Revisionism and the Art of Decay

“Poetry fettered fetters the human race. Nations are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their poetry, painting and music are destroyed or flourish” William Blake

Detail J.M. Waterhouse Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) Manchester Art Gallery.

In July I attended the opening of the Emil Nolde- Colour is Life exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the subject of a previous post. It’s an exhibition that has remained in my mind ever since, for the issues it raised as much as the art. When the show first opened in Dublin, The Independent ran with the headline; “Can you enjoy great art created by a Nazi? New Emile Nolde exhibition explores this dilemma.” William Cook’s article suggested that; “the big question for our times is whether you can condemn someone’s sexual conduct, and still enjoy their art. In the case of painter Emil Nolde, can we delight in his work even though he was an enthusiastic supporter of Adolf Hitler?” This question has been compounded by reports of wider historical revisionism in the press throughout 2018. Some based on well-meaning curatorial or civic actions, all begging further investigation.

The renaming of a 1929 Emily Carr painting by the Art Gallery of Ontario, the removal of a 19th Century nude painting by J.M. Waterhouse at the Manchester Art Gallery, the recent controversy of boycotted music by Richard Wagner aired on Israeli radio and the removal of an “Early Days” racist colonial statue in San Francisco are all potent examples, worthy of their own article.  Each one is an act of historical revisionism that raises essential questions about who owns culture. Who has the right to alter or remove historical documents, artefacts or art objects from public view and under what circumstances, if at all? In my profession all art is political, whether consciously nailing its colours to the mast or not. The expression of ideas can certainly be dangerous, depending on the ideological intent of the maker and the lens of hindsight / historical context we use to examine it. However, reading a book, seeing a play, film, art exhibition or listening to music doesn’t mean you agree with the content or the opinions of the artist(s) who created it. You have free will (as long as you live in a place that hasn’t banned the means of expression) to make up your own mind. At what point did we need to be protected from that process and for whose benefit?

Cover of the exhibition programme from the Degenerate Art Exhibition. Germany 1937. Wikipedia Commons.

In 1937 Hitler staged an exhibition of Modern Art to “educate” the public on the “art of decay.” Masquerading as a righteous, moral crusade in the national interest, it was a visual statement of “otherness”, establishing that freedom of expression would not be tolerated by the ruling party. Artists were cast as “degenerate” in this political theatre, banned, exiled, imprisoned and killed. The removal and destruction of “impure” art from museums and Nazi book burnings are examples of the threat posed by independent, creative thinking to the art of control. Dictators understand the power of culture as a mirror of identity, an instrument of mass manipulation and conformity. It’s a fine line in any crusade between judging what is morally right and wrong and imposition of will at the expense of other human beings.  Depending on what uniform is being worn at any point in human history, judgement and revision of what is morally and socially acceptable can result in progressive freedom and equality or persecution and genocide. The history of art makes these human triumphs and horrors visible in high definition. Arguably the study and preservation of these objects helps us not to forget who we were, are and could be, for good or ill. Whether we like what we see is a different question.

Adolf Hitler and Adolf Ziegler inspect the installation by Willrich and Hansen of the Degenerate art Show, 1937. The wall behind them calls attention to the works of the Dada artists with depreciatory comments. Photographer not known (“anonymous”). Retrieved from Northwestern University, Illinois, 31 December 2007.Wikipedia Commons.

The implications of branding art as dangerous, offensive or immoral are complex, far reaching and in the current reactionary climate, deeply troubling. Simply expressing outrage, assigning blame and obliterating the perceived cause without wider self-reflection and ethical debate is irresponsible. Social media gives people the ability to celebrate and condemn instantly and without responsibility, a power to brand which on its own does nothing to prevent history repeating itself. Hitler was fuelled by outrage, blame and the desire to obliterate in the name of making Germany great again, installing himself as the ultimate author of truth. State sanctioned persecution deemed morally and socially acceptable by the Third Reich is derided today in the minds of the majority of people. However, we should never forget what Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil”. Branding something or someone as evil, as part of a morally black or white worldview, is a psychological trick of language, effectively containing that evil beyond ourselves. It might make us feel better and morally superior temporarily, but that labelling of otherness also enables abdication of responsibility. Calling evil out isn’t enough, because it is always closer to home than we want to believe or admit.

On one level, the post-Weinstein pariah effect, reappraising and potentially banning work by artists accused of sexual abuse feels like democratic justice gone viral. Like a boil being lanced, there’s relief at the outpouring of pain and exposure of toxic masculinity, both long overdue. Whether legal prosecution and punishment follows from the Whitehouse to Hollywood and beyond remains to be seen. Whilst the public expulsion of bad men from positions of power, authority and celebrity sends a message of zero tolerance, it falls short in addressing everyday lived experience. The #MeToo tsunami is profoundly positive on many levels, however the gap between being heard on social media and behavioural change in the real world requires further closure, moving towards greater human equality. The underlying nature of humanity and the use, or abuse, of power is what is demanding a re-trial here and now.

Art can and should confront us with uncomfortable truths about human behaviour and is equally the way we imagine alternative realities, out-create destruction and actively shape a brighter future. Though threatened with removal from the curriculum at every turn, Art History and the Humanities have never been more relevant or necessary to human survival. When I saw the Nolde show it made me deeply uncomfortable. Even in the positive light of many of his paintings, I stood there grappling with my moral and ethical compass. Rather than magnetically finding North, the arrow constantly quivered between the artist/human being, the work and the self-righteous comfort of historical hindsight. I accept that uneasy and sometimes disturbing process because critically it’s part of my job. I’ve always believed that challenging the viewer is an essential function of art, individually and collectively. An object or body of work that makes you own up to who you are, what you value, support, and more importantly why, is always invaluable.

Today many commemorative sculptures exist around the world from an age of colonisation that are a source of profound pain and distress to indigenous people. As monuments erected by oppressors over the oppressed, they represent enslavement, abuse and institutionalised racism. There have been numerous calls for such public sculptures to be torn down. Seeing a press image of the “Early Days” statue in San Francisco, the call for removal is understandable. The depiction of an indigenous ancestor positioned at the feet of colonisers describes a power differential that is abhorrent on multiple levels. However, does banning, burning or hiding such objects from public view extinguish the offensive ideologies that made them and create a more just society? That depends entirely on the world view and intent of the removalists. Reinterpret a monument, place context around it, but never forget what happened where you stand. Erasing history and acknowledging it are very different trajectories in terms of healing and reconciliation, in the individual and collective psyche.

Statue of the Duke of Sutherland, Ben Bhraggie, Golspie. Photo by John Halsam 2008. Wikipedia Commons.

In the North of Scotland, a 19th Century statue of the Duke of Sutherland stands on top of Ben Bhraggie surveying the town of Golspie below. Sutherland was a landowner responsible for clearances of local people for profit and the positioning of his monument speaks volumes. It is the kind of posturing still seen in the culture of vast Highland Estates as playgrounds for the elite and in the many phallic sculptural monuments to victory and conquest throughout the British Empire. The Sutherland monument immediately stands out against the surrounding landscape, declaring itself as unsympathetically alien. Visually and ideologically it hangs rather than glorifies itself which is why, as much as it offends me, I don’t think it should be torn down. The total removal of such a relic stops the conversation, not just in terms of the history of the area, but its contemporary relevance. Eradicating the possibility of pointing to the object, asking why it is there and who made it silences a necessary, ongoing debate. Future generations and visitors have a prompt to stop, remember and learn what happened here. In many ways the offensive statue is a rallying point, for examination of land ownership and management in Scotland. In recent times it has been ironically denoted, utilised as a flagpole during the campaign for Scottish independence. The meaning of an offensive object like this can be positively changed while remaining visible.

Fearless Girl  by Kirsten Visbal and Charging Bull by Arturo Di Modica. Wikipedia Commons.

Installed near Wall St, New York on the eve of International Women’s Day 2017, sculptor Kirsten Visbal’s Fearless Girl is a good example of contemporary revisionism by proxy. This statue was positioned in relation to an existing work, Arturo Di Modica’s 11ft tall, 7100 pound Charging Bull. Di Modica wanted Visbal’s work removed, because it demonised his testosterone laden vision of positive market forces. The female child squaring up to a symbol of toxic masculinity, compounded by the financial crash and its global consequences, is a very interesting cultural face off. The sculptures are now entwined in the public imagination and a popular tourist attraction, with the proposal to move not just one but both to a different location in the financial district. The relationship between these works is contentious, but it is also an essential flashpoint in asking questions about who holds power in that location / market driven society and why. This kind of juxtaposition is perhaps what is needed in response to offensive monuments and artefacts in public places. We need to interrogate how these objects speak to us and the powers that erected them. That cannot be achieved by simply removing or destroying them, so that we can comfortably forget they existed.  Nor can it be achieved by simply renaming objects according to the political correctness of the day.

