecture. The paint handling in the painting’s furthest recesses is Goya-like, bold marks which allow us to imagine a Hell Hole of our own making. Even within this darkness however, there is a torch-like match- aligned with an angel who reaches towards it. The burn hole leading to the dark space beneath the painting becomes a vital act of seeing.

02. Guardian of AngelsAlan Macdonald-Guardian of Angels.

This idea of the dark ground of ourselves is beautifully distilled in another recent painting, Guardian of Angels (2015, Oil on Board, 21″ x 18”). Here the bisection of the image seen through a stage-like archway serves as a self-reflexive space. The central male protagonist stands to the right, in a tonal recess that suggests movement between different fields of perception. There is incredible depth as you move around the painting, the glazed dark space behind the figure expanding beyond all expectation. Our sense of perspective is not created by the Renaissance style chequered floor or an idyllic Arcadian landscape but by a composition of elements which are endlessly fluid. The calm demeanour of the “guardian” in historic costume, with comic ruff, the sandals of a pilgrim, gun, bell and bugle stands guard at the window threshold to a landscape which is itself loaded with shadows of ambiguity. The red rose above him feels like steady devotion to his task, guarding the angel or spirit of exploration moving into a space within and beyond the picture plane. The cut stump in the foreground and empty hollow plinth of equal height seem to regard each other on a stage of interior projections.

Villain-of-the-Peace

Villain of the Peace (2015, Oil on board 27″ x 24″) utilises a cutaway stone shelf beneath the horned male protagonist, a form mirrored in the cuckoo clock-like cavity in the centre of his chest, reflecting the interior foundation of the painting. Latin and modern text is incorporated into the ornate pattern of his Elizabethan costume which conceals as much as it reveals; a player with an action man type cord pull, AK47 at his hip and crushed can in hand in florid, theatrical dress. Standing above a well from which the assembled characters have come to drink, UFO beaming down on a Book of Retribution and background fires blazing, the central protagonist occupies shifting ground between comedy and destruction. Beneath the surface of the painting and the protagonist’s feet is the fluid, emotionally conductive element of water. The reassuring framing of stage like curtains contain the scene, but the wellspring at the base of the painting remains endlessly expansive. In A Simple Test of Faith (2014, Oil on Board, 17” x 36”) a male protagonist in cardinal’s dress sits in a space which creates its own shadow. The bisected composition with a landscape of historic exploration, attendant jaguar and Memento Mori skull is tensely balanced between humour and danger.  Macdonald playfully places the protagonist’s hat on the ledge of the painting and dares him to retrieve it. In the game of painting it’s isn’t a choice between Truth or Dare, but both simultaneously.

A-Simple-Test-of-Faith

Alan Macdonald, A Simple Test of Faith

Early paintings like Portrait of an Anarchist (1996, Oil on Board, 10’ x 32’) a panel of upside down images; Still Life, Portrait, a tree in the Landscape and vertical cloud/ horizon line. (Labelled 4, II, one, three beneath) actively play with expectations about genre and the snobbery of “knowing about Art”, a perception which is so often a barrier to honesty and enjoyment. Instinctively the audience, upon seeing what looks like a sequence of Old Masters, turned on their head with jumbled numerical hierarchies and script, understand the joke. The artist is definitely having fun, but there is also something going on beneath the entertaining punch line. Seeing an exhibition of work by Joseph Banks, Macdonald was inspired by the unexpected colour, expression and abstraction of dashed lines and connecting labels suspended in space. Rather than definitive labelling of diagrams, the scientific expedition and visual exploration of this living material presented an imaginative open book. Text often operates as a kind of inner recess or an abstract in Macdonald’s work, rather than labels which define or ascribe absolute meaning. Like the distillation of words in poetry which create natural spaces around lines and stanzas open to interpretation, the visual elements in MacDonald’s paintings are similarly composed.

