by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

January 2007 Archives

Ideas that look great on paper

Simon Periton is best known for his doilies, large, impossibly delicate paper cut-outs that fall somewhere between painting and sculpture. His subject matter, though, is often anything but delicate, drawing on images of terrorists, punk heroes or the darker side of the natural world, and his work rests on this awkward marriage of precise, rather prissy technique and the representation of aggressive symbols.

For this, his second solo exhibition at the Modern Institute, Periton has taken off at a tangent, presenting works on paper which combine collage, stencil spray-painting, assemblage and, occasionally, cutting.

The large-scale piece Dogger is a skull-like face with multiple eyes, some spray-painted, some fringed in tinsel. Shell Queen is blurred, like a doubly-exposed photograph, with a barnacle-encrusted mussel shell standing in for a nose. An untitled work has baubles glued to it, either suggesting or obscuring a mouth. A flock of butterflies, cut from the surface of a sheet of found paper, threaten to escape from the surface of Baroness.

This building-up of found objects is matched by layering of both paint and paper. All the works here have been densely, even relentlessly, layered, with stencilled forms vying for attention, the intensity of the repeated images enhanced by the use of fluorescent orange, green and yellow spray paint.

These works, though they stand alone, see an artist exploring his own practice. The use of stencilling is not a new direction for Periton, but a return to the past: he first trained his scalpel on a sheet of paper after noticing a discarded doily he had used as a stencil on the floor of his studio. These new images acknowledge that beginning, using the honeycombs, floral motifs and DayGlo colour choices familiar from Periton’s cut-paper works to layer up a self-referential palimpsest.

There are, too, works in which the layers combine to form a discrete, delightfully complex language of reference and counter-reference. Bonfire is a silhouette of the Queen, stolen from a Cecil Beaton photograph, covered over with tiny reproductions of the anarchist movement’s Circle-A monogram. And so, without directly alluding to it, Periton turns Beaton’s respectful portrait into an analogue of Jamie Reid’s cover art for the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, itself a collage resting on a found image.

Periton also explores his influences more directly, drawing on two unconventional portraitists. The references to Man Ray and the “rayograph” technique he developed with Lee Miller are clear, with Periton’s stencilled silhouettes matching Ray’s cameraless photography of objects arranged on photographic paper.

Clearer still, The Lord Warden borrows directly from Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The sixteenth-century painter, whose portraits involved faces built from fruits and flowers, might not seem an obvious precursor for Periton to light upon, but both revel in failed attempts to reconcile opposites, Periton with his delicate doilies set up to clash with violent symbology, Arcimboldo with his corruption of still life to make portraits. Both, too, are fond of a pun.

Periton’s Catwoman, a portrait made by delineating a woman’s head and shoulders in spray paint over kitschy wrapping paper festooned with cat faces, shares a winking sensibility with works by Arcimboldo such as The Cook or The Vegetable Gardener, painted to be hung upside down or the right way up, according to preference.

This makes for a fascinating glimpse into Periton’s practice and it is easy to lose oneself examining the giddy complexity of his layers, but this series of portraits is not quite a match for the doilies.

One piece in Periton’s usual style is included, Addi, an intricate, wreath-like floral rendering of that familiar anarchist monogram in mirrored blue perspex, burnished to a reflective sheen.

It is almost a shame that Addi is on show here. It is deceptively simple, pared down - visually and conceptually speaking - and so only serves to emphasise that the busy overpainting and frantic layering of the works on paper is a less satisfying tactic than the cool-headed cutting that is Periton’s trademark.

It is almost as if Periton has turned to the works on show here in order to get something out of his system. In sampling new subjects, exposing his influences, reworking old motifs and piling image upon image in a DayGlo riot of references - might Periton be working to clarify and condense ideas that will be further explored with greater restraint in future cut-paper pieces? If so - if these new works are to be seen as something akin to studies - this exhibition is more intriguing than it might at first appear, offering a new route into understanding Periton’s wider practice, rather than a frenetic summary of it.

This review was first published in The Herald on January 26th, 2007.

‘The first sculpture I made with a piece of string and a little wire,’ Fred Sandback wrote, ‘was the outline of a rectangular solid - a 2” x 4” -lying on the floor. It was a casual act, but it seemed to open up a lot of possibilities for me. I could assert a certain place or volume in its full materiality without occupying and obscuring it.’

This brief, understated statement, marking the twentieth anniversary of the ‘casual act’ in 1966 that would come to define the center of Sandback’s practice shares something with that practice. It has a lightness of touch, belying a deep purpose, it has clarity, simplicity and, if Minimalist sculptures can be said to share personality traits with their sculptors, it also seems to contain a hint of playful self-deprecation.

Sandback’s best known constructions, mostly untitled lines, planes and shapes marked out in space by lengths of coloured yarn or wire, drawn tight, are undoubtedly minimalist, they are not quite Minimalist. They are spare, of course, and universal, and, in describing geometric shapes, they adhere to the superficial constants of Minimalist style.

But there’s something distinctly not-Minimalist in Sandback’s minimalism. These are not works to walk around, look at and consider, as you would, say, one of Sol LeWitt’s faceted pyramids, or an assembly of neon tubes by Dan Flavin. Instead, they are works to step over - existing as they do in what Sandback called ‘pedestrian space’ - and look through; they are not just objects with which the viewer can form a relationship, but objects that work to reconfigure the viewer’s relationship with the space around them. (In his essay in the publication to accompany this exhibition, Yve-Alain Bois compares viewing a Sandback construction to that odd sensation when a train adjacent to the one you are sitting on pulls away, momentarily sparking the sensation of movement.)

These pieces lack, too, the almost overweening certainty common to much Minimalist sculpture, displaying instead a sort of uncertain, transient, impermanent quality - as well as being not quite there, for all that these works transform space, they are transformed by it, never the same twice, dependent on an altered by their architectural surroundings, and, to co-opt jargon applied to very different media, time-based.

The last point raises a problem for this posthumous retrospective (the artist died in 2003), since, by connecting ceiling to floor, or seeming to balance a trapezoid at the junction of two walls, Sandback was an installation artist of a kind, bound to allow a new gallery to affect an old work, however precise the written instructions he filed for each sculpture were, or however much he dismissed his characterisation as an installer. As well as being the first chance to see Sandback’s work in Scotland, then, this is a chance to see his sculptures installed without Sandback’s guiding hand, though whether this will result in a loss, or add a purity of sorts is impossible to say.

The show is, too, a wide-ranging and full retrospective, moving beyond the canonical Sandback to include early sculptures in metal, works on paper and paintings. One of these, from 2003, seems key: in following a Mondrian painting - Composition With Red, Yellow, Blue 1930 - Sandback copies the lines and scale of the original. But renders it in flatly monochromatic black.

This review was first published in The Herald in March 2007.

In his latest documentary film piece, Pilgrimage From Scattered Points, Luke Fowler outlines the history of The Scratch Orchestra, composer Cornelius Cardew’s free-thinking grouping of musicians, non-musicians and other interested parties.

Using archive footage - much of it culled from Hanne Boenisch’s 1971 television film Journey To The North Pole - alongside interviews, rostrum shots of ephemera and Super-8 vignettes, Pilgrimage From Scattered Points is at once a coherent narrative essay on the Orchestra’s history, and a fluid portrait in film of Cardew and his confreres. Divided into seven sections, the film runs from the group’s formation in 1969 to it’s rancorous split in the mid-1970s, by which time tensions between two factions, fostered by divisive debates on the function of art - a Maoist tendency who argued for making music to serve the people and a ‘bourgeoisie idealist’ camp devoted to formal experiment - had risen to boiling point. Along the way, we learn that the Scratch Orchestra - defined in their ‘Draft Manifesto’ as ‘a large number of enthusiasts pooling their resources (not primarily material resources) and assembling for action (music-making, performances, edification)’ - improvised from visual scores, including in one case a dog-eared copy of the Radio Times, and took a revolutionary approach to music making in more ways than one.

This clear narrative, undermined though it is by free-wheeling editing and narration by unidentified members of the Orchestra or other commentators, sets Pilgrimage… apart from Fowler’s past work. His previous films, What You See Is Where You’re At, on maverick psychologist R.D. Laing, and The Way out, a biography of Xentos Jones, lead singer of pseudo-punks the Homosexuals, were both hewn from archive footage and recordings, but both were closer to impressionistic, sometimes bewildering, near psychedelic portraits of their subjects than documentaries from which a clear picture could be gleaned. Indeed, at least one reviewer took Xentos Jones to be a fictional character, cypher, or mythic stand-in for every underground obscurity with a cult following.

And yet, this latest film can be seen as key to Fowler’s practice to date. While a little closer to documentary in the conventional sense, it covers similar ground to the earlier works, with an emphasis on the eccentric (a tag that fits Laing, Jones and the key players in The Scratch Orchestra, but does none of them justice) on utopian idealism, on collaboration, and on improvisation. These last three tenets could almost serve as Fowler’s own manifesto. Shaddaz, Fowler’s record label, fanzine and DVD imprint was set up to foster collaboration between visual artists and musicians. In his group Rude Pravo, named after the official newspaper of the Czech communist party, Fowler improvises with tape loops and unconventional instrumentation, an aspect of his musical practice he takes further when performing with fellow improvisor John Fail.

The show accompanying the debut screenings of Pilgrimage… is, too, an odd admixture of curation, appropriation and collaboration. In it, photographs of The Scratch Orchestra taken by Alec Hill were digitally reprinted by Fowler, with the two sharing credit, and a silkscreen print of Keith Rowe’s ‘Village Concert’ poster was on show, matched by the only ‘original’ Fowler, another poster collaging scores, texts and newspaper clippings relating to the Orchestra. Two specially commissioned animations, one by Alasdair Willis, another by Rude Pravo member Lucile Desamory, were displayed on monitors in the gallery, as well as being folded into Fowler’s film, emphasising the fact that film-making is, inevitably, a collaborative process.

Pilgrimage From Scattered Points can, then, be seen not just as a continuation of Fowler’s practice, its subject matter following his established interests, but a reflection of that practice. Fowler’s anti-auteurship is twinned with, or, perhaps, a more successful expression of, Cardew’s experiment in orchestrated democracy, and the non-musician members of The Scratch Orchestra match Fowler’s status as, if not a non-artist, an artist of a different stripe, combining roles - film-maker, musician, publisher, enabler and collaborator - more often found outside the gallery than in.

This review was first published in Map in May, 2006.

Prince Buster

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It may be a quirk of history, or down to the man himself, but Prince Buster, who deserves to be a household name, risks becoming a footnote in the pop music cannon. He didn’t die young, like Bob Marley, so missed his chance to become a sanitised saint. Nor, like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, did he have the knack for crafting a potent mythology, guaranteeing crackpot cult hero status. But Prince Buster’s place in the firmament of Jamaican music stars is alongside those two, even, perhaps, above them.

Born in 1938, Cecil Bustamente Campbell took an unusual route into the Jamaican music business he would come to dominate. His career began not behind the mixing desk or in front of the microphone, but in the boxing ring. Hired by Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd to provide security for his Down Beat soundsystem, he earned his nickname, the Prince, with his fists. Buster was not, however, a mere muscleman, and in 1959 set himself up as a rival to his mentor, opening a shop, Busters Record Shack, and launching a soundsystem, calling it Voice of the People, an early hint at the conscious, Afro-centric lyrics that were to become one of many trademarks.

His next step, a move into the studio, was to change Jamaican music forever. Little Honey, by the Buster Group was among the first release to capitalise on the waning enthusiasm for pure American R&B on the island as rock ‘n’ roll. By fusing the R&B shuffle with island musics like mento and buru, Buster launched the syncopated style, with a lurching after-beat, that came to define ska, and, later, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall.

He had a hit on his hands with Little Honey, but his next release, the Folkes Brothers’ ‘Oh Carolina’, pushed further, called in Count Ossie and his troupe of Rastafarian nyabingi drummers to provide rhythmic backing, marking the birth of a uniquely Jamaican pop music.

In 1962, Buster took to the microphone himself and revealed that his midas touch at the mixing desk was matched not only by a fine voice, but a knack for stirring up controversy. Launching broadsides at rival island producers like Duke Reid and Leslie Kong, Buster stirred up such passion between rival soundsystems that the Jamaican authorities forced a public reconciliation to quell the violence that spilled off the vinyl and onto the streets.

Buster was not just about making trouble, though. His output was so prolific in the 1960s that he had to launch a slew of imprints to keep up with the steady stream of releases, and their names provide something of a clue to his themes. Wildbells, Islam, Soulville Center and the original Voice of the People imprint all point to his eccentric adoption of Marcus Garvey-inspired Afrocentrism, bound up with hardline Christian fundamentalism, itself oddly matched with philosophy culled from the Black Muslim movement in the US, all tied together with Buster’s self-proclaimed status as spokesman for working-class Jamaican youth.

The Ten Commandments seemingly presented a wildly misogynistic worldview, but it was quickly followed by answer songs from women DJs, produced by Buster himself. The stunning Judge Dread series flipped Buster’s previous hardman reputation on its head - an answer Derrick Morgan’s Tougher Than Tough, in which a magistrate leniently releases a gang of murderous Yardies, the titular Judge Dread gave the fictional miscreants serious jailtime. A complex political soap opera in song followed, as singers and DJs across Jamaica rushed to respond, prompting a national debate on violent crime and the judicial system.

At the same time, Buster was crafting the hits - Madness, One Step Beyond, Al Capone - that marked his unique contribution to British music. The seminal Blue Beat imprint, founded to bring his music to the UK, released a staggering 600 singles through the 1960s, which were not only popular with the Caribbean immigrant community, but Mods, and, later, Skinheads too. In the mid-60s he toured the UK to rapturous reception, pushing Al Capone into the Top 20, the first Jamaican-produced song to do so, and appearing on Ready, Steady, Go in 1963 in regal African garb. These UK successes eventually sparked ska’s second wave in the 1980s, centred around the Two Tone label - founded by The Specials’ Jerry Dammers, who is set to support Prince Buster at TripTych - and typefied by Madness, a group named after a Buster production who scored their first hit covering his One Step Beyond.

Prince Buster’s final, typically controversial, reinvention came in 1968, when he turned to ‘rude reggae’, releasing the likes of Wreck A Pum Pum, Rough Rider, and the ever popular Whine And Grind, all featuring ‘slack’ lyrics that set the template for dancehall’s preoccupation with matters sexual. Then, as reggae replaced rocksteady, Buster found his star on the wane. Uncomfortable in the genre he had inspired with his earlier Afro-centrism, and unable to convincingly adopt Rastafarianism having converted to Islam in 1961, in 1973 Prince Buster retired as an artist, preferring to rely his past glories. Releasing numerous Greatest Hits packages, complete with eloquently ranting liner notes decrying what he saw as the sorry state of contemporary music, he concentrated on his business interests - the Record Shack remains open to this day, and throughout his musical career he made canny investments in jukebox and fruit machine businesses. Eventually relocating to Miami, Buster remained silent through the Two Tone explosion, making sporadic live appearances in the late 1980s, embarking on a tour of Japan with the Skatalites at the dawn of the 1990s, and returning to the studio to cut a fresh version of Whine And Grind in 1998, marking a belated return to the UK charts.