Indian Church / Church at Yuquot Village by Emily Carr 1929. Art Gallery of Ontario. Wikipedia Commons.

Earlier this year the Art Gallery of Ontario renamed a 1929 painting by Emily Carr from Indian Church to Church at Yuquot Village, part of a wider trend of reappraisal of colonial terminology in museum/ gallery collections around the world. I completely disagree with changing the name of a historical work named by the artist. Removing the title is merely another type of whitewash. I understand given the history of colonialism, residential schools in Canada and the negative, generic application of the word “Indian”, why it is considered hurtful and offensive. However, this language is part of the historical context Carr lived in and unfortunately the ideology that supported it isn’t dead and buried. I think it is infinitely more useful to face the title and start the conversation there. For someone coming to this painting unaware of its history calling it by the territorial place name may remove the offence, but it also removes the possibility of honest confrontation with the past. Cultural sensitivity works both ways- having read Carr’s writings and studied her work in detail I believe this work is an inappropriate target. I wrote about this painting in detail in an earlier blogpost in response to a show of Carr’s work in 2015 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/category/emily-carr/  The presentation of that show, with indigenous art juxtaposed with Carr’s, together with examples of her writing/ thinking created context around the painting that an empty wall or patronising museum label could not.

Indian Church raises important questions of language and conflict, within the individual and society as a whole. I believe it is highly questionable to alter the artist’s language in this context. The title may be politically incorrect and offensive today, but it speaks volumes, so why silence that debate for future generations who need to understand the past in order to create equality in the future? When the Art Gallery of Ontario altered the painting’s title, an adjacent information panel was installed, describing the gallery’s reasons for changing the name. In this case the catalyst for debate should be the named work itself. The viewer should be given the opportunity to grapple with the offending word and its ramifications themselves, rather than having a curator sanitise it for them. Carr can and does speak for herself as an artist and her regard for indigenous people is rather more complicated than this simplistic historical revision suggests. In my mind the painting presents the stark white reality of Carr’s colonial upbringing against the deep green undulating life of the forest.  It isn’t the rigid 19th Century Christian missionary architecture/world view she embraced, but the spiritual core of what she called her “beloved West”. For Carr this spiritual connection was exemplified by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific North West coast, their intimate relationship with the land and cultural practices, honouring the divine in Nature. Although in many ways corseted by her time, she was above all else trying to understand rather than conquer the world around her. Applying a revised definition of language indiscriminately to her work shuts down discussion of its complexity which is a means of contemporary reconciliation. I’d argue that being “politically correct” in this case is entirely inappropriate. The work is actually bigger and more inclusive of human experience than the contemporary curator’s appraisal of it.

Hylas and the Nymphs by J. M. Waterhouse. 1896. Manchester Art Gallery. Wikipedia Commons.

Another interesting case emerged in February, when the Manchester Art Gallery removed J.M. Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) to “prompt conversation” sparking a public furore. Publicity stunt or not, this act of historical revisionism claimed to challenge female objectification and “Victorian fantasy”. It certainly generated discussion about gender equality, feminism, censorship, curatorial responsibility and the role of museums in a post #MeToo cultural landscape. As I wrote at the time;

‘I find censorship a thousand times more offensive and dangerous than a naked female body. It is how the female body has been depicted throughout history and the political, social and cultural implications of that display that should be the subject of debate. Removing artworks simply breeds ignorance. The basic principle of freedom of speech and expression is at stake. I may not agree with the viewpoint of the artist, but I would never advocate obliteration. Art History is a visual record of everything we are and are capable of as a species, the good the bad and the very ugly! That’s what makes it so valuable and instructive. May it always be visible for future generations to learn from.’

Then I saw something in the news coverage that disturbed me more than the removal of the painting. It was a comment by a teenage schoolgirl, saying that Hylas and the Nymphs made her feel ashamed. I was dismayed at this heartfelt statement. Was this historical image just another in an infinite line of images encircling her in the present? There was no awareness of context, either in her statement or in the rest of the press coverage I saw. The thematic Pre-Raphaelite “Pursuit of Beauty” in the gallery space or the underlying mythology of the painting was ignored over public outrage. Looking at Waterhouse’s image, my teenage self may also have felt shame in the way that beauty and desirability is defined in this work. However, this age old male fantasy was never destined to end well. In the very next moment, Hylas and his desire would be no more, dragged to the bottom of the pool and Waterhouse by his very nature forever defined within a school of painting, its own kind of prison. What made me feel dismay was the subservient emotion of shame, still alive in the mind of a teenage schoolgirl in 2018. The painting didn’t make her angry, ready to face off age old assumptions, but passively ashamed of this depiction of female bodies and seemingly by the proximity of her own body to it. The shame she expressed strikes me as a symptom of a greater disease. Rightly or wrongly, Waterhouse’s image exists in the world and I would hope that progressive education would equip a younger generation to square up to it, rather than feeling lesser in its outdated presence.

Too often the language of outrage, offense and victimhood indiscriminately govern responses to any point of view that does not match our own. Waterhouse’s painting, like Balthus’s highly controversial Thérèse Dreaming (1938, Metropolitan Museum, New York) is uncomfortable viewing and I agree we should be critical of the male gaze that created them. However, I am even more critical of what has been described as New Puritanism, completely hypocritical in the current climate. Waterhouse’s nymphs pale in comparison to the psychological damage inflicted on young women every day via social media, an onslaught of idealised beauty without the visual literacy to filter it.  I know the art of the past is part of that cumulative picture, however, popular culture circa 2018 plays to the dominant male gaze in ways that have become so internalised, it feels like there are no safe spaces left. The #MeToo movement has made visible the degree to which women are made to feel judged, ashamed and unsafe every day of their lives for generations. Such an environment makes art an essential tool in creating critical spaces to re-examine the nature of power, gender and equality- in our society and within ourselves. Galleries, museums, cinemas, libraries, theatres, concert halls and city streets should not be sanitised by removing what is perceived as offensive historical material. These are essential public arenas to challenge accepted ideals.

Composer Richard Wagner, Paris, 1867. Wikipedia Commons.

Earlier this month, Israeli Classical radio station Kol HaMusica broadcast Wagner’s music, despite the country’s boycott. Complaints, public outcry and apologies immediately followed, together with a pledge by the radio station not to repeat the “error” of judgement for fear of offending Holocaust survivors. It is well documented that Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer and that Wagner himself was an anti-Semite. However, attempting to shield victims with a public ban on this music amounts to patronising censorship. In the words of Jonathan Livny, head of the Israel Wagner Society, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, “Whoever doesn’t want to hear the music can always turn the radio off.”

Art in all its forms expresses the darkness and light of humanity, enables us to bear witness and remember (or wake up) who we are. In the spirit of cultural exchange, art and music have the ability to cross all borders and boundaries, exposing us to alternative ways of seeing and initiating change. In this I would deny nothing in a public museum, gallery space or broadcast. Even objects/ ideologies of hatred and violence need to be honestly examined, with attention given to their historical context and interpretation, no matter how abhorrent they may appear to contemporary eyes. Making sense of why they were made and the consequences of those actions have implications in the present and for future generations. What objects hold in terms of human experience, identity and memory should not be underestimated. It’s the reason Hitler held the Degenerate Art Exhibition in 1937, to denounce freedom of expression in contemporary art of the time and to stamp out its practitioners as branded enemies of the state. What constituted “good art”, what would be produced, collected, publicly shown and celebrated was entirely defined by the ruling party. It’s essential to identify who the ruling parties are in the times you’re living in and not assume that human progress is linear.

Whilst I applaud revisionism that re-interprets the meaning of historical records, artefacts or art, I don’t see negationism as the answer to wrong doing. The current Zeitgeist of a “post truth” internet driven world makes distortion and denial of history so much easier to enact and publicly justify. The writing is on the gallery wall. I would rather live in a society where I am free to interpret past and present human behaviour, than one which decides what is offensive for me and only presents what the ruling party, institution or curator decides is acceptable for me to see. I have no doubt that there will be more Indian Church, Hylas and Wagnerian battles ahead and that the #MeToo watershed moment will evolve in waves of backlash and progress. I hope that progress wins and that the role the arts have to play in this war progressively realign with creative power over celebrity. The state of the arts always reveals whether we live in a fettered society or not. The question is not whether we can delight in the work of “immoral” artists, but whether we can afford not to look at it at all.

