Radically transforming the art of stained glass, Pinkie Maclure’s latest work brings feminine power and the climate crisis brilliantly into focus.
Pinkie Maclure’s Brigid in Dualchas feels like a songline, tapping deep into the earth and our collective unconscious through storytelling. It is an image of origin, crisis and ultimately, hope. Illuminated in glass, a medium as fragile as humanity, Maclure’s Brigid takes full possession of beauty and rage. Rendered with consummate skill, this goddess of pre-Christian Ireland becomes conduit and cure, a contemporary icon of emboldening solidarity and potential change. All Maclure’s work presents the viewer with a knife edge of burgeoning consciousness and action, here contrasting ‘the old traditions and worship of nature with our contemporary abuse of nature and the resulting climate crisis.’
Brigid (Brighde or Bride in Scotland) is a deity of keening and healing, a protector of nature and an apt patron saint for the Anthropocene era we are living in. In a global context circa 2022, her luminous presence is a confrontation. Reappraisal of feminine power, not as ‘other’ but as an intrinsic aspect of all life and creation, has never been more urgent and cuts through all cultures and gender identification. Maclure’s Brigid is a sacred flaming red flag to reconnect with ancient, indigenous knowledge, not just to survive, but to reclaim life on this planet in all its eternal mystery and wonder.
The idea of ‘Dualchas’ in the Gaelic tradition, which ‘refers to the intimate bonds that exist between the natural world, the land and its people, transmitted through generations’ is communicated in the female figure placed centre stage, described by the artist as the goddess ‘in her element.’
Maclure’s composition is alive with free association. Colour radiates through layered glass in a strong, opposing palette of bloody red and divine blue, evocative of earthly and spiritual planes. Brigid is engulfed in red, a colour which drenches her arms and hands ‘Carrie’ style, while her softly glowing face, eyes closed, is pure repose. There’s great ambiguity here, between a defiant, enduring lifeforce and potential carnage being unleashed. Microbes on finely etched tree branches are underpinned by a vestige of pattern, akin to Medieval stained glass, shining beneath. The smallest details are held aloft by all that has come before, layer upon layer of concept, craft and understanding. In Maclure’s own words;
‘I sandblast, paint, fire, engrave and layer glass and relish the inherent chaos of such an unpredictable medium. The slowness of the process lets me access subconscious, dreamlike imagery and tell stories linking real-life, contemporary experiences with historical texts, characters, and events.’
Pinkie Maclure’s art is a masterful union of ideas and technique which encompasses the entire spectrum of art practice. Like the figure of Brigid in Dualchas, the artist’s upward diagonal path of pure neon lightening may be framed in linear black and white geometry, but this in no way contains her. Brigid moves beyond the upper frame of the composition, pulsing with colour and energy. This petal like radiation of lead line, form and colour bring order and meaning out of chaos. It is pure Zeitgeist, but it is more than that.
The goddess is resolutely complex and complete, divine and human, seen in a Christ-like pose. Associations with the crucifixion, of suffering, sorrow and resurrection, not of God’s only son, but of the world are invoked. Saint Brigid’s feast day, 1st February, heralds spring or Imbolc, celebrating new life out of dark winter stasis. Maclure celebrates life giving creativity as an essential drive, in nature and us, linked with eternal cycles of life and death. Brigid’s clenched hands hold twigs like anode and cathode charges, grasping the mettle of all creation with open arms, much like the artist herself. Brigid in Dualchas is an image of feminine creative power beyond childbirth, in possession of self and body.
The stained-glass composition hinges on a ‘v’ of pubic hair, like the stem of a winged seed, the centre of a flower or a veined petal. It is an unexpected, radical bloom, presenting the female body in an uncompromising, completely organic way, ironically unseen for centuries. Maclure describes the red scratch marks on Brigid’s legs as ‘reminiscent of the graffiti you sometimes see carved into trunks of trees, reflecting the brutalisation of nature and women. Her legs are like the trunk of a tree, still standing despite decades of abuse.’ Significantly, the artist does not define the female figure with these marks. Maclure renders Brigid’s toes delicately mortal pink, her legs glowing pale green, not a deathly pallor, but one of burgeoning life and awakening. Leaves of green and yellow diffuse from her body and birds are silhouetted around a nest of blackened hair. There is nothing idealised here, jagged edges are part of the pattern and flow, held in radiant light. The fiery ignition of thought and instinct are all consuming, in making and seeing.
Maclure radically reinterprets the story of Brigid, ‘associated with perpetual, sacred flames, surrounded by a hedge which no man could cross. Men who attempted to cross were said to have been cursed to go insane, die or be crippled.’ The artist extends this idea to the current climate crisis, acknowledging the truth in the legend, of entire ecosystems. ‘Hedges are very important habitats for wildlife and for the prevention of wildfires,’ which have engulfed the planet. The element of fire, like the goddess herself is ambiguous and multifaceted, triple faced in her most ancient form.
The expression on Brigid’s face, a deeply meditative, active subconscious, calls upon us to collectively awaken and remember through ancient stories. The cathedrals of old encouraged the viewer to look up and be elevated, and in her own inimitable way, Maclure encourages us to do the same, reaching down through the foundations of belief to the site of origin, buried deep beneath the church. This is a different kind of power to that which currently blights our world, one that leads creatively towards hope.
The British Museum’s touring exhibition Pushing Paper: contemporary drawing from 1970 to now celebrates drawing as ‘a fully independent medium’ and reveals what a vital means of expression, innovation and renewal it can be. How we process ideas as human beings, what we know about ourselves, the world and our ability to reimagine it, is richly evidenced in this show. Pushing Paper is an exhibition of possibility and cross-pollination, which feels particularly timely, given that freedom of expression is increasingly under attack globally. Drawing is one of the oldest and most immediate forms of human expression with a deep, shared ancestry. It can be an artery of conscious and unconscious thought, a way of bearing witness and altering perception. Drawing reveals that there are many ways to be and see the world, and that the human mark matters, whether it is drawn, scratched, sculpted or walked. Even at its darkest, drawing is abundantly hopeful in what it enables us to see. Expanding the idea of drawing in its own right and making it more visible is arguably even more requisite in a post-truth digital age. Supported by the Bridget Riley Foundation (BRAF) this three-year project, co-curated with partner museums throughout the UK, is a fantastic opportunity to see contemporary drawing in its infinite variety.
Drawn from the British Museum’s graphic collection of over 50, 000 drawings and 2 million prints, the collaborative approach to curation, in partnership with the Oriental Museum, Durham, the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea and the Cooper Gallery, Barnsley, has produced a fascinating and deeply moving show. Presented in five thematic sections: power and protest, systems and process, place and space, identity and time and memory, the exhibition features 56 diverse works by artists such as David Hockney, Philip Guston, Rachel Whiteread, Cornelia Parker, Tacita Dean, Anselm Kiefer, Sol Le Witt, Anish Kapoor, Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry, Peter Doig, Roger Ackling, Liliane Lijn, Minjung Kim, Susan Schwalb, Nja Mahdaoui, Hajra Waheed, Marcia Kure, Hamid Sulaiman and Rachel Duckhouse.
Susan Schwalb’s Untitled, 1980, (metalpoint with graphite and burn marks on prepared paper) creates an astonishing sense of drawing as a living, organic force. Rooted in the Renaissance tradition of silverpoint, practised by Albrecht Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, there is a flourishing, dynamic sense of becoming in Schwalb’s series of four images. The feathery, smoked and scratched marks are powerful and delicate, melding process and idea to such a degree that they become a point of ignition in the viewer’s imagination. There is an uncanny sense of movement, flickering into light and illumination, that really captures the human drive to make art. The hand-made mark often demands that we pause, question and engage our senses fully in what we are looking at, in a way that the scrolling images saturating our daily digital lives do not. Schwalb’s work is such an invitation for active reflection. Her four drawings suggest parts of a flower and therefore the propensity for growth, coupled with the fiery inference of potential destruction. The fascination found in a naked flame is invoked here as mark and line, fan and flume, expand the idea of Renaissance metalpoint as precision rendering. Schwalb presents a Renaissance of drawing in fluidity and abstraction. There are so many lines of potential enquiry emanating from Schwalb’s quartet, revealing what a hopeful, essential act drawing can be. The spirit of exploration and ancestry of the artist’s chosen medium evolves before your eyes, and it is a joy to see.