Now, Prince Buster seems happy to enjoy his role as elder statesman, not quite forgotten in his native Jamaica, but embraced by generations of Jamaican music fans in the UK, whether drawn to his music through reggae, Two Tone or the third wave of ska led by US punks. Still a force to be reckoned with on stage in his late 60s, this latest revival is not a swansong, but, perhaps, Prince Buster’s chance to reclaim his deserved place at the top of the Jamaican music tree.

This preview was first published in The Sunday Herald in March, 2005.

More often than not, prize exhibitions are hotchpotch affairs. They gather artists together by perceived quality, grouping them according to the whims of a committee; the antithesis of a well-curated show, which guides visitors along the highways and byways of artistic practice.

But this year’s Beck’s Futures show is no such thing. In a different world, one where no one feels the need to judge artists like show ponies or search endlessly for the new, it would be a fine group show. First and foremost, the nominees share a desire to question the modes of artistic practice, either simply, by slipping their work into the gaps between different media, or, more deliberately, signalling their ambivalence towards their role as makers of art. On top of this questioning discomfort with the very idea of being an artists, there are thin threads connecting the nominees, including a tendency toward the evocation of emotional states, examinations of the role of performance and collaboration in art, and a quietly confident inclination to borrow from and renew art of the past.

Lali Chetwynd gets the ball rolling by filling the CCA foyer with a whopping great cardboard head, some hairy skulls and a rickety shed. These are sculptural leftovers from a performance, a video of which loops on a pile of old televisions. The performance is funny. That giant head looks over a gaggle of women, naked and wearing wigs, who dance about a bit, and play catch with giant fruits and flowers. It is part mystery play, part groovy happening, like the punchline to a bad joke about old hippies gathering at Glastonbury tor for the solstice. This is Chetwynd’s stock in trade: making art of the naff. In the past, she has taken inspiration from Meatloaf, his doppelganger Jabba the Hut and snooker’s greatest failure, Jimmy White. The appropriation of these low culture totems, or the 60s wig-out seen here, is matched by a jackdaw approach to high art influences, so that the laughs obscure but never overwhelm a rather thorough examination of just what art is.

On the face of it, Luke Fowler might not seem to have much in common with Chatwynd’s exuberant, scattershot performances, but the two films presented here , The Way Out and What you see is Where you’re at present a shared non-standard view of the nature of art and its making. The Way Out is a loose portrait in film of Xentos Jones, the chameleon frontman of 80s underground obscurities The Homosexuals, told in anecdotes and reminiscences laid over archive footage and excerpts from Jones’ own film work. It is, though, also a self-portrait of sorts - like his subject, Fowler obfuscates himself, an anti-auteur using blank anonymity where Jones uses reinvention and endless pseudonyms to displace the notion of the creating artist. And Fowler, like Jones, is quite the polymath. Alongside his documentary film work, he runs Shaddaz, a platform for publishing collaborations between artists and musicians, and makes his own music with the group Rude Pravo, all efforts to be considered strands of his artistic practice, rather than sideshows to the main events screened here. What you see… is another portrait, this time of maverick Scottish psychoanalyst R.D. Laing and his patients. Once again, Fowler is interested in assembly, collaboration and alternate models of creation. Bringing together documentary footage, Fowler’s editing eye is drawn to the wall scrawls and dirty protests of the inmates at Kingsley Hall, Laing’s social experiment in communal living for the disturbed, and this, alongside the collection of extant material, is another pointer to the Glasgow-based artist’s freewheeling fascination with working methods.

Daria Martin makes films too, but where Fowler collates old fragments, Martin borrows an aesthetic from stock footage of the past, painstakingly recreating the look and feel of a needlessly melodramatic cinema advertisement, crafting special effects so unsubtle that they feel like uninvited guests at a party. This is good fun, but look closer and another aesthetic is at the heart of Martin’s films. In Closeup Gallery, a smarmy croupier and his glamourpuss companion deal cards across a revolving table, generating a sort of performance sculpture brimming with formal and tonal echoes of Modernism, an aptly stylised tribute to and re-examination of that movement. And so, reversing the trend here toward fractured practice, Martin expresses her disparate concerns by gathering them up together, using film as a sort of ur-medium, a means of coalescing painting, sculpture and performance.

Next comes Ryan Gander. His Loose Association Lecture (Version 2.1) drifts happily from Erno Goldfinger to Captain Birdseye, mixing in personal anecdotes along the way, a grab-bag of ideas that almost serves as a manifesto for the studied inconsistency of Gander’s practice as a whole. Like Fowler, Gander is uncertain about art and the artist, bringing Josef Hartwig’s hitherto unrealised design for a Bauhaus chess set into the world, and presenting a snapshot of his studio wall, which includes a sketch of a trestle and sheet of chipboard, since these are ‘the two objects most vernacular to an art school studio space.’

Surrounded by these vagaries, Donald Urquhart’s installation comes as something of a shock. It is thrillingly complete, a beacon of certainty in the midst of the unanswered questions that fill up the rest of the gallery. Urquhart has made a little world here, and it is a sad place. Gnomic slogans pepper the walls and upright glass plinths, talking of ‘Letters unwritten and unsent’, ‘The dust behind limousines’ and, simply, ‘Rage’, matched with bold drawings of half-dug graves, balustrades and prickly flower-stems. Tying everything together is Darnley, Urquhart’s sickly fragrance designed for the sort of 1930s gentleman who never married. One whiff of this heady scent is enough to transport the sniffer into Urquhart’s hinted fictions, a flash of feeling that conjours up cruel and giddy laughter at a dissolute literary salon, where the women dare to wear trousers , the men bear traces of panstick, and simply everyone is making wicked whispered asides, most probably in Palare. But for all this intense evocation, this uncanny realisation of a place and time that never was and never will be, Urquhart is up to the same tricks as his fellow nominees - his first illustrations decorated flyers for his London club The Beautiful Bend, while the installation has the feel of an abandoned stage set, a reminder that Urquhart’s is a playwright, poet, performer and cabaret host, yet another artist who casts off constraints.

But what of the prizewinner? Christina Mackie fits in but certainly does not stand out. Her installation consists of a wooden lean-to housing a projector and speakers that quietly babble electronic music. The projector casts images of the artist moving drawings of little flower petals about, and has a twin beside it mounted atop a pile of wood and perspex. It is easy to see what Mackie is up to here, with nods to Modernism and Constructivism that combine with an attempt to loosely couple ideas, to hint and suggest, and, too, to break down her practice into a multidisciplnary mix. There is a problem though - Mackie’s work falls flat, it fails completely to engage the viewer, and feels flimsy compared to the other work here, work considered by the Beck’s judges, inexplicably, to be inferior. This may be too harsh - Mackie is not bad, but placed alongside her fellow nominees, some of whom cover similar ground with greater insight, her collection of things suffers.

This failure might almost be seen as a key to the show’s surprising coherence - if the winner is the worst of the lot, then the Beck’s Futures Award is, as all competitions between artists must be, a nonsense. Let’s remove the prize-giving from the equation then, and in so doing reveal that this exhibition is indeed, after all, a fine group show.

This review was first published in The Sunday Herald in June, 2005.

Michel Faber

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The best-seller lists are not, for obvious reasons, packed with Victorian novels, but Michel Faber’s latest, The Crimson Petal & The White revives the form. The book is set in the 1870s, and tells the story of Sugar, a prostitute dragging herself up the ladder to polite society thanks to an association with William Rackham, a perfume magnate with literary pretensions. We also meet Rackham’s sickly spouse Agnes, his neglected daughter Sophie and pious brother Henry, who, in turn, is smitten by Emiline Fox, a campaigner for the rights of fallen women.

This is not, then, a terse thriller, nor a coldly intellectual chunk of postmodernism. So, why did Faber strike out against current literary tastes to craft an historical novel, in both setting and style?

‘I’ve been writing novels since I was a kid,’ he explains, ‘and all the novels I wrote in my early teens would die after ten or forty or a hundred pages, because I would start them in a rush of enthusiasm, and I would think that that momentum would carry me through to the end, but i would get stuck, and that novel would die. Eventually I decided that there had to be a better way of writing a novel than this, and decided to write a Victorian novel, that was completely planned out, like a piece of well laid architecture or something. Everything at the start would reflect something at the end. I would know exactly what happened to every character, and when and where. I had this immensely complicated plan written up for it, virtually down to the paragraphs in the chapters. And it worked, because i finished it.’

It is not The Crimson Petal’s multilayered, at times dizzying plot that leaps from the page, however, but the language. Each of those carefully mapped paragraphs vies with it’s predecessor, with vivid prose, whether describing the sordid ablutions of a back street whore or the curve of a lady’s whalebone corsetry, that conjours up the world inhabited by Sugar and the Rackhams.

‘It’s difficult to get away with that nowadays,’ Faber admits, ‘because American thrillers have had such an influence on what people think good prose is. Everything is meant to be stripped down to the bones. I think Stephen King was quoted as saying, ‘Adverbs are your enemy,’ and there’s this idea that you should remain utterly simple. I think sometimes it’s good to have a big sumptuous meal of prose and really get lost in it, to have all the pictures put on for you, not having to imagine them for yourself, but to have them created by the writing. I thought if i did that in a Victorian novel, then people wouldn’t complain, because that’s what you expect in a Victorian novel.’

The Crimson Petal isn’t simply a window into a lost world; the novel tackles contemporary, and weighty, concerns, and the question of class in particular. ‘For most of my life I have lived in circumstances that other people would describe as poverty,’ Faber says, ‘and I went to university with people who came from backgrounds of great privilege. For me one of the things which drives The Crimson Petal is that clash between the marginalised working class anger of Sugar and the reality of that position when you move away from poverty and realise there are some wonderful things about being middle class. I’ve always been very interested in that journey from a very alienated damaged past towards something that’s more functional, more connected to the rest of humanity.’

While it is, perhaps, dangerous to attempt a psychoanalysis of an author in order to find further meaning in his work, Faber’s interest in that journey from damaged past to functional present is not a theoretical one. The author’s life to date has been unconventional, to say the least. Born in Holland, at the age of seven Faber emigrated, against his wishes, to Australia, and other family members were left behind by his parents. Once in Australia, Faber spent his formative years largely in isolation, without much in the way of human contact. It cannot be a coincidence that The Crimson Petal is a book about outsiders, with every character a fish out of water.

‘I was taken away from Holland and taken to Australia,’ Faber confirms, ‘and even though I’m very happy that I grew up there, it didn’t feel like my home. So, I felt like an alien there, and of course now I’m in Scotland, I don’t fit in here either. There is one experience, one that I’ve been reluctant to bring up, because it might sound like I’m tailoring what I say for the readership of the Big Issue, but I did spend a short time homeless in London, in the early 80s. It was not for very long, but I spent that week sleeping in parks, and in doss-houses. Of course this was in the Thatcher era, so there was a very sharp division between the haves and the have nots, sharper even than now. I wouldn’t exchange that experience for anything, it was difficult but very constructive. I think that experience of the struggle of surviving, of finding a place to sleep and finding something to eat, does inform the early part of the novel.’

‘It’s the most autobiographical book I’ve written,’ he continues,’That sounds bizarre given that it’s a Victorian novel set in 1875, but I think there’s that idea of being very alienated, being on the margins of society, and looking at all those middle class people, those connected people, and saying ‘I hate you all, I despise everything you stand for!’ That was very much me when I was 18 years old. But that energy you get from anger and from pitting yourself against everything that is conventional and benign, it isn’t enough to get you through life. Eventually you do want to be more connected, and accepted. You don’t have the energy any more to hate, to rail against everything. The experience that Sugar has in the book mirrors the growth that i had over the 20 years that i wrote different versions of it.’

With The Crimson Petal & The White, then, Faber has crafted a rich work, taking on a Victorian form, style and setting - which in other hands might have been a mere conceit - and put it to work exploring themes that exercise us today, managing all the while to spin sugary prose, that, at times, takes your breath away. It’s a trite phrase to end on, but if you read one novel this year, this is it.

This interview was first publised in The Big Issue in September, 2002.

You can read the full interview conducted for this piece here.

Diamanda Galas

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When most artists claim to be one of a kind, mould-breakers or unique entities in the history of music, it’s hard not to suppress a snigger. When Diamanda Galas says, albeit laughing, that she belongs to ‘the isolated tradition of me’ it is impossible to disagree.

Pick any facet of her lengthy career, and it’s hard to find points of comparison. She has an unearthly voice, that can comfortably stretch across four octaves, effortlessly switching from an operatic diva-screech to a low blues growl. Her lyrical concerns are not your average pop fodder, either: Galas’ most famous work is Plague Mass, a constantly developing, confrontational meditation on the impact of the AIDS virus that claimed the life of her brother, the playwright Philip Dimitri Galas. Her latest work, to be performed at the CCA this week, is Defixiones, Will and Testament, a piece dealing with Armenian genocide and Middle Eastern politics.

‘I’m like the one person in the crowd who says, “Everybody is saying this one fucking thing, but what about this thing that needs to be said?”’ Galas says, explaining the genesis of her music, ‘I have a choice: I can go home and not say anything, and go home safely, or I can say it and have everybody call me a fucking asshole. Well, I’ll pick the second one, because that allows me to go to sleep at night, where if I picked the first one, that would kill me, it would just kill me.’

Galas is, then, unafraid to tackle issues many would seek to sweep under the carpet, but she is not to be confused with a campaigner or protest singer, a fact which becomes clear the more inaccessible she makes her music, drawing on obscure texts in numerous languages and incorporating elements of everything from contemporary classical to traditional Middle Eastern music via blues standards. ‘I’m not a fucking propagandist,’ she says, ‘If someone used something I’ve said on a poster I’d probably be the first to faint. In disgust. When I was first working on Plague Mass, people were saying, “Hey, you’re singing this in like ten different languages, maybe you should do it all in English,” and I was like, ‘Oh right, only people who speak English are getting this virus, how could I have not realised this?’ No! The most important thing is that I know what the fuck I’m singing about, I’m not going to make it more simple so that you and Joe Blow over there can figure it out.’

As with the work on AIDS, Galas’ current work on Armenia is rooted in the personal as well as the political, tying together musical influences with the Galas family history. ‘Well, here I am, an Anatolian Greek - a middle eastern Greek - and I’m an American, which is a bloody weird combination,’ she explains, ‘It already says that I’m a Greek in the middle east, which means living under the influence of the Turks as a slave to Islam, and that has a lot to do with Defixiones. Then you have the American side, which is, well… the finest music here that I know is from the south, whether it’s white country blues, or black country blues, it’s really powerful music. I think that when you’re coming out of a culture like that, that was dominated for many, many years, you see the death of your culture through disinterest and powerful interests from outside. That’s what the work is about in a way, the betrayal of these countries by the large powers.’

Defixiones, then, is nothing if not timely and, since few musicians are willing or able to tackle such topics at all, let alone with the breathtaking power that characterises Galas’ live work, her performances at the CCA are unmissable.

This interview was first published in The List in September, 2002.

You can read the full interview conducted for this piece here.

The Archibald Campbell And Harley WS Photography Prize is the result of a three-way collaboration between the Stills Gallery, the Scottish Arts Council and the titular legal partnership. The prize, in its first year, offers a platform for nine Scottish-based artists, one of whom will receive a bursary of £5,000. It also serves as a chance to check the pulse of the photographic arts in Scotland, and contemporary lens-based art in general.

At first glance, the works share little common ground. Ilana Halperin, for example, takes inspiration from geological science, shifting the focus of seismological investigation from cold science to personal, emotional responses. Alison Hayes’s Tiny Fly explores the world of the midge; turning insect swarms into threatening abstractions documenting the habits of a creature most of us take pains to avoid. Then there’s Torsten Lauschmann, homing in on the peripheral by assembling images of museum wallpaper or the unknown actors in the drama of a paparazzi snap. Or Tatiana Maria Lund, exploring the effects of environment on photographic negatives by burying them, or recording the crystalline deposits left in the developing trays of her darkroom. Scott Myles, meanwhile, is inspired by grand gestures on an intimate scale.

That the subject matter and sources of inspiration selected by these artists is varied comes as no surprise. There is, however, an undeniable link between the artists selected: the art of photography seems pushed to the boundaries. Few of the photographers gathered here ask the viewer to consider the photographic image in isolation and, while they may slave away in the darkroom or digital equivalent, it seems photography here is a means to transmit or provoke conceptual information, not a medium in and of itself.

For Kate Bush who, along with Toby Webster of the Modern Institute and Douglas Black of AC&H, selected the shortlist from 150 applicants, the artists showing at the Stills Gallery are typical of emerging Scottish talent. “The shortlist that we came up with reflects the fact that there’s a very strong tradition developing,” says Bush, “These artists are working across various different media, with photography alongside text, video or even painting and drawing. We felt that the work in that area was much more interesting than more traditional photojournalism or documentary work.

“What the artists are trying to say is, in a sense, more important than engaging with photographic tradition and producing a photograph. Some of the artists are very much concerned with the power of the image, but are still saying things about the world in an interesting or sophisticated way, like Tatiana Lund using photography to capture something that is almost invisible. Then there’s the likes of Graham Fagen, who are engaging in an intellectual project that is represented through a strong photographic element in their work. It’s investigative, interrogative approach to art, rather than creating a straightforward picture of something.”

Fagen, who tackles the supposed authority of canonical texts in his portraits of imagined “owners” of broadcasting and the arts, is more than aware of this conflict. “I’ve never really called myself a photographer,” he says, “and that’s the fantastic irony of being up for a photography prize. I’m just here to remind people that we’re allowed to have our own opinion rather than getting them from elsewhere. In that context, photography is a medium I use as part of a range of ways to get people thinking about the things I’m thinking about.”

Husband and wife team Alexander and Susan Maris also treat photography as a secondary aspect of their work. Conversely, it is an essential means of documenting their all-encompassing art practice. The pair look forward to a future where artists cease to make art in any conventional sense, preferring instead to engage in aesthetically informed practices, concentrating themselves on mountain-climbing, fly-fishing and mushroom picking.

“From where we are, we send a live image qualifying the artists’ absence from the gallery space,” says Alexander Maris, explaining the practicalities of their ongoing Armchair Mountaineering Club project. “We might come down a mountain, find some mushrooms on the way home, then cook something and hopefully all those activities would flow together to form an aesthetic whole. In the past we’ve mimicked exhibition photography in terms of the print quality, but for us photographs are more a means of documenting and archiving.”

Even Paul Gray, who, on the surface, has much in common with traditional practitioners, the photographic process and his engagement with the language of photography are a means of conceptual investigation. “I’ve always been interested in catching a moment in time, or the way people hold moments in time in their memories. At the moment, photography seems to fit that best. Photographs and the digital tweaking of those photographs are just tools, or a means to an end.”

The prize shows that current photography is concerned with much more than the presentation of images. All the artists on show place themselves outside the conventional history of the medium. They ignore the line drawn from photography’s early positioning as poor cousin to painting or sculpture to current presentations of stills as representational or abstract artworks. As a result, photography may take a back seat, but the photograph comes into its own.

After a brief tussle with notoriety in 1987 (due to an allegedly over-familiar rendition of the Queen Mother), Alison Watt has, in the years since, steadily built up a reputation based on her painting alone. She’s moved through nudes in stark surroundings, to nudes surrounded by swathes of fabric, and on to diptychs of figures complementing and contrasting with cloth.

And now, with her solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Watt has pushed the human form out of the frame entirely, painting monumental canvases of ruched, pleated and folded fabric, patterned and plain. This almost obsessional treatment of a subject usually confined to the margins of portraiture is down to the influence of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the nineteenth century neo-classicist upbraided in his day for favouring gowns and drapes over the sitter. Watt’s debt to Ingres is clear in the subtle handling of tonal shifts, depiction of lush designs and, not least, her consummate skill with oils. The meticulous arrangements of fabric are as far from an unmade bed as you can imagine, and they pack a double punch.

Viewed from afar, the works seem strikingly cold and mannered, even when evoking the distinctly human creases of flesh. They are, in a sense, pornographic, as opposed to erotic; like the forms of Japanese bondage art where the tying of a knot is foregrounded, and the captive ignored. Not that Watt has a fabric fetish, rather the overwhelming detail; with each soft shadow and sharp crimp exquisitely rendered, the act of painting serves to overwhelm the subject.

Moving closer, the slick surface sheen is stripped away and Watt returns to the intimacy of portraiture. This is, in effect, a closer reading of Watt’s response to Ingres, and, conversely, a move away from his influence. While the paintings show a sensual regard for the material, just as Ingres emphasised the feminine by drawing the eye away from flesh to fabric, they also embrace an abstract clash of textures, as oddly jarring fast strokes cut through calm, flat planes.

In the end, these new works are a wonderful mess of contradictions that can never be smoothed out. It is impossible not to get lost in Watt’s paradoxically neat tangle of ideas - whether it’s her dialogue with Ingres or the almost alarming duality of photorealistic illusion and sheer physicality.

Trauma is a word we hear every day, whether it’s gulped out by the square-jawed hero of the latest hospital drama or trotted out on a TV psychoanalysis phone- in. Our personal traumas, meanwhile, are mediated through memory, filed and sorted in a bid to cope with the shocking.

The DCA’s latest show plots a course between the personal and the collective, filling the exhibition space with both meditations on our voyeuristic consumption of disaster and documents of private loss. This pincer approach to the traumatic is made plain from the off.

As you enter the first cramped gallery space, Martin Boyce’s Now I Got Worry (Storage Unit) guards the entrance to the show. The construction is a copy of an Eames shelving unit made up of hand- daubed signs bearing the words that follow disaster: Go Home There Is Nothing 2 See. These slogans, interrupting the lines of a damaged take on a design classic speak of the capacity for tragedy to intrude on the cosy and domestic and they admonish the rubbernecker for his instinctive peek. On the wall opposite, Maria Lindberg’s incomplete, fragile drawings of disembodied fingers, or oblongs captioned “abused drawing”, ignore the outside world, providing little clue as to the events that inspire them but clearly articulating a sense of pain dulled over time.

And so it goes on. Johan Grimonprez splices together TV footage of hijackings while a gruff narrator quotes Don DeLillo (“Nothing happens until it is consumed “) and chase-scene funk plays in the background, simultaneously pointing out the media’s role in constructing responses to international disasters and taking on that role through the adoption of the techniques of documentary film- making. Martin Boyce charts similar terrain with images that call to mind crime-scene photographs, save for the fact that there are no crimes to be seen.

By way of contrast, Guillermo Kuitca draws on a family history of displacement and diaspora. His People On Fire is a map of names, like a family tree charting deaths and disappearances instead of celebrating birth and marriage. Many of the names are obscured, and the edges of the canvas blur into black, as if Kuitca has started a project he can never finish.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, meanwhile, bridges the gap. His stripped- down text-based pieces are personal meditations on collective response. By placing stacks of his unlimited print runs in the gallery to be taken away by the public, he asks us to share his work and the grief that prompts it but he has us collude in the voyeuristic consumption of tragedy at the same time. Trauma, then, is a show that truly engages with its subject thanks to a fractured narrative. It guides the viewer through some tricky terrain, demanding empathy one moment, only to throw that empathy back, branded as a false response conjured by media manipulation. In short, a walk around Trauma is like watching the rescue workers frantically digging live on CNN, only to find yourself trapped in the mudslide.

The first stop on Matts Leiderstam’s Grand Tour is a telescope. Aimed through a cut-away in the gallery wall at what seems to be a dull view of a municipal car park. A look through the viewfinder reveals the pastoral landscape in the distance, tinted sepia.

You couldn’t ask for a clearer statement of intent. Leiderstam is in the business of looking, and looking again.

Then, immediately, the waters are muddied - the next exhibit consists of preparatory sketches for the mounting of this very exhibition, displayed alongside an interactive display of Grand Tour, the website, which exhaustively catalogues the paintings, objects and texts the visitor is about to see. This meta-exhibition is more than a prelude; it is a signal that Leiderstam cannot stop looking, or asking others to look, always ready with another viewpoint, another interpretation, another layer.

The exhibition proper is then, fittingly, more like an archive, research centre or art history laboratory than a show. High tables are arranged in rows. Each bears a selection of textbooks, paintings and slides, which are partnered with light-boxes, magnifying lenses and projectors.

There are two key texts for students of this Grand Tour, both published in 1996 but, at first glance, with little else in common: Grand Tour - The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century and Spartacus International Gay Guide.

Having already shown us that first glances are not enough, Leiderstam seeks to draw these two guidebooks together, magnifying details, decoding symbols, and re-encoding them, until the gentlemanly 18th Century quest for erudition is paralleled with a contemporary quest for knowledge of a more carnal kind. At times, the twinning of grand tourist and sex tourist is less than subtle. In After George Hamilton, a magnifying glass is placed over a reproduction of that artists’ The 8th Duke of Hamilton with Dr. John Moore and Ensign Moore, crudely enlarging the bunched cloth at the Duke’s crotch.

In After Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the Spartacus guidebook lies beside a reproduction of Piranesi’s Piazza Della Rotunda With The Pantheon, open at a page detailing the cruising hotspots of Rome. A magnifying glass is aimed squarely at a group of men in the foreground of the painting, and, inevitably, they appear to be men seeking men.

If Leiderstam continued in this vein, his Grand Tour would be little more than a succession of sight gags, quick quips to queer art history with a simple, repeated act of juxtaposition. Thankfully, his paintings go further than his arrangements of books and lenses.

After Robert Hubert foregoes enlargement in favour of alteration. Hubert’s The Painter’s Studio is copied, but where the original shows the artist at work, firmly focussed on the bust he is sketching, Leiderstam’s copy shows him gazing out at the viewer. After Nicholas Poussin includes copies of Landscape with a Man scooping Water from a Stream and Landscape with Traveller’s Resting, both with figures that turn away in the original twisting around to meet the viewer’s gaze in the reworking.

Here Leiderstam is posing questions about looking, about the male gaze, about the interpretation inherent in the act of copying. But, in the wake of the jokey juxtaposing comes another crack - these lads are, in the international language of the cruising ground, making eye contact, and they aren’t after learned conversation about the paintings they inhabit.

The deft touches of humour sugar the medicine of other, more elaborate acts of copying and revision. Claude Lorraine’s Landscape With Rebekah taking Leave of her Father is here in reproduction twice over. The second iteration shows an X-ray of the canvas that reveals a moonlit scene beneath the sunny surface. Leiderstam, of course, copies the moon.

It is at this point that the Grand Tour becomes dizzying. Leiderstam shows us copies of paintings left behind at cruising spots from the pages of Spartacus, photographed and added to the archive. He projects a photograph of a copy of a painting standing beside the original onto a maquette of the room they are photographed in. He shows a slideshow of filtered images of the Perthshire countryside behind reproductions of Alexander Naysmith’s Castle Huntly, Perthshire. Next to the Naysmith, a set of Claude Glasses - tinted lenses to aid the landscape painter, adding atmosphere to a plain view - lie atop a light box. With this steady mania for layering of modes and methods of seeing and looking, matched with a studied compulsion to seek out symbols, or create them when they cannot be found, Leiderstam proves his thesis.

After taking this Grand Tour, it is beyond doubt that the past grand tourist and present-day thrill-seeker are one and the same. But it is a slippery proof, one that rests on re-training the viewer’s eye to match Leiderstam’s introspective inspection of art history through the lens of contemporary gay culture; an optical illusion based on allusion.

From Here To Modernity

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Let’s just say it: Glasgow has the most vibrant visual art scene in the UK. Whether you look to the Beck’s Futures prize, won by Glasgow-based artists three times in the award’s four-year history, or the Venice Biennale where, in 2003, the first-ever Scottish pavilion presented three Glasgow artists, it clearly has found its place as a hub on the international art scene.

Take a closer look, and most of these globally acclaimed talents don’t just share a home town, they share a gallery: The Modern Institute. So, how did a gallery founded on a shoestring just eight years ago end up representing the cream of young Scottish artists? Toby Webster, who co-founded the gallery with writer and curator Will Bradley, almost seems surprised himself.

“When Will and I put the company together in 1996, it was all very casual,” the 35-year-old explains. “We had this idea to set something up that would take shape as it was running; a place where we could be flexible and take on all kinds of different projects, something for everybody. We almost forget that now that we have become quite the formal, professional gallery.”

Such a project might have floundered elsewhere. In Glasgow, a city with no contemporary art market, The Modern Institute filled a gap.

“We really just saw the opportunity and went for it,” Webster recalls. “We were very lucky in that we were very in touch with what was going on, and so we began with strong artists who were already working, people like Richard Wright or Martin Boyce.”

Luck might have been a part of it, but Webster, and the artists he represents, cite the city itself as key. “In Glasgow, it’s always been about something going on in a friend’s studio space, or the spare room in their flat,” says Beck’s award-winner Toby Paterson, “It’s important to remember that The Modern Institute isn’t a commercial gallery in the New York sense, or the London sense. It grew organically out of that Glasgow scene.”

Martin Boyce – who draws on modernist design history to create sculptural installations – makes the same point, “The Modern Institute has more to offer than other galleries – a whole network of support. My studio is in the same building, and people are always dropping in. It’s an extension of what’s going on in the city.”

The art scene in Glasgow is unique; it fosters creativity across genres, with artists working freely, unhindered by the pressures placed on them in comparable cities with a strong reputation for visual art. “Artists here are allowed to get on with their work,” Webster explains, “There are a lot of connections here, too. Every other artist we work with is in a band.”

If there is a downside to these close ties, it is the widely held impression that the Institute represents artists with a common aesthetic. Webster has little time for those who seek to pigeon-hole the artists on his books. “I don’t see it,” he says, exasperated. “Our artists are individual, and very different. One thing you might find in common is that we’re interested in work that has an edge to it, that has substance. That is what The Modern Institute is about. We’re talking about major artists here, who push at the edges of art and have strong ideas that they follow through with complete confidence. You don’t do that within some framework.”

The Modern Institute’s success, he adds, rests on adding elbow grease to the inspiration Glasgow offers. “We have a good team at the moment, and we really need it. It’s an expensive, difficult business looking after art and shipping it around the world.” A core staff of Webster, and project co-ordinator Claire Jackson, plus a number of part-timers, including Caroline Kirsop, look after over 20 artists.

The Institute adds to the burden of day-to-day logistics by retaining an unconventional edge. Their gallery space follows an artistic agenda, with solo shows of new work, rather than arranging curated group shows as a honey-trap for collectors, and much time is devoted to outside projects and international shows.

Now, rather than rest on its laurels, the Institute is set to expand. “The one thing that’s missing,” Webster admits, “is a chance to really open ourselves up to the public. I want to open a second space, then we can help young artists, who we aren’t working with, to show their work in Glasgow.”

The Modern Institute, then, is as ambitious a project in 2004 as it was in 1996 and, again, the focus is firmly on Glasgow, the city that made the project possible.

Sidebar: Four To Watch

Hayley Tompkins

Continuing the tradition of Scottish artists being well represented at the Beck’s Futures award, Tompkins is shortlisted this year, and will discover whether she has won the £20,000 prize on April 27. Known for her tiny abstract watercolours, finespun wall drawings and frail wooden constructions, the 32-year-old squeezes a lot into her small-scale works. Detail is everything with portraits reduced to a single beauty spot, and whole movements in art history referenced in a slim sliver of paint. Slight at first glance, this is work that places the onus on the viewer to complete the picture, and is as difficult and complex as it is delicate.


The EmergeD collective was founded in Glasgow by Lucy Gibson, 25, and Amy Sales, 26, to promote young artists, with a focus on site-specific, public work. One ongoing project has been a hit with gallery-goers and the wider public alike, showing a new artist each week in the window of a disused shop at 18 Woodlands Road. Now with projects underway in Leeds, England and Perth, Australia, EmergeD are an international concern with a virtual base at their website,

Sorcha Dallas

As co-curator of Switchspace, an organisation that has made temporary exhibition spaces out of vacant buildings around Glasgow, Sorcha Dallas has been in the thick of the city’s scene since the late Nineties and has just launched a new eponymous commercial gallery for contemporary art. It opened yesterday, at 5 St Margaret’s Place, with the drawings and sculpture of Glasgow School of Art alumnus Alex Frost. The 29-year-old’s inaugural programme looks set to make the most of her solid connections in the city, with the focus firmly on the next generation of homegrown artists.

Tony Swain

As a painter, Swain made waves with his recent outing at Transmission, the artist-run space that champions new work in the city and across Europe. Using collaged newsprint as his canvas, Swain paints imagined architectural forms and geometric abstractions on to the daily news with a deft, accomplished touch. A member of international art-rock quartet Hasslehound, who have released records on the hip Pickled Egg imprint, Swain recently started working with The Modern Institute.

The first question we are taught to ask of a work of art is: what does this mean?

It’s a good place to start, and one that, given the current vogue for the quick conceptual quip, often yields immediate answers. Cathy Wilkes’s installations of sculpture, painting and arranged objects don’t prompt that stock question, and they don’t sidestep it either.

Instead Wilkes has found a way to render the first step to understanding her practice redundant, as if her work is coated in some slick substance that allows it to slip past the critical barrier, taking up residence in the thoughts of her audience unmediated.

This isn’t because Wilkes is one of those needy intellectuals, who feel duty-bound to layer allusion upon counter-allusion, afraid to make a mark that doesn’t place itself in the flow of art history, compelled to engage with their influences at the expense of finding their own voice. Nor is her work an empty Wildean exercise, all about the glorious surface. No, Wilkes makes work that is compelling, engrossing, the sort of thing that that springs unbidden into your mind weeks, months, even years after you first see it, still fully formed, still intact, with none of the edges knocked off by interpretation. In other words, while other artists communicate ideas through their work, Wilkes seems to be communicating the idea that there are ideas, and there is work, and that’s that.

If this effect, which borders on the uncanny, can be appreciated when Wilkes shows in conventional whitewalled gallery spaces, it is heightened when her work is housed in a longabandoned east end unisex hairdresser’s in Glasgow. At 116 Sword Street - the location reclaimed by curators Switchspace - the first evidence of an artist’s presence is a series of halfformed letters, constrained and divided by the panels of the wall they’re painted on. Beyond these fractured glyphs, in the back room of the former salon, is a small collection of found objects, one painting, and two sculptures. There’s a half- shattered glass, and an old cup, both sitting on the floor beneath a bathroom sink, a single strand of tangled-up black thread draped over it. Alongside, also placed on the shop floor, is a small lampshade, turned upside-down, with the head of an electric toothbrush standing inside, off-centre. Surrounding these assemblages are two stumpy little sculptures, simple metal forms with uprights and crossbars. In the corner, a lump of industrial equipment - a sander, perhaps - sits, plugged in but not running.

On the wall is a small painting with a saucer glued to its upper- right corner, and a hastily scribbled text, reading:

“She’s pregnant again.”

Cynical readers will, no doubt, be suppressing a groan at that summary, and artists who find some stuff, then put it next to some other stuff, are indeed tena-penny and often worth less. But this is where Wilkes’s great strength is revealed. Her prosaic collection of unremarkable items, matched with made objects that don’t exactly dazzle in isolation, are combined and placed in such a way that the relationships between them seems almost tangible, as if you could reach out and twang taut wires connecting each component part of the installation to its neighbour, and the surrounding space. This evocation of a tensile physical connection goes further still, seeming to engender a dumb complicity between inanimate objects and the space in which they find themselves.

Mounting work like this in a decaying Dennistoun hairdresser’s doubles the sense of interconnection, to the extent that visitors risk bringing to life the apocryphal tale of the pretentious art lover who waxes lyrical about fixtures and fittings, his back turned to the art on show. There is, for example, a broken panel in amongst those slight suggestions of an alphabet. Perhaps Wilkes broke it, perhaps she didn’t.

There is, too, a patch of wall on which posters have been pasted, then torn down, and a small, brightly lit cubicle that is completely empty - both are absences that might be interventions, or might not. It is almost as if, once you appreciate the associations between Wilkes’s work, it becomes impossible to avoid gathering up everything that surrounds it, seeing significance in everything, looking hard for a route into the work, a piece of the puzzle that will allow it to be assimilated and broken down into easily digested gobbets of meaning.

This collusion between the work and its exhibition space is nothing new for Wilkes - she famously ripped up the floor of Transmission gallery for a 2001 solo show - but here it serves to further the odd sense of unbreakable wholeness that permeates her work. It is also a nod to Switchspace, the now defunct organisation behind this show, in their final curatorial exercise.

The exhibition neatly closes a circle, since it was a lecture by Wilkes, explaining the process of converting her flat into a temporary gallery, that prompted Sorcha Dallas and Marianne Greated to found Switchspace in 1999, aiming to explore the possibilities of presenting art in peculiar places, from Dallas’s front room, to west end cafe basements, to, as here, abandoned commercial spaces. More than a practical solution to the problems faced by young artists trying to find a place to show their work, over the past five years, Switchspace has prompted artists to reconsider their working methods and forge new ways of making work sensitive to or inspired by its surroundings. This show, then, is a homecoming of sorts for Cathy Wilkes - a return to her adopted home town, and a return to explicit engagement with her exhibition space - as well as serving as an apt tribute for Switchspace, the organisation her work inspired.

This review was first published in The Sunday Herald on December 12, 2004.

Edinburgh Printmakers has been at the heart of the capital’s art scene for four decades, providing access to its workshop for emerging and established artists alike, and raising the profile of the print in its gallery space. To mark the anniversary, the Printmakers is set to mount an ambitious pair of exhibitions, setting out the institution’s history and surveying work from the past 40 years.

The workshop and gallery opened its doors in 1967 on Victoria Street, set up by gallerist Robert Cox and artist Phil Reeves, along with founding members Roy Wood and Kim Kempshall. For Gill Tyson, vice-chair of the Printmakers’ council, whose involvement with the project dates back to her days as an art student in the 1970s, the timing was right.

“It really grew out of that resurgence of printmaking in the 1950s,” she says, “when printmaking began to move into the fine art department at the art colleges. Then it came down to the fact that there was a lot going on in Edinburgh at the time - there was a strong artistic revival and a strong alternative artistic community, artists such as John Bellany and Sandy Moffat were coming out and keen to continue with printmaking.”

After a stint at Victoria Street, in a cramped room adjacent to Robert Cox’s gallery, the Printmakers moved to Market Street in 1975, then, as now, a hub for artistic activity in the city.

“Victoria Street was, really, entirely unsuitable as premises for a print workshop,” Tyson remembers, “so the chance to move to Market Street was a great opportunity. We were right above the Fruitmarket Gallery, and next door to the New 57 Gallery, which was an incredibly lively place.’ When the Fruitmarket was made independent of the Scottish Arts Council in 1983, Edinburgh Printmakers was forced to up sticks once more, finding, after a difficult search, its current premises in a former wash house on Union Street - Tyson, by then chair, was the first to enter the main hall. This move to a larger space led to expansion, with the Printmakers’ publishing more artists’ editions, and collaborating with non-printmaking artists as well as making its facilities available to members.

The twin gallery spaces also allowed the Printmakers to continue its commitment to bringing printmaking to a wider audience.

“As well as providing the facilities for artists to make prints,” Tyson explains, “a lot of our work has been about promoting printmaking. And I think we’ve done pretty well at that - we certainly have an international reputation.’ That reputation also applies to Scotland as a whole, with workshops across the country opening in the wake of the Edinburgh Printmakers’ early success.

“Now we have Edinburgh Printmakers, Glasgow Print Studio, Peacock in Aberdeen and the workshop in Dundee,” Tyson explains. “Printmaking is a really strong strand to the visual arts in Scotland. It’s definitely something peculiar to Scotland - of course you get print workshops in other places, but to have so many open-access print workshops here? I see that as something of a Scottish success story.”

The first exhibition celebrating Edinburgh Printmakers’ part in that success story focuses on the first 20 years of its output, aiming both to showcase work made by artists in the workshop, or in collaboration with it, and to document the organisation’s history.

“There wasn’t an awful lot in the workshop in terms of archive materials,” says Tyson, “so we had to get in touch with a lot of people who had been involved over the years. It was amazing the warmth and affection they all had for the institution, and we were faced with this deluge of cards, editions and photographs.”

Some of those materials have been put to use in a short film to be screened in the gallery throughout the exhibition.

“For the film, I interviewed Philip Reeve and Roy Wood, the founder members, and Alfons Bytautas, whose been our etching technician since 1974,” Tyson says.

“They told all their old war stories. It’s really remarkable to hear how they did so much, how they made all these international connections, even though there were so few of them.’ Then, of course, there are the prints, by artists including Peter Howson and Stephen Conroy, alongside work by the founding members. “We went for the good ones!”, Tyson jokes, explaining the process of whittling down 40 years’ worth of work into a manageable show. “We really wanted a spread of things that would show what was happening at the time in printmaking, and to have works that represented shows we’d had over the years, as well as a mix of prints by printmakers and by artists working in collaboration with the workshop.’ 40 Years at Edinburgh Printmakers should, then, be an intriguing exhibit, offering a chance to trace trends, to survey the work of a wide-ranging and disparate group of artists, and, perhaps best of all, fully to understand the role of this Edinburgh institution, the first open-access print workshop in the UK, in driving forward the practice of printmaking.

This review was first published in The Herald on January 9th, 2007.

Metal Bridge is not quite a group show, instead grouping the four exhibiting artists into two pairs. The first of Sorcha Dallas’s two spaces belongs to Steven Claydon and Craig Mulholland.

Claydon’s Locked Constellation (Giant) is a curious assembly of objects. A small, spiky and vaguely architectural geometric cage of copper tubing squats protectively over a black disc, and beside it lies a cyborg of a spiral shell, half of it, impossibly, made of metal. Leaning against the wall behind these two sculptures is a perspex vitrine, backed with hessian, displaying a cut-out rasterised image of a statue, either praying or deep in thought, that has been haphazardly stuffed into its enclosure. There is something about these pieces that suggests Claydon is playing a future historian and archaeologist, presenting artefacts from our recent past and the coming times.

Craig Mulholland’s installation is similarly subtle and suggestive.

Paths of Resistance is a spiky mixed media installation consisting of three tripods. The first bears a crudely-fashioned silver globe, the second an approximation of an oil painter’s mahl stick, the linen bound up with strands of solder, while the third displays a framed work. Together, they form a sort of solar system of artistic production. This theme is reflected in Reduction With Noise, a sound piece that matches strings and electronica with an operatic refrain, repeating the phrase “What is art itself?”.

On the walls, Mulholland presents a series of “paintings” - titled Broken Pain and numbered one to four - which are fashioned from aluminium, polycarbonate and thread. The scores and cuts in the metal surfaces call to mind shattered glass and pyramids viewed from above, some are anarchic, peppered with holes. Together, they might be read as a reduction and reappraisal of Vorticism or Cubo-Futurism, co-opting the dynamism of those movements, but bringing them to a sudden halt, rendering a fascination with the machine age, literally, in metal.

It is good to see Mulholland constrained by a small gallery space. His last exhibition at Sorcha Dallas, Plastic Casino, was sited not in the gallery but in a disused sewing factory, which Mulholland filled to the brim with a vast installation containing painting, sculpture and video work, all resting on a dizzying array of art-historical references and shot through with political concerns.

In the next room, the splitting of the exhibition is made explicit not only by a change of space, but by an opaque white curtain covering the window and blocking the entrance. Behind it lies a striking sculpture by Thomas Helbig, Gesicht. An oversized bird, or perhaps a dinosaur, peeps out from a half-cracked egg, its face set in a rictus of struggle. It might be taken for a fossil, or a particularly violent piece of taxidermy, were it not for the explicit application of white paint on its black surface - Helbig wants us to know that he created this still-born chimera. After the shock of Gesicht, Helbig offers a moment of calm in the form of two works on paper. Both untitled, these crayon daubs are incomplete, unsatisfying, with smudges of dull colour and half-finished lines. They might fare better elsewhere, but following Claydon and Mulholland, and facing Helbig’s own sculpture, they are underwhelming.

Duncan Marquiss’s looped video piece is, on the other hand, overwhelming. Still images of abandoned buildings or caves struggle with brief shots of a white-hot furnace, while blurred shadows of human figures first dance, then fight. The piece closes with a descent into pure strobing colour, so aggressive that it becomes impossible to watch. Marquiss’s other work, No Volunteers Came Forward, a drawing in pencil and chalk, sees two half-clothed female figures, one blindfolded, caught in an exhausted embrace.

In both works, Marquiss offers an imagined mythology - the film a creation myth, the drawing a scene from some invented epic - and it is this that ties his work together with Helbig’s, with both artists conjuring up a past that never happened.

Similarly, back in the first gallery, Claydon and Mulholland chronicle skewed histories, this time political and art-historical, twisting real world antecedents to their own ends.

The Metal Bridge of the show’s title, then, is not just a reference to shared materials, but to a shared sensibility rooted in the examination of the past, real or invented. A neat curatorial trick, that, and one that not only casts a new gloss on the work shown, but forms a strong whole from the work of four very different artists.

This review was first published in The Herald on January 19th, 2007.