Press articles:

Can you enjoy great art created by a Nazi? New Emile Nolde exhibition explores this dilemma by William Cook, The Independent, 23 February 2018.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/emile-nolde-nazi-art-artist-exhibition-germany-edinburgh-fascist-adolf-hitler-a8221926.html

Why the Art Gallery of Ontario removed ‘Indian’ from the name of this Emily Carr painting by Sheena Goodyear. As it Happens, CBC Radio 22 May 2018.

https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-tuesday-edition-1.4672905/why-the-art-gallery-of-ontario-removed-indian-from-the-name-of-this-emily-carr-painting-1.4672934

Gallery removes naked nymphs painting to ‘prompt conversation’ by Mark Brown, The Guardian, 31 January 2018.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jan/31/manchester-art-gallery-removes-waterhouse-naked-nymphs-painting-prompt-conversation

Israeli public radio apologises after playing Hitler’s favourite composer Richard Wagner, The Telegraph, 3 September 2018.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/03/israeli-public-radio-apologises-playing-hitlers-favourite-composer/

San Francisco statue criticized as racist to Indigenous people removed, The Associated Press, CBC News, 14 September 2018 

 https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/san-francisco-racist-statue-removed-1.4824013

A New Era

SCOTTISH MODERN ART 1900-1950

2 December 2017 – 10 June 2018

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

Charles PULSFORD (1912-89)
Three Angels, 1949
Painting, oil on board, 91.4 x 174 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland
© The Estate of Charles Pulsford
Photo: John McKenzie

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s latest exhibition A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950 examines how Scottish artists “responded to the great movements of European modern art, including Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstraction.”  Featuring over 100 works by 51 artists, drawn from public and private collections in the UK, it’s a show that shines a light on Scottish Modernism.  The bold “New Era” of Scottish Modern Art is perhaps a time when a broader range of artists are publicly recognised, less for their relativity to European “Masters” and more for what they uniquely bring to our understanding of the period and ourselves.

There are many forces past and present in art training, collecting, curation and politics which define the “most progressive” artists of this period- or any other. Even after SNGMA’s Modern Scottish Women (2015) exhibition, the overarching cultural statement of progressiveness in this show is predominantly male. In the context of a period in Scottish Art where female artists weren’t permitted to attend life class at the ECA until after 1910, (effectively barring them from elevated professional status) the representative ratio of 7 female to 44 male Scottish Modernists isn’t surprising. As early policy towards female art college staff demonstrates, you only had an artistic profession until marriage and motherhood forced you to resign. The promising careers of some female artists were also cut short by becoming widows during WWI and WWII, being the sole breadwinner and raising children on their own. When Scottish Colourists “JD Fergusson (1874-1961) and SJ Peploe (1871-1935) experienced first-hand the radical new work produced in Paris by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse,” their position was of relative privilege aligned with professional status and gender. Leaving the country to have contact with the European Avant- Garde was pivotal in terms of how their work developed, but what interested me most in this exhibition was grappling with the nature of that liberation.

William Watson PEPLOE (1869-1933)
Orchestral: Study in Radiation, about 1915
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1990
Drawing, pen, brush and ink on card, 28 x 23.6 cm

Rapid industrialisation, the carnage of two World Wars and the collapse of Western civilization were potent catalysts for the radical art movements of the early 20th Century. Too often the canonical roll call of famous creative male geniuses, with talent delivered from on high, clouds perception of how vital an act of survival, resistance and change Art can be. It’s true that the radicalism of Scottish Modernists springs from a more conservative foundation than that found in Paris in the early 20th Century. William Watson Peploe’s Orchestral: Study in Radiation (c.1915 Pen, brush and ink on card, 28 x 23.6cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1990) springs to mind, with its explosive waves of sound and angular shards of beautifully composed beige and black. It infused with manners, despite the obvious energy Peploe celebrates.

John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961)
Étude de Rhythme, 1910
Oil on board, 60.9 x 49.9cm
Collection: The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991
The conservation of this work has been supported by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation
© The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland

I’ve always found the label “Scottish Colourist” a very complex proposition. As a uniquely Scottish group, the implied expressive freedom and celebration of colour (on every level) feels muted. To these contemporary, Antipodean eyes, the self-conscious, reductive pink fleshiness of JD Fergusson’s nudes feel strangely at odds with the idea of unbridled female sexuality he is often celebrated for. He is above all true to himself, seen in the emboldened black lines and heightened abstraction of Étude Rhythm (1910, Oil on board, 60.9 x 49.9cm The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991). It’s an image of sex in terms of male dominance, form and light; a stained-glass convergence of masculine desire, heat and energy, receding to the edges of the frame in crimson, fragmented blue and green. The female form is the background locus of desire, with the male form literally thrust centre stage, curiously adopting abstraction for modesty in a moment of climatic immersion. Although a daring work for 1910 in subject matter and style, there is something maskingly self-referential about it, which holds the image in the time it was made, rather than transcending it.

One of the unexpected highlights of the show was gaining an appreciation of Fergusson’s strength of composition, founded on associations of his own making. What was so compelling wasn’t looking for the influence of French painting on his work, but seeing how Fergusson addresses his own radicalisation, emotionally, psychologically and technically, led by human relationships. The dominant Feminine in his life was his partner, pioneering dancer and choreographer Margaret Morris, seen in Éastre (Hymn to the Sun) (1924 (cast 1971) Brass, 41.8 x 22 x 22.5cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1972). It’s a symbolic and representational work- a realisation of the Saxon Goddess of Spring and a portrait bust of Morris. Highly polished, rounded brass forms, create circular bursts of radiance and refracted light. It’s an object of love, worship and renewal, as Modern as a Brancusi sculpture and as ancient as the mythology that inspired it.

In La Terrasse Café d’ Harcourt (1908, Oil on canvas, 108.6 x 122cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: On loan from a Private Collection) relationships between men and women are cast with skill and intrigue, in black silhouette, between rose pink blooms and ripening, acidic green lit tables. Standing at the centre of the composition is a young woman in a large, curved hat regarding the artist/ viewer and holding her own in the scene. Aligned with the rose at her breast is the face of a man in the background, like a mirror image of the artist. We can’t see her eyes, they are characteristically in shadow, but her stance tells us that she feels his gaze and 110 years later, so do we. The serpentine sweep of line and form draws us seductively to the heart of the painting and in that moment of connection, Fergusson creates the most exquisitely balanced composition, based on the primacy of his attraction. In painterly terms it’s faultless and as our gaze expands beyond the central protagonist, relationships between the surrounding couples begin to emerge, spinning their own narratives.

In At My Art Studio Window (1910, Oil on canvas, 157.5 x 123cm The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991) the female model holds the frame/ canopy aloft with a burst of yellow- green rounded foliage behind her. She is rendered as part of cyclical Nature. Fergusson’s attention is drawn to the torso, the rounded breasts and belly, accented by a crimson sway of mark extending to her thighs. It’s an interesting, veilled mark, which at first feels like reluctance to go a step too far, to paint her entire body with equal definition. The effect is a strange smear, at odds with the rest of the paint handling, but accentuating womanly fertility. Like all of Fergusson’s women, attitude through body language is the primary means of communication, rather than facial expression. Here it’s the tilt of the head beholding the artist/ viewer and the way she supports the picture plain like an internal caryatid, dominating the frame. As a professional model she’s naturally at ease with the full-frontal positioning of the body, stepping into the metaphorical light of the artist’s studio. However, there’s something essentially decorative and therefore contradictory in Fergusson’s vision of the Feminine, a pink patterned accent of desire seen in so many of his paintings, drawing the masculine eye. She is Fergusson’s type of woman and muse, but she is also cast as an undeniable force of Nature.

Conflicting forces of Nature, human nature and industrialisation are the catalyst for all artistic “isms” of the 20th Century. Stephen Gilbert’s Dog, (c.1945 Oil on paper laid on board, 71 x 51cm Private Collection) an expression of pure Zeitgeist in stark, canine form, ravaged by hunger and living on instinct. It’s a painting reminiscent of the Australian artist Albert Tucker, notably his Images of Modern Evil series, painted during the WWII blackouts in Melbourne. Base human instinct comes to the fore in the darkness and psychological onslaught of an age defined by industrial scale warfare, genocide and the atomic bomb. Merlyn Evans’ Cyclops, (early 1940s Serpentine stone, 28 x 45 x 13cm Private Collection), is a modernist manifestation of Classical mythology and collective fears. This works encapsulates the true origin of horror, a monstrous hybrid of man and industrial geometry, consuming humanity.

