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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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 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.
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.
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.