The evolution of the artist’s work has been very much about letting visual elements out of their boxes of definition, categorisation and genre. When text is introduced into his paintings it is imaginative rather than instructive or didactic, seen in the emotive resonance of song lyrics or in Bird Brain (2010, Oil on Linen 70 x 60) as a stream of seemingly useless but associative information. “With Bird Brain it was so exciting-like what are you going to write? I found this wonderful miscellany- you can get the ingredients for a McDonald’s hamburger next to something completely different and it fires up your brain with opposites-just completely random things. It was free- It felt great to be able to put anything on a painting and still have it work as a composition.” This sense of freedom also extends to objects, imagery and variations of scale within a painting. “Like (panorama) photographs that don’t quite meet- the joins in the middle are exciting”, part of a shifting ground of perception, the artist consistently playing with pictorial boundaries.

Spaceman

Alan Macdonald, Spaceman

In a recent work like Spaceman (2014, 15’ x 16’, Oil on Board) there is no need for the artist to turn the painting upside down, gravity defying weightlessness has become an integral part of the artist’s language. The face who confronts us, starched white collar, ties and hair drifting in the timeless atmosphere of all human enquiry, is suitably enigmatic. His expression is like many of Macdonald’s protagonists, a subtle combination of emotions; of steadfast contemplation, an almost quizzical eyebrow and a burgeoning smile which we sense might break into laughter in the next moment. Surrounded by rubbery Haribo sweets, the egg in his hand is a comic twist at the heart of artistic creation. The depictions of consumer products in the artist’s paintings are comfortingly familiar but they are also intrinsically painterly. “When I’ve looked into a cartoon or packaging or just being in the supermarket- its striking colour and pictorial elements next to text- they’re like the Dutch ruffs, it’s so dramatic and offsets the flesh of the face…A can of coke is a complete leveller- it can be held by someone on the street or a film actress. Placing products is a levelling process, it is also the tension and dramatic effect of colour and texture; metal next to glass next to wood, they’re visually exciting- the writing as well, I find writing beautiful.  The Rebirth of Venus– Coca Cola sign behind her head- it has such an impact, brings the painting to life.”

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Alan Macdonald, The Elders Surprised by Susannah.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Macdonald’s work is his depiction of the female figure as a uniquely self-possessed central protagonist, often deep in her own thoughts. The female nude in Art, traditionally defined by the male gaze, objectification and display is subverted by the strength of the Feminine in Macdonald’s paintings. Interestingly his female nudes often sell to women. His treatment of a popular biblical subject in the History of Western Art; Susannah and the Elders (painted by male artists for centuries including Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Van Dyck, Rubens and Picasso) is characteristically given a humorous twist. However Macdonald’s The Elders Surprised by Susannah (2009, Oil on Board, 19’ x 15’) also delivers a feminine force to be reckoned with.  She is not a woman passively unaware that she is being looked at or overcome by the threat of lecherous advances.  Often treatment of this subject places the viewer in the position of voyeur, but here we witness Susannah centre stage, emerging luminously from the dark ground, head turned, sights set on those spying on her beyond the picture plane.  The gun she holds is level with her head and equally illuminated- her bent knee and coyly curled toes a pivot for the idea that her poise isn’t to display her nakedness or to conceal her shame, but to take a better aim the next second and take out those who have disrespected her. Her hold on the gun and trigger suggests she’s shot it before and this idea is a counterfoil to her embodiment as a passive object of beauty and chaste morality. Instead of waiting for an ancient narrative in the form of Daniel to uncover the truth and rescue her, Macdonald’s Susannah reveals her own truth in a moment of discovery, being seen as present in her own body and mind. The image is strikingly contemporary, immediately humorous and intriguingly knowing.

Black-Betty

Alan Macdonald, Black Betty (2006, Oil on Linen, 45′ x 36′)

Macdonald visibly acknowledges “the female side of Creativity”, powerfully present in paintings such as his Black Betty series, Queen of the South, Divas Don’t Run, Honky Tonk Woman and A Dame With No Shame. The artist describes these feminine protagonists as elements of self “responsive to feeling”, “unafraid”, “unashamed”, courageous and challenging. “I often put firearms in –people can take them literally- but I mean for them to empower, like Honky Tonk Woman with a pistol on her dress, it just means don’t insult this woman and expect nothing to happen. The feminine side is strong in me- if I’m painting a figure that’s an inspiration she can be quite aloof. I feel inspiration is like that.  It’s like she’ll turn up and go ‘Alright, I’ll turn up just this once!’-‘Well thank you I’ve been sitting here for weeks and now you turn up?!’(laughing). She’s a bit begrudging but when she does show up its great.”