Eric Robertson (1887-1941)
Cartwheels, c.1920
Oil on canvas, 103 x 144cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 2007
Image: Antonia Reeve

Eric Robertson (1887-1941), an artist who served in the Friends Ambulance Unit during WWI, navigates his own path through the horrors of war. Shellburst (c.1919 Oil on canvas, 71.2 x 83.8cm City Art Centre, Edinburgh Museums and Galleries: Purchased 1976) has a particularly British, Vorticist aesthetic, finding beauty and dynamism, even here on the battlefield. It is a strange, stilled painting, perhaps an exercise in self-preservation with the stylised, corkscrew auditory whirl of falling bombs overhead and the geometrical trajectory of the blast. There’s a sense of placing a template of controlled design over the annihilating violence, with the curvature of soldier’s helmets and bodies leaning into the earth for protection.  Cartwheels (Cartwheels, c.1920 Oil on canvas, 103 x 144cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2007) depicts a group of young people enjoying a day out in a Scottish Mountain landscape, shafts of shifting light and the shorthand spin of legs animating the scene. Robertson’s protective aesthetics are akin to his wartime battlefield scene, albeit with an injection of peacetime Joy de vivre, in the eternally grounded presence of the mountain.

William MCCANCE (1894-1970)
Abstract Cat, about 1922 – 1924
Sculpture, clayslip, glazed, 9.4 x 15.2 x 8.6 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, given by Dr Margaret McCance 1992
© Margaret McCance
Photo: John McKenzie

Painter, printmaker and sculptor William McCance (1894-1970) together with fellow artist and partner Agnes Miller Parker (1895-1980) based themselves in London during the 1920’s. McCance’s sculpture Abstract Cat (c.1922-24 Clayslip, glazed, 9.4 x 15.2 x 8.6cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Presented by Dr Margaret McCance 1992) echoes Franz Marc in its claw-like curved geometry and natural feline suppleness. Using the cheapest material available and of a hand-held scale, it is an expression of potential. His series of carved lino blocks, including a study for the adjacent painting Mediterranean Hill Town, (1923, Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 61cm Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums) give fascinating insight into his interdisciplinary practice. McCance’s Study for a Colossal Steel Head (1926 Black chalk on paper, 53.8 x 37.8cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1988) dehumanises the traditional portrait bust, whilst the narrative of masculine sexuality in The Awakening (1925, Oil on board, 61 x 46cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2007) is a more humane vision of self-discovery. The influence of Cubism via Picasso and Picabia is easily seen in McCance’s work. However, it’s the artist’s visual grappling with contradictory impulses and aspects of self, finding his line in an increasingly fragmented Modern world, that really speaks.

William MCCANCE (1894-1970)
Study for a Colossal Steel Head, 1926
Drawing, black chalk on paper, 53.8 x 37.8 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1988
© Margaret McCance
Photo: John McKenzie

As “a pioneer of British Abstraction”, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s Upper Glacier, (1950 Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9cm Courtesy of the British Council Collection) goes further, directing the Modernist gaze inside Nature in a work composed of thin washes and vibrant drawn marks. The artist’s direct experience of the Grindwald Glaciers in Switzerland is realised in shifting ice greens, blues and smoothed, interlocking forms. Barns-Graham describes the way that she was naturally led to a different way of seeing by the landscape;

“The likeness to glass transparency combined with solid, rough ridges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through and all round, as a bird flies, a total experience.”

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004)
Upper Glacier, 1950
Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9cm
Collection: British Council Collection.
Purchased from the artist 1950.
© The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust

The total experience of art is also expressed in Eduardo Paolozzi’s Table Sculpture (Growth), (1949 Bronze, 83 x 60.5 x 39cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1988). It’s the multidimensional concept of creative process, above and below everyday consciousness, pierced by thought and practical action. Hand-made tools are the legs of the table, holding the structure up and joining the unconscious layer below to what is seen or experienced above the surface. It feels like the visionary integration of traditionally separate realms of heaven and earth, transgressed by imagination in solid bronze.

Charles Pulsford’s (1912-89) Three Angels, (1949 Oil on board, 91.4 x 174cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2012) is a particularly arresting image. It feels like standing on the post-war wreckage of the earth, with a triptych of figures, wings enfolding their bodies like sarcophagi, set against an Armageddon cadmium red sky. The central figure encompasses a trinity of circular light. A clashing palette red, green and black outlines and the sequence of figures have an assaultive quality, like Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) halted in petrification. As described in the accompanying exhibition text, the poet Norman MacCaig also identified the apocalyptic quality of the painting in an unpublished poem, “Three Angels (a picture) April 1952. It begins; “Three in a row and each one mad/ looking with innocence upon/ the smiling, cruel and gaily sad/their witless eyes beam down/ on struggling song and word and stone/ each bears a blinding crown…” Pulsford creates a deeply confrontational image of hope and deliverance stripped away by the harsh reality of survival post WWII. Heaven has crashed to earth and the unnerving solidity of these winged visions communicates the collective trauma. It’s an image with no national borders around it.

Edward Baird (1904-49)
Unidentified Aircraft (over Montrose), 1942
Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4cm
Collection: Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: Purchased 1943.
© Graham Stephen

There’s an eerie feeling of suspension in Edward Baird’s (1904-49) Unidentified Aircraft (over Montrose), (1941-42, Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4cm Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: Purchased 1943), not just in the hovering clouds or in the anticipatory, upturned gaze of the central protagonists. The church spire pointing towards the heaven and the island world of the town, connected to our foreground space by a bridge (which is also the painting) is held protectively in the mind. Bands of white and deep blue ultramarine define a moment of wilful preservation from the ongoing threat of German bombers. The unease created by the cut-off figures, decapitated and disarmed, is accentuated by a single raised hand and the head of the central figure. With the neck uncomfortably tilted back, it appears as if this were a collaged Christ from a Northern Renaissance crucifixion and simultaneously, an everyman civilian or soldier about to fall into shadow. The human subject is emotively pushed right to the edge, beneath the picture plane. This isn’t just looking up but within, a response rooted in the psychic resistance of Surrealism, not as a style, but a way of seeing and surviving. Sitting between the mouths of two rivers, the Scottish town of Montrose was targeted as a training ground for fighter pilots. However, Baird’s painting also suggests a struggle which eclipses the locality. It is the faithful, heightened reality of Surrealism that Baird employs in this image of human fear, resistance and comfort. It’s not just a scene of Montrose, but an image of the world.

William TURNBULL (1922-2012)
Untitled (aquarium), 1950
Painting, oil on canvas, 71 x 91 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland
Purchased from the Henry and Sula Walton Fund with help from the Art Fund, 2014
© Estate of William Turnbull. All rights reserved, DACS 2017.
Photo: Antonia Reeve

From James Cowie’s sublime Evening Star, (c.1940-44 Oil on canvas, 137.5 x 133.4cm, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections) to the monochrome abstraction of William Turnball’s Untitled (Aquarium) (1950, Oil on canvas, National Galleries of Scotland), the exhibition offers many surprises, found in the works of known artists and in new discoveries. With many Scottish artists working outside Scotland during this turbulent period, bringing them together is a crucial step in terms of reappraisal. Rather than being cast in eternal relativity, perhaps Scottish Art and artists can finally step out of the shadows and stand where they have always been, consciously and unapologetically, on a world stage.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/new-era-scottish-modern-art-1900-1950

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

Dreamers Awake

White Cube Bermondsey, London

28 June – 17 September 2017

Jo Anne Callis Untitled (Woman with a Black Line) Archival Pigment Print. ‘From Early Color Portfolio’ Circa 1976 Credit: © Jo Anne Callis, Courtesy of the artist, Rose Gallery and White Cube.

“I warn you- I am not an object” Dorothea Tanning

The prospect of exploring “the enduring influence of Surrealism through the work of more than 50 women artists” filled me with high hopes in terms of repossession of the Feminine and reappraisal of Surrealism in the popular imagination. Art historians have only begun to scratch the surface of female artists written out of the original movement, relegated to roles of lover, wife or muse in the biographies of male artists.  Dreamers Awake features “sculpture, painting, collage, photography and drawing from the 1930’s to the present day” including works by Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Claude Cahun, Edith Rimmington, Helen Chadwick, Louise Bourgoise, Alina Szapocznikow, Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, Carina Brandes, Hayv Kahraman, Eva Kot’átková, Nevine Mahmoud, Penelope Slinger, Shannon Pool, Jo Anne Callis and Julia Phillips. Whilst I welcome and applaud exhibitions bringing marginalised and neglected work by women artists into greater public awareness, this show left me feeling conflicted about the nature of Feminine reclamation, particularly in relation to contemporary art/ life.

Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph: George Darrell courtesy of White Cube

One of the problems I had with the exhibition was the overbearing emphasis on the female body, or rather the persistent disconnect between body, mind and the Feminine. On the one hand there’s a challenge to the image of women as objects of “masculine desire and fantasy”, often “decapitated, distorted, trussed up,” “fearsome and fetishized” as “other” in the hands of male Surrealists from the birth of the movement.  Although this “fragmented, headless body of Surrealism” is a “vehicle for irony, resistance, humour” and freedom of expression in the hands of female artists in the exhibition, there is a tendency, particularly in the work of contemporary artists, to simply offer derivative nods to the body politic whilst continuing the patriarchal tradition of the headless woman. Whilst the show ranges well “beyond those who might identify themselves as surrealists”, the superficial nature of the influence (or curatorial connection) in some work left me questioning the universal ground-breaking media exclamations surrounding the show. Fortunately, there’s enough complex, intelligent and beautifully executed work connected to the body to compensate for the weaker, more obvious and mediocre elements of the show. Caitlin Keogh’s clumsy, derivative acrylics on canvas, Berlinde de Bruyckere’s basic assemblage sculptures or Gillian Wearing’s masked photographic portrait of model Lily Cole laden with illustrative symbolism are examples of work which didn’t engender critical changes in perception.

Rosemarie Trockel’s black and white digital print, reimagining Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du monde /The Origin of the World, is an example of an appropriated work which became interesting in spite of itself for the questions it raised. My initial gut reaction was to sigh and roll my eyes at the projection of fear onto an image of female genitalia. Placing an enormous black spider where the model’s pubic hair should be, even to reclaim one’s own body, sex or gender struck me as perilously dull. Effectively it’s a reduction of Feminine power to B-Movie Body Horror by depicting the female body as something dangerous or deadly. This associative trope has been used since the Book of Genesis as an instrument of shame, self-loathing and control, turning desire into the fallen or demonic Feminine other. If Trockel’s intention is irony, turning the male gaze and traditions of seeing back in on themselves, then this image doesn’t really succeed, because like the disembodied woman, the work is missing its head. Perhaps what it does do, (though only if the original image is known to the viewer) is point to a canonical image of the Feminine by a male artist to generate debate in the present. Or if the historical reference is unknown to the viewer (masculine or feminine), the print could also be seen as a positive confrontation with individual or collective fears.  The curious irony is that Courbet’s title acknowledges timeless feminine creative/ biological and sexual power in a way that Trockel’s tarantulan image does not.  Strangely his full-frontal honesty is more convincing in its rejection of idealism for realism and/ or masculine eroticism. It was and is an image that in 2017 still wouldn’t be reproduced in mainstream media on the grounds of obscenity. That the female body is still regarded as shameful, scandalous, shocking or dangerous is cause for debate in itself. If Trockel’s intent is humour and absurdity in her juxtaposition of the hairy spider, then it simply comes across as a laddish joke, especially in the context of her surrounding work which is equally unconvincing in its vision.

North Gallery, Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph by George Darrell, courtesy of White Cube

The claim that “by focussing on the work of women artists, Dreamers Awake shows how, through art foregrounding bodily experience, the symbolic woman of Surrealism is refigured as a creative, sentient, thinking being” just didn’t ring true to me in relation to some of the celebrated contemporary artists in the show.  Sarah Lucas’s entwined chairs, The Kiss (2003, Wooden Chairs, varnish, cigarettes, wire, papier-mâché, acid free glue, leather cord) with a pair of breasts on the back rest and a cock and balls protruding from under the seat made from cigarettes is just a clumsy secondary school gag in comparison to a work such as Lee Miller’s Untitled photograph (Severed breast from radical surgery in a place setting 1 & 2, Paris, c.1929, modern gelatin silver prints) which shares the same gallery space. Then and now, Miller was way ahead of the times. Arguably her bodily experience though invisible in the shot is resoundingly present in the composition, with the raw meat/ severed breast served up on a plate with cutlery laid out for the viewer’s consumption. Many of her images cut through to the truth of lived experience, as a survivor of childhood trauma, former model and a war correspondent, Miller found liberation in the Art and life of photography. The juxtaposition of a domestic dinner setting with the disembodied breast is deeply subversive on a multitude of levels. The breast is disembodied, not as an erotic, maternal or biological focus but in the service of psychological, social and cultural interrogation. The two images served up side by side on a relatively intimate scale have tremendous power, in the equality of ideas and execution. Miller’s bloodied amputation is about as far removed from the neoclassical ideal of womanhood seen in the paintings of artists such as Magritte, Dali, De Chirico, Man Ray or projected in Cocteau’s 1932 film Blood of a Poet in which Miller appears in marble whiteout as an armless Neoclassical Goddess. Whilst narrowly fixated male artists of her generation were placing womanhood on a pedestal of passive desire, Miller fearlessly confronts us with an object which is anti-Beauty and savagely confrontational. Of the same generation, Dorothea Tanning’s statement “I warn you- I am not an object” immediately springs to mind. It’s a warning that like Miller’s photographic statement will never diminish in terms of power or relevance. Her emergence as a Surrealist artist equal to those who subjugated her to the role of muse is only just beginning. A pair of breasts, cock and balls made from cigarettes combined with a domestic chair is a lame and underdeveloped contemporary statement by comparison.

Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph by George Darrell courtesy of White Cube

As I wrote in a previous post about the Surreal Encounters/ Collecting the Marvellous exhibition (SNGMA, June 2016) the real power and contemporary relevance of Surrealist Art lies in “reconnect[ing] the viewer with underlying passions, obsessions and political activism”, “a collective sense” “beyond dreamy, escapist fantasies and self-promotion”. Despite the easy conversion of the movement’s famous poster boys into merchandise, Surrealism is “rooted in the reality of global conflict, persecution, economic uncertainty, the rise of totalitarianism and coming to grips with who and what we are as human beings.” The premise of the exhibition does pick up on these undercurrents to some extent; “In a world preoccupied with the politics of identity, in which the advances of previous generations must be continually defended, we see the continued- even renewed- relevance of surrealist ideas and strategies.” I couldn’t agree more. What disappointed me were the misguided allegiances to a revolutionary movement playing in the shadows of the contemporary art market.  I looked forward to seeing more evolved attitudes and refined visual language, taking a lead from female Surrealists of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s and running with it. I certainly don’t mean “refined” in terms of gentility, but in terms of awareness and the propensity to fight (savagely if necessary) for a way of seeing based on the artist’s identity. The marginalisation of women artists as a homogenous group persists today, therefore this isn’t an exhibition of female Surrealists as much as it is a wakeup call in terms of what we bring to this work as viewers- individually and collectively. It is far too easy (literally and metaphorically) to buy into the “surreal” as a word/idea misappropriated and devalued by consumerist popular culture, creating dreamily vacuous or supremely self-indulgent Art in which the disembodied woman prevails. The best work in the show subverts what we have come to believe (or have been taught) about feminine power, Surrealism and the nature of creativity. In terms of Western society, embracing the unconscious goes hand in hand with acknowledging, confronting and liberating what is held in check beneath the surface for political or patriarchal reasons, which has less to do with sex and more to do with the balance (or inequity) of power.

Eileen Agar Butterfly Bride (1938, Gouache and collage, 17 15/16 x 15 3/16 in)

In Eileen Agar’s Butterfly Bride (1938, Gouache and collage, 17 15/16 x 15 3/16 in) the blue Renaissance silhouette of a woman collaged on a ground of text, essentially the cut out of one age informing the reading of another, operates in a self-reflexive way. The encyclopaedic/ historical text, with reference to British colonies, historical rule and exploration works in counterpoint with the beauty and implied fragility of two exotic looking butterflies and the figure of the “bride”, anonymously blue and as collectable as a specimen in an age of discovery. Agar’s collages are frequently not just about the absurdity of images out of their elements, juxtaposed for 30 second amusement or shock value, but are far more texturally layered and sophisticated in terms of ideas and technique. Here the use of collage doesn’t feel random or automatic but considered in terms of dialogue between elements and the wider context of the work, transcending the time it was made. We may well question the freedoms afforded the Butterfly Bride in our own times.

Louise Bourgeois Breasts and Blade (1991, bronze, silver nitrate and polished patina, 11 x 32 x 16 in.) Reverse View. Photograph: G.Coburn, Dreamers Awake exhibition, White Cube.

There is also more than meets the eye in Breasts and Blade (1991, bronze, silver nitrate and polished patina, 11 x 32 x 16 in.) by Louise Bourgeois. What we see from the front is a sculpture composed of folds of flesh and five breasts like cushions with the pronounced geometry and provocation of protruding nipples.  As you move to the side and back of the structure the overall form comes into view. The associations of comfort and domesticity in an everyday piece of furniture and the couch as a repository of the traditional female nude in art comes into play. Then you come to the switchblade behind, the threat of violence where you’d least expect it, a warning against stereotypes and reductive visions of femininity, maternity and eroticism. The artist’s sculpture is like a surreal beast not in an aesthetic but a revolutionary sense. It defies and changes your perception as you move around and find yourself in relation to it. It’s a tangible presence that nourishes, intrigues, seduces, challenges and menaces the viewer from the plinth. It isn’t fantastical but potently real, infinitely more complex than simple dualism or juxtaposition of opposing elements. The inference of soft comfort is rendered in the solidity of polished metal, the couch accommodating the whole family and its needs, equally a source of feminine disquiet. It lives and grows in the imagination as you experience it resoundingly in three (or more) dimensions, as one would expect from a Master of her own Art. The femininity here has multiple layers, views, identities and hidden capabilities against type- it’s a work which refuses to be boxed, with its own distinct voice. I never cease to be amazed, elated and inspired by the penetrating honesty of this artist’s work. Bourgeois brings much that is held beneath the surface into the light with immense courage, consummate skill, tenacity and feeling.

Hayv KahramanT25 and T26 (2017, Oil on Linen 80 x 60 in) © Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery and White Cube.

Shannon Bool’s exquisite monochrome tapestry The Five Wives of Lajos Bìrò (Wool tapestry, 98 1/16 x 156 11/16 in), Carina Brandes’ Untitled (2012, black and white photograph on baryta) a triangular, mythical inversion of Leda and the Swan and Hayv Kahraman’s T25 and T26 (2017, Oil on Linen 80 x 60 in) rooted in contemporary war on terror were similarly multifaceted engagements with the highly active nature of Surrealism, rather than giving passive aesthetic nods to it. Jo Ann Callis’s Untitled (Woman with Black Line) c.1976, archival pigment print, 22 1/8 x 19 7/16 in) further articulates this idea. It is an image of a woman photographed from above, with just her head and neck visible, face down in a pillow. There’s a drawn line like a seamed stocking along her back and forming the part of her hair, as if she could come apart, be peeled or shed her skin. Is she alive or dead in this sheath of image making? It’s a very intelligent image in terms of where the framing places the camera/eye/ viewer. We are placed in the uncomfortable position of being complicit in this bloodless, internalised crime scene, rendered with a deceptively soft palette of muted colour.

Alina Szapocznikow Autoportrait II (1966, Bronze, 8 1/16 x 10 ¼ x 4 5/16 in). Front View Photograph G.Coburn, Dreamers Awake exhibition,  White Cube

A work which perhaps summed up the exhibition for me was Alina Szapocznikow’s Autoportrait II (1966, Bronze, 8 1/16 x 10 ¼ x 4 5/16 in). On one side, there is a bird-like creature, composed of cast toes for the two feet, a mouth and chin and what look like outstretched wings, a playful, ingenious, hybrid fusion of a human/ bird free spirit that immediately made me smile. Then on the reverse, a different projection of Self, composed of just the cast mouth and upper breast, defining the “automatic” portrait of a woman. When viewed from this position the potentially shapeshifting woman is invisible. One seeing, the other being seen, one free, the other defined by her body, the living contradiction of what it is to be female in a world that hasn’t progressed far enough. Perhaps it was exactly that which disturbed and disillusioned me considering the exhibition as a whole. As I walked around Dreamers Awake I experienced the hope and exhilarating liberation of Art in terms of human expression, bringing what is hidden into awareness. Equally I saw the retrograde dictation of art by market values and a tendency to adopt traditionally masculine tactics to gain attention. I left this exhibition with faith in the tangible power of imagination and the extraordinary vision of female artists as an agent of positive change. I also saw what Surrealism and Feminism is not. That polarity reflects the wider world of Art/ life and the hard reality of creative work as ever more vital, resistant to or complicit with the political, economic and social extremities of the 21st Century.

www.whitecube.com

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

North & South: Landscapes of Lotte Glob

8th July – 29th August, The Watermill Gallery 

Lotte Glob, La Gomera Walks X (Ceramic) Image courtesy of The Watermill Gallery, Aberfeldy.

Lotte Glob’s 5th exhibition at the Watermill Gallery is a celebration of her distinctive vision, boundless creative energy and perpetually evolving practice in ceramics, etching and drawing. For the viewer, it is an invigorating experience of connectivity with Nature, guided by the artist’s masterful transformation of materials into deeply grounded, visceral works of Art. Born in Jutland, Denmark in 1944, Lotte Glob’s command of her chosen media is undeniable, with over 50 years’ experience as a leading international ceramic artist. Her vibrant energy, reverence for the natural environment, creative experimentation, playful humour and enthusiasm for life are inspirational, expressed in the prolific outpouring of works in ceramics, sculpture, painting with clay, printmaking and drawing. She is a remarkable woman and a force of Nature, inseparable from the mountainous Sutherland landscape. The UNESCO North-West Highlands Geopark is her back yard and from her home on the shores of Loch Eriboll, the rugged, ancient landscape is a natural wellspring of creative renewal, providing raw materials and spiritual sustenance. Rocks and sediments gathered on treks into the surrounding country are incorporated into Glob’s work, fused with glass, clay and fire. Often works are returned to the landscape of lochs, mountains and moorland, a way of restoring balance within and without. The artist’s characteristic strength of form, rendering of texture, sensitive handling of colour and glazing techniques are incredibly painterly, bringing extraordinary depth, skill and understanding to the Art of Ceramics. Her drawings and etchings also bear the unmistakable mark of a human hand aligned with Nature’s endless cycles of creation, destruction and rebirth.

Seeing Lotte Glob’s work is always an immediate, heartfelt experience of connectivity with forces greater than ourselves, testament to our essential relationship with the natural world.  Like the Australian Aboriginal vision of the Dreamtime, not as a dream but as a timeless, living reality, where everything is alive; rocks, water, trees, animals and ancestral beings, there is an overwhelming sense of holistic Creation in Glob’s work. It’s in the substance of her materials drawn out of the physical and unconscious ground, the alchemical process of creative distillation and the artist’s vision, above and below the surface, which enables us to perceive the world around us with renewed, multifaceted richness.  For the last six years during the Scottish winter the artist has travelled to La Gomera, off the coast of Morocco, spending time walking and absorbing the colour, light and raw energy of the volcanic island. Inspired by North and South, the sense of rejuvenation in the exhibition touches the soul.

Lotte Glob walking on La Gomera. Image courtesy of The Watermill Gallery, Aberfeldy.

Blue Lagoon (Ceramic, 61 x 61, Edition No: unique) is a stunning introduction to an exhibition you can dive into on so many levels. The glassy pool of vivid turquoise and ultramarine blended with umber, descending to black, contains a world of life on a universal scale. You feel immediately that the gradients of hue in this sphere have been created by a knowing hand, an absolute master of the medium who can control exquisite accidents of firing, fusion and glazing. Glob paints with ceramic, suspending umber like peat sediment in water, blurring the line between Nature’s marks and her own. The primary circular form feels like a portal of the imagination, a scrying mirror, the human eye/mind as a window and the substance of an entire planet. There is depth, breadth and height in this cosmic view, like a feature in the landscape captured by satellite from infinite space.  There is a sense of macrocosm and microcosm in this life-giving pool that sets the tone of the whole exhibition in terms of rejuvenation through creativity and the forging of raw elements; within the individual/ collective Self and the wider world. In the presence of Lotte Glob’s work, it is impossible not to feel the connectivity of humanity, our dependence on the natural world and the power of Mother Nature. Framed by what feels like the cracked, parched skin of the earth, cream layered crust separating from red molten core, Blue Lagoon is a sublime and tactile affirmation of life and fertile imagination. It is a pool of blue that unexpectedly swallows you whole with its beauty, a release and relief from the everyday, relentless blur of urban existence. At its centre is the stilled truth about how to heal ourselves and renew the world through shifting perception.