Liliane Lijn’s Hanging Gardens of Rock City 1970 (Collage of magazine cuttings touched with green crayon, on a support of a greyish photograph of the New York skyline) presents a ‘utopian idyll’ of ‘green walkways suspended across the rooftops of Manhattan.’ Collage is an intuitive way of drawing that pivots between the act of cutting and sowing creative seeds of regeneration. Reconstruction of found images in this context takes New York Skyscrapers, temples of capitalism, and reappropriates them as accessible, linked green spaces. In Lijn’s hanging gardens, there’s no apocalyptic Babylon, but ancient wonder in imagination. Through a 2022 lens, Lijn’s Hanging Gardens of Rock City is a vision of what is needed today, platforms to reimagine and subvert dominant systems of power. Lijn also captures the spirit of awe and optimism in iconic New York architecture, ancient adornment repurposed for the New World, not as the domain of corporations and billionaires, but possessed of a different kind of inheritance and intention. The same year Lijn’s created her Floating Gardens of Rock City series of collages, the first Earth Day was held, a rallying point for US environmentalism and activism. Lijn’s Hanging Gardens bring an element of playfulness and ‘what if’? to this ongoing debate, gently suggesting an alternative trajectory in fantasy architecture. It is now widely acknowledged that capitalism/ consumerism has brought our planet to the brink of collapse, in the context of the Anthropocene period we are living through, Lijn’s Hanging Gardens optimistically heralds what still might be possible.
Minjung Kim’s Mountain (2009 ink on hanji paper) possesses a powerful rhythm of tonal ascension in wave upon wave of inky tidelines. Kim’s wet on wet technique is masterful in its acute understanding of material through touch. The way water absorbs, and ink reacts is part of the grounded nature of this drawing and the ethereal nature of this landscape. The singular ‘Mountain’ is made up of many successive peaks which gradually evaporate from dark to light. There is a strong lineage of traditional knowledge in this work, dating from the 1st Century BCE, in the ground of Korean Hanji paper, made from the Mulberry tree and in the artist’s reverence for the natural world. There is also the ‘Mountain’ in the mind of the viewer as an imaginative space in play. It was interesting to see how this work was such a natural draw for people entering the ‘place and space’ themed room and how much time was spent in contemplation of the drawing. Something emanates from these magnificent waves of water, ink and paper which feels like a collective well of burgeoning consciousness. There is a sense of connectivity when looking at this work, of being part of something greater than ourselves. Kim’s drawing captures something essential about our relationship with nature, bringing the root of Eastern spirituality, Western Romanticism and wider belief in divine nature together. The energy in this work is timelessly circular and direct, something sensed and felt through the hand of the artist, the work on paper and in the heart/ mind of the viewer.
Before you read the adjacent label, Cornelia Parker’s arresting Rorschach- style blot Poison Drawing (1997, Rattlesnake venom and ink) floats darkly on the page in free association. The unsettling mirror brown stain could be dried blood clotted thoughts,unlocked from the viewer’s own psyche. Initially the singular drawing is a trigger and feels like a test of projected meaning, in the manner of the original Rorschach test, used to examine the psychological and emotional characteristics of an individual. In a linked pair of drawings, Parker’s obsession with opposites is crystallised in material venom and its antidote. It’s an interesting moral proposition that walking into the gallery, it’s the visual stain of ink and venom in Poison Drawing that first draws the eye, while the white ink and Diamond Back snake anti-venom in its twin, Antidote Drawing 1997, appears invisible. Human behaviour (and creativity) has a double face, the potential for toxicity and cure. The ambiguity of Parker’s work is part of its charm, there’s always intellect behind it. Equally the element of artistic control consistently shifts- the blot will do what it wants to do, making unexpected marks on the folded paper. The inherent danger or life-giving properties hinge on what you’re told each drawing is made of, its material truth. Here drawing meets conceptual art, like ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail. In Parker’s own words ‘the work, as drawing, comes from the materials’ and that raw materiality, combined with concept and belief makes for endless connections and imaginings.
One of the most powerful works in the exhibition, one that stopped me in my tracks and that I keep returning to, is Adel Daoud’s Charbon de Chair (2014, Charcoal on cardboard). It is a summation of the civil war in Syria, a conflict that has claimed over 500,000 lives since 2011 and of incalculable loss, but there is also a powerful feeling of resistance in this work, a visceral frenzy of marks that insists we do not forget. Despite human erasure, a process of collective amnesia mirrored in the drawing, the artist in exile and the object remain living witnesses. Like Goya’s Disasters of War or Otto Dix’s Der Krieg series of prints, there is horrific trauma and life affirming strength in every line. Daoud’s drawing and its title ‘human charcoal’ is a pure expression of human annihilation and destruction, lived experience that perhaps only drawing could give voice to. With the Syrian war still raging and current obliteration of human remains by the Russian army in Ukraine to conceal war crimes, Charbon d Chair translates to sites of war and genocide around the globe. The danger of forgetting begets compounded horror in repetition. I was reminded when looking at this work of the words of Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel; ‘To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.’ The need for art to bear witness and act as a trigger for memory, not just in the artist’s own time but for all time, has never been greater. It is all too easy to change channels, keep scrolling, press delete or spread denial to millions on social media. Being in the intimate presence of a drawing, an immediately tactile object with its own history, that may be very different from our own, demands that we make sense of the human marks we see before us and grapple with where we stand. A great drawing makes its mark on the mind, soul and heart of the viewer and is never forgotten. The value of such work is incalculable, and I am glad that as part of this touring show, Adel Daoud’s Charbon de Chair will be seen by many more people throughout the country.
Nja Mahdaoui’s The Memory Triptych (2009 Indian ink, acrylic and gold on parchment) is a brilliant evocation of human memory, how it shifts and evolves, realised in a fusion of drawing and sculpture. There are forms within forms in this drawing, from the tall clear glass vases containing three rhythmically charged parchments, to elements of Arabic calligraphy hidden by partially burnt, curvaceously twisting forms. The letterforms resist semantic reading, yet language, culture and identity are resounding present, not in being pinned down as absolutes, but in enabling growth and freedom of expression. The capture of this billowing movement of memory feels miraculous and precious, with gold overwritten on parchment. There is something very beautiful in what is hidden and revealed simultaneously in this work, about the way that we edit, revise and revel in memory as humans. The delicacy and refinement of Arabic calligraphy is rendered elusive, poetic and tangibly real in this multidimensional work. I would love to see works like Mahdaoui’s Memory Triptych displayed permanently within the British Muesum and partner museums, as an unexpected trigger for reflection on the evolving memory of other works in their collections.
The importance of touring collections, outside London to the rest of the UK and internationally, should not be underestimated. I was delighted to find, in the world class venue of The Pier, an exhibition who’s sensitive and thought-provoking curation made me feel connected to the world once again. Rather than being relentlessly overwhelmed by global events, the sensitive and thought-provoking curation encouraged connective reflection. Many of the chosen works restored my faith that we can in fact, out create destruction. The marks we make remain crucial. As the amazing diversity and integrity of practice exhibited in Pushing Paper testifies, Drawing stands resoundingly as both noun and verb.
The following poems Harvest and The Wave are responses to paintings by Joan Eardley held in the National Galleries of Scotland collection. For me, these two works encapsulate Eardley’s intent as an artist and the driven nature of creativity. I was also inspired by the following statements by Joan Eardley and Audrey Walker, which reflect dual aspects of Eardley’s personality;
‘I always identify Joan with the sea, and it is a valid identification. There is a gentle, sunlitsea one delights in, in the summer. And even in bad weather it is still a summer sea. This was the Joan I think everyone knew. This is the sea most people know. But there is a magnificent winter sea, in all its indomitable grandeur and wild, turbulent and terrifying splendour. This was Joan too.’ Audrey Walker
‘If you want experience of understanding and beauty then envy me now- but if you want happiness then don’t.’ Joan Eardley
I think Joan Eardley’s work communicates very powerfully our fundamental need as human beings to out create destruction, within ourselves and the wider world. The Wave and Harvest represent our deepest impulses, acknowledging darkness and striving towards light.
Harvest was published as part of the anthology All Becomes Art – Part One edited by Colin Herd and Sam Small (Speculative Books, Glasgow, February 2022.) All Becomes Art is a collection of new writing in response to the paintings and drawings of Joan Eardley, celebrating the centenary of her birth in 2021. Images of both paintings can be viewed on the National Galleries of Scotland website.
Harvest (oil and grit on hardboard, 1960-61)
Behind the village above the raging sea seed husks crack open like wings
The path is clear straight to the eye of the sun poised on the horizon haloed crimson white
in her fine-spun frenzy of marks blocks of shadow are broken by vanishing green and exploding yellow paint, grit and earth reaping sustenance
All life is here rendered in ecstasy the heart shimmers even as the wheel of the year turns from golden day to night
This is the moment inside this hallowed triptych when you and the world are made whole again.
The Wave (oil and grit on hardboard, February 1961)
To see the wave is to feel its fierce flowing light and a barricade of oncoming darkness loneliness ‘put away by painting’ borne on a leaden tide
Despair cuts like a WWI trench through wet sand a single, unflinchingly black rectangular mark stubborn as bitumen, delicately frayed at the edges like Rothko’s Elysium fields
The wall of water is unstoppable yet here she is, steadfast in quicksand holding back the tide for generations defiantly drawing a line that death may not cross
Beneath the industrial weight of Scots grey-blue we stand beside her in the gale, the earth our foreground and our end
The wave is a hand honed mark of burnt umber held close to the chest, the ‘i’ of Friedrich’s solitary monk placed pier edge and centre disintegrating like a pillar of dust in a hurricane, scattered like her ashes on this beach
Inevitably the wave hits, white foam gritted truth that knocks the wind out of me, scrapes me along the sea floor and leaves me gasping for breath. I feel the sum of all those days when hope vanishes and my soul scratches in a fever of life not to depart.
The following paper was originally presented live at the SSAH / Art UK Sculpture in Scotland Symposium, held at Edinburgh University in February 2019 and subsequently published in the Scottish Society for Art History Journal No 24 (2019-2020) Sculpture in Scotland issue in November 2019
‘A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Is sculpture a chain?’ Steve Dilworth, early sketchbook, mid 1970’s.
Since the 1970s, Steve Dilworth has been redefining sculpture in his approach to making objects and handling of materials. Dilworth’s extraordinary work crosses many boundaries in terms of how we think about sculpture and art objects. 2019 marks his 70th birthday and the 40th anniversary of the Hanging Figure, a lightning strike in the history of art and a significant point of departure in Dilworth’s practice. It was the first of his works constructed from the inside out, a union of energy, concept and material that continues to evolve in his work today. He is one of the country’s most innovative, globally significant artists and I hope that this paper will be the start of a much broader conversation about his work.
When I first encountered Dilworth’s art in 2006, I was immediately struck by how powerfully distilled it was. Since then I have continued to write articles about it, gradually coming to terms with what makes it so unique and important, not just to me, but to many people around the world. In 2014, in response to the lack of information about the artist in the public domain, I began researching Dilworth’s work with view to writing a definitive biography, a story I wanted to tell through his trajectory of objects. First, I needed to see that whole trajectory. After discussing key works with the artist, forming the skeleton of the project, I started tracing, visiting and documenting as much of his work as possible.
By the end of 2017 I had documented over 500 works, a process which became rather like mapping the family, genus and species of living things as part of an expedition. These related branches of objects became the thematic vertebrae of each chapter and the backbone of the book, which I completed in October 2018. During the three-year research phase I conducted extensive interviews with the artist, his family, peers, colleagues, private collectors, curators and public collections from the UK, Europe and the USA. What motivated me from the beginning was the question of what makes ‘a Dilworth ’and why is his work so resonant on a global scale?
Steve Dilworth was born in 1949 and spent his formative years in Kingston Upon Hull, Yorkshire. His earliest memories are significantly tactile, linked strongly to the natural world and to discovery through play, a quality ever present in his studio practice. He remembers a ‘profound experience’ as ‘a young boy, when he defied the taboo of a do not touch sign at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, running his hands over a Henry Moore bronze while nobody was looking. It was a ‘tactile experience of form’ that ‘seeped through his skin’. Returning to the Ferens in 1997 for his solo exhibition Earthing Memories, Dilworth stated; ‘It is this memory that has demanded an attitude in making sculpture. It calls for an integrity while making objects which carry messages and experiences of the future child.’ 
As a student at Maidstone College of Art, his interpretation of sculpture went way beyond traditional carving and casting. One of his early sketchbooks, dated 17 March 1970, records his assertion that ‘Sculpture is a name describing an object. What I mean by an object’ is ‘anything which is tangible, such things as thoughts, wind, emotions etc. Therefore, it follows that my writing must be sculpture.' It was an idea that was not acceptable at the time. After he had left college, a chance encounter with the Isle of Harris stayed with him and in 1983 he and his family moved permanently to the island, a landscape he has been collaborating with ever since.
Dilworth’s international reputation has been growing since the late 1980s. He is renowned for his ground-breaking work using once living and found material, often held inside outer forms of wood, bone, stone and bronze. He also incorporates elements drawn directly from land and seascape, such as calm water, storm water, mountain air, the North wind and darkness. These are elements gathered at a particular time and place, in an exacting way that sit right on an edge between concept and material, the physical and metaphysical. He also uses the concept of sound and its absence in objects such as Air Rattle (1992).
Dilworth is fascinated with intersectional points between living things and material, reality, belief and the unconscious. He is an artist who believes that his job is to ask questions rather than provide answers. There is a sense of engagement with the inherent mysteries of life in his work whether in particle physics, Nature or the Divine. Life is acknowledged in its totality in his work, even those aspects we might deny, fear or despise. In nature you cannot have growth without death and decay – that transformation of core energy and awareness is a powerful part of his work.
The human scale of his work is as grounded as it is aspirational, from intimate hand-held objects to monumental outdoor works in stone, bronze and works in the landscape using animal fat, stone, fire and peat. One of the unusual aspects of his work is that it is crafted from the inside out, using the energy of raw material as the starting point, with as much care and attention given to the internal structure as the outer form.Often what is most valuable is hidden inside where we cannot see it. We have to believe or imagine it is there. The way the outer surface is crafted communicates the value and integrity of that process of seeing. It is ‘sculpture’ as a process of recognition – of who and what we are as human beings. We may have Google-mapped the entire world, but in truth there are many things which we (rightly) still do not understand and ultimately cannot control. The objects Dilworth makes acknowledge that baseline of human vulnerability.
When I first interviewed Dilworth and asked what drew him to sculpture as a discipline, he replied;
I’m an atheist and an anti- theist. Art has replaced all of that spiritual side. So what it is to me is to try to make some sort of sense of what is a nonsensical place- of what we are. It is just exploring that and trying to understand. I don’t really see it as sculpture per se, but as objects and that’s what I make. For me the fantastic thing about making objects is that you’re making real things, they’re not about something, they’re not pretending to be something else, they are actually what they are- what it is in its entirety, whether you can see it or not.
That grounded insistence on ‘making real things’ is one of his defining characteristics as an artist. This is not sculpture to be placed on a plinth or mantelpiece and admired from afar, but objects that connect on a primal level with the nervous system. During the wider interview process I discovered work passed down through families as invested objects, rather than inherited investments, creating their own narratives. They are objects that contain and exude their own energy in very profound and unexpected ways. Recently when Dilworth created a memorial piece in bronze, this precious object was not for display in a home or garden but intended to be thrown into a loch. Rather than marking a final resting place or fixed point in time, it exists as fluidly as human memory. Very unusually it is an art object not of possession, but an act of acknowledgement, a ritual of grief and loss, reconnecting those human emotions to cycles in the natural world. Dilworth’s progeny of Throwing Objects from the early 1980s to the present are for lobbing into an internal landscape. Some can be defensive, others are objects of comfort and healing on multiple levels. People recognise the gravity and intent of these objects intuitively, directly through the hands.
The meticulous crafting of Dilworth’s objects communicates an attitude of respect and intention. Sometimes hollows are carved that connect your fingers with a certain trajectory and people often use these as meditative or grounding objects. Holding Swift (2012), in both hands, thumbs to eyes, there is a bodily sense of alignment with your internal centre of gravity, rather like the pull of a divining rod, linked to the body of the bird inside and to the idea of flight. The object also has a mysterious, mask-like quality, drawn from the collective, unconscious tribe of us. Although it is beautifully crafted, my experience through interviews is that people are not just reacting to the surface, but holistically to the work which seems to trigger genetic memory. In the artist’s monumental works and land works there is a very fluid sense of material and archetypal connection to form.
Dilworth’s Venus Stone(2007) for example, is crafted from tonnes of black granite, however this tapered form and presence defies all expectations of stone. Rather than being fixed, immovable and earth bound, it is at one with the changing weather and seasons in reflection, evaporating into the immense sky above, becoming air. Originally it was to stand on a base that allowed it to rotate with the wind as well, forming another axis of movement. The fertile, imaginative Feminine is undeniable in Dilworth’s Venus Stone and its masculine companion work Claw, in fourteen tonnes of black granite, is equally potent and elusive as sculpture.
When Dilworth took surplus frozen blocks of sand eels, which had been harvested for fertiliser in the Western Isles and wove them into ‘a burial shroud for the sea’ (Sand Eel Weaving, 1989), he was not claiming dominion over these once living things as an individual, but transforming human created waste into a statement of reverent care. Those tiny eels are the food and energy transfer within an entire ecosystem. The smell of preservation, a temporary halt to decay and the golden silvery weave of a precious cloak affirm what we know when we look at human impact on nature all over the world. Later in Sea Chest (2009-2010), which contains a sand eel cast in bronze, the concept evolves, with the precious metal and the once living object held inside.
The Isle of Harris is a great working partner for Dilworth. It is a place where he says he can ‘still see the curve of the earth’ and where evidence of geological changes millions of years old are out on the surface of the landscape. It is also a place where you have to come to terms with human history and your own presence and footprint, relative to the enormity of natural forces. Acknowledged in the earliest recorded objects made by human beings, this is art integral to life and our creative renewal. In many ways, Dilworth’s work has more in common with the prehistoric Venus of Willendorf (29,500 BCE, Natural History Museum, Vienna) than he does with his contemporaries. What is often forgotten in our digital age is that the origin of art was ritual and that the process of making fulfils a different need to the branded cultural consumption that now dominates our world.
Dilworth taps into human ritual and collective memory, describing himself as ‘a channel’ or ‘like an idiot being given keys to the library.’ Some people describe him and his work as ‘shamanic’. I see it as that, only in so far as a shaman is a leader who having absorbed the entire history and culture of the tribe is a keeper of collective memories, an individual able to penetrate the modern man-made barrier between the physical and spiritual. There is a very close connection with an entire cultural ecology in indigenous shamanic practices, an approach to our place on earth as human beings which in the context of 21st-century life is urgently relevant. Dilworth’s work may look tribal, but it does not directly reference other cultural artefacts. When folklore or other narratives emerge, it is often after a work has been completed and not consciously researched. Making is the research and meaning in itself.
Joseph Beuys used materials such as fur and fat in his sculptural installations, but Beuys adopted shamanism as a role, a way of fighting rationalism as part of a wider social agenda. He constructed mythology around his practice in installation, teaching and performance, that is very different to Dilworth’s use of raw material. Comparisons are sometimes made with Damien Hirst’s work, but this is also wide off the mark in terms of craft and intention. Dilworth was confronting the use of once living material over a decade earlier and, in Dilworth’s art, it is not the shock value or mythology of the material driving the object but the essential charge within it. That charge as concept and reality first came into being in 1979 with the completion of the Hanging Figure, where the synthesis of material created transcendent circuitry. Like the positive and negative ‘parts of a battery that come together with the chemical electrolyte between, it is a store of energy and the vital spark of electricity that creatively lights the world.’ It is an object of life, rather than death, creation over destruction.
As the artist has stated; ‘All things contain energy. It is self-evident, and by changing their shape or position you can alter the energy or strengthen it. You end up making power objects and that is ultimately what sculpture is for me. It is not primarily visual art. An artist creates music, art or whatever but it transcends the material. Otherwise it is worthless.’
The origin of Dilworth’s contemporary art practice is the unity of energy, concept and material inside this work. The Hanging Figure is a contentious and deeply humane piece which importantly raises many more questions than it answers. It is a fusion of human and animal, composed from a human skeleton (a decalcified box of bones bought from an anatomical supplier) and an unravelled calf including a bovine heart, liver and meat, bound together by horse hair, blackthorn and sea grass. It ‘represents […] a deepening exploration of the energies and origins of raw materials that have shaped all of the artist’s subsequent work.’ ‘Sea grass and blackthorn was used to bind, strengthen and articulate the spine; a knot tied left to right and right to left, creating a rhythm of lines, 300 in all connected to different parts of the body.’ Dilworth cites the ‘authenticity of the material, the energy of it’ being extremely important in the making of the object.
‘If an object is anything it must contain its own power and be independent of time and place.’ ‘What you’re trying to do is make three dimensional poetry by weaving these elements, by changing the form and the density, you try to create an object that is stronger and more powerful than the space it occupies.’
Although the exterior of the figure looks female, the skeleton is male, an interesting dynamic in terms of human psychology, identity and gender. The integration of animal and human feels true to evolution and of the way that deep rooted aspects of self can be suppressed in contemporary life. It is a work that makes the uncomfortable reality of what it is to be human visible again. However, it is more than a memento mori. Although reminiscent of ancient burial rites and mummification on the surface – this is not a funereal work. The Hanging Figure posed ‘deep question marks’ for the artist during the process of making and it remains one of his most polarising works, due to its raw, undeniable union of concept, energy and material. It is a work that has been exhibited in the UK, Europe and America. Sold in 2011 to the Richard Harris collection in Chicago, it’s a work that should never have left this country.
Taking the lessons of the Hanging Figure forward meant crafting objects the right way, with the right materials and intention, through the self-confessed ‘imperfect’ channel of the artist. This idea breaks new ground in Darkness I &II (1988) where the concept and technique are resoundingly equal. Two 14 x 12cm lidded caskets, made from lead, copper, brass, ancient bog oak and darkness are objects of human gravitas in pyramid form. The internal lead chamber of each vessel has a certain weighted logic, in capturing and containing darkness, as concept, energy and material. Regardless of the age, or our beliefs, the idea of darkness carries physical, psychological and emotional weight. There is also an edge of absurdity in trying to capture it. During an interview on Harris in 2014, Dilworth described the process of collecting the core material;
I chose the darkest time of the year in midwinter between the moons and I walked up the valley away from any natural light – the perfect natural darkness and sealed it up… What I like about that is darkness is quite tangible – steering perilously close to canisters of London Fog, but it is a material, on the edge of where concept becomes material. I find those barriers fascinating. I do realise there is a risk involved in it, in the work being overtaken completely by the idea, but I’m very serious about it.
During one of our interviews on Harris, Dilworth described the process in bringing calm water to the energetic centre of an object;
I could go and get it again at an appropriate moment, but it is a pretty rare moment to get the sea that calm. I do save it- just in a plastic bottle, not kept in anything special, that would turn it into something else. I take some water out of the calm water bottle, put it into a flask and then syringe, fill it, squirt it out so it is rinsed with [calm water] and start again. With air, I would [also] rinse it out. Sometimes the air is gathered by sucking in, in a ritual and sometimes as a vacuum, but the intention is to get it as right as I can. Not just opening the two on the off chance of getting some into it. It must have a degree of integrity to it. You have to try, even if it isn’t perfect. That’s what it has to be. You do your best given what you’ve got at the time.
A distant cousin of Darkness I & II, Storm Centre (1993) (Fig.6) is another example of taking a seemingly intangible element from Nature and transforming it experientially. The outer form is made from African blackwood and contains a core of pure silver, holding a phial of air taken from the centre of the Braer storm in January 1993, the most intense extratropical cyclone ever recorded over the northern Atlantic Ocean. Dilworth described collecting the core material during an interview on Harris; ‘You have this particular moment when it’s utterly still, deep in the depression of the storm, an uncomfortable place to be. It was quite opportunist, when the storm hit I thought- I’ll just collect that.’ When I first saw this work I knew nothing about its origins – it ‘reminded me of a metronome with the pendulum arm removed, all time and rhythmic life stopped in calm violence. What struck me was the idea of containment, the healing properties of silver within and the close, straight grain of one of the hardest, densest woods on earth. If you placed this material in the emotionally conductive element of water, it would sink. Now when I think of Storm Centre I think of the emotive, atomic nature of that stilled core substance of palpable air, alive in the mind, inverted to a point, deep in the annihilating eye of the storm, expanding’ beyond the periphery. It’s an alignment of nature, intention and thought, an object truly “greater than the space it occupies.”’
Dilworth’s objects carry no prescribed message, meaning or written explanations and there are only isolated instances of the artist using titles or text as a means of critical reflection. Ordinarily the titles of his work simply state the core material as the point of ignition. In 21st century art practice Dilworth is a rarity, a conceptual artist who consistently reminds us of the primacy of touch – ancient in origin, there at the birth of art as ritual and part of our genetic memory as human beings. His work brings us face to face with Nature and our own natures, in unexpected, often challenging and revelatory ways. The core energy of his work is the human drive to out-create destruction, individually and as a species, which is why his work is so pertinent, here, now, and for all time.
 S. Dilworth, Earthing Memories Exhibition Catalogue, Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston Upon Hull 1997
 S. Dilworth, Earthing Memories (n.1)
 S. Dilworth, Earthing Memories (n.1).
 S. Dilworth, note in sketchbook dated 17 March 1970
 S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris. 25/08/2006.
 S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris, 18/05 2015.
 S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris. 20/05/2016.
 G. Coburn, ‘Chapter 5 Diversions in Natural History’, in manuscript for Journeyman – The Art of Steve Dilworth.p.6.
Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two)
‘My favourite themes are power games and hierarchies. I always want to turn things on their heads to upset the established order, to change heroines and idiots…at the same time as loving the stories. I want to undermine them, like wanting to harm someone you love. Above all though, I want to work with stories that emerge as I go along.’ Paula Rego
Obedience and Defiance is the first major retrospective of Paula Rego’s work to be shown in Scotland, with a very timely focus on the politics of power and political agency. Featuring over 80 works from the 1960’s to 2010’s, it’s an intensive trajectory of self-examination and discovery. What I took away from this show, and what I know will stay with me, is the pure inspiration of creative protest and the towering strength of feminine resilience. As you move through each room, Rego’s intelligence, will and evolutionary craft are courageously forged in the mind. Informed by her thirty-year friendship with the artist, Catherine Lampert’s curation creates an intimate and appropriately monumental sense of Rego’s stature and humanity. Paula Rego moves very naturally between deeply personal and collective fields of reference. Whilst autobiographical or culturally specific narrative triggers are often the drivers, her compositions invite wider interpretation and debate. Rego’s art actively hands imaginative power back to the viewer in a spirit of free association.
The artist’s Girl and
Dog series is a good example, inspired by her husband’s battle with MS and
the role of carer. A viewer may know nothing about the personal history/
iconography in Untitled (1986 acrylic on canvas), but immediately
the positioning of the figure and the inferred relationship is unusual and arresting.
Firstly, the girl child/ woman is the dominant presence or agent in the image,
rendered in a way that embraces benevolence and malevolence simultaneously.
Cemented and entwined at opposing angles with a large black dog perched on her
lap, this isn’t just a girl with her pet we are witnessing. Despite the presence of yellow, lilac and
blue, the tonality and delineation are heavily set. The female protagonist’s
determined brow is only just visible, focussed not on play or the potential for
a walk, but about to snap closed the final link in the metaphorical chain
around the dog’s neck. The girl’s spiked yellow arm band and dress, which feels
like the costume for a circus act, has an edge of ambiguity and menace. In
another emotive twist, the dog is rendered empathically. Despite his robust form,
his black eyes are drained of life. He sits not just obediently, but with
resignation, staring ahead and beyond the picture plane, tended and equally
These starkly defined figures, tempered by love, impending loss and resentment are on one level a double portrait of real life, however they also transcend the personal, presenting a rich seam of universal triggers and the possibility of multiple narrative interpretations. The archetypal examination of the caregiver role, the dynamics of power between an animal and its master, the balance or imbalance between masculine and feminine aspects of the psyche or within society, our capacity for loyalty and compassion, dominance and submissiveness, creation and destruction, life and death, are all at play in this work. Rego is consistently fearless in addressing the complexity of human emotions and desires.
In a similar way, Rego’s Dog Woman series, which has its origins in a Portuguese fairy tale, presents the viewer with hidden motivations and truths about the human condition. In many ways they reflect constrained civilization, fraught with frightening and liberating physicality of the animal within. Bound to their masters and existing on an edge between love and punishment, these are powerful figures of feminine aggression and sexuality, so often relegated to a corner of the room, the psychological belfry or society’s hidden basement. Rego courageously brings them into the light and into public consciousness in exhibition works like Dog Woman (1952 pencil on paper), Sleeper (1994 pastel on canvas), Love (1995 pastel on paper mounted on aluminium) and catalogue works Bad Dog (1994 pastel on canvas), Dog Woman (1994 pastel on canvas) and Baying (1994 pastel on canvas). The Dog Woman series is a highly significant body of work, not just in terms of Rego’s oeuvre and development as an artist, but for what these images represent in terms of the ongoing struggle for equality.
Throughout the exhibition, Rego emerges as an absolute Master of her art. Witnessing the distillation of her voice from masked abstraction to unbridled boldness is an empowering experience. Regardless of inherited circumstances, making art gives licence to explore what is forbidden, reinterpret history and initiate change. Rego’s avenging Angel (1998, pastel on paper mounted on aluminium) strikes me as not just standing at her shoulder in this respect, but as an unwitting symbol of her own right hand. Angel is an expression of compassion and action, with a sponge to taste bitter gall in one hand and a vengeful sword in the other. These emblems of passion and sacrifice are not just the artist’s Arma Christi, but feminine weaponry originating in lived experience and collective memory.
In a domestic image such as Sit(1994, pastel on canvas), we see the societal command of a title which pins the female protagonist to an armchair, hands behind her back and feet crossed, invisibly nailed in the manner of Christ’s crucifixion. It’s a timelessly stark predicament with the suggestion of pregnancy, dressed and upholstered in pleasing, demure florals. The woman’s eyes are directed above and it’s the whites of her eyes which hook in the mind and slowly creep under the skin. Sit isn’t just an image of enforced expectation; dutiful woman, wife, mother, but one ‘anointed’ with fear. ‘Giving fear a face’ is perhaps Rego’s greatest gift, because it is only when trauma is acknowledged that it can be processed and creatively transformed, individually and collectively. Storytelling is how we make sense of ourselves and it’s the retelling in Rego’s work, drawing on ancient mythology, folklore, popular culture and current affairs, that is personally and politically transformative. Her work is a reckoning with inequality and injustice, using imagination to affect change in the world and reimagine a different state of play. This ‘turning the tables’ of expectation, about what it means to be human, female and an artist, is a defining characteristic of her practice.
Rage against oppression
and inequality have always been present in Rego’s art. From her early 1952 pencil
drawing Dog Woman in a crouched position rabidly barring her
teeth, to ‘violent cutting’ of The Imposter (1964 oil and mixed
media on paper collage and canvas), and later pastels tackling human atrocities
such as war, anti-abortion legislation, FGM and sex trafficking. Throughout her
career, she has always grappled with human nature and its contradictions, never
shying away from our potential for complicity. Rego’s great strength and where
she really comes into her own, is in the dynamic suspension of all that we are
and are fighting to be, in taut, monumental pastels, dominated by female
protagonists. Her use of this medium is unexpected and completely transformative,
giving soft intimacy a distinctive edge of urgent, burgeoning consciousness. Rego’s
high definition pastels articulate rather than blend away truth. The artist’s
trajectory extends toward integration of masculine and feminine, seizing what
has been historically denied or hidden. Works like Joseph’s Dream
(1990, acrylic on paper on canvas) and Painting Him Out (2011,
pastel on paper mounted on aluminium) actively reclaim creativity, despite
enduring social hierarchies and the received canon of art history which casts
women as submissive or irrelevant. Rego actively embraces the desire and entitlement
of making images, traditionally assigned to “Masters”;
‘Painting pictures is like being a man, really. It’s the part of you that’s the man. Even the way you stand or sit, confronting the work like a man and it has to do with the aggressive part. It has the kind of push, the thrust which you must normally associate with what being a man is.’
Empowerment is doing and making, redefining yourself, your perceived role in society and its underlying structures in the process. In the spoilt, ego driven art world of the late 1990’s and 2000’s, Rego reveals what art can stand for and against- not just in her own time, but for all time. All great artists transcend themselves and Rego is no exception. Growing up in Portugal under the totalitarian rule of António de Oliveira Salazar, a highly repressed society in terms of gender, class and colonialism, the seeds of protest were sewn. In such conditions, expression becomes encoded and survival an imperative. Rego’s escape route, to Britain and the Slade School of Art in the 1950’s, presented her with a different set of cultural and institutional constraints to negotiate. Discussing her coming of age experiences in the 2017 documentary Secret and Stories (directed by her son Nick Willing) the artist’s congruence and openness about what it is to be female is still painfully relevant. While advances have been made and legislation may have altered in certain countries, class privilege is still the only thing affording freedom of choice for many women throughout the world. Every advance in the fight for equality must also be measured against the epidemic of modern slavery. The trafficking of women and girls is a growing industry which Rego makes visible in her work. The artist as witness has an incredibly important role to play in terms of political agency and visibly upholding freedom of expression, doubly so in a “post-truth” world.
A survivor of oppression and injustice is also a witness and this transformation of self-awareness is at the heart of all Rego’s work, extending far beyond autobiography. This powerful gaze of resilience is exchanged with the viewer in the Abortion series (1998-1999), where Rego skilfully reveals lived experience we cannot turn away from. It is full frontal confrontation with life and a rallying call to action, delivered without gore and in deliberately palatable colours. Rego defiantly makes unnecessary suffering visible to the world. Her direct response to the lack of votes in Portugal’s 1998 referendum was to create large scale pastels and etchings for wider dissemination, making female experiences of illegal abortion visible in the public domain for the first time. These images were instrumental in raising awareness about a taboo subject and aided the second referendum which legalised abortion in 2007. However, Rego’s Abortion series isn’t simply a visual campaign. Her series delves deeper than anyone else has dared, into the foundations of power written on the body and internalised. The way that trauma is held in the body as memory and physical response, strikes me immediately looking at Rego’s drawings, pastels and etchings from this series. Rego has spoken candidly about her positioning of the female figure in these works. The dynamic of tension created in blurring the line between anticipation of penetration by a lover and the abortionist’s hand is a deliberate trigger of profound unease. Untitled No 5 (1998 pastel on paper) is a good example, where the woman braces herself against the bed, legs separated by two folding chairs, dressed in a floral sundress as if on a date. The suggestion of seduction and violation are equally present. Although depicted clinically, the human need for affection, love and sex become disturbingly entwined with ideas of Romance and trauma in this image. The wider question of how we learn to become women enters the frame.
The dualism of human fear and desire within and hidden by institutions of church and state also join the debate. As Rego has stated ‘guilt doesn’t come into it.’ It is atrocious that it (abortion) is forbidden’, causing untold suffering and deaths that are entirely preventable across the world. Whatever your gender, life experience or beliefs, what Rego resoundingly confronts the viewer with is survival. She places her female protagonists front and centre, clothed in school uniforms and grimaced in pain, defiantly meeting our gaze. Untitled No 1 (1998 pastel on paper) is an image I returned to several times. A woman in a red headscarf and blue dress sits knees drawn up on a bed with a pink doormat beneath her. Her strong features and steady gaze are a counterfoil to the tension in her mouth and jaw. It feels like she is biting the inside of her mouth, waiting. Beside her is a patterned porcelain bowl, a refined vessel in contrast to the red stained basin and bucket stacked under the bed. The inference is that this isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last. The woman’s muscular poise in that moment are composed of absolute dignity, in the most undignified of circumstances. Her presence and right to be is undeniable, communicated in Rego’s masterful composition. The artist places the viewer in a position of potential complicity with her suffering, at bed height, our feet squarely on the ground, the right foot almost touching the protruding buckets. The reality of this work is inescapable in all its brutality and injustice, with shock supplanted by knowing and compassion. Even in the face of horrific, highly controversial subject matter, such as Two Women Being Stoned (1995 pastel on paper mounted on aluminium) or Mother Loves You (2009 etching and aquatint) from the FGM series, the artist creates a space for honest reflection. Rego’s work is raw and highly sophisticated in equal measure. Her magnificent triptych The Betrothal; Lessons: The Shipwreck, After Marriage A La Mode by Hogarth (1999) is another wonderful example. There is just so much experience, knowledge and insight in every panel!
Seeing the evolution of Paula Rego’s practice throughout the show is a triumph of self-determination. It’s an eternal dance between obedience and defiance that declares an unbreakable spirit with absolute clarity. Her willingness and courage to go wherever the creative process takes her, without a predetermined outcome, allows the artist to explore our deepest human drives. Rego’s rare, unfaltering honesty define her art and political agency, inspiring not just contemplation in a gallery setting, but action in the wider world. Grounded in everyday life, she works her magic, weaving stories and renegotiating the nature of power in the process.
‘I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Mans. I will not reason & compare: my business is to Create.’ William Blake, Jersusalem
‘Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary’, William Blake is an artist that exemplifies creative freedom and authenticity by being unmistakably himself. In the history of art there is nobody quite like him. He’s a beacon of imagination and hope in turbulent times and a brilliant counterfoil to 21st Century branded artistic production. Best known for his poetry and still a largely unsung visual artist in the UK, this timely exhibition presents the opportunity for reappraisal of his work- and what it takes to be an artist. Political, social and spiritual shackles appear symbolically throughout Blake’s work. The artist’s great legacy is breaking them, part of his unwavering belief that; ‘Poetry fettered, fetters the human race. Nations are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their poetry, painting, and music are destroyed or flourish.’If ever there was a time to be reminded of the essential value of imagination, nationally and globally, it is now.
In Blake’s time, the French revolution and the American war of Independence challenged Britain’s perceived colonial “greatness.” The Enlightenment co-existed with slavery and the beginning of mass industrialisation; aspects of cultural inheritance that arguably have never been adequately addressed as a matter of national consciousness. Despite labels of eccentricity, Blake’s work and aspirations remain potent triggers for wider discussion. A very poignant element of the exhibition is the recreation of the Broad Street space where Blake staged his disastrous 1809 solo show and the adjoining room which projects his work on a scale not realised in his lifetime. Are we any more enlightened to receive this work? is a question that hangs over the exhibition space for a new generation.
This is the largest show of Blake’s work
for almost 20 years, an overwhelming experience of colour, complexity and
vision, with over 300 works including watercolours, paintings and prints. Core
Tate works are joined by loans from the
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, the Huntington Art Collection,
California, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the National Gallery of
Victoria, Melbourne, the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Cincinnati Art Museum, the
Library of Congress, USA and private collectors to create a stunningly rich and
I first discovered Blake in childhood and was instantly dazzled. I spent a lot of time in the library- not reading but poring over images in the art section. At the time I had no idea what Dante’s Divine Comedy was, but Blake’s ice and fire images of the Simonaic Pope and his kaleidoscopic Saint Peter, Saint James and Saint John with Dante and Beatrice seared themselves into my growing consciousness. His work made me intensely curious and hungry for more. Mysterious Hecate (now known as The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy), Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils and The Body of Abel found by Adam and Eve were, and still are, explosive, highly distilled revelations. The radiant energy of Blake’s distinctive line and the stylised muscularity of his figures are pure visual poetry -human imagination unleashed. He’s ‘the eye altering alters all’ personified, still living and breathing through his art. As I walked through this show, holding the hand of my younger self, the adult was no less awestruck.
Like his frontispiece to Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion, (Plate 1 c. 1820 Relief and white-line etching with hand colouring on paper) Blake encourages us to cross a threshold, holding a lamp aloft to light the way. Looking at his work, there’s no doubt that he valued imagination above all else as the most divine human attribute. I love him and his work for communicating that truth, to be carried forward in dark times. In his Design excerpted from ‘The First Book of Urizen’ (1794 Colour relief etching predominantly in black, blue, grey and pink, with hand colouring) the human figure is cast between heaven and earth, feet in the clouds and hands braced against rock to break a collective fall. It’s a feat of mental and moral acrobatics rather than an illustration, frozen in time, primal and exalted. It’s the creation story of the human mind that feels like it’s predating God. While Blake illustrated many narratives from the Bible, John Bunyan’s Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer, his personal mythologies are among his most intriguing works. Seeing Blake’s illuminated books (bound and unbound) in this exhibition is one of its joys. Hand colouring defines every page as a precious, uniquely crafted work and an absolute labour of love- the most underestimated quality in all art making.
Love permeates Blake’s creations and it’s wonderful to see the contribution of his wife Catherine, who from 1788 was printing plates and helping to colour his illuminated books, acknowledged in the show. Ever ‘an angel’ to him, she supported and enabled his creative life. We’ll never really know the full extent of her hand in his work, but the contemporary observation that they were of ‘one soul’ can be felt in the seamless complexity of layered ink and watercolour. The epic prophecy and intimacy of Blake’s work is truly breath-taking, from the sensuous luminosity of Har and Heva Bathing, Mnetha Looking On (1785-9) from his first prophetic book, the poem Tiriel (1789), to the depth and delicacy of experimental monotypes like Pity (1795) and Newton (1795-1805). Colour and texture abound in these hybrid works, which Blake called his ‘frescos,’ initially ‘painting tacky ink on board and transferring it through pressure onto paper, enhanced with ink and watercolour.’ The highly skilled draughtsman and engraver becomes a painter, impossible to tell where one discipline stops and the other begins. As an illustrator, seeing this degree of experimentation in Blake’s work in print, tempera, watercolour and ink is exciting territory. Equally humbling are the delicate pages of his Songs of Innocence and of Experience which invite close inspection of minute detail.
Blake’s exact relief printing techniques, his sublime symbolism and intricate personal mythology remain largely unexplained. This is a show of tantalising clues to the artist’s identity and scope, with text and imagery entwined in the viewer’s imagination as the story of Blake’s life unfolds in each room. Arranged chronologically, the curation focuses on the conditions and patrons who enabled the artist to pursue his singular path. As a visual artist, he will always be a source of cryptic fascination, one who ultimately enables the imagination of the viewer. Multiply by each individual and the vision is infinite, such is his gift.
Thought to be by his own hand, Portrait of William Blake (c. 1802–3 Graphite and wash on paper), crystallises a gaze that you cannot turn away from, uncannily present and utterly absorbing from the first room to the last. In final room of the show I was confronted by an image I hadn’t encountered before, The Sea of Time and Space (Vision of the Circle of the Life of Man (1821, Pen and ink, watercolour and gouache on gesso ground on paper), an eternal flow of life, punctuated by the full stop of Blake’s last work The Ancient of Days (1827, Relief etching printed in yellow with pen and ink, watercolour and gold body colour on paper). The interlocking design is intensely powerful, with saturated depths of smouldering colour and a God-like hand resting on the precision of a divided compass. Originally published as the frontispiece to his 1794 work Europe a Prophecy, a circle closes in this final version, in Blake’s words; ‘I’ve done all I can- it is the best I’ve ever finished.’ We could ask no more of any artist.
In a material dominated world, Blake’s work offers pure resilience in its distilled singularity and higher purpose. He’s a Romantic artist par excellence, transforming how we see through experimentation and belief in worlds beyond reason, made real in his extraordinary art.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two)
Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage is the first
survey exhibition of collage ever to take place anywhere in the world,
featuring over 250 works from the sixteenth century to the present day. There is an astonishing range of practice on display,
including works by Hannah Höch, Annegret Soltau, Claude Cahun, Pauline Boty, Natalia
Goncharova, Valentine Penrose, Toyen, Edith Rimmington, Eileen Agar, Linder,
Penny Slinger, Carolee Schneemann, Cindy Sherman, Nancy Grossman, Deborah
Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Joan Miró,
Max Ernst, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Eduardo Paolozzi, Max Bucaille, Roland Penrose, Joseph
Cornell, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Peter
Blake, John Stezaker, Christian Marclay and Terry Gilliam. Give yourself ample time
to explore them and to take in the accompanying show Beyond Realism at
Modern One, featuring some of the NGS’s finest Surrealist works.
In many ways this ground-breaking reappraisal of collage couldn’t have happened anywhere else. The NGS collection is blessed with significant acquisitions, long term loans and bequests from astute collectors such as Gabrielle Keiller, artists Roland Penrose and Eduardo Paolozzi, providing an excellent foundation for deeper exploration of the artform. Joined by works from the Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, Stephen Ongpin Fine Art, The Mayor Gallery, The Fry Art Gallery, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, Annely Juda Fine Art, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Alison Jacques Gallery, Richard Saltoun Gallery, England & Co, a/political, the University of St Andrews and private collectors, the exhibition is a fantastic opportunity for discovery of previously unseen work. Works from the Murray Family collection, UK and USA, featuring Pauline Boty, Edith Rimmington, Max Bucaille, Franz Roh and Toyenare outstanding.
Cut and Paste isn’t about defining collage but celebrating that there are many more ways to see, revealed primarily in the work of lesser known artists who are among the highlights of the show. These previously neglected works demand greater visibility and more research. The language of ‘revolutionary cubist masterpieces’ by male artists like Picasso persists, yet in the wider context of the show, they become relative to other equally revolutionary masterworks by artists yet to enter public consciousness. Although the exhibition’s chronological layout would have been better served by collage -like juxtaposition of art from different periods confronting each other, there are so many vital examples of this art form speaking resoundingly for themselves that they cannot be ignored. It’s incredibly gratifying and hopeful to connect with pioneering works by women and other marginalised artists, doubly so in what feels like an increasingly fragmented world circa 2019. Part of what collage does incredibly well, often in testing times, is provide an unbridled form of expression and much needed protest.
Admittedly collage is an artform close to my heart in history and practice. The process itself is liberating in its free association, formed from materials immediately to hand and permitting everything in a spirit of playfulness and experimentation. That impetus tests what could be- creatively and culturally. At its best, it’s an art of ‘disruption’ and active dissent that reminds us of how essential art is in everyday life. The grotesque central figure in Raoul Hausmann’s The Art Critic (1919-20, lithograph and printed paper collage on paper) depicts an entire society whose opinions can be bought. The artist cuts straight to the heart of an increasingly absurd displacement of power during the Weimar period, a time not unlike our own in the corruption of ‘post-truth’ politics and ‘fake news’ rhetoric. Seeing John Heartfield’s response to the rise of Nazism in 1930’s Germany affirms the power of collage as vital satire and political resistance. Equally the work of Hannah Höch, presents the viewer with counteraction to gender stereotypes. In Astronomie (1922, Collage, gouache and ink on paper, The Mayor Gallery, London) Höch uses grid elements from crochet, knitting and embroidery design as the basis for a more expanded vision of the feminine- as human and therefore equal. In Höch’s work, ideas of design, domestic and cosmic intertwine. Craft and fine art practice become inseparable in a union of ideas and technique.
From the Collection: From an Ethnographic Museum (1929, Collage and gouache on paper, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh) is a very sophisticated example of how much simple ‘cut and paste’ can reveal and how it can be used to collectively question the status quo. The ‘other’ in this work is cultural and feminine. The head of a Nigerian Benin sculpture is radically turned, fused with the eye of a woman from a fashion magazine and a child’s body, resting on a lion’s foot of power and a contradictory stump of domestic furniture. Framed in a starkly modern, geometric space, the human form doesn’t feel accidental or randomly placed, but designed as a question mark on multiple levels. The expression of this figure, like a mythic Susannah confronting the invasive, violating gaze of the elders, challenges generations of Western Art making. This confrontation with ‘masters’ expands to hierarchies of power in relation to gender, race, cultural identity and social engineering. I’ve always thought of this small, radical figure as a powerful feminist totem of resistance. Höch’s critical eye is sharp as a scalpel and expansively aware, beyond the individual maker.
The attitude of collage is pivotal in that respect, ripping, tearing or cutting to heighten awareness of reality, or point to an alternative reality. Like Carlo Carra’s Atmospheric Swirls- A Bursting Shell (1914, ink and collage on paper), created in response to the first Balkan War 1912-13, the best examples of this artform are those that explode preconceptions, creating a perceptive shift of some kind. When Carolee Schneemann created Body Collage (1967, 16mm film transferred to digital format 3:30 mins) her ‘intention was not to simply collage [her] body (as an object) but to enact movement so that the collage image would be active found, not predetermined or posed.’ This is a statement against the passivity of looking (or being cast as the passive object), initiating change. As Penny Slinger (b 1947) states very eloquently, ‘collage is not just a technique; it represents an approach to reality.’
Slinger’s photomontage sequenceI Hear What You Say | I See What You Mean | Read My Lips(1973) interrogates our approach as viewers/ consumers by collaging parts of the body, creating contradictory frames within frames of internal reference. Initially this fleshy exposure seems to mirror the crudeness of advertising. However, these collaged elements are positioned to play with the idea of being able to read, hear, see and interpret the feminine. The ambiguity of desire and control is juxtaposed with direct means of communication. Using increasingly sexualised visual language to reclaim meaning is a tactic employed by many contemporary artists, often with momentary effect. Here the question is more subliminal, encircling the viewer in their own truth of body and mind, the possibility or impossibility of being seen, heard or understood inside the dominant culture. Linder’s Pretty Girl (1977, magazine and collage) juxtaposes images of soft-core pornography and household appliances, bringing them equally into the foreground as ‘objects of desire.’ Linder’s collage instantly makes its point, infiltrating and subverting the language of mass media consumption. This is art with something to say, above and beyond artistic persona, celebrity or brand.
Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) articulated how the practice of collage redefines the artist; ‘The medium is as unimportant as myself. Essential is the forming. Because the medium is unimportant, I take any material whatsoever if the picture demands it. When I adjust materials of different kinds to one another, I have taken a step in advance of mere oil painting, for in addition to playing off colour against line, form against form etc. I play material against material.’
That material can also be material reality. This provocation of possibility is what excites me most about this artform, from the fantastical collage novels of Max Ernst to the stitch form self-portraiture of Annegret Soltau.
It’s interesting to see the pre- modern history of collage (1550-1900) including silhouette portraiture, scrapbooks, early photomontage, botanical clippings, flapbooks, boxed/ dressed engravings and tinsel prints presented in the show. The presence of these works, combining craft practices with expanding knowledge and advancing technology, inform perception of later works. This is particularly true when the idea of traditional ‘female accomplishments’ is ripped apart and reconfigured, as in Annegret Soltau’s GRIMA- Selbst mit Katze (der Schrei) /GRIMA-Self with Cat (The Scream) (1986 C-print). Pauline Boty’s Untitled (c1964, Collage, gouache on paper) is a great metaphor for this type of agency, emergent in the work of unsung female artists throughout the exhibition. In Boty’s Untitled collage, use of Victorian engravings recalls the work of Max Ernst, divided and conquered by vivid blue gouache and a female hand, sharpened by red nail polish and poised to sever the head of a female child in period dress with a pair of scissors. In the foreground a promenade of exotically lush vegetation leads the eye to a vanishing point beneath a god-like hand of action. As Boty suggests in Ken Russell’s 1962 44 min film Pop Goes the Easel, her collages often capture a moment before something is about to happen, which may be humorous or tragic. Pop Art is often packaged in the gift shop as bright and shiny, succumbing to the very forces it seeks to expose, however Boty’s work presents a different slant on a movement which she helped found in Britain. The hand shown in this small collage amplifies the authenticity of her voice, asserts the role of the artist/ activist and subverts the traditional, belittling relationship between Craft and Fine Art, female artists and male ‘masters.’
The subversive nature of collage also leaps from the open page of Surrealist Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s Aveux non avenus- Disavowals (1930). It’s a text that reimagines the autobiography / artist memoir in a non- linear way, fluidly testing ideas of gender and identity. Valentine Penrose’s collage book Dous des Feminines / Gifts of the Feminines (1951) is displayed in the same section, a deliberate counterfoil to Max Ernst’s collage novels on the part of the artist, centring on female relationships, sexuality and experience. Her nearby collage, La Stratégie Militaire / MilitaryStrategy (c1934, collage on paper) sees the head and torso of a classical marble statue positioned inside a piece of ridiculously Baroque furniture, as if sitting in a bath. Hovering askew over a mountainous chasm, with the fragment of a map dangling from one finger, the traditional embodiment of power is rendered precarious, attended by a blank faced figure in robes gazing upwards towards authority. The composition lampoons its subject, but it is also a very knowing refraction of absurd inequality in the real world. Here, Surrealism isn’t escapist male fantasy, but heightened reality, exposing truth.
The Family Tree(1938) by British artist, poet and photographer Edith Rimmington (1902-1986) is another illuminating dreamscape in that respect. The use of photomontage and painting is seamless, delivering a powerful perspective on generations, extending to infinity on a jetty over dark, primordial waters. A snake is entwined around the left-hand line of a double link metal chain, not so much bound together as lain side by side. The presence of the serpent feels like an ironic reference to Eden’s mythic fall, male and female bound together in ‘the’ singular family tree of humanity. The eclipse which lights our way could be sun, moon or a pinhole camera, in a timeless progression of darkness and light. It’s an incredibly strong, mysterious composition that ignites the imagination and provokes curiosity about Rimmington’s oeuvre. Given the year it was created, and the spirit of unrest prevalent in the whole image, this iron chain feels prophetically encoded. Disarming beauty and essential protest permeate this show and it’s an absolute pleasure to see so many works by relatively unknown artists announce themselves. Rimmington subverts expectations of the title/ subject to a remarkable degree, with an enviable command of the artform. Any backward notion of feminine accomplishment is eclipsed entirely by this work. The artist’s sense of agency, intuition and determination is palpable. That’s the joy of this show- reconnection with art empowered, in spite of the spin that surrounds us.
6 APRIL – 20 OCTOBER | SCOTTISH NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
‘If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.’ Diane Arbus
In the 21st century, the Selfie has become an
extended form of advertising and validation, increasingly in step with
corporate interest. People are the app for 24hr addictive consumption of who
they aspire to be, driven by market demand, or perhaps more accurately, corporate
engineered desire for the next upgrade. Rapid fire clicking and scrolling is
the order of today, in how photography and images of self are consumed, liked
and followed. The idea of ‘self-evidence’ in this Artist Rooms exhibition is
extremely compelling and timely, examining ‘three of the twentieth century’s
most influential photographers’ and reactions to their work from a younger
‘Snapchat’ generation. It’s a moment to take stock of the extraordinary work of
Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, what photography is in human terms and what it
really means to take a shot.
Above all else, the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema is a joyful celebration of film and music. Speaking to other audience members, who had travelled far to Bo’ness for the unique atmosphere and live experience, it’s clear that the festival and this small town, delivers something very special. Home to the oldest cinema in Scotland, it is also a centre for national and international cinema heritage. This year’s programme offered thrills, chills, laughs, unexpected discoveries and truly memorable performances from some of the world’s finest accompanists. I arrived for the third day of the festival, staying until closing night and was delighted to see many films for the first time, introduced in the best possible way.
Hippfest’s traditional fancy-dress Friday Night Gala is always great fun, inspired this year by the glamour and military moustache twirling of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1924 Romantic Comedy-Melodrama Forbidden Paradise. This new restoration from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was vibrantly accompanied by Jane Gardner (piano), Roddy Long (violin) and Frank Bockius (percussion). The trio complimented the tone of the film brilliantly and heightened its pace, enhancing the tension of court intrigues and Lubitsch’s characteristic brand of knowing comedy. Channelling the passion of Pola Negri as vampish, authoritarian ruler Czarina Catherine, it was an enjoyable, crowd pleasing caper, well suited to the whole occasion. Pre-screening period music by The Red Hot Minute Band, accompanied by fizz and canapes, added to the party atmosphere.
February means Glasgow
Film Festival, the joy of connecting with the world on screen and joining some
of the best audiences on the planet. The
opportunity to see retrospective classics, discover emerging filmmakers and
cinematic rarities is always a draw, but there is a special buzz around
Glasgow, a combination of people and programming that makes it unique. As a
visitor, staff, volunteers and audiences make you feel welcome and the additional
bonus of introductions and Q&As from filmmakers add considerable value to
the whole experience. The Pioneer strand of films by first and second feature
directors was particularly strong this year with Border, Complicity, Float Like A
Butterfly, The Man Who Surprised Everyone, Woman at War and Werewolf among
my overall festival highlights. Regardless of the subject matter, there was
something about each one of these films that made me feel hopeful. It is always
exciting to discover artists whose work you want to follow in future and seeing
the ways filmmakers are responding creatively to man-made chaos, past and
present, was thoroughly inspiring!