Like Jung’s idea of the shadow self (anima for the male and animus for the female, both with positive/ negative aspects and linked to the collective unconscious) the female protagonists who take centre stage in the artist’s paintings are active triggers for development and creative evolution. One of my most important paintings was Black Betty (2006) to officially come back to the darkness in my paintings- and she was the Goddess of dark paintings! She was standing there staring straight at me through her dark glasses! I did 3 or 4 Black Bettys just because I couldn’t paint anything else. She’s in here.” In more recent work like One Singer One Song (2015, Oil on Linen, 30″ x 24″) there is a feeling of expansion; the central female protagonist climbing onto the plinth, sweeping away a model architecture of being, ready for her unique voice to be heard and explored in future paintings.

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Alan Macdonald, One Singer One Song.

Macdonald’s persistently inquisitive nature, his humour, infectious enthusiasm and sheer bloody mindedness have resulted in a liberating distillation of language in this latest body of work.

“I do the work to understand, to work something out- if I can do it in an entertaining way that’s great. It’s about awareness. That’s the most important thing and feel I understand myself better. There is also the expression, the human aspect. Like borrowing from Muybridge’s woman up a ladder with buckets, that one frame, the moment where she puts the buckets down, her expression is like ‘for God’s sake!’(laughing) -that gets me.” Although MacDonald’s paintings are deeply personal, significantly his work rises above the merely self-referential. The humour and playfulness of his imagery isn’t the sum total of the work, after you’ve stopped laughing there is plenty of substance to be drawn into with each successive viewing. They are paintings meant to be lived with over lifetimes.

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Alan Macdonald, The Garden of Knowledge.

Tipping its hat to Arcimboldo’s 16th Century heads made of flowers, fruit and vegetables, The Garden of Knowledge (2014, Oil on Board 24″ x 20″), depicts a portrait bust of a man sporting a cap made of flowers, who “still manages to maintain his dignity” and “has a little bit of knowledge to impart”. The white ruff he wears has been turned into a kind of pinball mechanism, white pearls of metaphorical wisdom hatched from his head, falling into the foreground and spilling into the viewer’s space. The colour of his costume mirrors the red breast of the robin to his left, suspended in flight. There is delicacy, vulnerability and poignancy in the presence of the bird and in the nuances of facial expression which meet the viewer’s gaze, shifting before our eyes as we go deeper into the painting and the emotional complexities and contradictions of what it is to be human.

The level of maturity, integration and engagement in Macdonald’s paintings is quite extraordinary, testament to an artist bringing all of his understanding, energy and passion to bear in his latest body of work and always striving to do better.

 “I’m very stubborn, I won’t give up. You can have the most terrible time some days but then I get up and start over again. There are always things that you need to improve but it’s also good to know the things that you’re good at. When I left Art School I knew I had a mountain to climb, that it is 99% hard work. I dug in for the long term.  I cut away all the rope bridges, I was offered teaching at different colleges but didn’t take any.  When things are really tough it makes you confront yourself, there’s a cliff edge back there and I need to get better. You say to yourself, I can’t compromise what I do but I can get better at what I do. I’ve learnt to say I can’t do that, but I can do this… and bring people on board. When I finish a body of work 2 or 3 really stick out above the rest and they always sell because people detect that so I thought –what would happen if you got a higher percentage up to that level and beyond? I just dug in and after a while you think-wow I couldn’t have done that last year and it then gets very exciting, because all these doors are flying open and that’s what keeps me going-the paintings I haven’t done that I want to do… the difficult ones are important because they allow you to move forward- wanting to get technically better and better and getting deeper intellectually into the process- starting to recognise things much sooner. Like David Sylvester saying to Francis Bacon; ‘You used to destroy a lot of your early work but you don’t so much anymore’- it was a thorny question, he was challenging him and Francis Bacon said; (narrowing his eyes and imitating Bacon’s distinctive voice) ‘I like to think I’m getting better!’ (laughing). He always said the right thing! I feel the same, as you get older you get better – but there’s also a side of me that pushes too hard. Years later you can push further and make the thing work.