Hung side by side in perfected symmetry are Erratics on the Move-Day (Etching, 68 x 87, Edition No: A/P) and Erratics on the Move-Night (Etching, 68 x 87, Edition No: A/P), which bring an ancestral presence to stone, darkness and light. On a geological level, ‘erratics’ are rocks or boulders that differ from the surrounding land, having been carried and deposited away from their place of origin by glaciers. There are also human associations with the word, which we feel in the paired forms present in both images, isolated in darkness and light. Inclined towards each other, they feel like aspects of Self, masculine/ feminine elements of procreation or the beginnings of life on a cellular level, ‘on the move’ in a state of metamorphosis.  The erratic, wandering spirit that creates a different path through life, defying expectation, is also part of the artist’s identity. In the “Day” image two steely, solid forms with a delicate patina of etched marks are illuminated by a cream, green tinged ground of light, whilst “Night” immerses the viewer completely in the tonality of moonlight. Ovid hollows of stone are formed by the finest etched marks imaginable, receding into orbital craters of mind, scoured by time, winds, rain and lunar tides. The two etchings operate beautifully in unison like hemispheres, evoking a sense of completion and illumination moving from darkness to light.

Lotte Glob, Erratic (Etching) Image courtesy of The Watermill Gallery, Aberfeldy.

A larger scale work; Erratic (Etching, 120 x 80, Edition No: 1/10) in blues, greens, rusted orange, burnt umber, yellow ochre and charcoal black, also brings humanity to consideration of Nature. The seemingly precarious balance of a smaller stone holding up an enormous boulder is a relatively common sight in the North West Highlands and Islands, landscapes sloughed and smoothed by the last Ice Age, but this isn’t a vision of landscape as mere scenery. Incredibly focused details; striations and cross hatching, energy and light, hit the haloed edges of the boulder, as if energy were flowing out of it, creating a powerful force field of resilience. Made up of tightly coiled circular marks and elongated forms flowing into each other in emerald green, yellow, rust and charcoal black, the boulder opens out like a living organism. The land is a matrix of air, stone, earth and water, imprinted with vegetation, scratched and etched marks like miniature energy trails of mind, boring into the soil. In the mid ground, the wave of a mountain seems reflected in the water, then perception shifts, moving beneath the surface it as if entering an underworld, swimming through etched, undulating lines which the mind parts in the eye being drawn into the image. The blue pool in the foreground is where we stand immersed at the centre of evolutionary life, pivoting like the grounding stone and held in the palm of the artist’s hand. Pigment is drawn right to the edges of the composition, suggesting that we are seeing only a vertical slice of the monumental landscape.  The adjacent pastel drawing Boulderland presents a grouping of living stones, each with an eye or nucleus, resting in rubble like sentinels as the earth turns, erodes and reforms itself, a process invoked by the artist’s use of earthy ochre, burnt umber and charcoal black. There’s a sense of what is held in the landscape in Glob’s drawings and etchings, the mythology and depth of ancestral knowledge which reveals itself when we choose to be still, listen and (collectively) remember.

The permanence of ancient stone is contrasted with the dynamism of elements and seismic events in Eruption Diptych (Ceramic, 30 x 61 each) and Hills on Fire (Ceramic, 47 x 64). In the latter, the artist captures in mind, body and spirit the ethereal spatter of ash and smoke rising from the flames, the burning heat becoming air, scorching our senses. Glob’s La Gomera Walks series are journeys into different strata of landscape, utilising a palette of red rust, acidic, sulphurous yellow, moss green, pure ultramarine, turquoise, peaty umber and black with the separation of ground, pigment and glaze akin to the volcanic formation of the earth’s surface. Saturation of colour, variation of texture, density of light, minerals and sediments create a feeling of landscape that combines an aerial, God’s eye view with microscopic culture. We can feel the granular friction of stone, massed energy, the flow of lava and the dry atmospheric air of Tazo Walk I & II encountered by the artist as a physical reality and transformative state. That sense of journeying into the landscape reaches a zenith in Bird’s Eye View/Ridge Diptych (Ceramic, 30 x 61 cm each) where we move along a sculptural path of fused rock and in Spine of the Hill (Ceramic, 30 x 61) with the interior structure of the mountain laid bare in white stone vertebrae, exposing our bones of ancient lineage. These powerfully structured, abstract compositions work in brilliant counterpoint with the artist’s ability to create highly nuanced, illuminations. This phosphorescence, isn’t an optical experience, but operates in the same way a Russian icon painter uses light reflective minerals, engaging the mind’s eye of the viewer to complete the devotional work of Art in the act of seeing. In Northern Lights a ceramic tile becomes a lustrous, shimmering, iridescent movement of pure radiance, a shared human experience of the Divine in Nature that is instantly relatable and awe inspiring, regardless of belief.

The open stone work and exposed timber beams of the historic Watermill in Aberfeldy provides complimentary textures and a series of intimate spaces to contemplate Glob’s work. The artist also features permanently as part of the architecture, with a large fused disc of glass, clay and sediments in vivid turquoise at the entrance to the building and the outdoor lower terrace area home to a group of her wonderfully animated flying stones. This is an exhibition to stimulate your senses, nourish the imagination and revive your spirit.

http://www.aberfeldywatermill.com/art/exhibition/lotte-glob-tiles-and-etchings

http://www.lotteglob.co.uk/ 

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

Karla Black and Kishio Suga: A New Order

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art  22 October 2016 – 19 February 2017

Kishio Suga Condition of Critical Boundary, 1972. Wire mesh, brick, wood, stone (dimensions variable) Installation view at Tamura Gallery, Tokyo, 1972. Photo: Kishio Suga. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo.

Each thing and space had belonged to particular worlds of their own before they were hand picked up by the artist and in these worlds they all had preconditioned orders labelled by nature or by people. Orders here mean ranked situations or hierarchy, whether they have certain parts in the place or not, their values, demands, qualities or quantities…my final point in making artworks is to introduce ways to see and learn about things, to perceive an existing space differently so that viewers can experience a new kind of order. If they can apply their experience with art into their daily life, the new order may find settlement there. I would like to introduce a new way of reacting (to situations) in all viewers.”  Kishio Suga, essay Between ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’ (2005)

The pairing of Glasgow based artist Karla Black (b. 1972) and Japanese artist Kishio Suga (b.1944) is inspired in terms of the questions raised about how we experience the world and the entire arena of Contemporary Art. A New Order is the first in a proposed series of exhibitions placing the work of Scottish contemporary artists in an international context. It is also the first major exhibition of Kishio Suga’s work in the UK, coinciding with his solo exhibition at the Dia Foundation in New York and his retrospective at the Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Part of the informal, pioneering, and experimental Mono-ha (“School of Things”) movement in 1960’s and 70’s Japan, Suga’s work incorporates everyday organic and industrial materials including stone, wood, iron, wire, glass, zinc, earth and paraffin wax. “Rejecting representation” and the “illusionism” of Western Art, he presents the viewer with “situations” where materials are placed in a specific location to explore the relationships between them, the surrounding space and the human mind perceiving them.

It’s easy to be dismissive of the plethora of contemporary artists now working with the assemblage of everyday, found objects/ materials and forget that not all Art evolves out of the same ground of intention as that which the 21st Century Art market made fertile. Although they have become synonymous the business of making Art and the Art World business are not the same thing and this exhibition provides a good opportunity to reappraise expectations of how full, empty or poisoned the Contemporary Art chalice might be. Historically Suga represents a different generational, ground breaking spin on re-assembling the world, a “New Order” of seeing,  which I think is at odds with how many viewers today may initially approach this work, having been lulled into material familiarity. The best works in this show from both Black and Suga arguably have their origins in a ground of understanding beyond an instantaneous, fleetingly bright idea or the desirous draw of certain materials. Connections are made holistically through the senses and with the dynamics or tensions of seeing present in each room. This is particularly true of singular works which effectively command the space they occupy.

Kishio Suga Left-Behind Situation 1972/2012 Installation view at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Photo: Tsuyoshi Satoh

Kishio Suga’s Left-Behind Situation (1972/2012, Stone, steel plate, brick, wire rope) is a very good example. The first thing that hits you is the smell of timber which is powerfully evocative, pieces in natural states contrasted with veneered, manufactured fragments, placed at intersections in a complex matrix of suspended wires. The primary sensation is physical rather than intellectual, which is unexpected in what might seem like purely conceptual territory. Often when encountering art installations we walk in –get the idea and walk out again; there’s nothing to imaginatively reveal itself and its game over once we read the explanatory label beside the work. What made me smile; standing on the threshold of the doorway to this work and my own curiosity was feeling slightly off-kilter. I like it when Art isn’t easy, when it intrigues or disarms me in ways I don’t expect. I don’t want to hear the punchline first or be told what to think or feel about a piece of work, which is why I avoid all text labels in the first instance to see what the work itself has to say. What I discovered in Suga’s Left-Behind Situation was a pleasing sense of precariousness in play, also seen in Interconnected Spaces (2016, Rock and rope) where the weight of a stone contained in its shadow pins down four ropes, tethered to the gallery walls. It’s strangely beautiful in its simplicity and pregnant silence. The placement of this work in the bare room made space for me to stop and pay closer attention to what was around me and where I stood in relation to the work on various levels. I began to notice circular marks on the floor, whether accidental/ residual or intentional it was impossible to say. It felt as though they were stains around where other placed stones may have stood, or perhaps they were marks left by a different artist from an entirely different show. The point was I was curious about everything in that room, including the marks on the wooden floor. The form and texture of the boulder with its aged erosion and dirt expanded my focus, framed by the tension of ropes. When I first stood in the doorway, seeing this work from a distance, I felt as though time had stopped; a moment before the possibility of ropes snapping to potentially fling the stone across the room, so where I stood in relation to it became a question mark. The large boulder felt like a living entity rather than a dead object, an opportunity for the viewer to pause and imaginatively grapple with their relationship to the raw, natural material and the surrounding man-made space. There is something very Zen about this work which doesn’t stand upon words but the dynamics of perception as an infinitely fluid process. The Art work acts as a point of reference rather than the end product representing, describing or symbolising a certain meaning. In many ways Suga’s work strips Art of its Western preoccupations of attributing value and describing meaning, reassembling materials from the real world so that the viewer can compose their own New Order.

Kishio Suga Interconnected Spaces, 2016.Installation view at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Photo: Sam Drake.

In a similar way I remember very clearly my first encounter with Karla Black’s impressive, resonant installation works in the barrel vaulted Hall of GOMA back in 2012 which floored me with their formal structure and fragile delicacy. (See “Writing” tab of archived reviews)There was so much more in play than just an idea or materials extracted from the mundane domesticity enshrined in an empty white space. The raw material of Black’s Art provoked a multitude of questions and associations, engaging all of my senses in a powerful, unanticipated way. Her painstaking, mindful construction inside that particular architecture naturally spawned layers of interpretation and went a long way to dispelling what I usually see as the Turner Prize nominee curse of endorsement. Ideas or technique by themselves are never enough, nor are they very satisfying for the viewer when seen consistently in isolation. Just watch people in contemporary art spaces the world over reacting to the work and then attempting to marry that response to the labelled attribution of value and meaning beside it. Be assured -your guts are never wrong! All Art stands or falls all by itself, regardless of what may be written alongside it.

What my guts told me about Black’s work in that moment was to pay attention- not to the branded ego of the artist (thankfully not present) which is often the only thing on display, but to the very tactile qualities of the chosen material and my relationship to them as a human being standing in that space, as part of a wider world of imagination. There is something very freeing and also grounded about Black’s approach and intentionality, aligned with the meaning of play in human development, drawn from the unconscious. In a low, horizontal work like Better in Form (2016, Cotton wool, kitchen towel) she encourages us to psychologically get down on the floor in terms of the inner child and move into a different state of sense recognition. Part of this derives from the artist’s own memories of play as a small child; contact with water and sand, but that tactile discovery of the world is universal in all human development. The colour, texture and smell of materials are potent triggers, providing immediately tangible ways into works which resist classification; what the artist describes as “almost” sculpture, painting and performance art, “pulling back” the work before it becomes the label. In Black’s own words; “I think of language as an inadequate, primitive tool. The primary function of the work is aesthetic, formal and material. What comes first is colour and form, composition and scale and then a very firm and separate second comes language.”

Before we learn hierarchies of class, culture and attributions of value, as children we all naturally respond to what we can see, hear, touch and smell with spontaneity and desire. Black’s materials; cellophane, ribbon, sellotape, plaster, chalk powder, soil and dominant palette of pastel baby blues, pinks, yellows and greens are non-threatening, comforting invitations to the viewer. They’re not visually or emotionally cold as they anchor the aesthetic to what is tacit. The shimmer of eyeshadow, lip gloss, petroleum jelly or the softness of cotton wool, polythene and powdered paint exist in Black’s pre-gendered world of exploration and discovery. What convinces is the physicality of material as an emotional touchstone, rather than its intellectualisation through language- it’s about human creative process rather than product or the artist as a brand. Black’s work is refreshingly real in that respect; only abstract in the sense that we are preconditioned to regard Art as something belonging to somebody else, divorced from daily life and the instinctual base of learning that is what we are as a species. Having unleashed my Id standing in the doorway of Gallery 3 viewing Black’s Too Much About Home (2016, Cotton Wool, powder paint, plaster powder, cellophane and sellotape), was frustrating because her work invites closer inspection through touch. The installation is grounded on the floor, extending to the ceiling and one wall, inhabiting the space like a growing organism and creating a topography of feeling in the gradated, low relief rise of teased out cotton wool and scattered pink, yellow, blue and green pastel pigment. You can see the imprint of the artist’s footprints into the middle of the work, still fresh from construction.  It’s a soft, cushion of an island with a triptych of paint suspended on cellophane above, hung from a pliable framework of sellotape, reawakening child-like curiosity, instinct and traditional painterly awareness of composition. Crisp, transparent material is contrasted with comforting hues and cloud-like cotton wool, evoking memories of childhood when we weren’t afraid to make anything. In the corridor outside a series of Black’s hung compositions present evolution of mark and form; progressing from the defined structure of cotton wool balls, flattened into a ground for gestural paint marks, Abstract Expressionist-like fields of overlapping pastel colours which then morph into singular sculptural forms; relatively small in relation to the space around them, but quietly commanding all the same. There’s a sense of play and experimentation with the base elements of Art making; colour, form, line and texture within a subtly equal tonal range.

The sculptural form Actually Mark (Cotton wool, balsa wood and eyeshadow) isn’t monumental in the way we might expect; with a totemic pink plinth of modest scale occupying a room all to itself, the certainty of its edges ambiguously fluffed in cotton wool and coloured by impermanent makeup, attended by a smaller familial blue form on guard near the threshold. The way the works speak to each other in terms of form, scale and colour is an imaginative trigger and although the artist denies gender or cultural associations with colour, they are unavoidable in the mind of the viewer; perhaps saying more about human conditioning than the artist’s intent.  Other Civil Words (2016, Polythene, powder paint, plaster powder and thread) is another example where pink and blue pigmentation isolated in knots are collectively suspended above the floor like a silent pause in an opaque web of relationships. The gentle tensions of the material pulled and knotted into formal opposition is fragile, equally poised and tethered inside a still room. There’s a feeling of slight unease, with the possibility of movement should the slightest breath of air or atmospheric change enter the space. It is a surprisingly human and emotive work made from ethereal, mundane materials and elevated; in physical height and by the act of display in the gallery space. Permanence, commemoration and monumentality isn’t the aim or trajectory of Black’s Art. Instead the focus is on the plinth upon which we place our own expectations and constructs which she encourages us to abandon for something arguably more experientially real.

The felt sense and physicality of the materials speaks when standing in the space that Black’s work occupies because the viewer’s imagination is free to fill it. There are no prescribed meanings, although it could be argued that titles dance along that tightrope. Similarly Suga’s use of Japanese ideograms attempt to resist the descriptive labelling of his Art, although in the context of a Western Gallery space arguably there will always be translations and explanations present. (Interestingly a resources room has been provided in this exhibition.) However Suga’s work is essentially about “Activation” in that what is intended is for the “viewer [to start] to think about what it means”, presenting the possibility of multiple layers of human thought and action without spoon fed conclusions. What said this better than any text ever could was the grainy profundity of Suga’s photograph of one of this fieldworks, Condition of Perception (1970, Silver gelatin print). This documentary image of the residual mark left by a stream of water down a residential Tokyo Street is, even in its spilled state, eternally fluid. That line of water invites your eye deeper into that fixed, two dimensional, but ever expanding space. In that moment captured on film there is something incredibly moving and humane about that vision, even though it is one step removed in being a record of a human action with a natural element in play. My immediate response to this photograph was overwhelmingly emotional. Significantly I felt the possibility of what was being said and the difficulty of communicating a temporary action or art work was overcome by the eye/ mind composing the image and activating the shutter. What shone through the image was intention, openness and hope, placing trust in the viewer to find what they will in that fluid movement between an element of Nature and human nature, which is hardwired to seek understanding.This is an exhibition which challenges the viewer; “I’m looking but am I really seeing- what could that element be? I want to unravel it.”

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/on-now-coming-soon/karla-black-and-kishio-suga/