Beauty and Rage – Pinkie Maclure’s ‘Brigid in Dualchas’

Pinkie Maclure ‘Brigid in Dualchas’ (2022, stained glass and lightbox, 65cm x 62cm)
Photograph by Tony Davidson, Kilmorack Gallery.

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.’

Pinkie Maclure Detail- ‘Brigid in Dualchas’ (2022, stained glass and lightbox)
Photograph by Tony Davidson, Kilmorack Gallery

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 Detail- Brigid in Dualchas’ (2022, stained glass and lightbox)
Photograph by Tony Davidson, Kilmorack Gallery

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.

Pinkie Maclure Detail- ‘Brigid in Dualchas’ (2022 stained glass and lightbox)
Photograph by Tony Davidson, Kilmorack Gallery

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.

Pinkie Maclure artist’s website: https://www.pinkiemaclure.net/

Pinkie Maclure artist pages Kilmorack Gallery: https://www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk/pinkie-maclure-artist/

Harvest and The Wave – Joan Eardley Centenary 2021

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, sunlit sea 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.

Georgina Coburn

Link to Speculative Books website ‘All Becomes Art Vol 1’ anthology edited by Colin Herd and Sam Small https://www.speculativebooks.net/shop/all-becomes-art-vol-1

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.

Georgina Coburn

Energy, Concept and Material – The Art of Steve Dilworth

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

Steve Dilworth in his studio, Isle of Harris. Photograph by Steve Russell Studios, courtesy of Pangolin Gallery, London

‘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 ‘Heart of the Thief’ (Sandiron, coins 1993) Photograph courtesy of the artist

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,[1] 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’.[2] 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.’ [3]

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.'[4] 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.

Steve Dilworth ‘Ark’ 2000 Bronze, Nickel, Silver, Hooded Crow. Photograph by Steve Russell Studios , courtesy of Pangolin Gallery, London.

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.[5]

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.

Steve Dilworth ‘Swift’ (Dunite and swift, 2012) Courtesy of the artist and Kilmorack Gallery. Photograph by Tony Davidson

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.

Steve Dilworth ‘Venus Stone’ (China black granite 2007) Photograph Courtesy of the Cass Sculpture Foundation

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’[6] 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.

Willendorf Venus Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image: Wikipedia Commons

Dilworth taps into human ritual and collective memory, describing himself as ‘a channel’ or ‘like an idiot being given keys to the library.’[7] 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.’[8]  It is an object of life, rather than death, creation over destruction.

Steve Dilworth ‘The Hanging Figure’ (Human skeleton, bovine heart, liver, meat, horsehair, blackthorn, seagrass 1978-79) Photograph courtesy of the artist

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.’[9]

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.’[10] ‘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.’[11] Dilworth cites the ‘authenticity of the material, the energy of it’ being extremely important in the making of the object.[12]

‘If an object is anything it must contain its own power and be independent of time and place.’[13] ‘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.’[14]

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’[15] 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.[16]

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.[17]

Steve Dilworth ‘StormCentre’ (African blackwood, air taken from the centre of a storm depression, 1993) Photograph courtesy of the artist.

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.’[18] 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.”’[19]

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.

[1] S. Dilworth, Earthing Memories Exhibition Catalogue, Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston Upon Hull 1997

[2] S. Dilworth, Earthing Memories (n.1)

[3] S. Dilworth, Earthing Memories (n.1).

[4] S. Dilworth, note in sketchbook dated 17 March 1970

[5] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris. 25/08/2006.

[6] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris, 18/05 2015.

[7] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris. 20/05/2016.

[8] G. Coburn, ‘Chapter 5 Diversions in Natural History’, in manuscript for Journeyman – The Art of Steve Dilworth.p.6.

[9] S. Dilworth, Pangolin Gallery, London website: http://www.gallery-pangolin.com/artists/steve-dilworth    accessed 16/04/19.

[10] G. Coburn, ‘Chapter 4 The Hanging Figure’, in manuscript for Journeyman – The Art of Steve Dilworth. p.1.

[11] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn at the Mortal Remains retrospective exhibition. An Lanntair, Isle of Lewis. October 2013.

[12] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn (n.10).

[13] S. Dilworth, Acts of Faith Exhibition Catalogue, An Lanntair, Isle of Lewis 1992

[14] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris. 25/08/2006.

[15] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn (n.10).

[16] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris 06/10/2014

[17] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris 18/05/ 2015.

[18] S. Dilworth in conversation with Georgina Coburn, Isle of Harris, 16/10/2014

[19] G. Coburn, ‘Chapter 6 Feeding the Malestrom’, in manuscript for Journeyman – The Art of Steve Dilworth. p.14.

Rembrandt- Britain’s Discovery of the Master

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
A Woman in Bed, about 1645 – 1646
Oil on canvas, 81.1 x 67.8 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, presented by William McEwan 1892
Photo: Antonia Reeve

7 July – 14 October

Scottish National Gallery

“Britain’s love affair with one of history’s greatest artists” is the celebratory focus of the Scottish National Gallery’s latest summer blockbuster. Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master features 140 works: oil paintings, drawings and etchings by Rembrandt Van Rijin, works from his workshop and those by British artists he inspired from the 18th Century to the present day. Seeing Rembrandt’s impact on the art of William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Henry Raeburn, David Wilkie, Thomas Duncan, Augustus John, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Jacob Epstein, Leon Kossoff, William Strang, Henryk Gotlib, Eduardo Paolozzi, Frank Auerbach, John Bellany, Ken Currie and Glen Brown is one of the fascinations of the show. It is also an exhibition about historical acquisition and how an artist’s legacy is enabled. Works on loan from the National Gallery, British Museum, Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Tate, London, the National Gallery of Ireland, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C bring together familiar images, new discoveries and reflections on why Rembrandt is so revered.

Outside the Netherlands, the UK holds the largest collection of Rembrandt works, a trend that began during the reign of Charles I and reached fever pitch in the 18th Century, when prints, drawings and paintings were highly sought after by private collectors. Cataloguing the artist’s work also began at this time, an indicator of Rembrandt as currency and a practical response to market driven climate of forgers and respectful copyists. The desirability of Rembrandt’s work among collectors in the British Isles has resulted in much wider awareness of his work and most importantly, the opportunity to experience it live, having found its way into public collections. Coming eyeball to eyeball with a Rembrandt seems to level all arguments about what good or bad art is. At base he shows us what art is, what it is for and why it matters.

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NOW

JENNYSAVILLE, SARA BARKER,CHRISTINE BORLAND, ROBIN RHODE, MARKUS SCHINWALD and CATHERINE STREET. 

JENNY SAVILLE
Rosetta II, 2005 – 2006
Oil on watercolour paper, mounted on board, 252 x 187.5cm
Private collection © Jenny Saville
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

March until 16 September 2018
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One), Edinburgh.

It’s hard to believe that the latest instalment of NOW, part of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s contemporary art programme, is the first major showing of Jenny Saville’s work in Scotland and only her third exhibition in a UK museum. It seems that for many of our finest artists, international acclaim is a pre-requisite for national acknowledgement. The Scottish National Gallery’s newly acquired Study for Branded (1992, Oil on paper, 100.3 x 74.4 cm) is amazingly the only example of Saville’s work currently in a UK public collection, made possible by the Henry and Sula Walton Fund.  Whilst the curatorial aim of the three year NOW exhibition programme is very much about placing contemporary Scottish Art in an international context, it also illuminates the national context of how we regard art and artists in the 21st century.

The purchase of multiple works from Saville’s Glasgow School of Art graduating show by collector Charles Saatchi, her participation in the Saatchi Gallery’s Young British Artists III exhibition (1994) and the Royal Academy’s exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists (1997), effectively launched Saville’s career in terms currency on the international art market. However, that’s not what gives her work its immense power, universality, or ultimate value. As five rooms of her work spanning 26 years powerfully testify, she achieves that integrity entirely on her own terms. The scale of this artist’s emotional intelligence, discipline and command of painting is truly extraordinary, crossing multiple boundaries in how we perceive the female body, art and humanity.

In the history of Western Art and the Scottish figurative tradition Saville’s work radically transforms perception of the female nude with its unflinching honesty. Presenting completely “un-idealised”, “uncompromising” images of the human body, Saville confronts us with the timeless and sometimes overwhelming truth of human vulnerability. It’s a truth which ideal Beauty has cloaked for centuries, then effectively obliterated in popular culture of the 21st Century. At base we are all flesh, magnified in Saville’s adept handling of oils, pastel and charcoal, with all the discomfort and fragility which attends mortality.

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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

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/ 

Looking Good : The Male Gaze from Van Dyck to Lucian Freud

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

24 June to 1 October 2017

Michael Clark. Dancer, 1989

David Williams (b. 1952) Michael Clark. Dancer, 1989. Silver gelatine print, 35.2 x 35.4 cm Collection: National Galleries of Scotland. Commissioned by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1988. © David Williams.

What attracted me to this show initially was the whole idea of turning the tables. We are so habituated to seeing the male gaze directed at women in the history of Art, Photography and popular culture in general, I was intrigued to see what the nature of the masculine gaze turned inwards might look like. Or to be more accurate, what the exhibition curators might do with the overarching theme of “male image, identity and appearance from the 16th century to the present day”, selecting 28 works from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, London. Kate Anderson (Senior Curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) assisted by Ola Wojtkiewicz, have created an interesting show, exploring changing “attitudes to status, wealth, sexuality, masculinity and beauty.” The exhibition is part of a national tour of Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s final Self-Portrait c.1640, recently acquired for the nation by the NPGL with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund. For a relatively small exhibition it packs some punches, contains some fascinating work and gave me a lot to think about, particularly about inferred narratives through curation.

Jonathan OWEN (b. 1973) Untitled (Patrice de Mac-Mahon, Duc de Magenta), 2013. Sculpture (bust), marble, 58 x 30 x 56 cm. Collection: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, © Jonathan Owen
Photo: © National Galleries of Scotland.

At the entrance to the exhibition Jonathan Owen’s Untitled (Patrice de Mac-Mahon, Duc de Magenta) (2013, Sculpture (bust), marble, 58 x 30 x 56 cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) is an appropriate metaphor for masculine reconnaissance and the deconstruction of enshrined ideals. Taking the historical white marble bust of a bearded aristocrat, decorated for military service, Owen abstracts the head, re-carving and excavating marble until the individual face is transformed into  an arrangement of geometrical hollows, resembling an architectural atrium and guarding an inner sphere.  Traditionally the marble bust elevated on a plinth celebrates and memorialises ideals of masculine power, duty and nobility, reinforcing social hierarchy and individual status, but here the artist takes a sculpture from an age of Empire and critically reimagines it. The rigid Neoclassical form of masculine authority becomes something much more ambiguous, an interplay of positive and negative space, expanding form and ideas in the imaginative cavity of the head. Strangely there’s a cyber quality to this human form without an individual identity, potentially a new code of etiquette at work in a face composed as a structural framework. It has that sinister Dr Who feeling of something familiar and seemingly benign, comfortably relegated to history and yet alive in its altered form, as cold and intellectualised as marble so often is in the hands of men and state. It’s a portrait bust lacking humanity and individuality, focused on the power of intellect. The artist’s psychological archaeology conceals as much as it reveals about masculine identity past, present and future, which is an incredibly interesting position for the audience in terms of projection.

The intimacy of the exhibition space, accompanying soundscape and video by Mercury prize winning band Young Fathers (AKA Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and ‘G’ Hastings) encourages deeper contemplation of the works on display. The looped sound accompaniment to the show operates as an undercurrent of provocation, informing the images in unexpected ways as you encounter them. The timing and associations for each viewer will be different as they move through the space  and within their own connective loops of sound, image, memory and meaning. The visitor meanders through fragments of haunted piano, natural sounds like wind moving through aged buildings, human breath, voice and chanted commands conjuring the playing, athletic or military training field. The video by Young Fathers, which is the final statement in the show and by far the edgiest work, is a brief, edited sequence of young men half in shadow, illuminated momentarily in the heat of red light, being directed in the manner of a photoshoot to express emotions or adopt a certain stance for the camera/ director/ viewer. The male voices in charge of the camera prompt the sitters; “snarl”, “laugh”, “batter your eyelids- you’re pretty, really pretty”, “have you given enough?”, “be a man, cry for me!”  “look over here- smile”, “who loves you?”, this last question unsettlingly underscored by the kind of cheering background chorus you’d hear at a competitive sporting event. It’s survival of the fittest, the threat of being prey to whoever holds the camera and what that means in the political arena of gender. There’s the contradiction of public intimacy and the power differential between the filmed subject and film makers, provoking questions about the nature of the dialogue. I liked what this added to the visual/ auditory interpretation about what masculinity means, individually and collectively, in the 21st Century and in the context of the whole show. Although the directions given by male voices are not to female models or sitters, they are very familiar as such. It’s a dynamic of inequality which plays out terms of self-worth through dominance or submission to the commanding voice over. It’s a dialogue we’re not used to seeing between men in this kind of setting, but very telling in human terms. The real point is not just “Looking Good” but how the gaze is directed and to what ends socially, culturally and politically.


Francois-Xavier FABRE (1766–1837) Portrait of a Man, 1809. Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 50 cm.
Collection: Scottish National Portrait Gallery Purchased with the aid of the Art Fund (Scottish Fund) 1992. Photo: © National Galleries of Scotland.

The works on display are incredibly varied from the dashing, highly Romanticised Portrait of a Man by Francois-Xavier Fabre (1809, Oil on canvas, Scottish National Portrait Gallery), John Pettie’s haughty, highly coiffed portrait of Sir David Murray (1890, oil on canvas, Scottish, National Portrait Gallery), in which facial hair becomes as potent a calling card as the artist’s signature, to much rawer, more confrontational works by artists such as Lucian Freud and Robert Mapplethorpe. What I found myself doing, going through the exhibition rooms several times, was reimagining the signposted hanging sequence. The five exhibition themes: Dress Code, Good Grooming, Men in the Mirror, The Male Icon and Modes of Manhood were provocative for me because they proved a bit too safely boxed. Less obvious labelling/ hanging, with works juxtaposed in more challenging ways to actively interrogate different themes or underlying questions, rather than comfortably illustrating them, might have been a better overall strategy. For example, why place Richard Ansett’s image of Grayson Perry (2013, chromogenic print, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London) in the status of “other” by hanging it in what is essentially the alternative “Modes of Manhood” section? Give the man his due and challenge public expectations of masculinity by placing Perry in the Male Icon section! Not just to disrupt the perfume ad portraits of brand Beckham and super broody Gerard Butler, but because Perry’s status as a contemporary artist, social commentator, journalist and television documentary maker is Iconic. Single handed he has done more than anyone in recent years to encourage debate about what it means to be a man in the 21st century. Although visitors are free to draw their own conclusions about the Male Icons VS Modes of Manhood face off on opposing walls, this relegation seemed strangely at odds with the open stance towards masculinity present in individual works and in the aspirational nature of the show.

Richard Ansett Grayson Perry, Commissioned for BBC Radio 4’s Reith Lectures 2013 © Richard Ansett/BBC. National Portrait Gallery, London

The image of Grayson Perry dressed as his alter ego Claire is one of a “plethora of masculinities” forming his identity and a vision of what masculine and feminine outside the box might look like. Hung adjacent to Robert Mapplethorpe’s Smutty (1980, Silver gelatine print, Artist Rooms, National Gallery of Scotland & Tate) and an exquisitely beautiful, melancholic portrait of dancer/choreographer Michael Clark by David Williams (1989, Silver gelatine print, Scottish National Portrait Gallery) notions of masculine and feminine become more visibly fluid through the lens, despite being thematically confined in the exhibition space.  Ansett’s portrait of Grayson Perry/ Claire speaks resoundingly of the Self as masculine and feminine. Claire’s gaze meets the viewer’s, her red drawn eyebrows raised in confident punctuation, silently addressing the camera/viewer with a mature, worldly gaze. Standing steadfast in orange platform shoes, the exit door in the corner of the plush, red room appears too small, giving an Alice in Wonderland shrunken quality to the surroundings and heightening Claire’s dominance in the room. This photograph, taken for the BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures, is a vibrant, unmissable statement in recoding dress and viewer expectations. The pattern on Perry’s dress incorporates his childhood teddy bear “Alan Measles”, it’s colourful and intensely psychological, an element that speaks of the formation of identity in childhood.  Claire’s flamboyant style combines youthful bobbed hair with middle aged 1970’s party host dress, a contradiction of doll-like red lips and intellectually loaded “blue stockings”. Claire launches a “so what?!” stare to the viewer/ photographer, the playfulness of the outfit in tandem with the artist’s impending public address. Perry’s everyman status integration into the mainstream comes through in his TV appearances. All of his work raises a mirror to Self and society, never shying away from the complexity of being the masculine/ feminine humans we all are psychologically. Perry/ Claire is not just about fashion, grooming or being outrageous, he/she’s about being visibly him/herself, a living, creative force for reflection, empathy and positive change; a true male icon acknowledging the Feminine within himself.

A portrait that feels real amongst the pumped-up sport/ rock/ film star “Male Icons” wall is Nadav Kander’s image of Tinie Tempah (Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu), (Ink jet print made in 2011, National Portrait Gallery, London.) What shines through is masculine beauty through self-possession. Tempah is a rapper, singer, songwriter, with his own fashion and independent record labels. The portrait exudes confidence, pride and ambition but without aggressive dominance. He’s a man looking beyond the viewer and the confines of the frame, rather than measuring himself against them. Dressed in a white shirt, bow tie and diamond earing, his groomed success is refreshingly stained with shades of purple spray paint from the street. The fine paint splatter isn’t makeup, but identification and strength in the knowledge of where you come from. It feels like the foundation of the man and his character inhabiting the image. Tempah exudes the beauty of self-possession not in posturing but from his pores, nuanced with the purple sheen of nobility, the anti-establishment spray of graffiti and a natural blue/black lineage of pride. Although the head a shoulders image is traditionally composed, the introduction of different hues and attitude of the subject subverts this, becoming a much more layered statement of gender, class, race, artistic intent and individuality. The adjacent photographs of actor Gerard Butler and footballer David Beckham seem doubly one dimensional by comparison, simply selling a celebrity line on masculinity in black and white, as if the name / brand/ macho snarl were enough- and perhaps they are for a two second hit. However, in the Art and specifically portraiture, it isn’t just about looking good, flattering the sitter or selling a product, but being human and vulnerable on some level- traditionally considered a very un-masculine trait, especially for men in the public domain. In that respect, the relationship and trust established (even in a single sitting) between the artist/ photographer and the subject is critical. Individuality and identity are often about revealing that which is hidden, because in the words of T.S Eliot we all “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet”. For men, being strong is often a necessary part of that self- projection to the world, but strong doesn’t have to be overly aggressive, physical and in your face. It can be found in quiet, contemplative dignity, as we see in Kander’s very masculine, equally beautiful image of Tempah, subverting the super machismo normally associated with the Rap music industry. The independent spirit of this portrait is about more than the ego or status of the sitter, displaying layers beneath his worldly success, sprayed onto his skin and clothing, not to conceal who he is, but to reveal something about his core self, not just as a man but a human being. It’s exactly that kind of insight that sorts out the men from the boys; a level of understanding, integration, mutual respect and sensitivity in collaboration between the artist and subject.

Gerard Jefferson-Lewis. Untitled (Butcher Boys) Portrait Number 472. Photograph, three framed C-type digital prints, each: 59.4 x 84.1 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, gift of the photographer 2013. © Gerard Jefferson-Lewis.

A very ambiguous, intriguing collaboration between artist and subject unfolds in Untitled Man (Butcher Boys) Portrait No 472 by Gerard Jefferson-Lewis (Digital chromogenic print, made 2012, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Gift of the photographer 2013. NB/ in the exhibition this consists of one image only rather than a sequence of 3)  The butcher’s white frock becomes a generic uniform, intensifying our sense of the individual face emerging from the ground of white and grey. The young man’s sensuous lips, eyes in mutual exchange with the male presence behind the camera, coupled with his “unfixed identity” in uniform is a compelling exploration of power, or perhaps the illusion of it. The series “Butcher Boys” has homoerotic undertones, of youthful, raw meat and (at least to this female viewer) the ironic suggestion of how women are often posed for the male gaze in a very different type of uniform. Jefferson-Lewis’s portrait is arguably more understated and complex. The male subject here is clothed in a metaphorical blank canvas, a frock of service and the purity of white. On one level, he can be whatever the viewer imagines him to be and yet his individual face stands out from the adopted costume with an expression that contains and projects his own desire. There is conformity and individuality in this image of a masculine presence that is seductive without resorting to clichés of rippling muscles and obvious physical virility. Here the proposition and exploration is sensuously cerebral.

James Hamilton 1st Duke of Hamilton 1606 - 1649. Royalist 1629 (002)

Daniel MYTENS (1590-1647) James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, 1606 – 1649. Royalist, 1629 Oil on canvas, 221 x 139.7 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased with help from the Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Pilgrims Trust 1987. Photo: Antonia Reeve.

Daniel Mytens’ portrait of James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, 1606 – 1649. Royalist, (1629, Oil on canvas, 221 x 139.7 cm, National Galleries of Scotland) presents a face to the world befitting Hamilton’s status as chief advisor to King Charles I. It’s the theatre of the portrait flanked by drapery on one side and an Italian marble column on the other. This richness becomes opulence in the silver threads and bobbin lace of his clothing, soft kid gloves, fine shoes and spurs. His eyes meet ours as sharp points of light like the tip of the rapier which hangs at his side. The background suggests dominion over sea and land. We are clearly faced with calculated masculinity, standing above us in the context of the royal court and the nobleman’s sovereignty over his own estate. Nearby is Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Lord George Stuart, 9th Seigneur of Aubigny (1618-1642), (Oil on canvas, circa 1638, 86 in. x 52 1/2 in, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London) displaying an equally opulent but almost mythological persona in union with nature. The spring of flowing water, roses, foreground plants, together with the hoe or fork he’s carrying  symbolically hooking into the tree in the background, position the male figure at the centre of the composition, but there’s a twist. Stuart is leaning on an ancient stone in this pastoral idyll with the inscription; “ME FIRMIOR AMOR” (Love is stronger than I am), an encoded admission of personal vulnerability from a member of the ruling class, harking back to the Classical world of Gods and nymphs. He’s not showing us his whole hand though, one is hidden beneath his robes of ochre/ gold and blue, as if holding something back from the viewer and this mysterious air keeps us on the backfoot as spectators. His luxurious hair and embroidered boots make him look effeminate to contemporary eyes, but this is a heroic image of manhood and learned passion which commands the space he occupies.

Sir Anthony VAN DYCK (1599–1641) Sir Anthony Van Dyck, circa 1640. Oil on canvas, 56 cm x 46 cm oval. Collection: National Portrait Gallery, London.Purchased with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund in honour of David Verey CBE (Chairman of the Art Fund 2004-2014), the Portrait Fund, The Monument Trust, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Aldama Foundation, the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation, Sir Harry Djanogly CBE, Mr and Mrs Michael Farmer. Matthew Freud, Catherine Green, Dr Bendor Grosvenor, Alexander Kahane, the Catherine Lewis Foundation, the Material World Foundation, The Sir Denis Mahon Charitable Trust, Cynthia Lovelace Sears, two major supporters who wish to remain anonymous, and many contributions from the public following a joint appeal by the National Portrait Gallery and the Art Fund, 2014

Anthony Van Dyck’s final self-portrait (circa 1640, Oil on canvas, 56 cm x 46 cm oval, National Portrait Gallery, London) speaks of masculine confidence in maturity, secure in his position as one of the most celebrated court painters of the age. Although dressed as a gentleman, the loose painterly handling of his clothes suggests that fashion isn’t the focus of the image. He’s reached a stage of life where he doesn’t have to accentuate the finery to know or tell the world who he is. What he sees in the mirror is his skilled accomplishment as an artist in his own right. His stature emerges in the presence of the man, his head turned towards the viewer in a three-quarter pose. He’s utterly composed and assured; intelligent eyes acknowledge his self-regard in the mirror and address the viewer. His turbulent hair gives him a strong, independently spirited air. He’s not playing at being anything, he’s just convincingly painting himself. The clothes he wears feel unfinished, almost abstracted from his conscious being. The man in the mirror can be the truth or a lie and here the former triumphs over the latter in an image that feels sketched, unfinished and imperfect. The focus is very much on capturing the face and identity of the artist as an individual and it continues to speak across the ages.

Lucian FREUD 1922-2011. Self-portrait, 1963. Oil on canvas. © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

The artist’s touch also speaks volumes in Man’s Head (Self Portrait III) by Lucian Freud (Oil on canvas, 1963, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London). Rendered entirely in potently, earthy flesh tones, the artist’s furrowed brow of impasto hides his eyes as he squints to perceive the truth in himself. It’s a visual statement of Freud’s belief; “As far as I am concerned, the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as the flesh does.” We can feel that physicality in animated strokes defining cheeks, brow and chin and in the caress of his parted hair. This life in paint is contrasted with the horizontal linear pattern of marks in the uniform brown background. He makes himself stand out, in an audacious and highly accomplished visual statement, making the most of a reduced palette and the immediacy of brushstrokes which have their own distinctive rhythm. Hopefully how various rhythms and themes harmonise, contradict or clash, leading to examination of the viewer’s underlying beliefs, stimulating debate about the nature of masculinity, will be triggered by the works on display. It is wonderful to see, even on a small scale, collaboration and exchange between national collections so that audiences can experience works which may not have otherwise toured to different parts of the country. On one level I can’t comment on what it means to be a man in the 21st Century, but this exhibition provides a window to the complexity and interconnectedness of masculine and feminine and the need for both definitions to be expanded, in our own minds and in the wider world. Portraiture is above all else the study of humanity, faces which are public, private and potential agents of change in how we perceive ourselves.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/looking-good-male-gaze-van-dyck-lucian-freud