Paint what you want to paint- don’t compromise, it’s that simple….Go back to where you were as a child. On a bad day all the demons get on board and doubt sets in- you think you were wrong. So I say to myself when you had no art education or anything else what did you really want to do? There’s your answer.”

www.alanmacdonald.net

All images reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

Alan Macdonald is currently exhibiting at REALITY: Modern and Contemporary British Painting. Sainsbury Centre for the Arts, Norwich until 1st March 2015.

The Royal Scottish Academy Annual Exhibition, The Mound, Edinburgh, May-June 2015.

and Kilmorack Gallery, By Beauly, Inverness-shire. 19th June- 1st August 2015.

Kilmorack Winter Exhibition

29 November 2014 – March 2015

Kilmorack Gallery, By Beauly

Summit-Fever

James Newton Adams,Summit Fever

Kilmorack’s Winter Exhibition features some exciting work by established artists and those new to the gallery including; James Newton Adams, Paul Bloomer, Patricia Cain,Sam Cartman, Kirstie Cohen, Peter Davis, Helen Denerley, Henry Fraser, Leonie Gibbs, Gail Harvey, Liz Knox, Allan MacDonald, Charles MacQueen, Illona Morrice, Robert Powell and Peter White.

It’s always a pleasure to see work by Shetland based artist Paul Bloomer, particularly his larger scale paintings and woodcuts. View From My Reawick Studio (Woodcut, 65 x 77cm, 1 of 20) with its heightened Expressionistic perspective leads the eye into the composition along a curve of wire to a progression of electricity poles and a tiny cottage in the distance. A squall of marks in which sky, sea and wind are bound together in an undeniable upsurge of energy inform human scale in the image. The angular bisection of the composition creates a psychological edge in stark black and white, with the human dwelling perched precariously on a downward slope of ground. Two curlews drift above the turbulence in ascension, while another sits stationary on the pole in the foreground; at home in their environment, pitched against the gouged physicality of sky.

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Paul Bloomer,View From My Reawick Studio

Bloomer’s large scale woodcuts are the perfect combination of immediacy and deliberation; the spontaneity and intensity of the drawn mark in brilliant counterpoint with highly skilled formal design. Drawing and painting out of doors in all weathers, at the mercy of nature in the UK’s most Northerly Isles gives Bloomer’s work a unique dynamism and perspective on humanity. Charcoal drawing onto board provides the foundation for his consummate skill as a printmaker. Woodcuts demand an assured hand and mindful, hewn precision in their making, qualities which have always been present in this artist’s work; from the powerful social critiques of his Black Country figurative works to his current focus on the natural world.

Gannets-at-Noss

Paul Bloomer Gannets at Noss

His depictions of birds, particularly those in flight such as Gannets at Noss (Woodcut, 95 x 64cm, 1 of 20) or resting Yellow Warblers (Woodcut, 1 of 20, 50 x 64cm) are invested with life and light. In the former we see the aerodynamic velocity of gannets plummeting into the ocean, their design in perfect harmony with their natural drive to feed. The spiral like composition of Yellow Warblers exudes luminosity and natural order, the cyclical nature of life and vulnerability in bold silhouette. These are medium sized works compared to the expansive scope of Bloomer’s Art in Oils, Watercolour, Mixed Media and Printmaking; however their distinctive style and execution make them among the most striking works in the exhibition.

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Peter Davis Watch House Loch

Another Shetland based artist Peter Davis demonstrates his adeptness with watercolour, creating contemplative images with enviable economy. In Watch House Loch (Watercolour, 47 x 68cm) a basin like field of washes bled into progressive depths of ultramarine create a sense of emotional depth. The stillness of sky, water and reflective cloud in Davis’s lyrical image Smalla Waters at Dusk (Watercolour, 47 x 68cm) is a highlight in a suite of paintings by the artist which extend into abstraction. The most convincing of these are bridges between representation and abstraction, where the artist’s command of the medium is finely balanced in calculated fluidity. The suspension of pigment gives these works delicacy, revealing distinct qualities of light found only in the far Northern landscape.

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Allan MacDonald,   A Dense Accumulation

Allan MacDonald has contributed some truly celebratory works to the exhibition. A Dense Accumulation (Oil on Board, 50 x 60cm) is a work of beauty with life in every mark. It’s a joyful celebration of nature in full bloom reaching towards an affirmation of blue sky. This quality is also present in Storm Cloud, Wheatfield, Oil on Board 25 x 30cm) where a thick impasto field is aglow and the threat of storm clouds are subtly contrasted with the brightness of blue above. The paint handling is fully invested in the subject, reinterpreting the landscape and our place within it. Sound of Many Waters (Oil on Board, 17 x 61cm) is another beautifully realised marriage of colour, texture and gestural mark; the rough edges of the board complementing the yellow of unfurling waves, deep oceanic greens and steadfast purple headland. Calm water, tide and ocean swell meet in a single evasive moment captured by MacDonald’s intuitive response to his environment and masterly paint handling.

Charles MacQueen’s work celebrates intense associations of colour, form and place. Pool Essaouira ( Mixed Media, 71 x 73cm) is a symphony of blue where overlapping fields of colour create depth in a supremely balanced composition of form and feeling. Heat Marrakech (Mixed Media, 102 x 76cm) is a furnace of orange and red, while Heat (Mixed Media, 70 x 60cm) contrasts the cool interior arch of the doorway with the glow of incandescent cadmium red. We rest in a space between shadow and light in MacQueen’s evocation of place and memory.

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Liz Knox, Object Troves

A new addition to the gallery’s established artists is Liz Knox, whose best oil paintings are an intuitive rather than literal interpretation of the Northern Scottish coastline. Although the high octane palette sits on a formulaic edge, her nuanced paint handling is extremely sensitive and demonstrates great promise. Object Troves (Oil on Canvas, 71 x 102cm) is a good example, with the under painting emerging from shifting sands and receding tide. Within this fluid environment we see reliquaries of memory; gathered shells, a shoe and a bucket and spade presented in precious alcoves of sand and remembrance.

Near-Rispond-Sutherland

Liz Knox, Near Rispond, Sutherland

Near Rispond, Sutherland (Oil on Canvas, 71 x 102cm.) with its expanse of beach, depth of colour and emergent light on the horizon also presents an interpretative space rather than a pictorial scene. The rocks in the foreground feel like a mountainous microcosm of Sutherland, heightened by wedged accents of brilliant red. The curvature of a tide like stain in the lower right hand corner reveals the ebb and flow of the artist’s own rhythm and way of seeing; a distinctive voice which becomes somewhat lost in a work like Helmsdale Masts where the handling and palette are too uniform. What separates and elevates exponents of landscape painting in the UK is the artist’s ability to mindfully inhabit the landscape rather than simply look at it. Whatever the style may be if the artist is invested in such a way then inevitably the audience will feel it.

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James Newton Adams, The Milk Round

In Summit Fever James Newton Adams’ Summit Fever (Acrylic on Board, 76 x 76cm) the frozen ground is flattened into a promontory that extends into the icy blue sea beyond. With an economy of mark the artist portrays the human state of activity in each tiny figure, a quality which extends to a rare interior scene Highland Wedding (Acrylic on Card, 76 x 101cm). There is humour and pathos as we enter the austere expanse of a hall populated with tiny figures at a wedding reception, each one expressive of their own inner state. The naïve style is immediate and the perspective emotive. The Milk Round (Acrylic on Card, 76 x 76cm) is another fine example where the winding street of a seaside village dwarfs the lone figure bent double like the warning of an “aged” street sign, carrying home a dead weight of loneliness in a bag of shopping. The isolation of the human being is present in all of these works, but there is also life and humour in the artist’s keen observation. Although reminiscent of Lowry, these latest works are very much branded by Adams’ unique vision of humanity and the psychological territory of Northern Scotland. Until the daffodils begin to appear Kilmorack is a great place to fill the winter months with colour, light and insight.

All images by kind permission of Kilmorack Gallery.

www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk